How successful was J.S. Mill in overcoming the problems associated with Bentham's Utilitarianism?
"The greatest good for the greatest number" is a simple way to sum up a fairly simple idea. But despite its simplicity it still has lots of problems; in this essay I will be looking at how John Stuart Mill tries to overcome these problems.
In 1789 utilitarianism was born, the brainchild of Jeremy Bentham. Bentham was a hedonist or someone who is constantly in pursuit of pleasure or happiness. It is around this idea of hedonism that Bentham founded a way of making moral and ethical decisions, he called it utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a teleological theory that worked on that basis that you should do the "greatest good for the greatest number", in simpler terms means that if ever confronted with a moral dilemma you should always do what will cause the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people as a consequence of your choice.
So you think through the consequences of your action, and work out how much pleasure it will cause then subtract the amount of pain it would cause. So for Bentham a good person would be one that maximised happiness and minimised pain caused.
To help establish how good one action was in comparison to another, he created a tool called a hedonic calculus. The Hedonic Calculus was based around seven principles of pleasure:
1.Intensity - The strength of the happiness created
2.Duration - How long the happiness lasts
3.Certainty or Uncertainty - How sure/unsure you are that the happiness will occur
4.Propinquity or Remoteness - How close/far away the happiness is in time, with closer being better
5.Fecundity - How likely the act is to cause more feelings of the same kind (pleasure/pain)
6.Purity - The chances of the act being followed by feelings of the opposite kind.
7.Extent - The amount of people that will be affected
I will now put the hedonic calculus into practise using the example of euthanasia:
FactorHelp them dieDon't help them die
IntensityÃÂ¡ÃÂ The happiness created by ending the patients suffering will be far greater than their pain, if they continue to suffer when living.X Their pain of seeing a loved one unable to do anything is greater than the pain of letting them die, knowing they are no longer suffering.
DurationÃÂ¡ÃÂ The pleasure of the patient who will no longer be suffering will be infinite.X The patients pain will last as long as their life does.
CertaintyÃÂ¡ÃÂ It is 100% certain that if the patient stopped living, their pain would end.X It's fairly certain that keeping them alive would keep the family happy to an extent.
PropinquityÃÂ¡ÃÂ The pain of the patient would end instantly.X The happiness of pain ending with a natural death would take longer than euthanasia.
FecundityX After any death people get sad, even if they are happy their pain and suffering has ended.ÃÂ¡ÃÂ By keeping them alive, the family will be happy simply because they are alive.
PurityÃÂ¡ÃÂ As aboveX As above
ExtentBoth of these have the same extent as they both affect the patient, family, friends and the medical staff involved.
From this table, according to utilitarianism, the morally correct thing to do is to help the patient to die, as it would create "the greatest good for the greatest number" compared to keeping the patient alive.
However, there are several problems with Bentham's utilitarianism:
"XSwine ethic: people mocked Bentham as his utilitarianism allowed completely immoral things to be justified, for instance, if ten prison guards wanted to beat up one inmate, then according to utilitarianism, it is quite acceptable.
"XJustice: utilitarianism operates on efficiency rather than justness, as in certain situations it is possible to defy what is right in the eyes of the law, for what is right hedonistically, for instance a man is suspected a serial killing, everyone in the country thinks he is, and wants him convicted, but when confronted with the evidence, the judge thinks he is innocent, but the judge knows that if the accused isn't punished he'd be mobbed by angry gangs outside. So morally he should let the accused walk free, but according to utilitarianism, the judge should convict the accused, as it would keep the majority, being the angry mobs, happy.
"XNo absolute values: with utilitarianism, there are no clear cut rules like don't torture children, as in some cases it will be found acceptable, but not in others. Also is happiness the only value by which to base moral decisions, as you are discounting things like the means, and only judging based on the happiness the consequence causes.
"XDo ends justify means: utilitarianism only focuses on the results, and basically says that what you do to achieve those results is irrelevant, even if it means killing.
"XCan't predict future: utilitarianism requires you to be able to see into the future and predict what will happen as a result of your consequences, which isn't totally accurate, and unreliable as a basis for moral decisions.
John Stuart Mill was the son of a strong follower of Bentham's, and was brought up alongside his teachings. Mill also thought that the well being of individuals was paramount, and that by allowing individuals to make their own choices guided by basic rules for living was the most effective route to happiness. Mill identified that these problems with utilitarianism could be solved. So he added a new set of ideas to Bentham's utilitarianism called higher and lower pleasures. This meant that Mill identified that there were different qualitative pleasures, whereas Bentham thought that quantitative pleasures were the key. Mill said that higher pleasures were those that concerned the mind, or intellectual pleasures, like reading poetry or listening to music, and that bodily pleasures such as food and drink were less important and therefore lower pleasures. So mill thought that when you were faced with a choice between a higher and a lower pleasure, you should always choose the higher pleasure.
But, did this addition silence the critics of Bentham? Well it certainly solved the swine ethics problem, as the pursuit of higher pleasures was encouraged more than lower pleasures, so the pleasure of beating up an inmate would be less that the pleasure of knowing he is well and safe. It also solves the problem of justice, as the judge would aim for the higher pleasure of upholding the law rather than the lower pleasure of not being mobbed.
But as for the other problems, they are left unsolved, as still happiness is regarded as the only value with which to make moral decisions, still there are no absolute values, and an ability of being able to see into the future is still required. But other than that JS Mill has managed to solve the two major problems with Bentham's utilitarianism.