John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism: The Quest for a Moral Law

Like many others before him, John Stuart Mill sought the summum bonum, the holy grail of the foundation of morality. For him, it was Utility, or “The Greatest Happiness Principle.” What he meant by Utility is neither here nor there as far as this post is concerned. Those interested may find his essay online at Project Gutenberg. The fact that he posed such a solution to the age old riddle of the fundamental law of morality is what interests us here. It demonstrates that he, too, was chasing the chimera of morality as an object. He came close but could not quite free himself of the illusion of morality as a thing-in-itself. In fact, he was well aware of the distinction between subjective and objective morality. We see this, for example, in the following passage:

There is, I am aware, a disposition to believe that a person who sees in moral obligation a transcendental fact, an objective reality belonging to the province of “Things in themselves”, is likely to be more obedient to it than one who believes it to be entirely subjective, having its seat in human consciousness only.

Mill would certainly have objected to the claim that he was a “transcendentalist.” Again, quoting from the essay,

Therefore, if the belief in the transcendental origin of moral obligation gives any additional efficacy to the internal sanction, it appears to me that the utilitarian principle has already the benefit of it. On the other hand, if, as is my own belief, the moral feelings are not innate, but acquired, they are not for that reason the less natural.

In spite of this, one constantly runs into artifacts of the implicit assumption that morality corresponds to an object, a real thing. Consider, for example, the following excerpt concerning the basis of right and wrong:

A test of right and wrong must be the means, one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it.
The difficulty is not avoided by having recourse to the popular theory of a natural faculty, a sense of instinct, informing us of right and wrong. For – besides that the existence of such a moral instinct is itself one of the matters in dispute – those believers in it who have any pretensions to philosophy, have been obliged to abandon the idea that it discerns what is right or wrong in the particular case in hand, as our other senses discern the sight or sound actually present. Our moral faculty, according to those of its interpreters who are entitled to the name of thinkers, supplies us only with the general principles of moral judgments; it is a branch of our reason, not of our sensitive faculty; and must be looked to for the abstract doctrines of morality, not the perception of it in the concrete.

The implicit assumption here is that there really is something concrete to find. As I have pointed out in my three posts on the Question of Should, that is the fundamental fallacy of all the “transcendental” moralists, the believers in an independent moral law existing of itself. Mill does not include himself among their number, yet he evidently perceives morality in the same way. He explicitly rejected the notion of morality as a real object, yet his entire essay may be understood as an attempt to establish the claim of Utility to serve as a basis for a morality that may not actually be, but would still be perceived as, a real thing.

Still, as can be seen in the excerpt above, he was groping about, tantalizingly close to the answer. He was aware of the notion of what he called a “moral instinct.” However, he could not quite win through to the realization that the “moral instinct” was itself fundamental.

It is interesting to speculate on the impact Darwinian thought might have had on Mill’s theory of morality had he lived 20 or 30 years later. By that time, a thinker as brilliant as he would have had a much more sophisticated appreciation of the concept of morality as an evolved trait. As it was, he realized he was but the most recent of a long line of thinkers who had, so far, all fallen short in their search for the holy grail. As he put it,

And after more than two thousand years the same discussions continue, philosophers are still ranged under the same contending banners, and neither thinkers nor mankind at large seem nearer to being unanimous on the subject, than when the youth Socrates listened to the old Protagoras, and asserted (if Plato’s dialogue be grounded on a real conversation) the theory of utilitarianism against the popular morality of the so-called sophist.

Conceding all these efforts have been in vain, he says,

To inquire how far the bad effects of this deficiency have been mitigated in practice, or to what extent the moral beliefs of mankind have been vitiated or made uncertain by the absence of any distinct recognition of an ultimate standard, would imply a complete survey and criticism of past and present ethical doctrine. It would, however, be easy to show that whatever steadiness or consistency these moral beliefs have attained, has been mainly due to the tacit influence of a standard not recognized.

The shot flew close to the mark. It is not hard to imagine that, had he read Darwin’s “The Descent of Man,” and “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals,” not to mention the works of Huxley and Spencer, the truth about the “standard not recognized” would have dawned on him.

Mill had much else to say of relevance to our modern political predicament. We will take this up in the context of another of his famous essays, “On Liberty,” in a later post.

John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill