Saturday, January 06, 2018

Mill on Motives and Right Action

I have objected against Henry Sidgwick that the criterion of right action is not utility. It is whether a person with good motives and lacking bad motives would have performed that action. I combined this with the standard objection - which Sidgwick agrees with - that a person whose sole motive is utility is not a person with the right and best motives to conclude that the standard of right action is not utility.

The standard of the right and best motives may be utility. (I argue that it is not.) But the standard of right action is the right and best motives.

John Stuart Mill addressed the same issue with similar results.

Mill wrote:

[Some objectors to utilitarianism] say it is exacting too much to require that people shall always act from the inducement of promoting the general interests of society.

In response, Mill, like Sidgwick, asserted that utilitarianism does not declare that utility be the sole motive for action.

It is the more unjust to utilitarianism that this particular misapprehension should be made a ground of objection to it, inasmuch as utilitarian moralists have gone beyond almost all others in affirming that the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action, though much with the worth of the agent. He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty, or the hope of being paid for his trouble: he who betrays the friend that trusts him, is guilty of a crime, even if his object be to serve another friend to whom he is under greater obligations.

Mill’s claim seems to be that the right act is the act that maximizes utility. It does not matter what the agent’s motive is, as long as the act maximizes utility.

The problem is that if an agent is motivated by something other than utility, then there are inevitable circumstances in which the agent is going to sacrifice utility for the sake of this other end. If the agent has a particularly strong affection for a friend or his child, he will choose the lesser suffering of his friend or child to the greater suffering of a stranger. If he has an aversion to lying or to taking property without consent, then he will choose to tell the truth or not to take property even where the greater utility can come from it. Sooner or Jager, the person not motivated solely by utility is going to perform the utilitarian “wrong act”.

Of course, Mill would allow you to perform a wrong action from a good motive if having that motive and acting on it would generally produce more utility than the motive of maximizing utility. For example, even though the motive of parental affection may motivate an agent to act to bring about the lesser happiness of one’s own child to the greater happiness of a stranger on the other side of the world, parental affection is responsible for such utility in the world that we must overlook the wrongness in these actions. On the standard of utility, these acts are still wrong, but we are not going to condemn you for them because there is negative utility in the condemnation.

But what do you say of a wrong act (buying your own child a toy instead of buying medical care for a sick child on the other side of the world) that is a utilitarian “wrong act” done from one of these utilitarian “good motives”?

The Utilitarian seems to have a convoluted answer. “You act was wrong on the Utilitarian standard, but we are going to call it permissible and expect you to treat it as permissible - to regard it in all ways as if the claim that it is permissible is true - even though it is not.”

Furthermore, we are to take this as the common meaning of moral terms.

It makes no sense - particularly the part that says that we all know as a part of the regular meaning and use of the terms “right” and “wrong” that we are to know and believe that some wrong acts are permissible, some obligatory acts are prohibited, and some permissible acts are wrong.

No . . . It makes more sense to come up with a theory of right and wrong that allows us to say that a wrong act is wrong, a permissible act is permissible, and an obligatory act is obligatory.

This means that an obligatory act is that which we have reason to condemn people for not doing.

A prohibited act is one we have reason to condemn people for doing.

A non-obligatory permissible act is one we have no particular reason to condemn a person for doing or not doing.

Which means that it is the act that a person with good motives and lacking bad motives would have done, would not have done, or might or might not have done depending on the agent’s other interests.

No comments: