It can be argued that no other philosophical system has so permeated Western thought as utilitarianism. From the early Greek thinkers like Epicures to post-Enlightenment writers such as Jeremy Beneath, the expediency of utilitarianism has been defended and expounded. Perhaps the most famous proponent of utility for modern times is John Stuart Mill. Mill first published his treatise on utilitarianism in three installments in Framer’s Magazine in 1861.
Since then it has become part of the foundation of Western thought. Even Christianity has begun to adopt elements of Mill’s philosophy into the Church’s ethic. In fact, there is a real sense in which the democratic form of government is a utilitarian system, seeking to do the most good for the greatest number of people. In this essay, I will review Mill’s work. The first half of this paper will be a summary of the key points of Mills system. The second half will be a critical commentary on utilitarianism with a particular emphasis on a proper Christian response to it.
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The goal is not to pass judgment on Mill or the idea f expediency; rather, the purpose is to see what good, if any, can be taken from Mill’s writings and which points should be modified or ignored all together. SUMMARY Mill begins his work by establishing some basic philosophical ground rules. He first addresses the question of epistemology, specifically, how do we know what is moral? He explains two antithetical ideas about morality: morals are evident a priori or they are deduced from observation and experience.
Mill does not take a definitive stand on either system, giving himself room to maneuver in later sections of the book, but he does tend to favor deduction, specially when he refutes the work of Emmanuel Kant. Mill closes his introductory section by defining “proof” and laying out his basis for morality. He has already pointed to Bantam’s ethic of the happiness principle as the foundation for obligation. Now he is laying the groundwork for his adaptation of utilitarianism.
He hints at the fact that utilitarianism has been grossly misunderstood and that, after reading his explanation, all rational people will embrace this ethic as a normative guide for life. The second chapter begins with a clarification of what utilitarianism is not. Mill explains that utility is neither pleasure in the vulgar, self-serving sense normally associated with hedonism, nor is it the avoidance of pleasure. Rather, utilitarianism is about happiness and, by extension, the prevention of unhappiness. He also maintains that happiness for mankind is more than just a warm, fuzzy feeling.
It involves the mind, body and soul (if such a thing exists. ) For Mill, there is a quantitative difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is a sensation; happiness is a state. Developing the theme of the qualities of happiness, Mill delivers one of his most famous arguments. He boldly declares that there is a significant difference in happiness for a human than for other, lower life forms. In fact, Mill argues, a man, no matter how unhappy, would not trade places with a Dobb no matter how happy the dog is, because the things that make a dog happy cannot satisfy a man.
He maintains that any man that makes such a wish to trade places is either delusional or lazy. After establishing that utilitarianism is about happiness, Mill addresses one of the most basic critiques leveled at his ethic, ‘What right do you have to be happy? ” Mill responds to this objection with a quotation from Mr.. Carlyle, What right, a short time ago, hats though even to be? ” 1 Mill does not give the question of “right” much time as he believes that man’s very existence gives him the right to be happy.
The next objection, however, is a bit more serious and Mill does address it at some length. Many critics have pointed out that man can do without happiness and that entire philosophies and religions have been built around self-denial. Mill answers this objection with the basic assertion that life without happiness is not worth living. He maintains that life without happiness leads to an unnatural state of despair, fatalism and even suicide. Again, Mill explains that happiness is not about pleasurable experiences but about attaining a state of well-being for one’s self and one’s neighbors.
There is one danger inherent to Mill’s theory. In order to explain what constitutes happiness, Mill must enlist a level of elitism. Only the intellectually enlightened can know what true happiness is, and this enlightenment is only achieved by experience. Mill IS actually arguing for social modernity. This of course begs the question “how can one quantify happiness? ” Although Mill does not directly answer the question, he does explain that precedence and common sense can and must be used for utilitarianism to work.
Mill closes this chapter by opening the framework of utilitarianism. Like many contemporary “spiritual humanism” movements, utilitarianism is flexible enough to incorporate individual beliefs. To make his point, Mill includes the teachings of Jesus as evidence of the comprehensive nature of utilitarianism. He maintains that there is even room for God (although he himself does not seem to believe in God) in that God, by definition, would know the best ways to make His Creation truly happy; therefore, following God’s precepts would naturally lead to happiness.
