EDIT: This is something I wrote approx. three months ago. It was going to be a part of a grander essay that I've decided not to pursue further - at-least for now. What is in this paper I consider overall obvious, and what I was going to follow it up with is questionable. It essentially would be comparing Mill with Aristotle, and asking whether both or only Mill as a Utilitarian would advise going into Nozick's Experience Machine, where one enters a fictional perfect world. I decided against writing it because the question seems to have no answer. Virtue Ethics proposes that to be virtuous is to be happy, and long-term happiness (or flourishing) is impossible without virtue. We're virtuous to be happy, but to be happy they claim we need things like intellectual honesty. But, one could argue one is escaping their moral responsibilities and not being virtuous by entering the Experience Machine. Virtue Ethicists as in-some-sense Psychological Egoists (they argue for V.E. because its beneficial for you, as well as others) would advise to both go in the machine and not do so; to do so would be to be happy, but to do so would also to allow one's body to wither and not be practicing virtue, which they regard as equivalent to happiness. So if anything, it merely shows that when we're dealing with the concept of leaving reality, virtue ethics loses its validity.
I hope you enjoy.
Utilitarianism is a philosophy that contends that the only thing valuable “in-itself” is pleasant phenomenological states of being. Because human beings are material creatures, and are endowed with reason, they are capable to study the human animal and his environment to create an environment and being (for human beings are quite malleable and are largely products of their environment) that will live a long, healthy life filled with the intellectual and psychological capacity to both create for others and experience themselves many pleasant states of existence. Most of the reasoning and actions required to create this “enlightened” and prosperous state of existence have nothing to do with “ethics” (e.g. being nice to people, don’t steal, don’t kill etc.) as conventionally understood by society, and instead, are merely the results of benign activities of men such as plumbing, electricians, computer repairmen and the scientists and inventors who created and advanced the fields of plumbing, the fields of physics broadly and specific trades relating to wiring among others and computers to name merely a few. It is the stance of the Utilitarian that though these actions are not viewed as “ethical acts” (e.g. feeding the homeless, volunteering at the Humane Society, or for some going to Church etc.) it is these acts combined with the acts necessary to create the political system that would enact and enforce the smooth transference of knowledge into action (the only thing that must go about uninhibited in the Utilitarian philosophy) to create that greatest-of-societies, where reason and knowledge are implemented to the benefit of all affected.
I will now flesh out the Utilitarian’s project as I see it, conflicts ‘tween Utilitarianism and Classical Liberalism and finally a brief note regarding Hedonism and philosophies compatible with Utilitarianism.
Thesis I: Utilitarianism has the ultimate aim be the greatest “good” for all. However, it is morally acceptable (even required) for us to establish momentary “end-goals” of utility due to the transitory nature of time and human beings among other things.
One may ask how we can accomplish the “utilitarian project” of the greatest good for the greatest number (details of which I shall elaborate on later)? Is this project not utopian, fantastic and incredible if ever such words to be used regarding earthly affairs? If we are to attempt to achieve this project “directly” yes, it surely is. However, it stands to reason that we have had material and therefore all forms of improvement (e.g. psychological, moral, intellectual, aesthetic etc.) over a given period of time. And that certainly further improvements are possible and desperately needed for many. Therefore, it stands to reason that we can work towards the fulfillment of the “utilitarian project” simply by taking rather meager and simple (but in some ways drastic from the present course) steps in the right direction towards greater levels of human activity and living.
These are what I have labeled “end-states.” A logical marker in the broader utilitarian project for a given area of human life (e.g. education, health care, fungus removal, etc) or a given geographic region (typically country due-to the nature of laws and the cultural borders established in-part by national borders). Though many have not gained the enlightenment of the Utilitarian philosophy in their steps (that is, they act solely for themselves – Hedonism – or for some supposed higher purpose than the greatest good for all that is possible – such as for God, Government, or other things which people have struggled for as fundamentals) everyone on the planet does this in-effect by things they call “goals.” No one (not even Nihilists) conscious is without a type of goal or intention of some kind or another; most do not follow their “true” earnest goal (their dream) however because they deem it impossible, improbable, they are afraid of failure or they have been conditioned by bourgeois society to be content with “material” fulfillment (which no human being naturally craves first-and-foremost).
Thesis II: Utilitarianism views actions as a type of “moral revenue” and psychological aspects of morality as simply “moral resource” to “purchase” an overall enjoyable situation for humans.
