Questioning John Stuart Mill's Argument for the Promotion of General Happiness
TL;DR: Ethics essay about John Stuart Mill’s Argument for the Promotion of General Happiness. Short answer: the source of the ought comes from the inside, rather than from a rational and objective standpoint. I think that this argumentative retreat is important for altruists that are running at risk of burning out from moral obligations.
A common problem with utilitarianism is that it gives no answer to the question: promotion of happiness, all well and good, but why should I care? Why should I be motivated to act morally? In fact, every moral theory has to answer this question. This is a rather long and extensive essay about the question of how John Stuart Mill, along with Jeremy Bentham, one of the main representatives of classical utilitarianism, argues that moral subjects are obliged to promote the general happiness, rather than their personal happiness.
In this essay, I critically examine Mill’s argument for general happiness as the ultimate end in morality, focusing on the distinction between agent-neutral and agent-relative perspectives. I argue that Mill’s attempt to ground general happiness in human nature is not sound, as the link between individual and general happiness is not necessary, but only plausible. I demonstrate that the adoption of the agent-neutral perspective depends on agent-relative reasons, and there is no objective law mandating moral action. I conclude that Mill’s argument fails to convince an egoistic hedonist of the utilitarian principle, as the connection between agent-relative and agent-neutral perspectives is not inherently necessary.
I believe that this is a topic of utter importance, if you like to think about doing the most good. Being surrounded by people who ultimately care about doing the most good often feels like there isn’t something else that you should value. Any other end you could pursuefeels negligible in contrast to “promote happiness; prevent suffering” – as if you are obliged to point your life at this one thing, rather than a garden of ends. I think that this is a dangerous conclusion, that many dedicated effective altruists, which I've met in my time with Effective Altruism, came to. Everything you do for yourself feels meaningless and colorless. For me, it has helped to think about the question: Where does the ought come from and who has control over the internal whip? Naturally, you first have to think about “Is there an obligation to act morally? Are there moral facts?”. While these are two very big questions, we can start small by asking “Is there an obligation to act according to the principle of utility, the core principle of utilitarianism?”. This question is the topic of this essay.
John Stuart Mill gives the answer of a classical utilitarian to this question in his classic book “Utilitarianism”. As his argument for universal hedonism is quite… puzzling, I write this essay to answer a particular question: How does Mill argue that moral subjects are obliged to promote general happiness? This essay wasn’t originally written for my blog, but I figured I should share it anyway.
John Stuart Mill advocated a hedonistic conception of values. According to Mill, the promotion of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the only morally relevant goods necessary to evaluate an action (Driver, 2022). Accordingly, the principle by which we should distinguish morally good from bad actions is the utilitarian principle or principle of utility. Mill writes on this:
“The view for which utility, or the principle of greatest happiness, is the basis of morality, holds that actions are morally right in so far and in so far as they have a tendency to promote happiness, and morally wrong in so far as they have a tendency to produce the opposite of happiness.” (Mill, 1861: p. 23, 21-26)
Mill's aim in the fourth chapter of his work Utilitarianism is to argue convincingly that general happiness is desirable and that the promotion of it is the only criterion of morality. The topic of this essay is to examine Mill's proof of the utilitarian principle, and in particular the step from the promotion of individual to general happiness, for soundness. The question is how Mill argues that moral subjects are obliged to promote general happiness. I argue that Mill's argumentation for the step from the promotion of individual happiness to general happiness is not sound, plausible at best. Moreover, Mill would fail to convince an egoistic hedonist to promote general happiness, the central audience of his argument.
To examine this thesis, I will first reconstruct Mill's argumentation. In doing so, I will limit myself to a reading of Mill's argumentation proposed by (Scarre, 2020), (West, 1982) and (Brink, 2022). I will then discuss whether, under this reading, Mill can provide good reasons why an egoistic hedonist should promote general happiness, and whether the assumptions required to do so are plausible.
As primary sources, I will use Dieter Birnbacher's English/German translation of Mill's work Der Utilitarismus (references to this book refer to the german portion of it – but since every other page is the corresponding translation, it should be obvious what I am referring to), collected letters by Mill from The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVI and excerpts from Mill's Autobiography. As secondary sources, I will refer to (Brink, 2022; Scarre, 2020; West, 1982). In doing so, I will not examine every single step of proof in Mill's argument. Instead, I will focus on one reading of Mill's step from individual to general happiness.
