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Thoughts on Mill Pt.II: Proof of First Principles

February 17, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

In giving an account of utilitarianism, J.S. Mill seeks to identity what type of proof is sufficient to accept the utilitarian principle that happiness is our only desirable end. The proof Mill offers is particular to first principles and suffers from several weaknesses. I shall first outline Mill’s proof, in two parts, of the utilitarian principle. From there I shall introduce G.E. Moore’s criticisms that Mill commits the naturalistic fallacy and conflates means with ends . Following this I will explicate Henry Sidgwick’s attack of the notion that individual pursuits of happiness amount to any exhortation to pursue the general happiness, along with a general argument against psychological hedonism. Though partial defenses exist against each criticism, overall they lack sufficient force to negate Sidgwick and Moore’s concerns.

Proof for First Principles

Describing the first principle upon which utilitarianism stands, Mill writes that “happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end.”1 According to him such first principles, those that undergird our knowledge, require a particular type of proof and utilitarianism’s is no different. Mill’s proof of utilitarianism, then, is twofold: first, that we can know what is in itself desirable, and second that all that we desire is happiness, with all other seeming ends being but means to achieving the general happiness. It is a quick move, and admits more of analysis than exposition. The first aspect of Mill’s proof centers on an appeal to analogy of apprehending phenomena with our senses.

The only proof that exists to demonstrate that an object is visible is that people do see it, a sound audible, that people do hear it. “In like manner,” he continues, “…the sole evidence…that anything is desirable is that people do actually desire it.”2 Much of the analysis and criticism that follows hinges upon how we take Mill to mean “in like manner.” It will suffice to say for now that, in the same way we would say an object is visible because it is seen, so too is an end desirable because it is desired. The first principle of utilitarianism, though, goes further than identifying happiness as one among many desirable ends, positing instead that the general happiness is our sole desirable end.

That we desire many seeming ends, from our own happiness to the cultivation of virtue, is self-evident. For Mill, general happiness as an end, i.e. the happiness of all and not just oneself, can be derived from each person’s desire for her own happiness: “No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person…desires his own happiness…[T]hat each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons.”3 But identifying the general happiness as an end does not single it out as the only desirable end, since it can be argued that we often desire virtue or hold it as a desirable end.
 Mill argues that it is completely in line with the utilitarian principle to argue that we should desire virtue for virtue, music, or health for their own sake. When confronted with the notion that such a position undermines happiness as our sole end, he replies that “They are desired and desirable in and for themselves; besides being means, they are a part of the end.”4 These other principles, however, are not part of the end by default, but rather are capable of forming part of our end. Having outlined Mill’s general proof for utilitarianism, I shall now turn to Moore’s two main criticisms, viz. a move from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ and the conflation of means as ends.

Moore’s Criticism: the Naturalistic Fallacy and Means & Ends

Moore’s primary criticism of Mill’s proof of utilitarianism is that he commits what Moore calls the “naturalistic fallacy,” construed here as the conflation of ‘is’ and ‘ought.’5 For, when Mill says that “…the sole evidence…that anything is desirable is that people do actually desire it”6 there are two possible senses of the word ‘desirable’: one, that it is capable of being desired, and two, that it ought to be desired. Mill seemingly commits the naturalistic fallacy when he draws an analogy between ‘visible’ and ‘desirable’, for his use of ‘visible’ is clearly meant as an ‘is’ distinction, whereas his use of ‘desirable’ must, on both Moore and Sidgwick’s accounts, be an ‘ought’ distinction.7 
 Further analysis of Mill’s proposed proof renders defense difficult, and appears to confirm Moore’s claim that he has committed the naturalistic fallacy. Mill writes that no first principle can be proved via reason, and he delineates between first principles of knowledge and first principles of conduct. In the very next line he indicates that principles of knowledge are “matters of fact” and that we may appeal directly to our senses to confirm them. This leads him to ask, then, if the same can be done for first principles of conduct.8 This passage clarifies that Mill is indeed making a factual claim (‘is’) when using the term ‘visible’ and a normative claim (‘ought’) when using the term ‘desirable.’ This, then, obviates two key defenses of Mill. On the one hand that Mill is making epistemic claims, since he differentiates between principles of knowledge versus conduct, and on the other that he is never making a factual claim.

