Although very short and condensed, the first part of the work contains some crucial methodological statements which is worth considering before taking into account the central issue of the plausibility of utilitarianism. The first paragraph, somehow echoing Kant’s worries about metaphysics expressed at the very beginning of the Critique of Pure Reason, poses the problem of the sad state of moral inquiry: “the question concerning the summum bonum” or “the foundation of morality” is still unanswered – we are faced with “little progress” - and still generates plenty of contentious “sects” and “banners”. (§1) That state of “confusion and uncertainty” about the principles we find in morality parallels a “similar discordance” we find in the sciences (maths included). But with an important difference: there is a particular asymmetry between science and morals regarding the role of the first principles.
- In the sciences, first principles are largely independent from empirical findings, to the effect that the alleged confusion in their field does not impair “the trustworthiness” of scientific results. The reason Mill gives for that is: (a) “the detailed doctrines of a science are not usually deduced from, nor depend for their evidence upon, what are called its first principles”; (b) but why? Because principles are “the last results of metaphysical analysis practiced on the elementary notions with which the science is conversant”; so, principles, in the sciences, are more likely to have the same function “the roots” have for a tree than “the foundations” have for an edifice: sciences “may perform their office equally well though they [the principles] never dug down to and exposed to light”;
- in morals and legislation there seems to be a different connection between principles and contents than that which normally occurs in the sciences. Mill sets out two distinct but related considerations: (a) in practical arts, “All actions is for the sake of an end, and rules of action, it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole character and color from the end to which they are subservient”; this is to say that actions as results are dependent upon the rules prescribing the ends; the structure of human action is teleological, and this has decisive implications on how the relationship between ends (results-contents) and rules of conduct (principles) should be interpreted; (b) in the practical domain we need “a clear and precise conception of what we are pursuing” in advance; Mill points out the urgency of an inquiry concerning the first principles of morals (while in the sciences, being a matter of metaphysical analysis, they have no direct import on empirical inquiry), and at the same time emphasizes that moral theorizing is concerned with a subject which is practical in essence, that is, action. (§2)
The third paragraphs is by far the most interesting among those of Chapter I, because it spells out some basics assumptions on which it seems to lay the controversy between inductive and intuitive approaches to ethical theorizing. One way to escape from the problem sketched before, concerning the alleged worrying state of moral inquiry, is by positing the existence of a “natural faculty”, a kind of intuitive “instinct”, which provides access to right and wrong. According to a common rendering of such a faculty, humans might be able to distinguish right from wrong in any particular case – as a kind of “perception of it in the concrete”. However, as Mill points out, reason, not sensibility, governs our moral faculty: our moral judgments are “general” therefore require “reason” (rationality thesis). Nonetheless, the “intuitive” school of ethics may well concede that, along with two others claims:
- “the morality of an individual action is not a question of direct perception, but of the application of a law to an individual case” (application thesis)
- the general laws of morals are the same indicated by the inductive school (sameness thesis).
The main difference between the two approaches concerns the “evidence” of the principles and “the source from which they derive their authority”. Mill argues that the issue of justification sets the dividing line between the two schools. The contrast between a priori method of justification (knowledge of the meaning of the terms) vs “observation and experience” casts light on other controversial divergences regarding the authority of principles (“rarely do they make any effort to reduce those various principles to one first principles”, the preferred set of principles “has never succeeded in gaining popular acceptance”, and in case of several principles “there should be a determinate order of precedence among them…and the rule for deciding between the various principles…ought to be self-evident”) (§3) To better illustrate the “bad effects of this deficiency” here is a text taken from the System of logic (1873) which summarizes Mill’s thought about “intuitionism”:
The notion that truths external to the human mind may be known by intuition or consciousness, independently of observation and experience, is, I am persuaded, in these times, the great intellectual support of false doctrines and bad institutions. By the aid of this theory, every inveterate belief and every intense feeling, of which the origin is not remembered, is enabled to dispense with the obligation of justifying itself by reason, and is erected into its own all-sufficient voucher and justification. There never was such an instrument devised for consecrating all deep-seated prejudices. And the chief strength of this false philosophy in morals, politics, and religion, lies in the appeal which it is accustomed to make to the evidence of mathematics and of the cognate branches of physical science. To expel it from these, is to drive it from its stronghold . . . (System of Logic, 1873: 233–5).
Mill then urges us to acknowledge that both popular and philosophical acceptance of alleged authoritative moral principles has been shaped by the “tacit influence of a standard not recognized”: happiness, the principle of utility or, according to Bentham’s formula, “the greatest happiness principle”. According to Mill, the appeal to happiness is a tacit assumption of much of the theoretical a priori work in moral field. For example, while Kant explicitly rejects happiness as a foundation of the obligatoriness of moral duties, he nonetheless must refer to consequences (which Mill interprets as affecting human mind states of pleasure and pain) in his derivation of particular duties from the a priori principle (the categorical imperative). (§4)
In the last two paragraphs, Mill clarifies the scope and content of his effort. He intends to:
- “contribute”…toward the understanding and appreciation of the utilitarian or happiness theory”;
- “and toward such proof as it is susceptible”;
- but he does not intend to give a proof in the common sense of the term, because the validity of ultimate ends cannot be proved (Mill here seems to believe that something could be justified only if it has an instrumental value, that is, if it’s conducive to some final end which has intrinsic value);
- however, his strategy won’t rely upon intuition, but on careful and rational consideration of pros and cons amenable of assessment by the common intellect (i.e. reason): “what rational grounds, therefore, can be given for accepting or rejecting the utilitarian formula”;
- but first of all is crucial, according to Mill, to give of that principle a clear and plane exposition in order to overcome some obscurities which impede its reception by leading to fatal misconceptions. This will be the chief concern of the subsequent chapter. (§5)