Mill's Extraordinary Utilitarian Moral Theory

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    • 00:13

      JONATHAN RILEY: Hello, I'm Professor Jonathan Rileyof Tulane University's Murphy Institute of Political Economyand Department of Philosophy.I'm going to try to underscore a couple of main pointsthat I make in an article publishedin Politics, Philosophy, and Economics in February of 2010.The title of this article is Mill's

    • 00:35

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: Extraordinary Utilitarian Moral Theory.And this article, lengthy though it is,is part of a much larger research project in which I'mtrying to recover Mill's moral and political philosophyin a way that accords very closely with his text,

    • 00:57

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: as I understand them.And this is important because I believeit many of the interpretations in the academic literaturetoday fundamentally misunderstandMill, depart from what he actually says in his key textsin various ways.

    • 01:18

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: And so given that Mill is a brilliant thinker,I thought it was important to be able to demonstrate, or showclearly, that what he actually saysdoes lead to an extremely interesting, appealingdoctrine.Mill wrote on a great number of areas.And he was extremely consistent, despite his reputation

    • 01:41

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: as being inconsistent to the point of incoherence.And so that his various ratings in political economy,utilitarian morality, individual freedom, and so forth,certainly do hang together, although it may welltake careful study to understand what he's actually arguing for.

    • 02:02

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: Well, in this article, there are two main pointsI'd like to make with respect to the extraordinary natureof Mill's utilitarianism.One is that Mill seems to rely on rather poor utilityinformation to conduct utilitarian aggregation.

    • 02:25

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: Unlike the standard versions of utilitarianismas we understand them today, Milldoesn't assume the rich utility informationthat's required in order to add up individual utilitiesinto a sum total.He seems, instead, to rely simply on individual preferenceorderings, that is to say, preference orderings

    • 02:47

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: defined over the sources of utility.Which for Mill is happiness definedas pleasure, feelings of pleasure,including relief from pain.Now individuals essentially would form preference rankings,

    • 03:08

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: not even necessarily orderings, but simply preferencerankings over the sources of happiness for them.And of course, would rank the sourcethat they thought was going to give themthe greatest quantity of pleasant feeling,including relief from pain.Different individuals could have different preference orderings.

    • 03:28

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: And something like a democratic political procedurewould be used in order to choose which outcomewas going to promote the most happiness for the collectivityof individuals.Now, it's true that majority rule,

    • 03:52

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: if we took the democratic political procedure simplyto be majority rule, that it's notgoing to give us an exact measure of the sumtotal of individual utilities.It's just an estimate.But for a variety of reasons, that estimatemay be pretty close to an estimate of the actual sum

    • 04:15

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: total of happiness that the individuals would enjoy if wewent with the majority outcome.So that when utility information is quite poor,consisting really of just preference orderings thatdon't involve cardinal measure or interpersonal comparability,

    • 04:40

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: the standard utilitarian calculusreduces to something like a democratic voting rule.The second point, main point, that Iwant to emphasize in the context of this articleis that Mill's utilitarian [AUDIO OUT]

    • 05:01

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: because he distinguishes among different kindsor qualities of pleasant feelingsas he understands them.And by notion of quality, Mill issaying that the qualitatively superior, or higher kindof pleasant feeling, is greater as pleasure

    • 05:22

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: than any amount, any finite amount,of an inferior, qualitatively inferior, kindof pleasant feeling, regardless of quantity.So that even a little bit of the qualitatively superior kindof pleasant feeling is greater as pleasurethan any finite amount of the lower or inferior kind

    • 05:44

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: of pleasant feeling.Now I can't go into great detail on Mill's rather notoriousdoctrine of higher pleasures.One must recognize that it is a notorious doctrine in the sensethat it's controversial.I think it's far more persuasive than is commonly allowed.

