Who is John Stuart Mill?

1200px John Stuart Mill By London Stereoscopic Company C1870

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) is considered the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century. He defended the freedom of individuals against absolute state power. He was also an outspoken feminist, publishing The Subjection of Women in 1869 to promote equality between men and women. In addition to being a philosopher, he was also a political economist and politician.  Mill was a child prodigy, raised studying the tenets of utilitarian philosophy with his father (James Mill) and the founder of the movement (Jeremy Bentham). 

A central theme throughout Mill's work is the notion that individuals should strive to improve the common good, bettering the lives of all people.  In this class, we will be reading portions from Chapter 2 of Mill's book, On Utilitiarianism. The book was written to explain utilitarianism and defend it against criticism. You can read a PDF of the text here if you prefer to work through that (the password is in your instructor's email). 

Key Principle Utilitarianism: The Basics

Defining Utilitarianism

Here is how Mill defines the defining principle of utilitarianism:

The doctrine that the basis of morals is utility or the greatest happiness principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong in proportion as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By 'happiness' is meant pleasure and the absence of pain; by 'unhappiness' is meant pain and the lack of pleasure. To give a clear view of the moral standard set up by the theory, much more needs to be said, especially about what things the doctrine includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure, and to what extent it leaves this as an open question. 

Breaking Down the Definition

There are some important concepts to note in this definition.

Utilitarianism is the theory that actions are right insofar as they produce happiness and wrong insofar as they produce unhappiness. For instance, suppose Jeffrey is choosing between going to the movies tonight or staying home and meditating. If Jeffrey enjoys the movies, but does not enjoy meditating, and nobody else will be affected, then he should go see a movie because it creates more happiness.  Pursuit of happiness is the relevant reason in deciding what to do.

Think about this in your own life.  Why do you choose burritos for dinner rather than wheat bran?  Why do you pay money for aspirin when you have a headache?  We constantly look for trades that will increase pleasure and reduce suffering.  

Utility is the property in an object, action, or other activity that produces pleasure. Disutility is the property that produces the opposite of pleasure (pain, boredom, frustration, etc).  The goal of utilitarianism is to try to maximize utility, thereby creating the most good for the greatest number of people. 

The greatest happiness principle holds that we should pursue actions that produce the greatest amount of overall happiness.  Crucially, utilitarians think we must take into account the utility of everyone (everything) affected by a given decision.  We should maximize overall utility.


Sentience as Criterion for Moral Consideration

Utilitarians think everything that experiences pleasure or pain should have its interests count when determining what to do. Sentience is the capacity of a creature to experience utility.  People are sentient, as are many animals. Crucially, different creatures (even different individuals) might have more or less of a capacity to experience pain or pleasure.  Sentience can come in degrees.  Even individual people or animals might be more or less capable of experiencing levels of utility based on their experiences.

Gato Enervado Pola Presencia Dun Can

The Felicific Calculus

For utilitarians, determining the right thing to do is a matter of adding up the potential utility an action will produce for the sentient creatures affected.  For instance, suppose Jeffrey wants to go on vacation, but nobody is available to feed his cat Whiskers.  Determining whether the vacation is the right thing to do means weighing Jeffrey's potential vacation pleasure against Whiskers pain at going without food and water.

Jeremy Bentham called this the "Felicific Calculus" -- the mathematical approach to happiness that characterizes utilitarian thinking.

Argument Pleasure and the Good Life

Utilitarianism has a view of the good life which Mill argues for, namely:

that pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things that are desirable as ends, and that everything that is desirable at all is so either for the pleasure inherent in it or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain. (The utilitarian system has as many things that are desirable, in one way or the other, as any other theory of morality.)

Key Principle Pleasure as an Intrinsic Value

The Pleasure Argument Outlined

Mill argues that pleasure is an intrinsic value for all actions, but what does that mean?

(1) Intrinsic value is the reason someone does an action for the sake of doing it. 

Example: Jim's favorite pastime is cooking. He is not paid for it, does not receive any recognition, or any other type of reward for his work. He simply cooks for the sake of cooking, with no other purpose. 

(2) The chain of reasons behind any action can always be traced back to creating pleasure or avoiding pain. 