Mill notes in the first chapter that it is impossible to prove answers to the questions of ultimate ends:
”Questions of ultimate ends are incapable of direct proof. If anything can be shown to be good, it is only by showing that it is a means to something else, which is admitted without proof to be good.” (Mill, 1861: p. 17, 5-10)
If Mill were to provide a proof, he would have to show that the utilitarian principle necessarily follows as a subsentence from a supersentence. However, since, according to the utilitarian principle, the promotion of happiness is already the ultimate end by which we are to direct our actions, we cannot say that it follows from anything. In other words, if there were something from which the utilitarian principle follows, then this in turn would also have to be proved and the promotion of happiness would no longer be the ultimate end. He therefore claims that whenever someone says something is good or desirable, we can ask: “But why?”. Mill claims that if we were to continue this questioning game, the most plausible ultimate end would be happiness. He provides us with an indirect proof. The utilitarian principle is not fully established and does not necessarily follow from any other proposition. Mill grounds the plausibility of this indirect proof in human nature. He tries to show that only happiness is desired and that there are no other ends that are desired. Basically, he tries to justify the following claims: a) that happiness is desirable, b) that happiness is the only thing that is desirable as an end, and c) that everything else serves as a means to that end (Mill, 1861: p. 105, 19ff). His argument then looks as follows:
Premise 1: The only proof that something is desirable is that people actually desire it (Mill, 1861: p. 105, 29ff).
Premise 2: Each person strives for their own happiness insofar as they consider it attainable (Mill, 1861: p. 107, 3f).
Conclusion 1: Therefore, happiness is desirable and a good for every person (Mill, 1861: p. 107, 7f).
Premise 3: Each person desires only their own happiness (Mill, 1861: p. 115, 14ff).
Premise 4: Everything that is not desired as a means to happiness is part of happiness and is desired only when it is (such as music, virtue or money) (Mill, 1861: pp. 115, 16-19).
Conclusion 2: Therefore, for every person, happiness is the only good that is desirable (Mill, 1861: pp. 105, 14ff).
Conclusion 3: Since the part is contained in the whole, for the whole of mankind general happiness is the only good which is desirable (Mill, 1861: pp. 117, 5-10; pp. 107, 7-10).
Mill arrives at Conclusion 3 through a parallel argument. He moves from the individual level (“Applies to each person”) to the collective level (“Applies to the whole”), since the part is contained in the whole. Consequently, for Mill, the promotion of general happiness is the only standard by which actions are to be measured (Mill, 1861: pp. 117. 5-10). In what follows, I will take Premise 1 to Conclusion 2 as true and examine exclusively Mill's move from Conclusion 2 to Conclusion 3.
With Conclusion 3 Mill confronts us with a riddle. Mill seemingly talks exclusively about individuals in his proof and tries to justify an individual psychological thesis: For each person, their own happiness is the only desirable good. In essence, however, Mill is trying to establish a standard of action, the utilitarian principle, and to make a normative statement about which good every individual should strive for, namely the general happiness (Sidgwick, 1962: p. 388). However, Mill provides us with surprisingly few arguments for this step from individual happiness to general happiness.
(West, 1982) understands it to mean that Mill wants us to think of happiness as a thing that is desirable in itself. For the happiness that person A feels is worth as much as the same amount of happiness that person B feels. (Scarre, 2020) provides a helpful distinction between agent-relative and agent-neutral reasons in this regard. So, on the one hand, I can consider my happiness subjectively. I then have agent-relative reasons to maximize this happiness – because it is my happiness. If I look at my happiness objectively, then I look at it from the perspective of the universe or agent-neutral. From this perspective, happiness is detached from me and not worth less because I feel it or someone else feels it. There is always equal happiness in the universe. According to this, happiness would always be good and pain would always be bad. If something heavy falls on my foot, it is not bad because it happens to me. It is bad because it happens – no matter to whom it happens.
It is the same with happiness. From this perspective, it seems plausible that happiness is something that is intrinsically desirable, while pain is intrinsically avoidable. This is what (West, 1982) means by “desirable as a thing in itself”, or (Brink, 2022) by the “moral perspective” on happiness.
Mill wants us to understand moral action as action for which we adopt the perspective of morality. This views happiness as objective, impartial and detached from us (Brink, 2022). This reading of Mill's argument is supported by a letter to Henry Jones in 1868 from Mill, as well as a footnote from the fifth chapter of Mill's The Utilitarianism (Mill, 1861, 1865: p. 187).
„As to the sentence you quote from my “Utilitarianism”; when I said that the general happiness is a good to the aggregate of all persons I did not mean that every human being’s happiness is a good to every other human being; though I think, in a good state of society & education it would be so. I merely meant in this particular sentence to argue that since A’s happiness is a good, B’s a good, C’s a good, &c., the sum of all these goods must be a good.“
„It may be more correctly described as supposing that equal amounts of happiness are equally desirable, whether felt by the same or by different persons. This, however is not a presupposition; not a premise needful to support the principle of utility, if it be not that “happiness” and “desirable” are synonymous terms? If there is any anterior principle implied, it can be no other than this, that the truths of arithmetic are applicable to the valuation of happiness, as of all other measurable quantities.“
If we then consider the sum of the happiness of person A and person B, it seems plausible that the sum is still a good. After all, it is the sum of many instances of the same thing. If it were not, then we need to give reasons why happiness should not be considered or summed up as detached from one person. This would be the case if we claim that happiness cannot be considered as a sum or that there is no standard of comparison between the happiness of two persons. Then happiness would inevitably be linked to one person. But this seems implausible if we listen to our intuition that it is better for two people to be happy than for just one person to be happy.
According to (West, 1982), Conclusion 3 then follows from Conclusion 2 if we rephrase Conclusion 3 as follows:
Conclusion 3: Happiness [is a thing] that is desirable in itself. It is the only thing that is desirable in itself. And because the part is contained in the whole, for the totality of human beings, general happiness is the only good that is desirable in itself.
Furthermore, we are free to decide whether we want to adopt the moral perspective or not. Here is an example: Anna and Bob are stranded on a desert island. They both haven't had a drop of water for a long time and are on the verge of dying of thirst. However, they find a small puddle of drinkable water. However, there is so much water there that one of them will not die of thirst. Let us further assume that both have an equal chance of survival, are the same age and other relevant dimensions are the same. Anna is not a renowned scientist, and if she were, Bob would be too. Anna and Bob both have an agent-relative reason to claim the water for themselves. They both want to maximize their happiness.
Objectively, from the universe's perspective, however, it is not relevant whether Anna or Bob drinks the water. In both cases, one person dies while one survives. When Anna and Bob try to take this perspective, they recognize dying of thirst as something bad in itself. It is not bad because it happens to Anna or Bob, but because it happens to someone – agent-neutral. Further, if they both survived, from the objective perspective of the universe, this would mean that twice the amount of happiness exists in the universe. Anna or Bob would be acting morally if they sought to maximize general happiness per se, independent of their own happiness. Whether they do so depends on whether they want to adopt the moral perspective. We see here that we need to add additional premises for this reading to be convincing:
Additional premise 1: The moral perspective is directed towards happiness as a thing in itself.
Additional premise 2: The happiness of person A counts as much as the happiness of person B, etc.
Additional premise 3: Happiness is additive.
I have already outlined Additional Premise 1 above. If Additional Premise 2 did not hold, i.e. person A's happiness can be worth more than person B's, the proof of the utilitarian principle is incomplete. We would then have to make further assumptions about the distribution and valuation criteria of happiness. If Additional Premise 3 did not hold, i.e. happiness cannot be added up, as we add up weight, Conclusion 3 would not follow from Conclusion 2. Finally, for this we assume that the sum of the happiness of person A and B exists and is also a good.
In my view, these additional premises are already problematic. Why does the happiness of person A count as much as the happiness of person B? Why does the distribution of happiness not matter? What if, for example, person B has always been unhappy in his life, while person A is a hopeless optimist and always in a good mood? Here, the distribution of happiness seems to matter, regardless of the amount of happiness (Macleod, 2020). The assumption that happiness can be summed up is also controversial. It is based on the vague intuition that if we add up the happiness of two people, twice the amount of happiness exists, even though we do not know how comparable feelings of happiness are (Marshall, 1982). What if person A is clearly more sensitive and feels more of their happiness than person B?
Let us assume that we accept Mill's move from individual to general happiness and his additional premises. That a moral subject now actually acts utilitarian and promotes general happiness does not yet follow from this. After all, this requires the will to adopt the moral perspective. According to Mill, what good, rational reasons are there for adopting this perspective? And what would an egoistic hedonist say to these reasons?
Hedonism is divided into psychological and ethical hedonism (Moore, 2019). According to psychological hedonism, pleasure and pain are the only things that motivate us and according to ethical hedonism, they are the only things that should motivate us (Moore, 2019; Tatarkiewicz, 1949). Psychological hedonism is a descriptive psychological thesis, while ethical hedonism is a normative thesis. Hedonism is not limited by the fact that only our own happiness motivates us or should motivate us (Tatarkiewicz, 1949)¹. Egoism and hedonism differ in that in egoism, one's own pleasure or pain are or should be the ultimate ends of our actions (Shaver, 2021). A psychological egoist claims that we always promote our own happiness, while an ethical egoist says that we should do so. Just as for hedonism, there are other variants that I cannot go into further. In what follows, I will assume that an egoist performs or should perform an action if it maximizes his happiness.
Now we can examine the conditions under which an egoistic hedonist is convinced by Mill's argument. By “convinced” I mean that we show that an egoistic hedonist either already acts or should act according to the utilitarian principle². This depends on whether acting according to the utilitarian principle maximizes one's happiness. Let us consider this with our example above. Let us assume that not only Anna and Bob are on the island, but also Lisa, Alice, Gustav and Josefine. The puddle of drinkable water is now so large that if everyone got an equal share of the water, everyone would survive. Anna is an egoistic hedonist – she is faced with the decision of whether to cheat the others and drink more water than she is entitled to because this might maximize her happiness.
What reasons could convince her to promote general happiness? Hidden in Mill's step from Conclusion 2 to Conclusion 3 is the assumption that general happiness can be promoted. If, on the other hand, general happiness is constant, it cannot be promoted. Then there are always the same number of pieces of cake that could be divided. It would follow that if Anna shared the water fairly, she would lose individual happiness and therefore prefer the option of taking more water than she was entitled to. However, this seems implausible – Anna can do many things in her situation to bring about more general happiness than if she were to maximize only her individual happiness. For example, distributing the water fairly could strengthen the trust structure in the group, thereby increasing general happiness, and also Anna's happiness. This means that we can assume that there are cooperation effects in the game of happiness (Müller, 2003). However, this is not yet enough to convince Anna of the utilitarian principle. We have to show her that her individual happiness depends on general happiness. This means that Anna feels the greatest possible happiness when she tries to promote general happiness with her actions.
I think this would be in Mill's sense and he describes two mechanisms that would lead to this. In the first instance, Mill assumes that there is a qualitative pleasure in the promotion of general happiness. To this end, he speaks in the third chapter of The Utilitarianism of a “desire of union with our fellow creatures, which is already a powerful motive force in human nature” (Mill, 1861: p. 95, 18ff), which becomes stronger “under the influence of advancing culture” (Mill, 1861: p. 95, 22). Further, Mill writes in his autobiography that those who become truly happy are those who do not make their own happiness their immediate goal, but instead make the happiness of others (Mill, 1824: chapter 5). Mill says that people can gain a higher quality happiness from maximizing general happiness. Applied to our situation, Mill would argue that Anna would derive deep happiness from helping rather than harming her fellow human beings.In the second instance, Mill assumes internal and external sanctions that would prevent Anna from reducing general happiness. External sanctions describe external compulsions to comply with a duty, such as social pressure (Mill, 1861: p. 83). Internal sanctions, on the other hand, describe the inner conviction to comply with a duty because it is desirable for its own sake (Mill, 1861: p. 85). The violation of a duty therefore leads on the one hand to external sanctions, such as social condemnation, and to internal sanctions, such as a guilty conscience. The others would condemn Anna for deceiving them. Whether she gets a guilty conscience depends on the society in which she grew up (Mill, 1861: p. 95). Mill further notes in this regard that the strengthening of the community will not only result in the individual wanting more to promote general happiness, but also in her identifying more and more her good with the general good (Mill, 1861: pp. 97, 24-32). If internal and external sanctions were used in this way, and individual happiness depended on general happiness in this way, I think an egoistic hedonist would be convinced of the utilitarian principle. He would then have strong agent-relative reasons for adopting the agent-neutral perspective. He would then, to remain true to his position, have to try to promote general happiness; otherwise he would not maximize his individual happiness.
