Utilitarianism Yet Again

Once more into the mire, as it were.  I’d like to expand a bit on my minor comment with respect to finding Mill’s view more attractive, but Bentham’s more consistent. This might be an obvious point to some, but I’d like to make my comment more clear.

From the point of view of a practical person (here I am not using practical in a philosophical sense, but in its everyday form), Mill’s account, with its differentiation between pleasures, makes intuitive sense. You would be hard pressed to find someone who thought, after careful consideration, that NASCAR was as edifying as Mozart.

The use of the word thought, as opposed to felt, is important. Mill’s argument rests upon the notion that actors exposed to low and high pleasures would be capable of placing the proper value on each. Underlying this is some sense of rationality or reasonableness. In other words, the ordering of pleasures is not determined by feeling, but by knowing.

And that is where I find his account failing, in at least two respects.

First, there are the obvious arguments about actors as rational and/or reasonable. Beyond the definitional problems, there is a further concern. Why are we to believe that, assuming arguendo that actors meet these conditions, such persons will order pleasures appropriately? I think this is a bridge too far.

Second, notions of promoting the greatest good for the greatest number will still rest upon the values of the particular society. To take an extreme example, imagine a society comprised of 75 adult pedophiles and 25 children. In this society pedophilia is viewed as natural and good. Thus, in order to promote the greatest happiness, pedophilia is not only allowed but is condoned. The calculus is such that the good enjoyed by the 75 is outweighed by the bad experiences for the 25.

Now, Mill might say that pedophilia cannot simply be valued as a higher order good. But why not? If actors are free to determine high and low pleasures, why are we not to believe that those determinations will vary widely among societies and individuals. Of course, anyone would say that pedophilia is simply wrong and shocks the conscience is such a way that it would be impossible for any rational and/or reasonable actor anywhere or anytime to value its practice as a higher pleasure. But I would argue that the history of human experience is one that shows that mores and values vary widely among cultures and even within cultures over different epochs.

If my second argument is indeed valid, and I believe that it is, we are simply left with Bentham’s account of a crude greatest happiness for the greatest number. And, left with this amoral formulation, utilitarianism is essentially doomed.


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