John Stuart Mill – Why be Moral?

It is not enough for moral theories to simply explain how things should be and then just leave it at that, there needs to be some reason for people to follow a moral theory. In other words, there needs to be some form of consequences inherent to that theory so that there is a reason to be moral, a reason not to break the rules. Each moral theory must answer this question in order for it to be applicable in the real world, and each goes about it in different ways. It is the focus of this paper to show why John Stuart Mill believes one should be moral under Utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism is a moral theory that states an action is morally right if and only if it produces more or at least the same amount of good, called utility, as any other alternative action available to the person.[1] To this, Mill added a greatest happiness principle which is simple one should act in such a way as to produce the greatest happiness.[2]

Mill focuses on which sanctions Utilitarianism provides compared to others and why people will follow Utilitarianism in chapter 3 of Utilitarianism 2nd Edition. Mill states that Utilitarianism can impose all of the sanctions other moral theories can, just as easily.[3] According to Mill there are two types of sanctions relating to moral theories, external and internal. External sanctions according to Mill are sanctions which are external to a person such as a sanction from fear of disapproval stemming from peer pressure. Mill does not go into great detail about this but believes that like other moral theories this form of sanction can be associated with Utilitarianism.[4] Internal sanctions, on the other hand, seem more important to Mill because they involve our conscience and are stronger. Internal sanctions come from ones own conscience and their feeling of duty such as the satisfaction from fulfilling a duty.[5] Mill sees these internal sanctions as being subjective because what one person may view as duty another may not, but this is a problem which he notes not only Utilitarianism has to deal with, but all moral theories.[6] Mill is most interested in these internal sanctions because what he is looking for is some kind of force to bind people to a moral code and since internal sanctions have the strongest influence on a person’s actions Mill targets them.

These sentiments of duty which Mill tries to use as a binding force can be either innate or implanted. He does not believe that it really matters which of the two it is because either would support Utilitarianism. If they are innate he does not see why they could not be with respect to others pain and pleasure, and so it would be fine under Utilitarianism and his greatest happiness principle.[7] Mill, however, feels that internal sanctions are not innate but rather implanted, but that they still remain natural.[8] He thinks that they can spring up spontaneously or can be cultivated. Those moral feelings which are cultivated into existence are natural according to Mill because they are a “natural outgrowth”[9] from human nature similar to speaking, or building cities.[10] This look at how Mill accepts implanted morals as internal sanctions raises doubts. There seem to be several problems with Mill accepting internal sanctions to be implanted. These are that the implications for what could now be called human nature seem to be drastic, that Mill is overlapping external sanctions with internally implemented sanctions, and there is a problem with the possibility of cultivating bad morals which he himself addresses.

To support Mills claim that moral feelings are acquired and yet still natural he uses several examples of acquired faculties in which he sees as natural, and that he believes no one would question as natural. His examples are of speech, reasoning, building cities, and farming.[11] These examples are flawed though because the first two are very different from the latter two. The first two examples seem to be innate human abilities which occur in human nature because humans are born with them and instead of acquiring these abilities later in life they are really just developing them. Everyone has, aside from birth defects, the ability to speak and reason later in life. The level of teaching someone how to speak is so low that it need not really be taught but only requires the infant to merely listen to something which cannot be avoided. As for reasoning, certain forms can be taught, and may even be very complex, but on the basic level of reasoning, it appears to be more of a function of the brain that can be present without being taught to the person. The other two examples, on the other hand, are things that are acquired but are so, from many lifetimes worth of knowledge being passed down through time and built upon. No one is born with the knowledge of how to farm or how to build a city, and how to do so properly would be impossible for a human to do in a lifetime. To simply say that because it is an “outgrowth” from human nature it is natural is to obscure the definition. This would mean that anything humans do is natural. For example, it was perfectly natural for Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon. That, according to Mill’s rational, is natural for a human to do. Mill should have stuck with internal sanctions which were innate. These seem to be things which are indeed natural because no one needs to be taught that health or security are good things all living beings innately recognize this from birth. This is only the first of a few problems that arise from his line of reasoning.

