According to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was the most famous and influential British moral philosopher of the nineteenth century. He was one of the last systematic philosophers, making significant contributions in logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, and social theory…” Mill is known to be the greatest defender of the theory of utilitarianism, whose influence deserves to Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). In this essay we aim to provide some explanation on Mill’s hedonistic interpretation of happiness as the only standard of goodness. Thus we will go through brief understanding of the utilitarianism theory, a doctrine which Mill adopted and developed from Bentham, raise some critical discussion around Mill propositions, including some try to raise discussion by inferring some Mill’s proposition to actual life and comparison to Aristotle view of happiness.
The theory of utilitarianism basically defends that the moral value of an action is determined solely by its utility. Whereas utility having to do with provision of happiness or pleasure to all sentient beings. This doctrine is known to have been defunded by Jeremy Bentham and later on adopted and modified (on attempt to respond to objections that have been raised against the theory) by John Stuart Mill.
Bentham’s utilitarianism is funded in four pillars: 1) that “… the foundation of moral is utility, or the greatest happiness principle”; 2) that “… actions are right in the proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness; 3) that “by happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain, by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure”; and 4) that “pleasure and freedom form pain are the only things desirable as ends; and all desirable things… are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as manner to the promotion of pleasure and privation of pain”. (Stumpf and Abel 2002: 390)
Ethical hedonism constitutes the fourth Bentham’s tenet on the theory of utilitarianism. Stumpf and Abel point out that hedonism derives from Greek hēdonē equivalent to pleasure. Thus, the ethical hedonism is a “… doctrine [in which pleasure] concerns the goal that we should seek in our actions”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy thus, raises that hedonism implies that the mental state of pleasure is the only thing having intrinsic value (and the mental state of pain is the only intrinsic evil). All other things have only extrinsic value; they have value just insofar as they bring about, immediately or directly, intrinsic value (or disvalue).
Mill modified and developed the doctrine of ethical hedonism of the utilitarianism theory (by Bentham) on attempt to respond to the critics raised against the doctrine following which the principle lowers (in terms of value) humans to the same range as the animals. Mill’s arguments against that point bringing that should not be the doctrine seen as the responsible for lowering humans to the range of animals, but, the accusers as they (in their interpretation) see pleasure enjoyed by animals equal to that of humans. Mill goes further by arguing that pleasure enjoyed by humans is of highest value as it goes beyond merely sensation (in what for certain moments animals can enjoy more than humans since they have less or no additional concerns), it passes over intellect, feeling, imagination and moral sentiments. Whereas Bentham differentiates happiness of animals to that of humans only on quantity, i.e., arguing that “…humans enjoy more pleasure than animals”, Mill diverges with Bentham by proposing a qualitative approach. Bentham considers seven factors to measure pleasure that, as Stumpf and Abel point, are: 1) intensity the pleasure, 2) how long it will last, 3) how certain we are that it will occur, 4) how soon it will occur, 5) whether if it will lead to additional pleasure, 6) whether it is mixed with any pain, and 7) how many people will experience it. Mill raises awareness as the greatest difference making factor between pleasures experimented by humans and animals, since the lasts are not aware of it. Mills argue that “…hedonic calculus cannot fully measure the utility of our actions”. (Stumpf and Abel 2002: 391)
Going further on reviewing the Bentham’s principles Mill extends the scope of utility from only humans to all sentient beings, i.e., all those who can experiment pleasure and pain. Indeed, this constitutes one another great differentiating point for the justification of ethical hedonism by Mill, where he goes against those accused the doctrine to be selfish. Mill argues that it “gives equal weight to everyone’s happiness, and… not… special considerations to… personal well-being, family members or friends”.
On the question about if “… can this doctrine [on which happiness is the only thing desirable for its own sake] be proved? Provides the answer in two elements: 1) explaining the sense in which it can be proved that happiness is something desirable – as since people desire something that implies consequently that anything is desirable; and 2) the fact that each person desires something it will automatically imply that together we all desire everyone’s happiness. And, on the question about “how do we know that happiness is the only intrinsic good?”, Mill argues on the importance of the happiness beyond the good, i.e., that the good intrinsic value contributes to the overall intrinsic good of happiness.
In short, Mill’s main arguments to proof hedonistic utilitarianism, as listed on Ally and Tsie (Introduction to Western Philosophy) are as follows:
- Happiness is desirable because everyone, in fact, desires it.
- Since each person's happiness is a good to that person, the ``general'' happiness must be a good to each person.
- Happiness is the only thing desired and the only criterion of morality.
Mills goes further by considering that ethical hedonism has to do with psychological hedonism. Mill sees no difference between thinking of desired and thinking of pleasant, for Mill they are the same thing.
Let us go further thus, through Mill’s main arguments on proof for hedonistic utilitarianism:
1) It appears to be too simplistic to say that is already enough to conclude that it is desirable simply because everyone desire happiness. We can not assume that just because everyone is struggling to reach own happiness that would make the happiness for everybody. Tomas Hobbes for instance sees humans as individualistic and struggling for self benefit, thus with “…a desire and a will to hurt” the others; (Stumpf and Abel 2002: 474)
2) To sum up individual ends in a global end. In fact one of the wrong thought in philosophizing (and that extends to all sciences) can be that of considering that always the sum of parts will establish the only and concise one. In other words, this is called composition fallacy – assuming that “… the whole is always a sum of parts”; (Mohr, Fourie and Associates 2008:13)
3) Following Aristotle definition of happiness as the rational action, meaning the activity that respects ones intellectual and moral virtues we cannot simply see happiness and the only thing desired. As if we agree with Mill proposition, what could we say about the politician whose expertise (intellectual and moral virtues) are on production of maize, but because politics provides him/her with much money and recognition prefers to abandon his/hers real field of virtues? (Stumpf and Abel 2002: 348)
As Ally and Tsie summarize, the principle of hedonism helps us to identify one factor that determines the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of actions. This is Mill's adherence to hedonism: actions are right in so far as they tend to increase happiness, and Mill understands happiness in terms of his notion of pleasure. (UNISA 2010:141)
Mill provides three most important elements to prove the hedonistic utilitarianism however many questions can be raised from there, and consider as well that this theory (of utilitarianism) goes very far beyond simply hedonism. As Stumpf and Abel argue, “… this doctrine is not essential to utilitarianism as such.” Especially when we consider that any “…one can be utilitarian and deny that well-being is equivalent to pleasure.” Moreover, justifications by Mill are very simplistic and even not practicable in real actual life. (Stumpf and Abel 2002: 390)
3. Stumpf, S.E. & Abel, D.C. 2002. Elements of Philosophy: An
Introduction. London: McGraw-Hill.
4. Ally, M. & Tsie, M.S.S.rev2010. Introduction to Western Philosophy. Pretoria: UNISA.5. Mohr, P., Fourie, L. and associates.2008. Economics for South African Students. 4th Ed. Pretoria: Van Sckaik