Paper Topic #2
Utilitarianism as a Rational Analysis against War
John Stuart Mill in his book Utilitarianism explains that actions are right insofar as the promote happiness or pleasure and wrong insofar as they cause unhappiness or pain. Mill calls this the Greatest Happiness Principle (Utilitarianism, p. 43) and this principle is not only important for deciding how and why actions are made but how moral they are.The moral content of actions such as war for example have always been examined under many different moral theories but a more interesting case is the events unfolding currently in Libya. In Libya today the United Nations has authorized military action to make the sure less people are killed by Colonel Qaddafi. These costs however may or may not take into consideration the happiness of the people in the country despite Obama saying that the cause of the American military force is strictly “humanitarian”. Mill’s idea of utilitarianism considering happiness and pleasure being what constitutes the moral content of an action would be important to apply here to prove its worth as an ethical theory. And not only that but if this theory can be applied consistently and can prove that this military intervention in Libya is either just or unjust then it can be shown to be applied to complex real world calculations. I shall argue in this essay that utilitarianism as an ethical theory would prove that the intervention in Libya by the US government violates the greatest happiness principle and thus is an unethical act.
To explain this ethical theory of utilitarianism and how it might apply to the situation in Libya more Mill’s theory of utilitarianism should be analyzed. After Mill talks about the greatest happiness principle he says, “…[T]hat pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things … are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as a means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.” (p. 43) When Mill says this he means that any action is only undertaken because of the pleasure or prevention of pain that the action may cause. There is not necessarily any sense of duty (as Immanuel Kant argued) or a sense of virtues involved (as Aristotle argued) but merely the fact that the act in some way promotes pleasure or happiness or pain or unhappiness. Many questions then arise from these ethical propositions, some claim that to have life serve as a vehicle for gaining pleasure is a vulgar one reserved for mere beasts. Mill however, responds by saying that this critique has already been refuted by the Epicureans, “…[T]he Epicureans have always answered, this it is not they but their accusers who represent human nature in a degrading light, since the accusation supposed humans to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable.” (p. 43) And so the people who accuse of utilitarians of only wanting bodily pleasure and the life of the swine miss what utilitarians have said when they say that they prefer the mental pleasures to the bodily. They assume that the utilitarians only support a certain a certain type of pleasure instead of many kinds. And if many kinds are supported the questions remains how to differentiate these pleasures and decide which one is best.
Mill explains how he would answer how he would differentiate pleasures by saying that, “Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.” (p. 44) This again goes against what Kant said about moral actions, namely that they should be done out of a sense moral obligation and not any inclination of the self. Mill instead argues that things should be done on the basis of whether people decide things are good or more pleasurable in of themselves regardless of any moral obligation to this. For instance deciding whether running for five miles without proper preparation and doing with the proper preparation (stretching out, starting off slowly and doing less miles at first, etc.) you’d be told by those who have prepared and not prepared that the preparation left them with much more happiness and pleasure. They make this choice out of their experience that they had with both choices and make this decision not based on any moral obligation to choose the preparation but because it results in more happiness. In a case of equally liked or preferable (pleasurable) activates Mill says the one with “higher faculties” (for this is what utilitarianism desires in enjoying pleasures) is the one that will win out. (p.45) This is because the person with the higher faculties will need more to make him happy than just the pleasures of the swine. They will therefore easily be able to determine not only the short term pleasures but the longer lasting ones as well.
The pleasure and happiness of people however is not the only thing Mill desires in a long passage of text on page 48 Mill expands on just who the greatest happiness principle is applicable to saying that the goal of it is, “…to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.” This is an important part of the doctrine of utilitarianism because it describes whose happiness we should be concerned with. Even so this does not detail how people’s happiness could be improved upon or in what way people’s happiness could be augmented. Mill addresses this by saying that, “The main stress of the problem lies, therefore, in the contest with these calamities, as things now are, cannot be obviated and often cannot be in any material way mitigated. Yet no one whose opinion deserves a moment’s consideration can doubt that most of the great positive evils of the world are in themselves removable, and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end reduced within the narrow limits.” (p. 51) Mill says here that the ills of society (for example Mill brings up on the same page how poverty and disease could be slimmed down to next to nothing of a problem in society) are all determinable by human effort and care. And if enough people are morally educated and motivated then society will be structured in such a way that these negative things in society do not exist or at least not to the extent they do now.
