Saturday, June 16, 2007

Mill's Utilitarianism: Part II

As I wrote last week, I am starting a project where I want to explain some of the roots of desire utilitarianism. Last week I wrote a post in which I quoted John Stuart Mill’s “Utilitarianism”, where he said some things that are consistent with desire utilitarianism. However, the true heart of Mill’s theory is found in Chapter 4 of his book, where he presents, “Of what sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible.”

From the time of Aristotle, philosophers in the Greek tradition have distinguished between two types of values. Something can have value as a means or as a tool for bringing about other things of value, and something can have value as an end or an ultimate objective which has value “for its own sake.” For example, a person does not purchase a pound of nails because he has an urge to own nails. He wants the nails for a purpose – to build a house. At the same time, a person does not seek to avoid pain or obtain sex not because it is useful. People will avoid pain and obtain sex even when it is not useful. Pain and sex have value “for their own sake” (negative value, in the case of pain) – independent of what might come from them.

In the philosophy of value, one of the enduring questions has been to characterize ‘ends’.

The classic way characterizing this distinction is to speak in terms of the value of means as ‘instrumental value’ or the value that something can have as an instrument or tool, useful for doing something else. This is contrasted with ‘intrinsic value’, or the value that something has for its own sake, and not for the sake of what can be done with it.

However, this begs an important question. It assumes (incorrectly, I argue) that the value something can have as an end is an intrinsic property. “Valued for its own sake” is not the same thing as “valued for its own sake in virtue of its intrinsic properties.” It is dangerous to make these assumptions.

Assumptions such as this are constantly written into our language. The ancient Greeks came up with the idea that the world was made of ‘atoms’. But what is an atom? To the Greeks, it had to be a substance without parts. Indeed, the term ‘atom’ means ‘without parts’.

Another example is the term ‘malaria’, meaning ‘bad air’, invented under the assumption that the disease was caused by bad air.

‘Intrinsic value’, used to refer to the case in which something is valued for its own sake, is another mistaken assumption. Yet, as in the other two examples, it is useful to continue using the term, even where we must clarify how we are using it.

Anyway, so, ancient value theorists distinguished between instrumental value and ‘intrinsic value’. Mill, however, wanted to make use of another type of value – one that can be called ‘inclusive value’.

Mill starts Chapter 4 with the classical relationship between these, that there are ‘means’ and ‘ends’, that happiness is the sole ‘end’, and that everything else has value as a means toward that end.

Questions about ends are, in other words, questions what things are desirable. The utilitarian doctrine is, that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end. What ought to be required of this doctrine- what conditions is it requisite that the doctrine should fulfil- to make good its claim to be believed?

Yet, just a few paragraphs later, Mill allows that many people value virtue, and that they do so not as a means, but as something valued as ‘a good in itself, without looking to any end beyond it’.

Okay, Mill. Virtue is not the same as happiness. Either virtue has value only as a means to happiness, or there is something other than happiness that can have value as an end. How do you resolve this?

Ultimately, as follows:

The person who desires virtue as an end desires it as a part of happiness. Think of a painting that you like, or a song that you find particularly beautiful. Then, think of an individual note within that song. That note does not have value as a means to the value of the song. Nor does it have value independent of its position in the song. It has value as a part of the song. Similarly, virtue has value as a part of a happy life.

The principle of utility does not mean that any given pleasure, as music, for instance, or any given exemption from pain, as for example health, is to be looked upon as means to a collective something termed happiness, and to be desired on that account. They are desired and desirable in and for themselves; besides being means, they are a part of the end.

This is ‘inclusive value’ coming to the rescue.

However, one of the things we can ask about ‘inclusive value’ is whether it is really necessary. For example, in physics, the sum of the forces acting on an object produce a result that is the vector sum of all of the other forces. Each force has a type of ‘inclusive value’ that affects the final result. However, we do not need to postulate any new force, a ‘final end’ force, that is the vector sum of its component parts. All we need is the component parts.

The real problem with happiness theory as a final end is that it fails the experience machine test. ‘Happiness’ does not mean ‘the vector some of the value-forces (desires) influencing individual action’. It refers to something specific. Most importantly, it refers to something that a person can acquire from an experience machine. However, many people express an absolute aversion to entering an experience machine, which shows that happiness is one end among many, and one that can be outweighed by other concerns.

Recognizing this fact, we can then defend Mill’s claim, which I wrote about last week, that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. It is better to be unhappy outside of an experience machine than happy within an experience machine – precisely because (and this is a solution Mill dismisses) that happiness is one end among many.

In describing the idea that what we desire ‘for its own sake’ is a part of happiness, Mill describes how we acquire new desires.

Referring to money as an example:

There is nothing originally more desirable about money than about any heap of glittering pebbles. Its worth is solely that of the things which it will buy; the desires for other things than itself, which it is a means of gratifying. Yet the love of money is not only one of the strongest moving forces of human life, but money is, in many cases, desired in and for itself; the desire to possess it is often stronger than the desire to use it . . .

In fact, few things work better as a proof of the fact that desires are malleable than the example of money, which simply does not exist in a state of nature, and cannot come to be naturally valued for its own sake the way that sex and freedom from pain are naturally desired for their own sake. This desire is learned. Because money is useful in the fulfillment of other desires, it begins as something desired as a means. However, for some people, it clearly becomes something desired for its own sake – valued beyond its usefulness.

Virtue, according to the utilitarian conception, is a good of this description. There was no original desire of it, or motive to it, save its conduciveness to pleasure, and especially to protection from pain. But through the association thus formed, it may be felt a good in itself, and desired as such with as great intensity as any other good; and with this difference between it and the love of money, of power, or of fame, that all of these may, and often do, render the individual noxious to the other members of the society to which he belongs, whereas there is nothing which makes him so much a blessing to them as the cultivation of the disinterested love of virtue. And consequently, the utilitarian standard, while it tolerates and approves those other acquired desires, up to the point beyond which they would be more injurious to the general happiness than promotive of it, enjoins and requires the cultivation of the love of virtue up to the greatest strength possible, as being above all things important to the general happiness.

Here we have the heart of desire utilitarianism, where a desire that is useful because of its tendency to fulfill other desires, gives people a reason to cultivate this desire in others and in themselves. The method by which they cultivate this desire is by associating it with the fulfillment of other desires – with a system of reward and punishment, and praise and condemnation, all engineered to make more common those desires that tend to make an individual ‘a blessing to [members of society’.

Everything that Mill says about the love of virtue applies to other desires as well. Mill wrote about the love of money, power, and fame, which makes an individual ‘noxious to the other members of the society to which he belongs’, which then become desires that people have reason to discourage. However, they are hard to discourage, since they inherently fulfill the desires of the individual.

Any other desire that renders an individual ‘noxious to to the other members of the society to which he belongs’ is a desire those others have reason to inhibit, while any other desire that renders an individual ‘a blessing to them’ is a desire that people generally have reason to cultivate. When cultivated, these desires define objects that are valued for their own sake, and not simply because of their usefulness.

The only real change that one has to make to Mill’s theory at this point is to give up the idea of desires as being ‘a part of happiness’ and to simply acknowledge that happiness is one of the things desired for its own sake. In terms of how the theory works, this change is quite benign.

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