Example: While Robin may be attending college so she can get a good job and have a successful life, the end goal of those actions are driven by the sense of joy and happiness of being successful. Mill assumes that eventually if we keep asking the "why am I doing this?" question, we will end with "to feel pleasure or avoid suffering."

(C) So, the intrinsic value of all activities is utility.  (from 1, 2). 

We can raise questions for both premises. 

Premise (1): Crucially, Mill (like Aristotle) assumes that there is some kind of intrinsic value all of our actions aim at.  Value is not something we each determine for ourselves or something that is always extrinsic -- always dependent on other goals.  Is this right?

Premise (2) assumes we are ultimately driven by concern for pleasure.  Is this right?  Are there important projects in life that ultimately end in suffering, or at the very least have goals totally divorced from pleasure?

Comparison to Aristotle's Virtue Ethics

Remember that for Aristotle, the goal of human life is to rationally pursue happiness over the course of a life. This happiness is defined by an individual's function, which is achieved by living virtuously. This leads to eudaimonia. 

This is different from utilitarianism. For Mill, the final end is pursuing the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, no matter if it is "vicious" or "virtuous" by other standards. If some action is considered a vice by Aristotle but produces more happiness, Mill's utilitarianism would endorse that action. Aristotle also tends to focus more on the individual's development, whereas Mill is concerned with happiness overall. 


Argument The Higher and Lower Pleasures Argument

But aren't some kinds of pleasure just better than others?  For instance listening to jazz rather than listening to Polka music?  Or getting pleasure from reading Shakespeare rather than watching silly cat videos?

In this section, Mill explains that there are different levels of pleasures that ultimately weigh more less in our calculations about what to do.  Epicurus was an early Greek philosopher who argued that seeking moderate pleasure is the greatest good and pathway to a good life. It is an early version of utilitarianism. 

Every Epicurean theory of life that we know of assigns to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination and of the moral sentiments a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation. But it must be admitted that when utilitarian writers have said that mental pleasures are better than bodily ones they have mainly based this on mental pleasures being more permanent, safer, less costly and so on—i.e. from their circumstantial advantages rather than from their intrinsic nature. And on all these points utilitarians have fully proved their case; but they could, quite consistently with their basic principle, have taken the other route—occupying the higher ground, as we might say. It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. In estimating the value of anything else, we take into account quality as well as quantity; it would be absurd if the value of pleasures were supposed to depend on quantity alone.

‘What do you mean by “difference of quality in pleasures”? What, according to you, makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, if not its being greater in amount?’ There is only one possible answer to this. Pleasure P1 is more desirable than pleasure P2 if: all or almost all people who have had experience of both give a decided preference to P1, irrespective of any feeling that they ought to prefer it. If those who are competently acquainted with both these pleasures place P1 so far above P2 that they prefer it even when they know that a greater amount of discontent will come with it, and wouldn’t give it up in exchange for any quantity of P2 that they are capable of having, we are justified in ascribing to P1 a superiority in quality that so greatly outweighs quantity as to make quantity comparatively negligible.

Key Principle Differences in Pleasure

Psychology vs Philosophy

A virtue ethicist like Aristotle thinks there is a philosophical difference between pleasures which are worth pursuing as valuable (the pleasures that correspond with virtue) and pleasures not worth pursuing because they do not contribute to virtue.  For example, jazz is better than Polka, because the complexity of jazz develops our rational capacities. Polka does not.  Shakespeare develops our imagination and empathy.  Cat videos on the Internet, however funny, do not.  The difference between higher and lower pleasures is based on a theory of what humans need to flourish (regardless of the data of what gives us pleasure)

Mill thinks that different activities can be psychologically demonstrated to produce better forms of utility in us, and this is how he will distinguish jazz and polka, Shakespeare and YouTube. We can distinguish higher and lower pleasures by studying how humans experience pleasure and which activities produce more lasting pleasure or better qualities of experience.  

The Greatest Good for All People

This theory of higher and lower order pleasures helps Mill defend his overall moral theory -- that we should aim at ambitious forms of human development.  The view depends on three assumptions.  First we ought to aim to produce the greatest overall happiness.  Second, higher order pleasures will produce more overall happiness.  Third, higher order pleasures require recognition of rights, human dignity, development, etc.  The theory starts to look more like virtue ethics, but for the utilitarian, flourishing=maximizing utility=the final goal of all activities.  For the virtue ethicist, flourishing=realizing our nature as rational animals=the final goal of all activities.

