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J.S. Mill and G.E. Moore: Utilitarianism

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G.E. Moore, in his Principia Ethica, take shots at almost all work in ethics prior to his own. Moore criticizes John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism, and criticizes specifically Millian utilitarianism, criticizing separately Benthamism, Sidgwickianism, and other forms of utilitarianism. Moore criticizes both Mill's defense of the utilitarian principle and his contention that pleasures differ in quality as well as quantity. We will deal with only the former criticism in this essay. Moore briefly characterizes Mill as belonging to a class of thinkers who equate good with some other property and thus replace ethics with a natural science. Mill, in Moore's eyes, equates good with pleasure, and ethics is then replaced by psychology; for, when one asks what is good according to Mill, one is really asking what is pleasurable.

Moore will train the dreaded accusation of his famed "naturalistic fallacy," against Mill. The fallacy (pg. 59) is "the failure to distinguish clearly that unique and indefinable quality which we mean by good." In short, Moore thinks that goodness is not reducible to non-ethical entities. We can rephrase this in a way which will reduce any inadvertent ontological commitments and say that the talk of something's being good is not reducible to any non-ethical description.

But Moore goes beyond the objection of the naturalistic fallacy, for one could successfully avoid the fallacy and still claim that all and only pleasure is good. One would not be equating good with pleasure, but merely saying that all and only pleasure (contingently or necessarily) has the quality of goodness. Moore also want to show that the claim that "pleasure alone is good" is false, and states that this claim, which he wishes to prove incorrect, lies at the heart of all utilitarian and hedonistic ethical systems. Moore, then, will attack the argument(s) by which Mill attempts to support utilitarianism.

Mill says (pg. 4) that "the questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof." And he also says (pg. 34) that "questions about ends are, in other words, questions about what things are desirable." The first step of Mill's argument runs thus: good is desirable, and to find out what is desirable, we simply find out what people do in fact desire, and people desire happiness (pleasure). Ayer notes (pg. 41) of Mill that "it seems not to matter to him whether he speaks of happiness or pleasure. Perhaps he was confused, perhaps only careless..." Moore counters this by saying that "desirable" means that which ought or deserves to be desired, not that which is desired or able to be desired. Thus people can desire bad things, and so what is desired is not necessarily desirable. Mill could defend himself by saying that it is not the desirable which is the good, but the desired; that is, Mill could sustain Moore's objection; but Mill would contradict himself in so doing. If the good were the desired, then there would be no problem in finding motivation for individuals to do good; in fact, every act except those done under constraint would then be a good act. But Mill does not wish to say that every actual act is good, and goes to pains to find some motivation for people to do good acts.

The second part of Mill's argument tries to show that pleasure alone is desired. Mill is here faced with a seeming contradiction, because it is not hard to show that there are times when other things beside pleasure are desired. The obvious answer is that some things are desired as a means to pleasure. Moore here introduces a psychological distinction, saying that it is very plausible that pleasure is the cause of desire, but not that pleasure is always the object of desire. The accusation (pg. 74) is that Mill confuses the causes and objects of desires. Moore says several things here: when I desire something other than pleasure, I am not conscious of expecting pleasure as well; and when I do expect pleasure, it is not pleasure only that I desire. (Moore asserts, then, that we sometimes desire something, but not pleasure.) These are the two main prongs of Moore's attack against the notion of pleasure alone being what is desired and against wanting something else only as a means to pleasure. Moore says several other very ambiguous things from which one could interpret at least one other argument: that the anticipated pleasure to be received from the object of desire is somehow less, because less real, than the actual pleasure caused by the idea of the object thought.