    • 06:06

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: But for the moment, I'll simply suggest to youthat the lowest kinds of pleasant feeling,according to Mill, is very simple,elementary, physical sensations of pleasure, includingrelief from pain.Mill himself sell says in utilitarianism,we can think of these very simple sensations

    • 06:28

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: as feelings that can be experienced by the body,dis-joined, as he puts it, from our higher mental faculties.Any sentient creature can experiencethese mere physical sensations.They don't require [AUDIO OUT] human mental capacitiesto experience them.And so we're really talking about simply physical tickles,

    • 06:51

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: tingles of pleasure, and so forth.These are not associated with ideas, which of course requirethe higher mental faculties to construct, and so forth.So they're very simple physical feelings.Now these sensations also appear,or at least traces of them, in our memory and imagination

    • 07:15

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: appear in all the higher kinds of pleasant feelings, as well.So that we can talk about [AUDIO OUT], if you like,of different kinds of pleasant feelings.All of which do have the physical sensations,including their traces in our memory or imagination,

    • 07:36

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: among their ingredients.Now without going into great detailon all the different kinds of pleasant feelings,it turns out that the pleasant feeling of which thereis no higher kind is a pleasure whichis a quality or [AUDIO OUT], and in particular

    • 07:60

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: of the moral sentiment of justice, which Mill regardsis the core of the moral sentiment.And basically the mortal sentiment of justiceis a complex feeling that grows up around the idea of justice,which for Mill, consists in a-- the idea,

    • 08:20

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: basically, is a social code of very important rulesthat distribute equal rights, claims, and correlative duties.Now this moral sentiment of justiceis a complex feeling, as I'm emphasizing, and hasa number of ingredients.

    • 08:42

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: And for Mill.these ingredients undergo a kind of chemical reaction.And the ingredients, through this chemical reaction,produce a whole new feeling, the moral sentiment itself,the moral sentiment of justice.And this whole new feeling, the moral sentiment,

    • 09:02

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: has its own, distinctive properties, that is to say,properties or qualities that are distinct from thoseof any of its ingredients, including, for instance,the mere physical sensations of pleasure and pain,or their traces in our memory or imagination.One of the distinctive properties or qualities

    • 09:22

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: of this complex moral sentiment of justiceis the pleasant feeling itself that is a propertyor is associated with the moral sentiment.And this feeling of pleasure associated with justice

    • 09:47

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: is qualitatively superior to any competingkind of pleasant feeling.So that even a little bit of the pleasure of justiceis greater as pleasure than any finite amountof inferior quality or inferior kind of pleasant feeling.And this is very important, obviously in Mill's approach,

    • 10:10

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: because it turns out that, of course, the most importantthing we can do in order to promote the general welfareis to construct a social code of justice, that is to say,a code of rules that distribute equal rights and duties.Now the pleasure of justice Mill calls security.

    • 10:33

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: And this is security for our vital interests,which are protected by rights.And security, it's a variable in Mill's approach.Can vary in terms of quantity.Remember that qualitative properties,qualitative superiority, is regardless of quantity.But it's also true that a qualitatively superior feeling

    • 10:56

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: can vary itself in quantity.So there are number of ways in which security can vary.One way is that the equal rights and duties may onlybe assigned to a subgroup of the population.In order to maximize security, Mill

    • 11:17

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: argues, equal rights and duties haveto be assigned, distributed, and enforced for all,so that security, general security,can't be maximized unless equal rights and duties are assignedfor all.But secondly, security can vary as a result

    • 11:38

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: of the content of the rights and correlative dutiesthat are distributed by the rules.So that we may be on the basis of experiencehaving to experiment with different rights and duties,to see which ones give the most security for our vital-- most

    • 11:60

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: protection for our vital interests.So taking account of these two extraordinary featuresof utilitarianism for Mill, the factthat we're talking about a democratic political procedure,and the fact that there is no higher kind of utility

    • 12:20

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: or pleasant feeling than the one that'sa property or quality of the moral sentimentsjustice itself, becomes clear that for Mill,the democratic political procedureis restricted, or confined, to aggregating overthe higher kind of utility associated with justice.

