Monday, September 15, 2014

Mill's Utilitarianism II - intro

Chapter 2 of Mill’s Utilitarianism contains the definition of “utility” applied to moral thinking, and it is wholly devoted to defend the doctrine from a number of powerful objections.

The first paragraph introduces the main discussion by pointing at the “perverted use” of the word “utility” as it is commonly conceived. Mill warns the reader about two equally pernicious interpretations of the doctrine, one equating utility with the negation of pleasure, the other with the acquisition of voluptuous sensations. Both misapply the word and misrepresent the doctrine. On the contrary, by looking back to philosophers from Epicurus to Bentham, a clearer understanding of the matter can be gained. After careful reflection, it can be truly affirmed that along the history of moral philosophy, utility has been identified with “pleasure”, in all of its forms, and “exemption from pain”. 

Among the forms of pleasure cited by Mill, figure “beauty”, “ornament” and “amusement”.
Mill seems implicitly to suggest that the doctrine of the “useful” needs to be elaborated and enriched with new concepts and distinctions in order to eradicate blatant prejudices. This will be the central task of the present chapter.

It should be noted, in addition, that the difficulties attached to the proper understanding of “utilitarianism” spring in part from the intrinsic complexity of the subject. Utilitarianism is a rational doctrine which aims at contesting unjustified habits and preconceptions. Such prejudices are so deeply rooted in human nature that a full fund of logical and technical subtleties is required to dismantle them. (§1)

The second paragraph comes out with a definition and some corollaries.

Utility, as a normative principle = “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (p. 7).

Happiness = “pleasure and the absence of pain”.

Unhappiness = “pain and the privation of pleasure”.

This first statement leaves undecided the proper content of pleasure and pain (which, as already noted above, is going to be discussed in the following pages).

The moral standard is grounded in a “theory of life” (i.e. theory of value) which consists of two related claims:
1. “pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends;
2. “all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for pleasure inherent in themselves or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain” (p. 7).

So we have a theory of value with two distinct kinds: intrinsic value (=pleasure) and instrumental value (=conducive to pleasure).

A remark is in order here. Don’t stick too much to these definitions. Mill often states a thesis in a very simple way and then, as we will see, elaborates on it adding complications that might lead to a complete shift of perspective. (§2).

Next post: is utilitarianism a doctrine "worthy only of swine"?

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