In point of fact, Mill declares that his ethic is the most godly ethic available when he says, “If it be a true belief that God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and that this was his purpose in their creation, utility is not only not a godless doctrine, but more profoundly religious than any other. “2 In the third chapter, Mill addresses the development of moral sanctions. 3 He explains that there are two mitigating factors: external forces, which elicit fear, and internal forces, which support duty.
He spends some time cussing the various functions and requirements of both the external and the internal forces. Finally, Mill concludes that morality is the result of the internal forces being conditioned by the external. He explains that just as architecture, agriculture, language and reason are natural faculties of man that need to be developed and honed, so is morality. The happiness principle is part of what it means to be a moral person; the specifics of how to apply that principle are conditioned through life experiences. The fourth chapter contains the famous proof of utilitarianism.
Mill intends that the only proof that something is desirable is that someone desires it. One must be careful not to take Mill’s argument too far. He does not maintain that all things that are desired should be desired; he simply explains that someone, somewhere desires them, which makes them desirable. It is the responsibility of the enlightened majority to determine what is worthy. It is in this section that Mill further develops the flexibility of utilitarianism. He goes to great lengths to show that all other desirable things, be they virtue, art, love, money, etc. , are all means to the end of happiness.
The danger is when people make the means an end and forego true happiness in favor of something that does not satisfy. In the final chapter, Mill explores the relationship between utilitarianism and justice. He begins by making the brilliant assertion that the law does not equal justice. He explains that there are many laws that are unjust or unnatural and should not exist. However, laws that do promote happiness and justice should be maintained. Mill defines justice in a variety of ways before tying it all together. He explains that justice is normative; it not only says what we ought to do but also what we ought not to do.
Justice involves a rule that applies to all people and failure to abide by that rule necessitates that an actual person was wronged. Also, justice embraces the idea that all people get what they deserve, whether good or bad. Justice brings rewards to those who do good and punishment to those who do evil. Finally, Mill maintains that justice is supposed to be equal and balanced, being applied without bias to all people in the same society. Although Mill supports the idea of punishment as part of justice, he is adamantly against retaliation. He believes that the passions involved with enhance does not allow for impartiality.
He affirms the maxim “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” in the delimiting sense in which it was given. Punishment should be proportioned to the crime and sufficient to deter a repetition of the crime. Mill uses two noteworthy examples Of social utility to illustrate the difficulties inherent to social justice: wage distribution and taxation. After exploring the various options for both problems, Mill concludes that social justice is totally arbitrary and needs to be determined by the enlightened majority. In concluding the chapter, Mill makes a distinction between simple expediency and justice.
Justice, according to Mill, is a cornerstone of happiness and must never be sacrificed. If people are not secure in the notion of justice and are forced to live in fear, they can never be truly happy. However, Mill ends his book with the statement that it is “evident that all cases of justice are also cases of expediency, ‘4 implying very clearly that there is no distinction between justice and utility. COMMENTARY Despite the lofty prose, Mill’s ideas are actually quite simple. In fact, it is the simplicity of his ethic that has made it so enduring.
By holding to only one oral sanction – happiness – and allowing each individual a voice in how to achieve that end, Mill has created a house of reeds that can withstand the changing winds of time. His basic maxim is ingenious in its simplicity. “All action is for the sake of some end,” he writes, “and rules of action, it seems natural to suppose, must take their whole character and color from the end to which they are subservient. “5 Mill builds off this purely teleological basis to form a system of entirely instrumental values that appears to be act deontological in nature.
By committing himself to only one intrinsic good, Mill has the freedom to adapt his ethic to every society, creed, culture, religion and generation. After all, Mill is truly arguing for the same principles contained in our Declaration of Independence: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The major premise of utilitarianism that should be addressed first is Mill’s development of moral sanctions. While Mill affirms that each individual has some innate sense of what one ought to do, it is really one’s own personal life experiences that shape one’s moral code.
