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Thoughts on Mill Pt.II: Proof of First Principles

February 17, 2013 Leave a comment

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.

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Thoughts on Mill Pt.1: Contra Qualitative Considerations in J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism

February 14, 2013 Leave a comment

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.

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Joshua Foa Dienstag on Pessimism

May 20, 2012 Leave a comment

“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.

Categories: Political Theory

Guest Post: Aaron Kenna on Frans de Waal’s “Primates and Philosophers”

October 24, 2011 4 comments

In Primates and Philosophers, Frans de Waal writes:

Social contract theory, and Western civilization with it, seems saturated with the assumption that we are asocial, even nasty creatures rather than the zoon politikon that Aristotle saw in us. Hobbes explicitly rejected the Aristotelian view by proposing that our ancestors started out autonomous and combative, establishing community life only when the cost of strife became unbearable. According to Hobbes, social life never came naturally to us. He saw it as a step we took reluctantly and ‘by covenant only, which is artificial.’ More recently, Rawls proposed a milder version of the same view, adding that humanity’s move toward sociality hinged on conditions of fairness, that is, the prospect of mutually advantageous cooperation among equals.

These ideas about the origin of the well-ordered society remain popular even though the underlying assumption of a rational decision by inherently asocial creatures is untenable in light of what we know about the volution of our species. Hobbes and Ralws create the illusion of human society as a voluntary arrangemwnt with self-imposed rules assented to by free and equal agents. Yet, there never was a point at which we became social: descended from highly social ancestors – a long line of monkeys and apes –we have been group-living forever. Free and equal people never existed. Humans started out – if a starting point is discernible at all – as interdependent, bonded, and unequal. We come from a long lineage of hierarchical animals for which life in groups is not an option but a survival strategy. Any zoologist would classify our species as obligatorily gregarious.

This passage very nearly opens de Waal’s piece “Morally Evolved” in Primates and Philosophers, and serves more as a stepping stone toward a discussion of morality rooted in social behaviors than it does a fully fleshed out critique of modern social contract theory. That being said, this passage gave me great pause as I read; how could it be that evolutionary theory is so at odds with social contract theory, when both so heavily pervade our scientific and political frameworks? Special thanks to Aaron Kenna for lending his expertise and his ideas in this pithy guest post. Enjoy!

The history of social contract theory shows a remarkable story of success: the very foundations of western liberal democracies rest upon the contractarian ideas of Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Social contract theory, however, often meets with the criticism that it somehow fails to account for the essential social nature of humans. Take, for example, Frans de Waal. In Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, de Waal claims that social contract theory is ‘saturated with the assumption that we are asocial, even nasty creatures rather than the zoon politikon that Aristotle saw in us’ (de Waal p 3)[1]. Hobbes, the paradigmatic contractarian, in particular is criticized by de Waal for supposedly asserting in his state of nature analysis that humans historically rarely maintained social ties until the individuals costs of social non-cooperation made asocial behavior unattractive.

However, Hobbes never intended that his state of nature analysis be taken as an historical description of mankind, and asserts as much explicitly in Leviathan chapter 13, paragraph 11. Moreover, through his criticism of Hobbes de Waal ipso facto conflates the political with the social.  That is, Hobbes argues that political arrangements qua political arrangements are artifices (more on this below), but he recognizes the social nature of humans. Throughout the Leviathan, but in particular chapters 11 – 13, Hobbes identifies the primary causes of conflict in the absence of a civil authority:  “So that in the nature of man, we find three principall causes of quarrel. First, Competition; Secondly, Diffidence; Thirdly, Glory” (L 13.6). If, as de Waal contends, Hobbes intended to proffer an asocial account of human nature, why did Hobbes identify glory as a primary motivating factor of conflict? It is meaningful to seek glory amongst your fellows only if one is firmly placed within a context which conduces to the development of such desires, viz., a social context.

For Hobbes (and more so for Grotius, Locke, and Rousseau) any political arrangement is a construction of our own creation, but social relations are not. Certainly this is true, now more than ever: nation-states rise and fall, are reformed, borders redrawn, and individuals migrate, but yet people do not cease to maintain social relations. Hobbes nowhere denies this; rather, he argues that social relations would lead to significantly less happiness if there were no constraints on individual action. One ought not to criticize social contract theory unless one understands social contract theory, and de Waal reveals a profound ignorance concerning social contract theory in general, and Hobbes’ work in particular.  To be sure, there are legitimate criticisms to be made against both social contract theory and the work of Hobbes, but de Waal has not made any.

-Aaron Kenna.


[1]    The Greek view of the social nature of humans is compatible with a social contract view of political justification. See, for instance, Plato’s Crito, wherein Socrates gives a crude social contract argument to justify his acceptance of his punishment.

Allan Bloom on Mick Jagger

August 6, 2011 Leave a comment

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.”

Chomsky on Noble Intent, Domestically and Abroad

July 28, 2011 Leave a comment

“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!

Categories: Political Theory

Islam: Hijab of the East

April 20, 2011 Leave a comment

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[1] 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.

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