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.
Beleaguered by criticisms that Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism debases human nature by setting mere pleasure as man’s greatest good, J.S. Mill proposes a qualitative distinction between higher and lower pleasures. However, Mill’s proposed change opens utilitarianism up to criticisms not present in Bentham’s formulation, and on these grounds ought to be rejected in favor of the original formulation (whatever its worth). I’ll begin by introducing the impetus for Mill’s proposed changes to utilitarianism and his panel-based test for higher versus lower pleasures. From there I’ll discuss key objections from Henry Sidgwick and G.E. Moore, who each argue that the nature of pleasure does not allow for nonquantitative distinctions unless they refer to some other property. Following these concerns, I’d like to introduce two additional problems for Mill’s proposal, viz. that his test for competing pleasures is plagued by ‘jury-stacking’ and that his proposed lexical scale for pleasure does not apply equally to pain.
J.S. Mill: Quality over Quantity
In setting pleasure1 as man’s highest aspiration, Bentham’s formulation of utilitarianism has been accused of debasing humans to the level of beasts. Bentham and Mill roundly reject this notion, arguing instead that the pleasures that sate beasts are not capable of sating man due to his higher faculties. Furthermore, such a view is not at all inconsistent with utilitarianism.2 Such anthropocentric pleasures, by Mill’s account, have previously been ascribed greater value due to the ease and safety with which we can promote and maintain them as opposed to physical pleasures.3
Mill argues further that an equally consistent, and more preferable, claim can be made by utilitarians, viz. “some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that, while in estimating all other things quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasure should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.”4 Mill states that the only possible method to test which desires are higher and which lower is a panel-based evaluation by competent judges.
“Instead, I argue that while many of the pessimists are well-known, the nature of their common project (indeed, the very idea that they have a common project) has been obscured. Since pessimism is perceived more as a disposition than as a theory, pessimists are seen primarily as dissenters from whatever the prevailing consensus of their time happens to be, rather than as constituting a continuous alternative. The result is that each seems disconnected from the mainstream of the history of political thought. They appear as voices in the wilderness, to put it politely – or to put it less politely, as cranks. while they are often admired for their style, or respected for the critiques they offer, their apparent lack of a “positive project” is made to appear as a badge of second-rank philosophical status. They interest us; but, it is believed, they cannot possibly orient us.”
-Joshua Foa Dienstag, Pessimism
I picked this gem up at Borders’ going out of business sale and am just now getting around to reading it. I am finding Dienstag readable and insightful, and will try and post a review when I’m through.
I thought some lighter fare might be in order, and so I bring you Allan Bloom’s view of Mick Jagger from The Closing of the American Mind, circa 1986:
“In the last couple of years, Jagger has begun to fade. whether Michael Jackson, Prince or Boy George can take his place is uncertain. They are even weirder than he is, and one wonders what new strata of taste they have discovered. Although each differs from the others, the essential character of musical entertainment is not changing. There is only a constant search for variations on the theme. And this gutter phenomenon is apparently the fulfillment of the promise made by so much psychology and literature that our weak and exhausted Western civiliation would find refreshment in the true source, the unconscious, which appeared to the late romantic imagination to be idential to Africa, the dark and unexplored continent. Now all has been explored; light has been cast everywhere; the unconscious has been made conscious the repressed expressed. And what have we found? Not creative devils, but show business glitz. Mick Jagger tarting it up on the stage is all that we brought back from the voyage to the underworld.”
“One may choose to have selective faith in the domestic political leadership, adopting the stance that Hans Morgenthau, one of the founders of modern international relations theory, condemned as ‘our conformist subservience to those in power,’ the regular stance of most intellectuals throughout history. But it is important to recognize that profession of noble intent is predictable, and therefore carries no information, even in the technical sense of the term. Those who are seriously interested in understanding the world will adopt the same standards whether they are evaluating their own political and intellectual elites or those of official enemies. One might fairly ask how much would survive this elementary exercise of rationality and honesty.”
-Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival
I apologize for the severe lack of updates recently. I have suffered a near-constant deluge of obligations and deadlines that have placed writing posts somewhat further down my to-do list than I would like. As these obligations clear up, I hope to finish up a few posts I have waiting in the wings!
Islam is the veil that covers the Middle East. Similar to the now-stereotypical inky black hijab that has come to dominate media coverage of the region, the Islamic faith serves as a curtain that hides the diversity of an amalgam of states tied together by a history of empires and imperialism. Attempting to define the region by the prevalence of Islam gives rise to a number of misconceptions and generalizations, and ultimately hides the diversity present in the area. To demonstrate this, I shall first discuss the region’s misleading moniker ‘the Middle East’ and how its utilization can be both useful and harmful in contemporary political discussions. From there I shall examine the traditional Islamic concept of umma that has contributed to a self-imposed distinction among many in the region as ‘Muslims above all else’ that has obscured political movement’s like Sayyid Qutb’s based on delineating Muslim identity through the use of jahilyya. Lastly, I shall discuss the wide and often hidden variations in faith , veiling, and genital mutilation among areas of the Middle East.