This seems contrary to the basic Christian concept of morality. Orthodox Christianity teaches that morality is rived from the precepts laid out by God. In fact, the first maxim of Christian ethics can be stated thusly: x is right because x is willed by God. Christianity teaches that God sets the standard for morality and that God has revealed this standard to mankind. Morality is not an arbitrary system that an individual develops through personal experiences. That smacks of postmodern relativism. Despite Mill’s assertion that his ethic is the most religious, it is, in fact, the most self-serving.
He leaves no room for the will of God as the over-arching principle that directs and shapes morality. Furthermore, Mill reduces God to a means to the end of happiness. Mill treats God as nothing more than a benevolent grandfather who is ultimately concerned with the happiness of His Creation. Unfortunately, this manner of thinking has crept into the pulpits and bookshelves of the Church. “God loves me and wants me to be happy” is the new cry Of the believer. This is not the picture that Scripture paints.
God is concerned with the happiness of His Creation. And God does know the best way for mankind to be truly happy. It is not, however, through the ethic of Mill. It is through a right relationship with the Creator God. It is a allegations bought by the blood of Jesus Christ, sustained by the grace of the Father and empowered by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the daily act of denying self and following the footsteps of the Savior. Happiness is not the consensus of the enlightened majority. It is not justice. It is not the prevention of unhappiness.
Happiness is submission to the perfect will of the Holy and Living God. Also, justice is not the cornerstone of happiness that Mill assumes it to be. Thankfully, God does not give all men what they deserve. Jesus Christ, the perfect, blameless Lamb of God, was tortured and crucified, even tormented n Hell, for sins he did not commit. Wretched sinners, worthless, disobedient and ungodly, will receive life because of the atonement of Chrism’s blood. Praise God that did not get what I deserved. Still, the pragmatic nature of utilitarianism has many good merits.
The most important one being the internal consistency of the ethic. By having only one obligation there is no conflict. One will never be in a bind as to what is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, Mill places his absolute on the selfish desires of sinful man instead of into the hands of a loving God. One could make the argument that Jesus was teaching a utilitarian ethic when he boiled the Law down to one commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. If the end of Christianity is to love God and do His Will, which is a thoroughly Biblical doctrine, then all off the supposed moral conflicts of life dissolve in light of this one ethic. Also, Mill puts a premium on equality and morality. He holds individuals accountable for the general well-being of others. Again, this is a lesson the Church has forgotten. We, like Cain, wonder to God, “Am my brother’s keeper? ” and the answer is a resounding “Yes! ” It is not enough for a person to love God; each believer is called to love all people.
We are charged to nourish life, encourage and protect others, and love every person as special and valuable to God. We are never allowed to impugn the image-bearers. We are to love as Christ loves through the power of the Holy Spirit. Although Mill has the wrong motivation, his concept of social responsibility is a very important aspect of Christianity. Mill, it seems, intentionally leaves several gray areas in his ethic to allow for he development of individual systems. This is akin to the Idea of Christian liberty presented in the New Testament.
However, Mill leaves outwit critical aspects of morality that the Bible develops: motivation and definition. Mill is vague as to what actually motivates a person, most likely due to his realization that different people are motivated by different things. His general statement that individual motivation stems from individual experiences has gained popular support in society, and it is difficult to argue against it. Still, the Christian ethic maintains that a believer is motivated by a lining of gratitude. The believer’s life is forfeit, purchased on Calvary by the blood of Christ.
In response to that unmerited grace, a Christian serves God out of joy and spontaneity, freely submitting to the will of the Father. Motivation has been defined and must be considered in ethical decisions. At one point in his argument Mill differentiates between motive and intent as the deciding factor in whether an act is moral or not. 6 Again, Mill makes an excellent point but from the wrong point of view. He is correct in asserting that it is the intended result that makes an act moral, not the motive behind he act.
For the Christian, the intent should always be to do the will of God and bring glory to the Father. After all, it is the will of God that determines what is moral, not the joyful response of a regenerated soul. The second concept that Mill did not sufficiently develop is a definition of the proper end. Again, Mill is intentionally vague to leave the individual room to maneuver. And again, the Bible is quite clear what the proper definition of a right act is, as it was stated above, x is right because x is willed by God. The end, in the Christian ethic, is to do the Will of God.