Moore attempts to rephrase this object in terms of "pleasant thoughts" and "thoughts of pleasure". When we have a pleasant thought, it is the object of the thought - something separate from pleasure - which we desire, and which is our end, and the pleasure is the cause of our desire. When we have a thought of pleasure, pleasure is the object of desire, it is pleasure which we desire. Moore says (pg. 72) that Mill confuses the two, and it does seem that way (pg. 38):

that to think of an object as desirable (unless for the sake of its consequences) and to think of it as pleasant are one and the same thing; and that to desire anything except in proportion as the idea of it is pleasant is a physical and metaphysical impossibility.
Moore sketches very briefly an alternative account, one to which he does not commit himself, but which he claims is more plausible than Mill's. He says that I have an object of thought, say a glass of wine, and this thought causes pleasure, and this pleasure in turn causes desire. Moore says (pg. 70) that the following proposition is necessary for Mill to construct a good argument for pleasure being the only object of desire: "that the idea of a pleasure not actual is always necessary to cause desire." Here, I think, Moore goes too far. I think that it is possible that several other good arguments can be interpreted out of this text, none of which use this proposition. Moore also says that if it were the pleasure alone which I desired, then I should not know how to find that pleasure. But if I desired both the pleasure and the glass of wine, then the desire for wine shall lead me to pleasure.

Let us recap. Moore sees Mill's argument for utilitarianism, or hedonism, as consisting of two major propositions, and supporting argumentation for each of these two propositions. The first proposition is "the good is the desired" and the second proposition is "pleasure alone is desired".

Moore sees a second string of argumentation for the second step of Mill's larger argument, besides the first string which he claims to have already refuted. Mill says that things other than pleasure are desired only as means to pleasure. Mill further admits that sometimes things like money are desired as ends in themselves. To remove the lurking contradiction, Mill then says (pg. 36) money has become "part of the end." Moore attacks this with vigor, first ridiculing, without refuting, the idea that metallic disks could be part of happiness, and then claims (pg. 72) that Mill "has broken down the distinction between means and ends."

Moore here is being somewhat uncharitable to Mill. The very actions for which he attacks Mill earn praise from Aristotle scholars upon their appearance in the Nicomachean Ethics. The notion of an end, a telos, as a complex thing, in which seemingly means become ends and ends become means is a notion lauded for its subtlety in Aristotle, but damned as nonsensical in Mill. As for money becoming part of the end, surely we can think of a more charitable way to interpret this remark, like making value the referent of "money", or if we cannot think of a more charitable way to interpret this remark, then we can at least refute it, which Moore does not deign to do. We might attribute this crudeness to the fact that Moore was one of the first analytic philosophers (in the modern sense of the term), and the tools of the analysts had not been as finely honed as they are now, as we in the latter part of the same century might vainly imagine.

The main parts of Moore's criticisms have been reported above. A secondary criticism is that Mill commits a contradiction in inferring "the happiness of all is the good of all" from "the happiness of each is the good of each". Moore claims that the only conclusion to which Mill is entitled from the premise is that "the happiness of all is the good of each." Ayer (pg. 38) also finds this to be a "fallacious argument that since each man desires his own happiness, the general happiness must be desired by all." But this is a secondary point, and I will not linger over it.

It does seem that Moore has uncovered some real troubles for Mill. Mill's utilitarianism can easily collapse into self-contradiction on the one hand, or into an amor fati, affirming all that is actual as good, on the other hand. Mill also does not take seriously enough his own comment about not being able to prove the first principles of ethics. Moore is not without guilt himself, though, for he also does not pay enough attention to Mill's claim about not being able to prove these principles, for Mill could hide behind this claim to avoid some of Moore's criticisms (hide - or, just maybe, advance an argument to the effect that first principles - being first - simply do not admit of proof). Moore is also rather ungenerous sometimes, not using the principle of charity that is considered de riguer in philosophic review; when your opponent says something, you must consider all the possible meanings of his statement which occur to you, and choose that which you consider to be the wisest. And Moore sometimes appears to choose silly literalisms, which he can easily refute.

I include this bibliography so that the reader will know which editions to consult if he wishes to use the page references given in the text.

Ayer, Sir Alfred J.
Freedom and Morality
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984

Mill, John Stuart
Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1979

Moore, George Edward
Principia Ethica
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922, 1982


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