Selected Criticisms of Mill, Hedonism, and Utilitarianism:


     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. Regarding his distinction between “types of pleasure:”


It seems inconsistent with his statement of the Greatest Happiness Principle (the only thing….).  Consider whether the following is consistent: “I only desire money, but I wouldn’t come by any of it dishonestly.” 


In his On Liberty he contends that only happiness is valuable, “…but it must be utility grounded in the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.”  It would appear that Mill has decided (alone and a priori) what the decision of the qualified judges will be!  Since his view is that we have to pay attention to the actual consequences, his very strong assurance that the “higher” pleasures are such seems ungrounded! 


Fred Feldman’s discussion points out that: “...Mill’s assertion is open to serious doubts.  For one thing, in order to make use of his test, we would have to be able to determine, with respect to the different pleasures to be tested, that they are equal in intensity and duration.  Otherwise the preference might be based on considerations other than quality alone.”[1] 


Why assume that determinations of quality will be the same for everyone? 


2. Fred Feldman also offers the following criticisms of utilitarianism:


the existence of supererogatory actions poses a serious problem for act utilitarianism.  For act utilitarianism seems to imply that there cannot be such actions.  In a nutshell, the puzzle is this: If the allegedly supererogatory action really is so meritorious, then it must produce a lot of utility.  But if it produces more utility than any other act the agent could have performed instead, then act utilitarianism implies that the agent is morally obligated to perform it.  In this case, far from being “beyond the call of duty,” the action is exactly what duty requires.[2] 


Feldman points out that act utilitarianism passes judgment on every action—even the trivial acts are subject to the utilitarians’ evaluative criteria.[3] 


Feldman points out that act utilitarians have trouble accounting for the importance we assign to promising: “in business, law, education, and family life, we make, keep, and break promises all the time.  In an extended sense, virtually every transaction involving trust can be seen as sort of an implicit promise.  Thus, any moral theory that fails to give a reasonable account of the rightness of promise keeping is seriously defective.  And so it appears that some facts about promising provide us with a major objection to act utilitarianism, as ordinarily understood.”[4] 


... act utilitarianism is too atomistic.  That is, act utilitarianism requires that each act be judged entirely on its own consequences.  Wouldn’t it be better, some have urged, to consider whole classes of action rather than isolated individual acts?[5] 


In general, rule utilitarianism seems to involve two rather plausible intuitions.  In the first place, rule utilitarians want to emphasize that moral rules are important.  Individual acts are justified by being shown to be in accordance with correct moral rules.  In the second place, utility is important.  Moral rules are shown to be correct by being shown to lead, somehow, to the maximization of utility.  So the two intuitions are these.  First rules play an essential role in the determination of the normative status of acts.  Second, utility plays an essential role in the determination of the normative status of rules....

  …..if we proceed in the manner of primitive rule utilitarians, we seem to overemphasize utility.  It turns out that the rules make no difference at all.  The only morally relevant consideration is the utility of the act, as compared with the utility of its alternatives.  Hence, our rule-utilitarian insight turns out to have degenerated into a form of act utilitarianism....

  If we attempt to develop the rule-utilitarian insights in such a way as to avoid overemphasizing utility, we may fall into conventionalism.  That is, we may end up saying that right acts are acts in accordance with actually accepted rules.... 

  Finally, if we attempt to develop rule utilitarianism in the manner of Brandt, we end up with a theory according to which people ought to act in conformity to some ideal set of rules—rules that would produce a lot of utility if they were believed....such ideal rules may not fit very well into the actual pattern of behavior current in a society.  These rules may require people to act in ways that would be useful if everyone cooperated, but that are in fact useless, since others are not going to cooperate.  Thus, this approach though in many ways the most promising of the three, seems to generate a lot of extremely unlikely results.[6] 


3. Regarding Mill’s proof:


(a) ‘desirable’ means ‘ought to be desired’ as well as ‘can be the object of desire’ while ‘visible’ and ‘audible’ only mean ‘can be seen and heard’ so the analogy breaks down.[7] 


(b) We must distinguish between the “aggregate happiness” and the “happiness of the aggregate.”  But does he gloss over this distinction in the proof?  Another way of asking this is: Does he fall prey to the fallacy of composition in his “each person’s happiness is a good to that person and...the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons.”  Only a sleight of hand makes the greatest happiness a good to all: “the aggregate of all persons” may not be an entity with a good, and even if it is, Mill gives no reason for any individual to care for others’ happiness. 