Now, it is an unquestionable fact that the way of life that employs the higher faculties is strongly preferred to the way of life that caters only to the lower ones by people who are equally acquainted with both and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both. Few human creatures would agree to be changed into any of the lower animals in return for a promise of the fullest allowance of animal pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no educated person would prefer to be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would rather be selfish and base, even if they were convinced that the fool, the dunce or the rascal is better satisfied with his life than they are with theirs...If they ever think they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme that to escape from it they would exchange their situation for almost any other, however undesirable they may think the other to be. Someone with higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is probably capable of more acute suffering, and is certainly vulnerable to suffering at more points, than someone of an inferior type; but in spite of these drawbacks he can’t ever really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence.

But the most appropriate label is a sense of dignity. All human beings have this sense in one form or another, and how strongly a person has it is roughly proportional to how well endowed he is with the higher faculties. In those who have a strong sense of dignity, their dignity is so essential to their happiness that they couldn’t want, for more than a moment, anything that conflicts with it.

Anyone who thinks that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness—anyone who denies that the superior being is, other things being anywhere near equal, happier than the inferior one—is confusing two very different ideas, those of happiness and of contentment. It is true of course that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied and thus of being contented; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness that he can look for, given how the world is, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they won’t make him envy the person who isn’t conscious of the imperfections only because he has no sense of the good that those imperfections are imperfections of — for example, the person who isn’t bothered by the poor quality of the conducting because he doesn’t enjoy music anyway. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool or the pig think otherwise, that is because they know only their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

I don’t see that there can be any appeal against this verdict of the only competent judges! On a question as to which is the better worth having of two pleasures, or which of two ways of life is the more agreeable to the feelings (apart from its moral attributes and from its consequences), the judgment of those who are qualified by knowledge of both must be admitted as final—or, if they differ among themselves, the judgment of the majority among them. And we can be encouraged to accept this judgment concerning the quality of pleasures by the fact that there is no other tribunal to appeal to even on the question of quantity. What means do we have for deciding which is the more acute of two pains, or the more intense of two pleasurable sensations, other than the collective opinion of those who are familiar with both? ·Moving back now from quantity to quality: there are different kinds of pain and different kinds of pleasure, and every pain is different from every pleasure. What can decide whether a particular kind of pleasure is worth purchasing at the cost of a particular kind of pain, if not the feelings and judgment of those who are experienced in both kinds? When, therefore, those feelings and judgments declare the pleasures derived from the higher faculties to be preferable in kind, apart from the question of intensity, to those that can be enjoyed by animals that don’t have the higher faculties, their opinion on this subject too should be respected.

The utilitarian standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness but the greatest amount of happiness altogether; and even if it can be doubted whether a noble character is always happier because of its nobleness, such a character certainly makes other people happier, and the world in general gains immensely from its existence. So utilitarianism would achieve its end only through the general cultivation of nobleness of character, even if each individual got benefit only from the nobleness of others, with his own nobleness serving to reduce his own happiness.


Mill also realizes that utilitarianism will be a demanding philosophy -- maximizing happiness might require personal sacrifices for the greater good.  He explains this point:

Only while the world is in a very imperfect state can it happen that anyone’s best chance of serving the happiness of others is through the absolute sacrifice of his own happiness; but while the world is in that imperfect state, I fully admit that the readiness to make such a sacrifice is the highest virtue that can be found in man. I would add something that may seem paradoxical: namely that in this present imperfect condition of the world the conscious ability to do without happiness gives the best prospect of bringing about such happiness as is attainable. For nothing except that consciousness can raise a person above the chances of life by making him feel that fate and fortune—let them do their worst!—have no power to subdue him. Once he feels that, it frees him from excessive anxiety about the evils of life and lets him calmly develop the sources of satisfaction that are available to him, not concerning himself with the uncertainty regarding how long they will last or the certainty that they will end.

The utilitarian morality does recognise that human beings can sacrifice their own greatest good for the good of others; it merely refuses to admit that the sacrifice is itself a good. It regards as wasted any sacrifice that doesn’t increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness. The only self-renunciation that it applauds is devotion to the happiness, or to some of the means to happiness, of others…

Argument Being Unbiased About Pleasure and Pain

Mill thinks it is critical to living a morally good life that we are unbiased in our consideration of other beings' happiness.  Every sentient being's potential pleasure or pain counts.  This principle of equal consideration, Mill argues, is the secret to moral progress.

The happiness that forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agent’s own happiness but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. [Here and everywhere Mill uses ‘disinterested’ in its still-correct meaning = ‘not self -interested’ = ‘not swayed by any consideration of how the outcome might affect one’s own welfare’.] In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality. As the practical way to get as close as possible to this ideal, the ethics of utility would command two things. (1) First, laws and social arrangements should place the happiness (or what for practical purposes we may call the interest) of every individual as much as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole. (2) Education and opinion, which have such a vast power over human character, should use that power to establish in the mind of every individual an unbreakable link between his own happiness and the good of the whole; especially between his own happiness and the kinds of conduct (whether doing or allowing) that are conducive to universal happiness. If (2) is done properly, it will tend to have two results: (2a) The individual won’t be able to conceive the possibility of being personally happy while acting in ways opposed to the general good. (2b) In each individual a direct impulse to promote the general good will be one of the habitual motives of action, and the feelings connected with it will fill a large and prominent place in his sentient existence. This is the true character of the utilitarian morality. If those who attack utilitarianism see it as being like this, I don’t know what good features of some other moralities they could possibly say that utilitarianism lacks, what more beautiful or more elevated developments of human nature any other ethical systems can be supposed to encourage, or what motivations for action that aren’t available to the utilitarian those other systems rely on for giving effect to their mandates.

Key Principle Utilitarianism and Non-Arbitrariness in Morality

Biased Approaches to Happiness Math

In Mill's time, "commonsense" held that women and children experienced pain differently from adult men.  Moral consideration depended on what race or class you fell into.  Individuals with disabilities were discounted.  The (at the time) radical proposal of utilitarianism is that a common ability to feel pain and pleasure unites all of us.  And leading a philosophical life means basing your decisions about what to do on good reasons, rather than on preferences that you can't find good defenses for.  

In contemporary debates, utilitarians often find themselves debating how to appropriately extend consideration to non-human creatures.  For example, does what species you are matter for moral consideration?  You might think that as long as an animal is sentient (feels pleasure and pain) it's pleasure and pain should count.  But what about animals whose experience of the world is very different from ours, like lobsters

Acting to Increase the Happiness of Others

Mill thinks that concern for reason ought to push us to more and more allow unbiased utility calculations to guide our decisions.  He does not explicitly consider animal suffering, but does consider how important utilitarian reasoning can be in making more rational policy decisions.  One question raised is whether utilitarianism is a better ethic for political deliberations or for individual moral decision making.  And what could the difference be?

Let us now look at actions that are done from the motive of duty, in direct obedience to the utilitarian principle: it is a misunderstanding of the utilitarian way of thinking to conceive it as implying that people should fix their minds on anything as wide as the world or society in general. The great majority of good actions are intended not for the benefit of the world but for parts of the good of the world, namely the benefit of individuals. And on these occasions the thoughts of the most virtuous man need not go beyond the particular persons concerned, except to the extent that he has to assure himself that in benefiting those individuals he isn’t violating the rights (i.e. the legitimate and authorised expectations) of anyone else. According to the utilitarian ethics the object of virtue is to multiply happiness; for any person (except one in a thousand) it is only on exceptional occasions that he has it in his power to do this on an extended scale, i.e. to be a public benefactor; and it is only on these occasions that he is called upon to consider public utility; in every other case he needs to attend only to private utility, the interest or happiness of some few persons. The only people who need to concern themselves regularly about so large an object as society in general are those few whose actions have an influence that extends that far. Thoughts about the general welfare do have a place in everyone’s moral thinking in the case of refrainings—things that people hold off from doing, for moral reasons, though the consequences in the particular case might be beneficial. The thought in these cases is like this: ‘If I acted in that way, my action would belong to a class of actions which, if practised generally, would be generally harmful, and for that reason I ought not to perform it.’ It would be unworthy of an intelligent agent not to be consciously aware of such considerations. But the amount of regard for the public interest implied in this kind of thought is no greater than is demanded by every system of morals, for they all demand that one refrain from anything that would obviously be pernicious to society; so there is no basis here for a criticism of utilitarianism in particular.