Mill distinguishes internal sanctions with implanted morals, from external sanctions when they should be looked at as the same thing. If for example someone is peer pressured into doing good deeds for the world and generating happiness for as many people as possible, and then the subject actually begins to develop his own desire to do this, it still began as peer pressure from a fear of disapproval, which is an external sanction. To this, however, Mill may respond something along the lines of the following. In the beginning, when he was doing the actions from fear of disapproval, it was an external sanction, but the moment he wanted to do it on his own it became an internal sanction which was implemented. From this however, one can see that if someone peer pressures someone into doing a bad act then it may get to the point where the person actually wants to do the evil act, and this seems to raise a problem.

This problem of bad morals being cultivated is actually addressed by Mill. His response is it is that these are “artificial”[12] moral feelings, and they are so, because they are being imposed rather than being naturally developed.[13] Imposed feelings, according to Mill, can be distinguished from naturally developed ones because naturally developed ones do not dissolve under scrutiny.[14] The problem here is how to distinguish “cultivation” and “imposition”. This really needs to be addressed because the former, Mill states can lead to good morals while the latter leads to bad “artificial” ones. If someone is cultivating someone even for seemingly good reasons, they must be to some degree imposing their values on another person, because through cultivation they are trying to alter a person’s view, in the end, to coincide with their own. If they did not need to impose their values on the other person then they would not need to cultivate the person in the first place because their morals would be aligned. The fact that Mill does not go into any great detail in this area seems to be a weakness. Mill makes a distinction between being able to naturally develop morals through cultivation, which requires some degree of imposition, and not being able to naturally develop morals through imposition alone. This distinction does not seem to exist. Even if one was to accept this distinction it remains unclear why an “artificial” imposed moral would always dissolve under scrutiny. If Mill was to impose instead of cultivating people to accept Utilitarianism, would it not stand up to scrutiny? Mill skips over many parts that just cannot be excluded because they raise serious doubts and reveal real weaknesses in his line of reasoning.

Never the less Mill believes that since utilitarian feelings of duty stand up to scrutiny, it is a strong foundation.[15] This is what Mill’s argument uses as a foundation and goes roughly as follows. The principles that Utilitarianism hold are a natural “outgrowth” from human nature which can be cultivated, and not be considered “artificial” because they are not being imposed and can withstand scrutiny. Because these principles are being cultivated they are implanted rather than innate sentiments of duty. These implanted sentiments of duty are of the strongest form of sanctions, internal ones. This will ensure people follow Utilitarianism so that they do not feel as though they have violated their sense of duty, which has been cultivated into them.

Through this paper, it has been discovered that this position is not strong. The fact that Mill tries to assert, that the feeling of duty crucial to Utilitarianism stands up to scrutiny is questionable and is never proved. Mill’s notion of what is and is not natural is inaccurate. The distinction between imposing ones views and cultivating someone to accept a view seems irrelevant if at all there is one. Finally, there also does not seem to be any real reason why to distinguish implanted internal sanctions with external sanctions. For all of these reasons, Mill does not do an adequate job in providing rational reasons why Utilitarianism is binding with inherent consequences and thus needs to be revised to be a successful moral theory.

[1] Robert Audi, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy 2nd Edition, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pg. 942

[2] Ibid pg. 942

[3] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism 2nd Edition, Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 2001, pg. 28

[4] Ibid pg. 28

[5] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism 2nd Edition, Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 2001, pg. 29

[6] Ibid pg. 29

[7] Ibid pg. 30

[8] Ibid pg. 31

[9] Ibid pg. 31

[10] Ibid pg. 31

[11] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism 2nd Edition, Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 2001, pg. 31

[12] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism 2nd Edition, Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 2001, pg. 31

[13] Ibid pg. 31

[14] Ibid pg. 31

[15] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism 2nd Edition, Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 2001, pg. 31

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