(c) See E.W. Hall’s “The “Proof” of Utility in Mill and Bentham,”[8] and R.H. Popkin’s “A Note on the `Proof’ of Utility in J.S. Mill.”[9]  They contain excellent discussions of this proof which contend that Mill recognizes the distinction between factual and normative language (‘desirable’ in the sense of ‘desired’ and in the sense of ‘ought to be desired’), that he recognizes the impropriety in trying to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, and that he doesn’t commit the “naturalistic fallacy.”  Referring to Mill’s A System of Logic, Popkin offers a good understanding of the “sort of proof” which Mill is offering in Utilitarianism. 


(d) In his Without Foundations, Don Herzog discusses the “stock problem:” ‘Desirable’ means ‘ought to be desired’ while ‘visible’ and ‘audible’ mean 'can be seen and heard’ so the analogy breaks down “...and only sleight of hand makes the greatest happiness a good to all: “the aggregate of all persons” may not be an entity with a good, and even if it is, Mill gives no reason for any individual to care for others’ happiness.”  Mill’s proof is a pragmatic one however, not a deductive one and what he wishes to show is that, given that we are in fact motivated in this direction, why it is the only intrinsic end.  Still the proof has serious problems.[10] 


4. Can we be disinterested when we consider the happiness/pleasure of others and of ourselves?  Don’t we value the pleasures and pains of certain specific individuals more than those of others (family members, friends, etc.)?  Shouldn’t we? 


5. Surely, one might contend, there may be some desires which should not be satisfied (racist desires, snuff films, etc.). 


6. In his “Education and Values” Brand Blanshard maintains that:


Socrates’ life was better [than that of the satisfied pig] because, whether more pleasant or not, it involved a completer fulfillment of powers.  Grant the pig as generous a gastronomic capacity as one wishes, still one must admit that its intellectual, moral, and aesthetic horizons are limited, while those of Socrates are all but unlimited.  What gave Socrates’ life its value was the free play of a magnificent mind, the fulfillment in thought, feeling, and practice of a great intellect and a great heart.”[11] 


It is this fulfillment, he contends, not any happiness is produces, which is valuable. 


7. In his “The Moral First Aid Manuel,” Daniel Dennett maintains that much ethical theory is far too “theoretical.”  Regarding utilitarianism, in particular, he maintains that for Mill


utilitarianism is supposed to be practical, but not that practical.  Its true role is as a background justifier of the foreground habits of thought of real moral reasoners.  This background role for ethical theory…has proven, however, to be ill-defined and unstable.  Just how practical is a system of ethical thinking supposed to be? 

  For the most part philosophers have been content to ignore the practical problems of real-time decision-making, regarding the brute fact that we are all finite and forgetful, and have to rush to judgment, as a real but irrelevant element of friction in the machinery whose blueprint they are describing.  It is as if there might be two disciplines—ethics proper, which undertakes the task of calculating the principles of what the ideal agent ought to do under all circumstances—and then the less interesting “merely practical” discipline of Moral First Aid. or What to do Until the Doctor of Philosophy Arrives, which tells, in rough-and-ready terms, how to make “on line” decisions under time pressure.[12] 


If there is a Moral Almanac actually in use, then, it is less like the Nautical Almanac than it is like The Old Farmer’s Almanac—an unsystematic collection of wise sayings, informal precepts, traditional policies, snatches of taboo, and the like, a vade mecum vaguely approved of by the experts—who, after all, rely on it themselves—but so far lacking credentials.[13] 


Dennett appeals to “satisficing” accounts of real-time decision-making to provide a model for moral deliberation.[14] 


8. In his Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit maintains that:


narrow Hedonists assume, falsely, that pleasure and pain are two distinctive kinds of experience.  Compare the pleasures of satisfying an intense thirst or lust, listening to music, solving an intellectual problem, reading a tragedy, and knowing that one’s child is happy.  These various experiences do not contain any distinctive common quality. 

  What pains and pleasures have in common are their relations to our desires.[15] 


Some Hedonists have reached their view as follows.  They consider an opposing view, such as that which claims that what is good for someone is to have knowledge, to engage in rational activity, and to be aware of true beauty.  These Hedonists ask, ‘Would these states of mind be good, if they brought no enjoyment, and if the person in these states of mind had not the slightest desire that they continue?’  Since they answer No, they conclude that the value of these states of mind must lie in their being liked, and in their arousing a desire that they continue. 

  This reasoning assumes that the value of a whole is just the sum of the value of its parts.  If we remove the part to which the Hedonist appeals, what is left seems to have no value, hence Hedonism is the truth. 

