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The Possibility of a Proof of Utilitarianism

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The Possibility of a proof of utilitarianism                        


Is Mill's proof of why general happiness should be pursued sufficient ?

                The aim of this essay is to show that Mill's proof of utilitarianism laid out in Chapter 4 of his Utilitarianism is unsuccessful in demonstrating why we should pursue not our own happiness, but general happiness. Indeed, Mill fails to fill the gap between egoistic and universalistic hedonism. Lets define happiness; generally speaking, Mill equates happiness with pleasure or diminution of pain, and that every desire is aimed towards happiness. I will also use the terms of egoistic and universalistic hedonism: egoistic hedonism is the ethical theory that achieving one's own happiness is the proper goal of all conduct[1]. Universalistic hedonism is an ethical theory that the supreme good and the determining consideration of moral conduct is the greatest happiness of the greatest number [2]. I will first lay out Mill’s proof of utilitarianism, then I will show how it fails to prove the validity utilitarianism. I will end this essay by talking about the possibility of another form of universalistic hedonism, theory proposed by Sidgwick.


I will briefly expound on Mill’s proof of Utilitarianism here, in order to clarify the bits of it which I will be reviewing. Mill’s proof of utilitarianism is laid out in chapter 4 of his Utilitarianism, and is build in three stages, as described by Crisp:

1. Happiness is desirable.

2. The general happiness is desirable.

3. Nothing other than happiness is desirable.[3]

 In this essay, I will aim my attention at how Mill attains the second premiss: ‘the general happiness is desirable” from the first one. Mill says that “no reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person [...] desires his own happiness.” [4] He then pursues by briefly detailing the proof up until now: “happiness is a good: that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons.”  Those quotes are the essential point in the refutation I will try to provide concerning the transition between step one and step two. Indeed, premises two does not logically follow from premises one: the fact that individuals wish their own happiness does not entail that it should lead to individuals desiring general happiness. When Mill argues that "general happiness is a good to the aggregate of all persons", he demonstrates that if the whole of humanity's desires were to be combined, men would want to maximise this combined happiness. Nevertheless, this does not explain why each person desiring his own happiness would thus desire the happiness of the greatest number. Sidgwick says: "an egoist who strictly confines himself to stating his conviction that he ought to take his own happiness or pleasure as the ultimate end, there seems to be no opening for any line of reasoning to lead him to universalistic hedonism as a first principle", as: “it cannot be proved that the difference between his own happiness and another’s happiness is not for him all-important”. This is where Mill's proof of utilitarianism fails to show the link between egoistic hedonism and universalistic hedonism.



The outcome of this is that it may seem that we are left with a sort of egoistic hedonism, where the conclusion we have deduced is that one’s happiness is desirable to him. If we take this happiness to be a good, as Mill argues, then we may be left with an egoism where we can assume that each person’s happiness is the ultimate good, i.e., what one will logically chase. If we were to do so, however we would be left with an incoherent egoism such as Moore describes: if one’s happiness is an ultimate end, a good in itself, then everyone has equal reason to pursue everyone else’s happiness, because they are all good in and of themselves, meaning that everyone’s happiness as a distinct individual is an ultimate end, and evidently, we cannot chase more than one ultimate end. Essentially, if we denote one’s happiness as an ultimate end, we are left with this incoherency, whereas if we do not, instead saying that it is merely all that one desires, then we are left with a moral framework with no ultimate ends, where people merely act to fulfil their own desires.



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