Moore also attacks Mill’s attempt to argue that a desire for virtue for its own sake is fully consistent with the utilitarian principle, saying that this is clearly in contradiction with the idea that pleasure is the only thing worthy of desire.9 This leads to the larger claim that Mill conflates means and ends when he argues that some other thing, viz. virtue, can begin as means to an end (pleasure) and then become part of that end.10 To be sure, as quoted earlier, Mill writes, “They are desired and desirable in and for themselves; besides being means, they are a part of the end.”11 On this account, such a move destroys the necessary distinction between means and ends and therefore undermines Mill’s entire project.

Sidgwick’s Criticism: Aggregate Happiness & Psychological Hedonism

While Sidgwick acknowledges a point similar to Moore’s regarding a shift from ‘desired’ to ‘desirable’12, he focuses instead on the implausibility of transitioning from our individual desires for our own happiness to the general happiness as our sole end. For Sidgwick, on Mill’s account each individual pursuing his own interest is akin to each person pursuing a part of the general happiness. But the fact that no individual desires the general happiness itself is problematic, since “Mill would certainly not contend that a desire which does not exist in any individual can possibly exist in an aggregate of individuals.”13 On these grounds, Sidgwick does not believe we can arrive at the general good from our individual good. 
 A possible defense of Mill’s move from individual happiness to the general happiness comes by way of a clarification in a letter to Henry Jones. In it he writes that when he says “the general happiness is a good to the aggregate of all persons I did not mean that every human being’s happiness is a good to every other human being.”14 Rather, Mill says that what he means is that if each person’s happiness is a good then the sum of all the goods must also be a good. Such a clarification, however, does not rescue Mill’s position from Sidgwick’s criticism, since the normative nature of the utilitarian principle implies that we each ought to desire that ‘sum of goods’ despite no man possessing the desire for it. Sidgwick levels an additional argument, viz. that Mill is mistaken in claiming pleasure is the only end men desire, a position also known as psychological hedonism.

Sidgwick rejects psychological hedonism on the grounds that “I can distinguish desires of which the object is something other than my own pleasure.”15 Sidgwick’s examples range from sensual pleasures to those more elevated. For example, on the basic scale of sensual pleasures he points out that the pleasure of eating his not the object of hunger though they often coincide.16 On the other end of the spectrum, the pleasure gained from intellectual endeavors seems to occur most strongly when one focuses on the pursuit itself, forgetting for a while the attendant pleasure.17 Sidgwick even allows for other-regarding desires, such as sympathy and love, arguing that it is a stretch to consider the primary motivations of these actions to be any sympathetic pleasure we might gain.18 While it is conceivable Mill might nevertheless argue that all of Sidgwick’s counter-examples to psychological hedonism merely form a part of our sole end of happiness, we need only lean on Moore’s damaging criticism of Mill’s conflation of means with ends described above.

Concluding Remarks

Mill’s attempt to offer indirect proof of the utilitarian principle is beset by difficulties from the very outset. Defenders of his position face a difficult task in that they must demonstrate a coherent account of Mill’s proof that does not commit the naturalistic fallacy, conflate means with ends, falsely move from individual happiness to general happiness, and adequately addresses the various arguments that pleasure itself is not the only end men desire.


1. Utilitarianism, 122.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Utilitarianism, 123.
5.  This use of the term is derived from Hume’s Law.
6. Utilitarianism, 122.
7. Principia Ethica, 66-68, Methods 388.
8. Utilitarians, 122.
9. Principia, 71.
10. Principia, 72, Utilitarianism, 123.
11. Utilitarianism, 123.
12. Methods, 388, fn. 2.
13. Methods, 388.
14. Utilitarianism, 270.
15. Methods, 45.
16. Ibid.
17. Methods, 49.
18. Ibid.

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