  Suppose instead that we claim that the value of a whole may not be a mere sum of the value of its parts.  We might then claim that what is best for people is a composite.  It is not just their being in the conscious states that they want to be in.  Nor is it just their having knowledge, engaging in rational activity, being aware of true beauty, and the like.  What is good for someone is neither what Hedonists claim, nor just what is claimed by Objective List Theorists.  We might believe that if we had either of these, without the other, what we had would have little or no value.  We might claim, for example, that what is good or bad for someone is to have knowledge, to be engaged in rational activity, to experience mutual love, and to be aware of beauty, while strongly wanting just these things.  On this view, each side in this disagreement saw only half of the truth.  Each put forward as sufficient something that was only necessary.[16] 


9. A powerful story which critiques utilitarianism: Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omaleas.”[17] 


10. We must distinguish between “external” and “internal” pleasures (or preferences if we are dealing with a preference utilitarianism).  The internal preferences are those one has regarding oneself, while the external ones are those one has regarding others.  The egalitarian aspect of utilitarianism is undercut if external pleasures or preferences are allowed to “count”—if we find that we must sum up not merely the preferences of individuals regarding themselves but also their preferences regarding others, then the preferences of some will be counted “double” while those of others will be seriously undercounted.  Given that there are times where it may be impossible to disentangle the internal and external preferences (especially in cases of prejudice), it may be that utilitarianism and liberalism are not compatible. 


11. In her “Moral Saints” Susan Wolf maintains that:


the problem is not exactly that the utilitarian values these aspects of his life only as a means to an end, for the enjoyment he and others get from these aspects are not a means to, but a part of the general happiness.  Nonetheless, he values these things only because of and insofar as they are part of the general happiness.  He values them, as it were, under the description ‘a contribution to the general happiness’.  This is to be contrasted with the various ways in which these aspects of life may be valued by nonutilitarians.  A person might love literature because of the insights into nature literature affords.  Another might love the cultivation of roses because roses are things of great beauty and delicacy.  It may be true that these features of the respective activities also explain why these activities are happiness-producing.  For if one values these activities in these more direct ways, one may not be willing to exchange them for others that produce an equal, or even a greater amount of happiness.  From that point of view, it is not because they produce happiness that these activities are valuable; it is because these activities are valuable in more direct and specific ways that they produce happiness.[18] 


12. In her “Aristotelian Social Democracy”, Martha Nussbaum contends that an Aristotelian criticism of utilitarianism holds that:


...desire is a malleable and unreliable guide to the human good....Desires are formed in relation to habits and ways of life....Human beings adapt to what they have.  In some cases, they come to believe that it is right that things should be so with them; in other cases, they are not even aware of alternatives.  Circumstances have confined their imagination.  So if we aim at satisfaction of the desires and preferences that they happen, as things are, to have, our distributions will frequently succeed only in shoring up the status quo.[19] 


13. In his “Philosophy and Democracy,” John Dewey maintains that:


...the individualism traditionally associated with democracy makes equality quantitative, and hence individuality something external and mechanical rather than qualitative and unique.  In social and moral matters, equality does not mean mathematical equivalence.  It means rather the inapplicability of considerations of greater and less, superior and inferior.  It means that no matter how great the quantitative differences of ability, strength, position, wealth, such differences are negligible in comparison with something else—the fact of individuality, the manifestation of something irreplaceable.  It means, in short, a world in which an existence must be reckoned with on its own account, not as something capable of equation with and transformation into something else.[20] 


14. In his John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, Alan Ryan maintains that:


Green’s ethical theory provided an answer to the question of how to square the good of a creature’s pursuing his or her own good with the moral demand that we should pursue the good of a whole community.  Part of the answer was to throw overboard any idea that individuals are forced by nature to pursue their own pleasure.  What they pursue is satisfaction.  To talk of satisfaction is to talk of the satisfaction of a persisting self, so a second idea in old-fashioned utilitarianism that also had to be rejected was the suggestion that an individual life is a sequence of psychic states, for “hedonism” was the doctrine that what counted as success for an individual was a maximum of pleasurable psychic states. 

  Green pointed out something that recent writers have emphasized.  This is that we often do not want to have our wants satisfied; if I am a drug addict, I hope to be rid of my wants, not to satisfy them.  The wants I want to satisfy are those with which I “identify” myself over the long run.  By the same token, the pleasures I seek are those with which I “identify.”  I have to know what to value, with what to identify myself, before I can decide which pleasures to pursue or, better, what to take pleasure in.  Characteristically the wants with which I identify have as their object states of the world rather than narrow states of myself.  I want my child to prosper and be happy in her career, not as a means to my own happiness but because I think it is objectively a good thing that she does.  If my child flourishes, I shall be happy, but I do not what her to flourish because it will make me happy.  We could not want anything unless its occurrence pleased us rather than the reverse, but that is a truth that hedonism makes too much of.[21] 


15. In her “Utilitarianism and the Virtues,” Philippa Foot maintains that:


consequentialism in some form follows from the premise that morality is a device for achieving a certain shared end.  But why should we accept this view of what morality is and how it is to be judged?  Why should we not rather see that as itself a consequentialist assumption, which has come to seem neutral and inevitable only in so far as utilitarianism and other forms of consequentialism now dominate moral philosophy? 

