Friday, February 27, 2015

Mill's Utilitarianism II, 4th objection to utilitarianism

“…it is exacting too much to require that people shall always act from the inducement of promoting the general interest of society.” (p.17, §19)

Mill’s reply consists in pointing out that the objection misrepresents both ethical theory and utilitarianism:It is the business of ethics to tell us what are our duties, or by what test we may know them; but no system of ethics requires that the sole motive of all we do shall be a feeling of duty;”. And that would be contrary to experience as “ninety-nine hundredths of all our actions are done from other motives…”.

Furthermore, the objection misconceives utilitarian doctrine itself, “inasmuch as utilitarian moralists have gone beyond almost all others in affirming that the motive has nothing to do with the morality of action, though much with the worth of the agent.

To illustrate the point, Mill adds a somewhat puzzling example. According to utilitarian moralists, a man “who saves a fellow creature from drowning” is doing the right thing irrespective of whatever motive is pushing him (duty, or hoping of being paid for the trouble). The case turns out to require further discussion in order to respond to a criticism raised by Rev. Llewellyn Davies (acknowledged by Mill as a fair and honest opponent). The criticism of Rev. Davies, appearing in the footnote, goes like that:

- imagine a tyrant who saves a man from drowning just to inflict upon him more exquisite tortures;

- we cannot say that the tyrant has done the right thing, that is, that the helping was morally right;

- so, the rightness of an action does depend upon the motives with which is done;

- so, utilitarianism is wrong.

Mill’s response in the footnote takes this route:

- the tyrant and the helper of the first scenario are different, not only in motives but also in the acts performed;

- in the case of the tyrant “The rescue of the man is only the necessary first step of an act far more atrocious than leaving him to drown would have been”;

- motives and intentions are different: while the intention is “what the agents wills”, the motive is a feeling “which makes him will so to do”;

- the morality of an action “depends entirely upon the intention”;

- the motive makes “a great difference in our moral estimation of the agent, especially if it indicates a good or bad habitual disposition…”;

Interpretation of the footnote

What’s then the difference between the rescuer and the tyrant? According to Mill, they diverge upon intentions and actions performed as well as upon motives.
“Intention” here does not refer to any internal psychological element such as desire or wanting. Intention, as far as I can see, is connected to the action description. The intention of the helper is “to save a man from drowning”, while in the case of the tyrant the real intention is “to torture him” as the act of saving is part of, and conducive to, that other action. For this reason Mill says that “the rescue of a man is only a necessary first step of an act far more atrocious…”., and insists that “the act itself is different”. Intentions reveal, or describe, the act to which agents are pointing. In so doing they also manifest the agent’s own will.
The “motive”, by contrast, is the feeling that, let’s say, triggers the action. Now, Mill says that a motive “if it makes no difference in the act, makes none in morality”. This may seem puzzling but Mill is simply pointing out that motives, though necessary element of acting, are not sufficient condition for the determination of the morality of an act. Motives may vary while morality remains the same, such as in the case of the person who saves because is urged by duty in contrast with the person who saves on the base of self-interest or desire for money. In this case, while motives are surely different, the morality of the action is not. Mill seems to think that saving a man from drowning is always a moral action whatever motive causes it. The tyrant is not an objection because, as we have seen, his action is better described as “torture” than as “rescuing”.
Though not intrinsically imbued with moral value, motives might often tell us whether a disposition is conducive to hurtful or useful actions (for example, hoping to get money from all actions is a motive that may thwart the attainment of happiness for both individuals and society). In this respect, motives are still subject to moral assessment.


After such a specification, Mill goes on to state that: “it is a misapprehension of the utilitarian mode of thought to conceive it as implying that people should fix their minds upon so wide a generality as the world, or society at large.” Mill observes that “the great majority of good actions are intended not for the benefit of the world, but for that of individuals..” and that “the occasions on which any person (except one in a thousand) has it in his power to do this on an extended scale are but exceptional;”. Even considering certain class of actions, from which we normally abstain for moral considerations though the consequences might be beneficial for the particular case, utilitarianism does not seem to be more exigent than other moral systems: “In the case of the abstinence indeed […] it would be unworthy of an intelligent agent not to be consciously aware that the action is of a class which, if practised generally, would be generally injurious…”.  The conclusion is that the utilitarian conscience does not imply any greater regard for the public interest “than is demanded by every system of morals, for thy all enjoy to abstain from whatever is manifestly pernicious to society”.

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