    • 12:44

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: So that, for instance, in principleit would work in such a way that the participantsin the political process would propose different rules thatshould be rights and duties, which they considerwould be appropriate to protect vital interests

    • 13:06

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: of individual right holders, and so forth.Individuals may well disagree as to which rules shouldbe recognized by society.The aggregation procedure would countthe various individual participant's proposalsas to what the rules should be.And then if, for instance, the democratic political procedure

    • 13:28

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: was simple majority rule, then whatthe majority wanted would be recognizedas part of the social code of justice at that time.Now, given that we're fallible human creatures,the construction of social code of justicemay well be a gradual and halting process,

    • 13:52

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: make one more lesson definitely great, long period of time.But as the social justice is being constructed,individuals are going to be free from courts of interferenceto pursue the other kinds of utilities,the other kinds of pleasant feelings,without course of interference, so that the aggregation

    • 14:16

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: procedure is only necessary with respectto the construction of the social code of justice.And then as long as individuals are fulfilling their dutiesto others and acting in accordance with their rights,they can pursue the other kinds of pleasures

    • 14:37

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: which they're interested in pursuing,without course of interference.So that Mill's utilitarian doctrineis obviously taking on a quite different appearancefrom what we regard as standard utilitarianism today.Now, I should emphasize that whenit comes to participating in the democratic political process

    • 15:00

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: under Mill's doctrine, the participants, he assumes,would be competently acquainted with all the different kindsof pleasant feelings.So strictly speaking, in principle, the participantswould be competently acquainted with the higherkind of pleasure associated with justice.

    • 15:23

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: So that for instance, they would have competencewhen it comes to assessing the consequences of different rulesand the different rights distributedby these rules, when it comes to providing securityfor a vital interest.So that, again, the participants would be able to assess,

    • 15:50

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: in some sense, how much security or protectionfor our vital interests, or what they regardas our vital interests, how much would be providedby different possible rules, and [AUDIO OUT], and so forth.Keeping in mind, of course, that the whole goal of the exerciseis to maximize collective security by distributing rights

    • 16:13

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: and duties to all, everyone, in such a waythat the content of the rights would provide the mostpossible protection, at least as wecan understand it at the time, the most possible securityfor our vital interests.Now in order to be competently acquaintedwith all the different kinds of pleasant feelings,

    • 16:36

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: keeping in mind that there is no higher competing kindof utility than the pleasure of justice itself,then these agents are going to haveto be moral agents, people with a strong desireto do right, at least in principle.And it's only under those conditions,really, that you would have something

    • 16:58

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: like, say, pure majority rule, or board account,or some sort of pure democratic procedurewithout checks and balances.Now obviously, we know that in our actual societies,people are not-- not everyone, perhapsnot even all that many of us, are highly developed

    • 17:19

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: moral agents.And so in any actual society, there'sgoing to have to be checks and balances, which are designed,essentially, to promote competenceby the majority and its deliberations,the actual majority, and to try and discourage, or impede,the majority from abusing the equal rights of everyone

    • 17:44

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: in society.So that if we look at Mill's considerationson representative government, we seethat he recommends a form of representative governmentwhich he thinks is proper for any civilized society,but involves a distinctive system of checks and balances,so that we shouldn't think that Mill is simply recommending

    • 18:09

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: majority rule, for instance, in the contextof the actual citizens of a societyas we observe them today.Many citizens are narrowly self-interested,don't have a strong conscience, desireto do right, and so forth.And certainly Mill is allowing for this in his work.

    • 18:45

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: The second main point that I wantedto bring out in this article and discussionis that Mill is telling us something about his viewson individual freedom in this article.Now, elsewhere I've written extensively

    • 19:05

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: on Mill's main argument and on liberty,which I argue he's attempting to defenda moral right to complete libertyof self-regarding conduct, where self-regarding actions eitherdon't harm other people at all, or if they do, onlywith their genuine consent and participation.

    • 19:27

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: So self-regarding conduct doesn'tcause any non-consensual harm to other people.Harm is, essentially, any form of perceptible damagein objects of reasonable concern to those other people,such as the bodies, finances, agreements with contracts,and so forth, with other people, and so forth.

    • 19:51

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: And Mill actually argues for a moral right to libertyof self-regarding conduct, complete liberty,where liberty is essentially positive in nature.It's I can do as I please, do as I wish,with respect to myself regarding conduct.It's true that if I can do as I wish,

    • 20:15

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: if I enjoy positive liberty in this sense,then I'm not being coercively interfered with by others.So positive liberty, if I'm really enjoying it,implies that I'm also enjoying negative liberty.Well, as I say, that's not reallythe main point of the article.It's under discussion, although I've discuss it extensively

    • 20:38

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: in some of my other writings, but in the present article,Mill makes clear that his test of wrongful conduct,what's immoral, is that we think that wrongful conduct deservesto be punished in some way.

