HAPPINESS CANNOT BE THE RATIONAL PURPOSE OF HUMAN LIFE BECAUSE HUMAN BEINGS CAN DO, AND SOMETIMES SHOULD DO, WITHOUT IT
The critics of utilitarianism maintain that happiness cannot be the rational purpose of human life because human beings can do without it, as in case of extreme poorness or disease, and sometimes they are even required to renounce to it as is testified by the self-sacrifice of heroes and martyrs.
The objection may be dislodged on the assumption of the teleological and purposive structure of human action. Human beings sacrifice themselves for the sake of ends or special conditions they regard as conducive to happiness. They are capable even of supreme sacrifice for some other person or group they love. In Mill’s words, “would the sacrifice be made if the hero or martyr did not believe that it would earn for others immunity from similar sacrifices?” (§15, p.15). Utilitarian ethics can accommodate the spiritual meaning of self-sacrifice and self-abnegation only if altruistic actions are done to promote happiness for others. Sacrifice has no autonomous value per se apart from pleasure. An ascetic who spends all of his life at the bottom of a pillar cannot be a model of virtue: “He may be an inspiring proof of what men can do, but assuredly not an example of what they should.” (p.16).
Moreover, the development of an ability to act and live without happiness may be a strong ally in the pursuit of happiness itself. As Mill acknowledges, that may sound rather paradoxical, but it’s not (§16). A standard way to put the point relies upon the distinction between short-term and long-term satisfaction. Assuming our rationality, the ability to postpone the satisfaction of present urges would foster the acquisition of a larger, or more substantial, amount of satisfaction in the future. But this is not Mill’s concern. He starts, instead, from the consideration that “the readiness to make such a sacrifice is the highest virtue which can be found in man”, and then argues that “that consciousness” – i.e. the acceptance of a complete sacrifice of happiness – might represent the best ally against fate and fortune because can make one feel that “they have no power to subdue him”. This is an interesting development in the way Mill conceives of moral virtue, one that puts him on a par with the Stoics and possibly with Kant.