Guide The English Utilitarians, Volume II (of 3) James Mill

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CW 10, and 8, It is one thing to say that it could have optimal consequences and thus be objectively better to break a moral rule in a concrete singular case. Another is the question as to whether it would facilitate happiness to educate humans such that they would have the disposition to maximize situational utility. Mill answers the latter in the negative. Again, the upshot is that education matters. Humans are guided by acquired dispositions. This makes moral degeneration, but also moral progress possible.

Rights and Utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill’s Role in its history

There is considerable disagreement as to whether Mill should be read as a rule utilitarian or an indirect act utilitarian. Many philosophers look upon rule utilitarianism as an untenable position and favor an act utilitarian reading of Mill Crisp Under the pressure of many contradicting passages, however, a straightforward act utilitarian interpretation is difficult to sustain.

In Utilitarianism he seems to give two different formulations of the utilitarian standard. The first points in an act utilitarian, the second in a rule utilitarian direction. Since act and rule utilitarianism are incompatible claims about what makes actions morally right, the formulations open up the fundamental question concerning what style of utilitarianism Mill wants to advocate and whether his moral theory forms a consistent whole.

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Thus Mill is not to blame for failing to make explicit which of the two approaches he advocates. In the first and more famous formulation of the utilitarian standard First Formula Mill states:. The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. To give a clear view of the moral standard set up by the theory, much more requires to be said ….

But these supplementary explanations do not affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded…. Just a few pages later, following his presentation of qualitative hedonism, Mill gives his second formulation Second Formula :. According to the Greatest Happiness Principle … the ultimate end … is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality; …. This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality ; which may accordingly be defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct , by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.

CW, , emphasis mine. The Second Formula relates the principle of utility to rules and precepts and not to actions. It seems to say that an act is correct when it corresponds to rules whose preservation increases the mass of happiness in the world. And this appears to be a rule-utilitarian conception.

In the light of these passages, it is not surprising that the question whether Mill is an act- or a rule-utilitarian has been intensely debated. In order to understand his position it is important to differentiate between two ways of defining act and rule utilitarianism. An action is objectively right if it is the thing which the agent has most reason to do. Act utilitarianism would say that an action is objectively right, if it actually promotes happiness. For rule utilitarianism, in contrast, an action would be objectively right, if it actually corresponds to rules that promote happiness.


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Act utilitarianism requires us to aim for the maximization of happiness; rule utilitarianism, in contrast, requires us to observe rules that facilitate happiness. Understood as a theory about moral obligation, act utilitarianism postulates: Act in a way that promotes happiness the most.

Rule utilitarianism claims, on the other hand: Follow a rule whose general observance promotes happiness the most. Mill is in regard to i an act utilitarian and in regard to ii a rule utilitarian. This way the seeming contradiction between the First and the Second Formula can be resolved. The First Formula states what is right and what an agent has most reason to do. In contrast, the Second Formula tells us what our moral obligations are. We are morally obliged to follow those social rules and precepts the observance of which promotes happiness in the greatest extent possible.

Whewell claimed that utilitarianism permits murder and other crimes in particular circumstances and is therefore incompatible with our considered moral judgments. Take, for example, the case of murder. There are many persons to kill whom would be to remove men who are a cause of no good to any human being, of cruel physical and moral suffering to several, and whose whole influence tends to increase the mass of unhappiness and vice.

Were such a man to be assassinated, the balance of traceable consequences would be greatly in favour of the act. CW 10, Mill gives no concrete case. Since he wrote — together with his wife Harriet Taylor —a couple of articles on horrible cases of domestic violence in the early s, he might have had the likes of Robert Curtis Bird in mind, a man who tortured his servant Mary Ann Parsons to death [see CW 25 The Case of Mary Ann Parsons , ].

Mill answers in the negative. People should follow the rule not to kill other humans because the general observance of this rule tends to promote the happiness of all. This argument can be interpreted in a rule utilitarian or an indirect act utilitarian fashion. Along indirect act utilitarian lines, one could maintain that we would be cognitively overwhelmed by the task of calculating the consequences of any action. We therefore need rules as touchstones that point us to the path of action which tends to promote the greatest general happiness.

Just as the Nautical Almanack is not first calculated at sea, but instead exists as already calculated, the agent must not in individual cases calculate the expected utility. In his moral deliberation the agent can appeal to secondary principles, such as the prohibition of homicide, as an approximate solution for the estimated problem. Apparently, the act utilitarian interpretation finds further support in a letter Mill wrote to John Venn in He states:. I agree with you that the right way of testing actions by their consequences, is to test them by their natural consequences of the particular actions, and not by those which would follow if everyone did the same.

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But, for the most part, considerations of what would happen if everyone did the same, is the only means we have of discovering the tendency of the act in the particular case. CW 17, Mill argues that in many cases we can assess the actual, expected consequences of an action, only if we hypothetically consider that all would act in the same manner. This means we recognize that the consequences of this particular action would be damaging if everyone acted that way. A similar consideration is found in the Whewell essay.

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Here Mill argues: If a hundred breaches of rule homicides, in this case led to a particular harm murderous chaos , then a single breach of rule is responsible for a hundredth of the harm. This hundredth of harm offsets the expected utility of this particular breach of rule CW 10, Mill believes that the breach of the rule is wrong because it is actually harmful. The argument is questionable because Mill overturns the presumption he introduces: that the actual consequences of the considered action would be beneficial. If the breach of the rule is actually harmful, then it is to be rejected in every conceivable version of utilitarianism.

The result is trivial then and misses the criticism that act utilitarianism has counter-intuitive implications in particular circumstances. There is one crucial difficulty with the interpretation of Mill as an indirect act utilitarian regarding moral obligation. If the function of rules was in fact only epistemic, as suggested by indirect act utilitarianism, one would expect that the principle of utility — when the epistemic conditions are satisfactory — can be and should be directly applied.

But Mill is quite explicit here. From an act utilitarian view regarding moral obligation, this is implausible. Why should one be morally obliged to follow a rule of which one positively knows that its observance in a particular case will not promote general utility? As mentioned, Mill arrives at a different conclusion. His position can be best understood with recourse to the distinction between the theory of objective rightness and the theory of moral obligation introduced in the last section. Seen from the perspective of an all-knowing and impartial observer, it is — in regard to the given description — objectively right to perpetrate the homicide.

However, moral laws, permissions, and prohibitions are not made for omniscient and impartial observers, but instead for cognitively limited and partial beings like humans whose actions are mainly guided by acquired dispositions. Their capacity to recognize what would be objectively right is imperfect; and their ability to motivate themselves to do the right thing is limited. Because humans cannot reliably recognize objective rightness and, in critical cases, cannot bring themselves to act objectively right, they are not obliged to maximize happiness.

For ought implies can. In regard to the given description, the fact that the assassination of a human would be objectively right does not imply that the assassination of this human would be morally imperative or allowed. In other words: Mill differentiates between the objectively right act and the morally right act. With this he can argue that the assassination would be forbidden theory of moral obligation. To enact a forbidden action is morally wrong. Roughly said, actions are right insofar as they facilitate happiness, and wrong insofar as they result in suffering.

This is important.

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Mill emphasizes in many places that virtuous actions can exhibit a negative balance of happiness in a singular case. But as we have seen, this is not his view. Virtuous actions are morally right, even if they are objectively wrong under particular circumstances. Accordingly, the First Formula is not to be interpreted as drafting a moral duty. It is a general statement about what makes actions right reasonable, expedient or wrong. The First Formula gives a general characterization of practical reason.

Subsets of right ones are morally right actions; subsets of wrong actions are morally wrong. We generally believe that not all actions must be judged in regard to a moral point of view.

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This does not exclude us from valuing actions, which are not in the moral realm, in regard to prudence. Many artists would presumably not be comfortable with the thesis that good art arises from the goal of facilitating the happiness of humankind. This however is not what Mill means. Apart from cases of conflict between secondary principles, the First Formula does not guide action.

Just as Mill speaks in a moral context about how noble characters will not strive to maximize general happiness CW 8, , he could argue in an aesthetic context that artists should work from a purely aesthetic point of view.

The rules of artistic judgments, nonetheless, are justified through their contribution to the flourishing of human life. To summarize the essential points: Mill can be characterized as an act utilitarian in regard to the theory of objective rightness, but as a rule utilitarian in regard to the theory of moral obligation.

He defines morality as a system of rules that is protected by sanctions. Mill does not write, as one might expect, that only the action which leads to the best consequences is right. The actual formula, in contrast, has to do with gradual differences right in proportion. Actions which add to the sum of happiness in the world but fail to maximize happiness thus can be right, even if to a lesser degree.