    • 20:59

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: If you don't do your moral duty to others,we think you should be punished for failing to do your duty.And the same thing would apply with respectto justify legal duties.Now, it turns out it's very important for Millthat he regards guilt as a form of punishment, that is to say,

    • 21:23

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: frustration of your desire to do right, or in other words,doing something which violates your conscience, your desireto do right, gives rise to guilty feelings,which are a form of punishment, self-inflicted mind you,punishment, according to Mill.And this is also an internal sanction, it's self-inflicted.

    • 21:49

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: Now, the importance of this is that itcan be the case that one should be freefrom coercive interference, even within the sphere of lawand morality for Mill.It may well be the case that I engagein certain wrongful conduct, but it's not

    • 22:11

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: expedient for society or governmentto inflict any external sanctions on me.So for instance, it may not be expedient for the stateofficials to inflict legal penalties on mefor my wrongful behavior.Now, an example of this would be where,

    • 22:33

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: let's say, I make a secret agreement,secret promise, to some intimate friend of mine.I break my word.By assumption, nobody else knows about thisbecause it's a secret.And so therefore, if I'm going to be punished,it's only because I'm going to punish myself by guilt

    • 22:53

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: for having broken my word.Now of course, unfortunately, many of us,narrowly self-interested, have notdeveloped a particularly strong conscience or desireto do right, so we won't punish ourselves.And this is unjust and expedient from Mill's perspective.Wrongful conduct always deserves to be punished,

    • 23:17

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: even though it's true that, as things are now,we observe ourselves now, it's goingto be sometimes the case that wrongful conduct doesn'tget punished.But that's, in itself, wrongful and unjustfrom Mill's perspective.The point I want to emphasize, though,

    • 23:38

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: is that we can be free from coercive interferenceeven within the sphere of law and morality,because it's not expedient for societyto inflict external sanctions on us.So we can enjoy negative liberty,freedom from coercion, even within morality,

    • 23:59

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: the sphere of morality, itself.But it's also the case that the freedomfrom coercive interference does notimply that we should do as we wishwithin the sphere of morality.We shouldn't be doing wrong.

    • 24:20

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: We should be feeling guilty for doing wrongful conduct.Mill is not recommending that we shoulddo as we like, as he is recommendingwithin the sphere of self-regarding liberty,so that it's not the case that we should, according to Mill,enjoy positive liberty within the sphere of morality.

    • 24:44

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: We don't have any moral right to do wrong, in other words,in his approach.Well, these two points that, these two main points,that I'm emphasizing in the context of the article,don't exhaust all that's said in the article, whichis quite lengthy as I mentioned at the start.

    • 25:05

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: But I want to point out that even this articleitself is part of a much larger research project.And I published quite a lot on Mill's writings.And my approach is pretty novel, I think,

    • 25:28

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: in comparison to what other approaches areavailable in the literature.And so if you're interested, I wouldrecommend that you start off at least with the new editionof my Mill's on Liberty, which was publishedby Routledge in July of 2015.And then a second book from Routledge,

    • 25:49

      JONATHAN RILEY [continued]: Mill's Radical Liberalism-- an Essay in Retrieval,will be coming out probably early in 2016.Thanks very much.

Mill's Extraordinary Utilitarian Moral Theory

View Segments Segment :


Professor Jonathan Riley discusses his paper on John Stuart Mill's utilitarian moral theory. Riley believes that many interpretations of Mill's work misunderstand it. He describes Mill's idea of higher and lower pleasures, and how that aligns with democratic political participation.

Mill's Extraordinary Utilitarian Moral Theory

Professor Jonathan Riley discusses his paper on John Stuart Mill's utilitarian moral theory. Riley believes that many interpretations of Mill's work misunderstand it. He describes Mill's idea of higher and lower pleasures, and how that aligns with democratic political participation.

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