Thought Experiment Utilitarianism in Action: The Trolley Problem

Utilitarianism is famous (infamous?) for giving a decisive answer to one of the more famous thought experiments in tradeoff ethics -- The Trolley Problem. Watch the video explaining it.  Would you pull the lever?

How would a utilitarian reason about the dilemma?  Apply the Greatest Happiness Principle and Principle of Equal Consideration to give an argument for or against pulling the lever.  

Would a utilitarian think you are morally responsible for the deaths if you walk away and do not pull the lever?

Can you think of any real life Trolley Problems we face in trying to be moral?

Short-Term and Long-Term Happiness

You might worry that utilitarianism encourages us to always go for happiness now, rather than making sacrifices for more long-term dreams.  But Mill thinks that the Greatest Happiness Principle should still encourage us to pursue the greatest happiness over time, which might involve also pursuing many instrumental non-happiness-based goals.   Mill argues that simply because happiness is the end goal of all actions does not preclude other reasons or motivations for those same actions. For instance, while Elizabeth's ultimate motivation to become a gymnast is the happiness she receives from the activity, her individual goals of earning an income, maintaining peak physical fitness, and achieving stardom are also valuable. Mill's argument is simply that they are secondary principles to the primary motivator that is happiness.

Read Mill's argument below:

The proposition that happiness is the end and aim of morality doesn’t mean that no road ought to be laid down to that goal, or that people going to it shouldn’t be advised to take one direction rather than another. Nobody argues that the art of navigation is not based on astronomy because sailors can’t wait to calculate the Nautical Almanack. Because they are rational creatures, sailors go to sea with the calculations already done; and all rational creatures go out on the sea of life with their minds made up on the common questions of right and wrong, as well as on many of the much harder questions of wise and foolish. And we can presume that they will continue to do so long as foresight continues to be a human quality. Whatever we adopt as the fundamental principle of morality, we need subordinate principles through which to apply it; the absolute need for them is a feature of all moral systems, so it doesn’t support any argument against any one system in particular. To argue solemnly in a manner that presupposes this: No such secondary principles can be had; and mankind never did and never will draw any general conclusions from the experience of human life is as totally absurd, I think, as anything that has been advanced in philosophical controversy.


Objection Four Objections to Utilitarianism

1. Happiness Should not be the Highest Aim

The final part of this chapter is Mill's responses to important objections to utilitarianism. Throughout the chapter, Mill explains and answers some of the most common arguments against his theory. We have put them here in this section for ease of access to the objection and Mill's response. 

Happiness should not be the highest aim. To suggest humans should only strive for happiness makes us similar to any other creature. 

Now, such a theory of life arouses utter dislike in many minds, including some that are among the most admirable in feeling and purpose. The view that life has (as they express it) no higher end —no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit— than pleasure they describe as utterly mean and grovelling, a doctrine worthy only of pigs. The followers of Epicurus were contemptuously compared with pigs, very early on, and modern holders of the utilitarian doctrine are occasionally subjected to equally polite comparisons by its German, French, and English opponents.

Mill's Response:

When attacked in this way, the Epicureans have always answered that it is not they but their accusers who represent human nature in a degrading light, because the accusation implies that human beings are capable only of pleasures that pigs are also capable of. If this were true, there’d be no defence against the charge, but then it wouldn’t be a charge; for if the sources of pleasure were precisely the same for humans as for pigs, the rule of life that is good enough for them would be good enough for us. The comparison of the Epicurean life to that of beasts is felt as degrading precisely because a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human’s conceptions of happiness. Human beings have higher faculties than the animal appetites, and once they become conscious of them they don’t regard anything as happiness that doesn’t include their gratification.

Mill's section on higher and lower pleasures, mentioned earlier, is also aimed at answering this objection. 

2. Utilitarianism is a High Burden

Utilitarianism places too high of a burden on humanity. 

