Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Philosophical Reflection on John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism

It has been quite sometime since I have last posted and I am quite sorry for that, yet recent school assignments have created an excellent opportunity to post some philosophical reflections. I am taking ethics, or better known as moral philosophy, this semester and I am required to write a one page philosophical reflection every week. I thought it would be more than fitting to post these reflections for you all with some footnotes for further explanation, for I generally write assuming the reader has read the material on which I am opining. Please enjoy and feel free to comment.

It would be all to exhausting and, frankly, boring to throw my meager understanding of Utilitarianism into a hyperbolic chamber, hoping that some hypothetical situation will find a chink in the armor. Let me, therefore, grant all due credit and more to Mr. Mill, and assume that the Utilitarianism he depicts can, in fact, accurately describes every possible situation a person could encounter. In such a case, the question needs to be asked: is this system a rule by which to live, or a claim on the human condition? In other words, is Mr. Mill describing a system, which one adopts and to which one attests, or is it a description of how humans by their very nature as rational beings make decisions—they can do no other?[1]

This is important, for one of the strongest claims of Utilitarianism is that with any attempt to be moral, man is utilitarian at least in a primitive way, misjudging the utility more often than he ought. If, then, the claim of Mr. Mill is the latter—a claim on the human condition—then one could object much as one would object to Ptolemy: indeed the system accurately depicts and predicts the movements of the stars, yet we know this not to be the case.[2] Likewise with Utilitarianism, it might be said that the system is accurate, yet not necessarily adhering to reality, merely a good model among many. Now, I would have to make some further investigations beyond the arguments to the stars themselves if you will in order to resolve this issue. Yet, this move takes the discussion away from ethics to its philosophical foundations, a place I will not go at this time. It does seem, however, to highlight the possibility of Mr. Mill’s unwillingness to make a true and honest philosophical inquiry. To ignore the foundation would be to ignore the ability to search the stars themselves.[3]

[1] This is somewhat of a false dichotomy, for Mr. Mill would at some rate claim a combination of the two aspects. In fact, any system of ethics would make such a claim. The dichotomy, however, works in that it provides an isolation of the reason why such a rule of morality would be required, i.e. the motivating principle of Utilitarianism: nature or nurture.

[2] Ptolemy came up with a mathematical way to predict the movements of the heavenly spheres (the stars) with a geocentric understanding of the universe. He did this using a very complex series of curves and looping movements. This was used and accepted as the standard theory of the cosmos until the “Copernican Revolution”. Copernicus came up with a much simpler mathematical way to predict the movements of the heavenly bodies, but with a heliocentric (sun-centered) universe. With no way to prove this other than the strict mathematics, astronomers of the day determined Copernicus’ theory to be correct based on its apparent simplicity and, therefore, intellectual beauty.

My point in using this analogy is that there can be two coherent accounts for reality, both accurately predicting and describing the situation at hand, yet ultimately one is wrong, particularly when they are diametrically opposed. In his instance, one can only find out what is wrong by actually searching the stars. In the case of the astronomers, man has now seen the stars. In the case of morality, one must look at and question the metaphysical assumptions or might I say ignorance of Mill’s arguments.

[3] Again, I am using the conceit of the stars to point to Mr. Mill’s refusal to delve in the deep metaphysical convictions he has.