It seems plausible to me that happiness is not a zero-sum game (see (Müller, 2003)). However, I think that the assumption that individual happiness depends on general happiness is wrong.
For this, it is sufficient to think of a case in which the promotion of general happiness leads to individual happiness not being maximized. Let's assume the original scenario with Anna and Bob. There is not enough water for both of them. In other words, one of them has to die. This time, we assume that there are reasons why Bob's survival will lead to more general happiness than if Anna survives. Bob, for instance, is a renowned cancer researcher. However, Anna would not maximize her individual happiness if she gave Bob the water because she would perish as a result. In other words, Anna would have strong agent-relative reasons why she should neglect agent-neutral reasons if she chooses to act in this situation.
In the abstract, individual happiness is never maximized in situations where heroic self-sacrifice would maximize general happiness. Even if Anna were to enrol as a human subject in a study where she would put her life on the line to potentially save many lives, she would not be maximizing her individual happiness. She would either deny herself the possibility of individual happiness altogether (if she died as a result) or severely limit it (if she suffered physical or mental limitations as a result). The reason for this is that even with Mill's described mechanisms, the will to adopt the moral perspective depends on the agent-relative reasons³. There is always a cut-off at which the agent-relative reasons not to take the agent-neutral perspective outweigh the agent-relative reasons to take it anyway. For most people, this point depends on the economic and social situation, as well as whether survival is at stake⁴.
The relation between general and individual happiness is thus not necessary, but only plausible. The promotion of general happiness, if one can afford it, certainly leads to the promotion of individual happiness. But if one's own survival is at stake instead, few will be willing to adopt the agent-neutral perspective.
In summary, I have shown that Mill's argument for general happiness as the ultimate end in morality is not sound under my reading. Instead, he provides its plausibility by attempting to ground it in human nature. Whether a moral subject nevertheless recognizes general happiness as the ultimate end in morality depends on whether it has strong agent-relative reasons for adopting the agent-neutral perspective. Mill would argue for this to be so in an ideal state. This is because society promotes external and internal sanctions to identify individual happiness with general happiness, thus causing individual happiness to depend on general happiness.
I have tried to show by example that the linking of the agent-relative with the agent-neutral perspective is not necessary – if a person has strong agent-relative reasons (survival, for instance) to neglect the agent-neutral perspective. This link would have been necessary to convince an egoistic hedonist of the utilitarian principle.
Thus, key points are:
- We can discriminate between agent-neutral and agent-relative perspectives.
- The perspective of morality is agent-neutral.
- Whether one takes on the agent-neutral perspective depends on agent-relative reasons (I believe this is the most important point). There is no object law, claiming that we should act moral. At least when we talk about Mill’s proof.
- Mill describes two mechanisms, by which we a prone to take the agent-neutral perspective: internal and external sanctions, as well as the fact, that a deep happiness can be achieved by helping others.
(1): Likewise, the two theses are not mutually dependent: I can desire only pleasure but think that other things are morally more valuable, such as knowledge or friendships. On the other hand, I can consider only pleasure to be morally relevant, but desire other things (Tatarkiewicz, 1949).
(2): It is not important whether we start from an ethical or psychological hedonist who acts egoistically. For in both explanations, one's own pleasure and pain play the central role. If Mill can provide a convincing argument why an egoistic hedonist should promote general happiness, only two different conclusions follow from this, but they are the same in essence. A psychological hedonist could then do nothing but promote general happiness. An ethical hedonist would then say that we should always promote general happiness.
(3): Mill admits this in the third chapter of The Utilitarian when he says, "the force by which one is driven is subjective feeling" (Mill, 1861: pp. 89, 18ff) while talking about the objective reality of moral duty.
(4): In other words, the ability to adopt the agent-neutral perspective is a luxury privilege. People who have no resources left for self-fulfilment will be less inclined to maximise general happiness because their own survival is always at stake. In such situations, individual happiness is unlikely to depend on general happiness.
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