However, in detail this involves a deep and complicated chain of values where food, for example, is valued for it is both a requirement for human sustenance and survival and because it (if the food is savory) brings momentary states of joy which are to be valued in-themselves. This is where we would do the calculation of a Epicurean and weigh the momentary satisfaction of a large and greasy feast with both the short-lived pain of eating something awful (but delicious) and the long-term medical ailments that could be brought about by consistent consumption of the morsels of a fast-food giant. Though Epicurus focused on the increase of individual pleasure (and decrease of pain of course as a Negative Hedonist) the fundamental aspect and philosophical accomplishment here is viewing our actions and morality itself as a type of “tool” or guide to create a better future for others. It is fundamentally empirical and based on sensation rather than the notion of Self.
This is to be in contradiction against a Liberal (Libertarian) notions of ethics. According to a strict Individualist, Negative-Liberty approach to ethics, there is nothing unethical in harm to one’s body for one is not applying force to anyone. In this approach, human beings are always “ends in themselves” and morality is a matter of absolutes (whether the “self” feels penetrated and one’s rights infringed upon) rather than empirical calculations. But I’ll be going into further detail on this distinction later-on.
Many things are to be valued in a Utilitarian system, for many things (many of which we don’t give presence of mind to and shouldn’t give presence of mind to – such as cellular activity – unless it is necessary to sustain health or itself creates a euphoric, serene or otherwise pleasant or “healthy”- something that creates either more joy or the capacity for more joy – sensation or conditions) are necessary for the organism of Man to live well and reach his highest-most potential and by doing so continue both his joys and the material conditions of others lives and loves (potentially for eternity if Man mastered space-travel and cosmic colonization). Many “material” conditions such as education, friends, shelter, healthy psychology and many, many others are necessary, however, if the Utilitarian philosophy is to claim the only thing valuable in-itself is “enjoyment” largely speaking, and that all things are to be deemed tools, instruments or resources to bringing about the best possible state-for-all, then freedom, knowledge, self, familial bond, rights, personal achievement and all other things we both intuitively and through cultural absorption value fundamentally psychologically must be deemed as tools and things we do not fundamentally value in-themselves. This, above all other things, is the bold and definitive statement of the Utilitarian philosophy.
Thesis III: All moral sentiments (liberty, religion, etc) are therefore merely factors in the U.C. and should not be deemed as “fundamentals” or valued in themselves.
Mill is great in showing how “Liberal values” of valuing freedom over tradition and freedom-of-thought over faith and religion work well under a Utilitarian framework. However, he does not I feel state clearly and instead runs away from the bold declaration that though Utilitarianism typically value “Liberal values” it is incompatible with Classical European and American traditions of Liberalism through not viewing freedom as “fundamental” or something that is a “good” or “right” in itself. There needs to be a clear distinction here between insane hypotheticals and reality.
Often people, either not wishing to have a serious intellectual discussion or not being capable of doing so say, “so, if it would make everyone – asides from one – in the world happy you would rape and murder a little girl?” Or, “if it made everyone in the world prosperous and overjoyed you’d chop off everyone’s arms and legs?” And to answer their bizarre query, in a word: yes. If the impossible suddenly became possible, and the laws of human psychology, biology, physics and the basic mechanics and demands of human beings suddenly were altered so radically it would put every episode The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits to shame, and people could in-deed live well, nay, even better by being quadriplegic, then as long as you agree subjective states are all that matter fundamentally, then grabbing the axe would be the moral thing to do – if this were the case.
Also, there is another radical distinction to be made, and it involves volition and consent. Those who are functioning off a fundamentally Liberal view of ethics and view maintaining rights (whether positive, negative or both – though positive rights typically have a utilitarian argument for them) is fundamental might criticize that we would ban drugs and put a man in jail (taking away his freedom and ruining his life) for doing cocaine. But following the verdicts of empirical reality this is not so. Though drugs (including legal ones such as alcohol and tobacco) are harmful to the body and mind, Progressives realize that it is far-more harmful to both A) deprive a man of freedom and put him in a cage for doing as he pleases and B) create a State where there is such hostilities, tensions and mistrust ‘tween Man and Government because of ludicrous laws that dictate behavior.
With that being said, there is a question of possibility that must be raised. I mentioned how a “true” Utilitarian would be against the making illegal of drugs based on the harmful effects to many individuals it would bring (and to society as a whole). However, if we could wipe out poppy fields and remove the access to or even knowledge of heroin, or go in a time machine and prevent the Abrahamic faiths from ever starting, this would be a fundamentally different action than banning Christianity, Judaism and Islam which would be a crime both on Liberal and Utilitarian grounds.
This highlights a fundamental truth of political psychology; namely that both Progressives and Conservatives are a mix bag of Utilitarian and Liberal (or Libertarian to use the more modern American term) and both are unable to be logically consistent with the grounding of their political notions. This is ultimately due-to something that Hume points out: human beings fundamentally are (particularly when they do not receive an adequate education) beings of sentiment who use whatever limited reasoning capacity they have to argue for their cause (e.g. God, personal freedom from varying perspectives, lower taxes, higher taxes, less business regulations, more social regulations of behavior, less regulation of private conduct, more regulation of economy and resource, etc) and completely ignore or quickly rationalize away any arguments or data against their political or religious creed.
That being said, I believe there is utility in quickly expressing just how much freedom is brought to us via a Utilitarian framework despite the fact that it boldly rejects fundamental freedoms and rights. Essentially all the freedoms of our Liberal Democratic tradition would be retained routinely (but not indefinitely and not of course as absolute) and we would have far more. The right to work for example, would be a no-brainer utilizing the Utilitarian Calculus. Only the stupidities of Capitalism would allow a minority of individuals to reap in billions off the labor of others (essentially indirect slavery) while billions starve, live in poverty, and work meaningless jobs (if they’re lucky) that exercise little to no virtue.
It could even be said that Social Anarchism could be founded (perhaps even be argued it is founded, but I won’t make that argument here) entirely on Utilitarian principles. For Anarchy does not mean “no rules” as most Americans being ignorant of Political philosophy believe it does. Instead, it is simply an non-hierarchical social construct typically based either loosely or absolutely on the Non-Aggression Principle and Communitarian principles in-regards to Social Anarchism.
Clearly crimes must be deterred, but this is actually what makes Anarchism and Utilitarianism so compatible. Evidence shows the most effective way to prevent murder or to prevent people from doing dope is not making it against the law or putting someone to death. It is to increase the material conditions and nature of everyone in society using the benign secular tools to create a Utopia that I mentioned earlier. One of the most significant applications of said “tools” being giving every man, woman and child the actual opportunity and ability to pursue and become their best selves (i.e. positive liberty). Straying from Neo-liberal economic models and Capitalism in-general, both Utilitarianism (not by definition, but typically, considering it is directly attached to Empiricism and social health) and Social Anarchism understand that Man is a mechanism or a material thing in whole, and functions poorly or well based on the material variables around and within it.
Clarification – ‘tween Hedonism and Utilitarianism and why Negative Utilitarianism is necessary for “Positive Utilitarianism.”
Before I end this paper, I deem it necessary to give a few final details to prevent the crime of vagueness and the gift of briefness. More specifically to distinguish Hedonism from Utilitarianism and explain why Negative Utilitarianism is necessary for a truly ethical and humane system.
Though the two at-times are coupled together, in some regards I cannot find two more antithetical philosophies. If there is one overwhelming and obvious aspect to Utilitarianism as I described it, I think it would be clear to the reader that it is a social and sober philosophy that wishes to maximize the well-being of society collectively. Hedonism however is more a type of personal philosophy along the lines of Egoism that claims what is good, or rather what one should pursue, individually is one’s own base individual pleasures and well-being. Even if such is not the case in-regards to the history of philosophy, for the purposes of linguistic practicality, there must be a divide between selfish pursuits of pleasure and collective endeavors for flourishing of being, as-to raise human potential, as-to create higher and more reliable subjective states of being through both alterations of society and cultivation of the “self.”
And now in conclusion I wanted to state why Negative Utilitarianism is necessary, and it’s the same reason why, at-least to my own understanding, Utilitarianism is not the cold, unfeeling and “mechanical” in the derogatory sense of the word philosophy that it’s often depicted as. The main reason being, as Schopenhauer among others acknowledge, that pain is far-worse than pleasure for it is far-more vivid in the mind and the worst pain is felt with far-more clarity and agony than the best joy or serene bliss is felt.
It destroys not only any subjective feeling of cheerfulness; it can erode hope, confidence, mental stability and has been shown to have disastrous effects on someone’s psychology, intelligence (particularly on children) and brain generally speaking. Pain destroys a man far-more than pleasure can ever lift him. In-fact, the main goal of society (and this is something the Utilitarians like Mill understand) is not to create a “happy” society following the Negative Hedonism of Epicurus say, but to create a good society of moral and enlightened people who both embody and express all that is necessary to create the best society for all, namely that which has those who feel the best phenomenological states of being. Such persons generally being the most virtuous souls who are materially necessary to bring about their own society of maximized utility and prosperity.