Objectors who have anything like a correct idea of its disinterested character sometimes find fault with utilitarianism’s standard as being too high for humanity. To require people always to act from the motive of promoting the general interests of society—that is demanding too much, they say.

Mill's Response:

But this is to mistake the very meaning of a standard of morals, and confuse the rule of action with the motive for acting. It is the business of ethics to tell us what are our duties, or by what test we can know them; but no system of ethics requires that our only motive in everything we do shall be a feeling of duty; on the contrary, ninety-nine hundredths of all our actions are done from other motives, and rightly so if the rule of duty doesn’t condemn them. It is especially unfair to utilitarianism to object to it on the basis of this particular misunderstanding, because utilitarian moralists have gone beyond almost everyone in asserting that the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action though it has much to do with the worth of the agent. He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive is duty or the hope of being paid for his trouble; he who betrays a friend who trusts him is guilty of a crime, even if his aim is to serve another friend to whom he is under greater obligations.


3. Bad Calculations

Calculating the moral action through utilitarianism takes too much time. 

‘Before acting, one doesn’t have time to calculate and weigh the effects on the general happiness of any line of conduct.’

Mill's Response:

This is just like saying: ‘Before acting, one doesn’t have time on each occasion to read through the Old and New Testaments; so it is impossible for us to guide our conduct by Christianity.’ The answer to the objection is that there has been plenty of time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time, mankind has been learning by experience what sorts of consequences actions are apt to have, this being something on which all the morality of life depends, as well as all the prudence [= ‘decisions about what will further one’s own interests’]. The objectors talk as if the start of this course of experience had been put off until now, so that when some man feels tempted to meddle with the property or life of someone else he has to start at that moment considering for the first time whether murder and theft are harmful to human happiness! Even if that were how things stand, I don’t think he would find the question very puzzling...

If mankind were agreed in considering utility to be the test of morality, they would of course—it would be merely fanciful to deny it—reach some agreement about what is useful, and would arrange for their notions about this to be taught to the young and enforced by law and opinion. Any ethical standard whatever can easily be ‘shown’ to work badly if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it! But on any hypothesis short of that, mankind must by this time have acquired positive beliefs as to the effects of some actions on their happiness; and the beliefs that have thus come down to us from the experience of mankind are the rules of morality for the people in general—and for the philosopher until he succeeds in finding something better. The corollaries from the principle of utility, like the rules of every practical art, can be improved indefinitely, and while the human mind is progressing they are constantly improving.


4. Not Compatible with Human Nature

Utilitarianism is not compatible with human nature.

We are told that a utilitarian will be apt to make his own particular case an exception to moral rules; and that when he is tempted to do something wrong he will see more utility in doing it than in not doing it.

Mill's Response:

But is utility the only morality that can provide us with excuses for evil doing, and means of cheating our own conscience? Of course not! Such excuses are provided in abundance by all doctrines that recognise the existence of conflicting considerations as a fact in morals; and this is recognized by every doctrine that any sane person has believed. It is the fault not of any creed but of the complicated nature of human affairs that rules of conduct can’t be formulated so that they require no exceptions, and hardly any kind of action can safely be stated to be either always obligatory or always condemnable.

Every ethical creed softens the rigidity of its laws by giving the morally responsible agent some freedom to adapt his behaviour to special features of his circumstances; and under every creed, at the opening thus made, self-deception and dishonest reasoning get in. Every moral system allows for clear cases of conflicting obligation. These are real difficulties, knotty points both in the theory of ethics and in the practical personal matter of living conscientiously. If utility is the basic source of moral obligations, utility can be invoked to decide between obligations whose demands are incompatible. The utility standard may be hard to apply, but it is better than having no standard. In other systems, the moral laws all claim independent authority, so that there’s no common umpire entitled to settle conflicts between them; when one of them is claimed to have precedence over another, the basis for this is little better than sophistry, allowing free scope for personal desires and preferences (unless the conflict is resolved by the unadmitted influence of considerations of utility). It is only in these cases of conflict between secondary principles that there is any need to appeal to first principles. In every case of moral obligation some secondary principle is involved; and if there is only one, someone who recognizes that principle can seldom be in any real doubt as to which one it is.


This digital essay was prepared by GGL Fellow Blake Ziegler.