Many will charge that Mill’s beliefs here border on, if not reach and or surpass the expectations of a utopian and though Mill does not answer the charge of utopianism directly I think his beliefs here are well founded. For instance the issue of poverty is a matter of choice and environment and if the choices that people made were more educated and the environment more suitable to help those in need the amount of people living in poverty would diminish. I also do not believe that Mill expects a perfect society of all happy people, in Utilitarianism Mill constantly makes references as I’ve noted in the quotes thus far of terms like, “insofar as nature permits” and the likewise. This shows that Mill recognizes that change can only occur insofar as it is practical to happen. And this quote also recognizes this by saying that such ills will be necessarily diminished but not necessarily eliminated. Mill also sees the end of being happy to not as a life full of rapture but, “…moments of such, in an existence made up of few and transitory pains, many and various pleasures, with a decided predominance of the active over the passive, and having as the foundation of the whole, not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing.” (p. 49) The purpose of quoting that is to again point out that Mill and the other utilitarians do not seek any sort of utopia but one that is as Mill says “…conquerable by human care and effort…” (p. 51). This care and effort is achievable through the means of various types of social change, most notably education and the ability to enjoy ones personal liberties insofar as they do not disrupt the lives of others.
A scenario in which utilitarianism’s practicality may be put to the test is in terms of a war or any sort of violent conflict. First, what is meant by a war is a large scale act of violence with two or more sides having different goals in mind and thus come into a conflict over them. The most important part of war is that there are not only two parties but that conflict is openly declared and on a large scale. This is how I shall differentiate wars from things like gang conflicts, shootouts and general violent conflicts. While Mill does not make his feelings on war known explicitly in the book he does say that, “…if the principle of utility is good for anything, it must be good for weighing these conflicting utilities against one another, and marking out the region within which one or the other preponderates.” (p. 60) Clearly then the idea of utilitarianism is not averse to deciding whether war is a desirable activity not in comparison to living in relative cooperation in peace. In fact it seems that if utilitarianism is good for nothing else it should at least be able to accomplish this task.
Mill says that actions are good insofar as they promote the happiness of the individuals involved, it would seem that wars do not promote the happiness of most people involved. Perhaps those who have industry that is based on war or the politicians who declare it for personal gain but do not have to experience the war itself; however, taking those are in the war and comparing it to those who have not, most would say that not going to war leads to much more happiness. In Utilitarianism Mill makes it clear that, “…it would be unworthy of an intelligent agent not to be consciously aware that the action is of a class which, if practiced generally, would be generally injurious, and that this is the ground of the obligation from abstaining from it.” (p. 56) Mill says here that the public good is damaged by actions that not only hurt the individual but if applied more widely would also hurt the society at large. Clearly violent conflicts even on smaller or individual scales generally speaking do not do great benefit to people. And often times conflicts expand in such a way as to make it larger and this would be even less beneficial. These negative effects are shown through what happens to people who come back from war with either physical injuries or often times big psychological problems that lead them to become jobless and poverty stricken
Mill’s ideas about what constitutes a good life, that of a life of mostly pleasures dominating pains, is one that seems at first farfetched or perhaps thin in its conception of the good life. However as Mill argued all actions are done for the benefit of some sort of happiness or aversion to a pain for the sake of pleasure. And so this conception of morality applies more broadly than just some actions instead of universally like some thinkers such as Kant tried for. Based on utilitarianism’s main creed, the greatest happiness principle, the idea of war seems to fall apart quickly because the people in the war often feel much more pain than pleasure in their time there. And the only benefits that are felt by perhaps the wealthier people are only short lived because in the end a human life lost means many more resources lost than could ever be gained back. This is especially true due to the level of destruction of pleasure and utility that war often causes. The intervention in Libya is no exception, the “no fly zone” and bombing of Libyan cities so far seems to have far too many problems to seem practical.These bombings and subsequently the intervention into Libyan affairs would be opposed by Mill because they do not in fact promote the general happiness. And to fix this problem of intervention Mill would likely suggest that the institutions in our society that are driving the intervention to happen, i.e. the US government, the military industrial complex and the corporations should be changed. And this change should occur through education and action coming from educated and more caring and aware people.
Utilitarianism, by John Stuart Mill, Broadview Press, Second Edition, August 6 2010