Below is a list of further essays I consulted when learning more about John Stuart Mill’s theory of utilitarianism:
Utilitarian Morality and the Personal Point-of-View, David Brink
Brink considers one of the common objections to utilitarianism: the theory cannot account for the agent’s personal objectives and projects (the Bernard Williams objection). Instead agents must put aside their own concept of personal integrity in favour of maximising the good. Brink defines utilitarianism as a ‘teleological’ theory in that its main aim is to maximise rightness and goodness (consequentialism is just special kind of teleological theory). Because the teleological theory isn’t as restricted as the deontological theory (which is more concerned with compliance with rules), we can use a wider variety of resources: motives, rules, institutions and actions can all be assessed. The moral agent’s own standard of rightness becomes another legitimate factor to consider.
Mill’s Utilitarianism, Wendy Donner
This chapter from the ‘Cambridge Companion to Mill’ provides a general overview of utilitarianism, including a comparison of Mill’s more expansive theories with Benthan’s more restrictive version. Donner points out that it is often forgotten that Mill is concerned with human development (and finding ways to develop good character), and not simply just providing a moral theory. Donner also considers whether the theory is as hedonistic as the critics often claim, as well as distinguishing between the approaches of act utilitarians versus rule utilitarianisms.
Two Concepts of Rules, John Rawls
Rawls addresses the objection to utilitarianism in that any kind of personal obligation (such as a promise) can be easily overridden in favour of maximising some overall good. These seems to give people good reason for disregarding the promises they’ve made. However, Rawls points out that when a personal obligation is made under ‘a practice’, assessment of the consequences must also be made according to the practice. He draws an analogy of someone playing baseball who arbitrarily decides they should be allowed to have four strikes before going out. Once you commit yourself to a practice (a recognised system of behaviour), you must continue to apply utilitarian principles within the context of that practice. The ‘two concepts of rules’ refers to two different approaches: (1) assessing a practice as a whole under utilitarianism, and (2) assessing a particular action under a practice. In (1) we can consider wider consequences, but (2) requires us to restrict ourselves to the practice.
Mill’s Proof of the Principle of Utility, Geoffrey Sayre-McCord
According to McCord, Mill attracts a lot of criticisms due to his single paragraph where he attempts to argue why happiness should be considered the ultimate good. Mill’s argument is along the lines: the only proof that something is visible is that people actually see it. Therefore, the only proof that people desire something is that they really do desire it. Mill believes this is sufficient proof that happiness should be the ultimate end of any moral system. McCord defends Mill on this point, believing the reasoning is sound. As part of his arguments, Mill also provides support for Kant’s categorical imperative, believing it suffers from similar criticisms (lack of precision in arguing for the ultimate end).
Actual Consequence Utilitarianism, Marcus Singer
Singer addresses a common point of confusion in Mill’s theory. When we assess the consequences of an action, are we assessing the likely consequences made in advance of the action, or are we assessing the actual consequences made after the act is performed? Some philosophers have argued that only actual consequences should be taken into account. However, Singer argues this approach is fundamentally flawed, and does not agree with Mill’s original theory. ‘Actual consequences’ will only ever have one possibility to consider. Since the alternative actions were never performed, there is nothing to actually consider. This gives us a doctrine that is useless in practice. We have no means of comparing the merits of various actions, which is what utilitarianism is designed to achieve.
The Interpretation of the Moral Philosophy of JS Mill, J O Urmson
Urmson believes that Mill’s theory is badly misunderstood by philosophers in general. In particular, philosophers are prone to criticise utilitarianism in two respects: (1) what is morally ‘right’ is simply a case of what achieves the highest good, and (2) whether a particular act is right or wrong depends on whether it promotes the ultimate end. Urmson argues that Mill took more of a rules-utilitarian position, meaning in most cases the moral agent only needs to be concerned with whether the action complies with the moral rule. He/she does not have to consider wider consequences. The moral rule has already been pre-validated as having complied with the core principles of utilitarianism (satisfying the highest good). Only in exceptional cases will you have to resort to first principles.