  To counter this bewitchment let us ask awkward questions about who is supposed to have the end which morality is supposed to be in aid of.  J.S. Mill notoriously found it hard to pass from the premise that the end of each is the good of each to the proposition that the end of all is the good of all.  Perhaps no such shared end appears in the foundations of ethics, where we may rather find individual ends and rational compromises between those who have them.[22] 


18. In her “Persons, Compensation, and Utilitarianism,” Diane Jeske maintains that:


because utilitarianism, despite these facts about compensation, treats the interpersonal case like the intrapersonal case, Rawls claims that “it does not take seriously the distinction between persons.”[23] 


…just as temporal placement of benefits in the intrapersonal case is, in itself, unimportant, it seems that, analogously, it is unimportant in the interpersonal case who receives a benefit.  It should not matter whether I receive a benefit or you receive a benefit, as long as someone receives a benefit, because no person’s good is more important than the good of any other.  Our moral theory, then, should be person-neutral.  We should be concerned only with maximizing benefits among all persons as utilitarianism is.  Thus, utilitarianism can be motivated by viewing the morality of the distribution of goods among persons as analogous to the rationality of distribution of goods within a single life.[24]



Notes: (click on note number to return to text for the note)

[1] Fred Feldman, Introductory Ethics (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1978), p. 34.  The work is on Reserve in the Green Library. 

[2] Fred Feldman, Introductory Ethics (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1978), p. 49. 

[3] Cf., ibid., pp. 50-51. 

[4] Ibid., p. 55. 

[5] Ibid., p. 61. 

[6] Ibid., pp. 77-78. 

[7] Cf. ibid., pp. 41-46 for an excellent treatment of this and the next two problems [(b) and (c)]. 

[8] Everett Hall, “The ‘Proof’ of Utility In Bentham and Mill,” Ethics v. 60 (1949), pp. 1-18. 

[9] Richard H. Popkin, “A Note on the `Proof’ of Utility in J.S. Mill,” Ethics v. 61 (1950), pp. 66-68. 

[10] Don Herzog, Without Foundations (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985), pp. 135 ff. 

[11] Brand Blanshard, “Education and Values” in his The Uses of A Liberal Education (LaSalle: Open Court, 1973), p. 98. Emphasis has been added to the passage. 

[12] Daniel Dennett, “The Moral First Aid Manuel,” in The Tanner Lectures on Human Values v. 8, ed. Sterling M. McMurrin (Salt Lake City: Univ. of Utah, 1988), pp. 121-147, p. 123. 

[13] Ibid., pp. 129-130. 

[14] Cf., Herbert Simon, Models of Men [1957], and “Theories of Decision-Making in Economics and Behavioral Science,” The American Economic Review v. 49 (1959), pp. 253-283. 

[15] Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1984), p. 493. 

[16] Ibid., pp. 501-502. 

[17] Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” in her The Wind’s Twelve Quarters [1973].  Reprinted in The Moral Life: An Introductory Reader in Ethics and Literature, ed. Louis Pojman (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 2000), pp. 262-268.

[18] Susan Wolff, “Moral Saints,” The Journal of Philosophy v. 79 (1982), pp. 419-439, p. 429.  The essay is included in our text, as is a response by Louis Pojman. 

[19] Martha Nussbaum, “Aristotelian Social Democracy,” in Liberalism and the Good, ed. G. Mara and H. Richardson (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 203-252; p. 213. 

[20] John Dewey, “Philosophy and Democracy,” in John Dewey: The Middle Works v. 11, ed. JoAnn Boydston (Carbondale: SIU Press, 1982), pp. 42-53, pp. 52-53. 

[21] Alan Ryan, John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism (N.Y.: Norton, 1995), pp. 91. 

[22] Philippa Foot, “Utilitarianism and the Virtues,” in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (third edition), ed. Louis Pojman (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1998), pp. 258-267, p. 266.  The essay originally appeared in Mind v. 94 (1985). 

[23] Diane Jeske, “Persons, Compensation, and Utilitarianism,” The Philosophical Review v. 102 (1993), pp. 541-575, p. 541.  She is citing John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1971), p. 27. 

[24] Ibid., p. 543. 

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File revised on: 09/28/2013