An Argument Against Mill’s Theory of Right Action

Paper was presented in Philosophy 160 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the fall semester of 2013.

Utilitarianism Overview

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In Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill presents his theory of Utilitarianism and the conditions that are coupled with it. One of those conditions, Mill’s Theory of Right Action, speaks on the idea that overall happiness should be the deciding factor in any action that is taken. In what follows, I will elaborate on the theory, argue that Mill’s Theory of Right Action is fundamentally flawed, and provide replies to objections that Mill would provide in an effort to defend his theory. Utilitarianism is a concept presented by John Stuart Mill in his book that shares the same title. As established earlier in time by Aristotle and Plato, (in an idea in which they both agreed) there are distinguishable differences between virtue and vice and right and wrong. They claimed that, by utilizing reasoning skills, individuals could distinguish the opposites and categorize them. Mill believes that the right place to begin understanding the fundamental principles of morality is to take a look at happiness. However, to fully understand the function of happiness in Mill’s account, an individual must realize what he thinks happiness involves and how happiness is related to value (Utilitarianism p viii-xi).

Breaking down his main idea, Mill presents pieces of Utilitarianism that collectively formulate the idea he presents in Utilitarianism. He states that happiness is, in its core, a measure of the balance of pleasure and pain. Greater amounts of happiness can be formulated when an amount of pleasure one experiences is higher than the amount of pain experienced. An analogy presented by Dr. Sayre-McCord relates this happiness balance to a financial balance. Income and expenses take the place of pleasure and pain in the parallel. If income is greater than expense, profit is the result; if expense is greater than profit, debt is the result. Similarly, if pleasure is greater than pain, happiness is the result; if pain is greater than pleasure, unhappiness is the result. Mill thinks that what makes something right or wrong or virtuous or unvirtuous depends solely on its relation to the overall happiness that is produced (Utilitarianism p viii-xiv).

Mill's Theory of Right Action

Now that the foundations of Utilitarianism have been explained and defined, the sub-theory of Right Action (also known as consequentialism) can be analyzed. The idea that Mill presents is that an action is morally right if, but only if, it is amongst the best of the available options of actions that can be taken by the agent in question. On the other hand, an action is not morally right if, but only if, it is not amongst the best of the available options for the agent. In order for one to determine whether an option he or she is presented with is amongst the best, its value must be compared to the value of other options also available. Mill’s Theory of Right Action connects to his Theory of Value, which determines the value of an action based on happiness. Essentially, according to Mill, better options are directly related to overall happiness created within the affected group. Options to avoid are the options that produce more pain than pleasure, causing the overall happiness to be lower in comparison to the other available options (Utilitarianism p 8-9).

Objections to Utilitarianism

There are many objections to Utilitarianism, some of which Mill actually outlines and replies to in his writings. In order to fully understand the objections to Utilitarianism, the teachings of Immanuel Kant (Mill’s opponent theorist) must be taken into consideration. Kant proposes in his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals a theory that focuses on the duty of individuals coupled with intention behind actions. Kant proposed his idea, known as the categorical imperative, which stated that rational thought had to be enforced in every decision. His theory can be broken into three maxims, all of which can be used to provide and back up objections to Utilitarianism. The first maxim says that all actions must have universality, meaning that actions should only be considered moral if it would still be moral if everyone was doing that action all of the time. The second maxim, and most important in arguing against Mill’s Theory of Right Action, says that every human being should be treated as an end, not a means to an end. More specifically, Kant did not think that anyone should be manipulated in any way to achieve an end. The third and final maxim says that an individual should always act as if they are the absolute moral authority of the entire universe (Grounding p 9-14).

Mill also faces the objection that Utilitarianism is a godless doctrine in a sense that it cannot follow the fundamentals of religion (specifically Christianity) and still be held completely true. This is brought to attention because he realizes that many may argue that Utilitarianism’s foundation is human happiness, instead of the will of God. Mill argues that his theory is actually the most religious of any doctrine because of the fact that one should believe God desires a maximum amount of happiness for all of the things He has created. Kant, despite Mill’s argument, would provide an opposition to this objection response. Take, for example, a case in which a crucial medical decision is in question. A man takes his son to the hospital because he is extremely sick. Doctors and nurses do many tests on the boy and determine that he has a very rare disease that currently has only one type of medication known to cure it. The medication is available at the hospital but it is extremely expensive (millions of dollars) and the man doesn’t have nearly enough money to pay for it. He has two choices: to either let his son die because he cannot afford the drug or he can steal the drug from an unlocked cabinet a few feet away from where he is seated. Mill, based on his Theory of Right Action, would say that stealing the medication is the best option. Overall happiness is highest with that choice because the man and his son enjoy the rest of their longer lives together and the drug company and doctors surely won’t be given any pain by the loss of just one dose of the drug. However, Mill’s suggested actions would land outside the religious standards he states that his Theory of Right Action obeys, as well as Kant’s theory. In the Bible, the eighth commandment directly given by God to Moses is: “Thou shalt not steal.” Clearly Mill’s theory and God’s desires are not compatible despite his claims of having created a religious theory. Furthermore, Kant would chime in on this circumstance and state that by his theory, the father should have chosen the option not to steal the medication. The second maxim (or formulation) of Kant’s categorical imperative is violated in this circumstance because the father is treating the healthcare professionals, the drug company, and any families that could afford the drug as merely a means to get to the end of saving his son. Healthcare professionals were used only as a means in this situation because they would have to account for the missing medication at the expense of the father and could potentially lose their jobs and/or license to practice medicine. Though the drug company may not lose a large amount of profit on a large scale, they were also used as a means because they will automatically assume the healthcare professionals took the medication for themselves. Furthermore, the drug company may stop sending the expensive medication to that hospital, as they would have a lack of trust of the employees. Lastly, other families in line to get the medication that could afford it were used only as an end because they will have to wait for another shipment of the drug or go to another hospital, risking the patient’s life for hours on end. Although not as important as the second maxim, the first maxim of Kant’s categorical imperative is also violated with the choice of stealing the drug because it would not be acceptable for everyone to steal the same medication all of the time. On the grounds of these three powerful arguments, Mill’s claim to have created a God-friendly theory and a logical rebuttal to an objection directed at his theory, Mill fails to defend his Theory of Right Action (Utilitarianism, p 6-8, Grounding, p 21).

The issue of honoring individual rights is actually one of the strongest objections to Mill’s Theory of Right Action. Exploitation of humans to do actions that they did not wish to do is one example of this conflict. Ancient Romans used slaves and lower class members of society as gladiators. These gladiators would be forced to fight in an arena against other gladiators or ferocious animals. Collective happiness was very high because the pleasures enjoyed by the spectators were much greater than pains suffered by the gladiators. Another strong case against Mill’s theory with regards to individual rights focuses on ruthlessness of individuals. In the case of the United States’ decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, a crucial verdict was made by President Truman. To Mill, the fact that happiness was higher amongst those whose lives were saved than the despair felt by the injured people and their families, would be more than enough reason to say that Truman’s actions were moral. However, since happiness (and the fundamentals of it: pain vs. pleasure) cannot be easily measured in circumstances when many people are involved in adding to the equation, it is hard to say what would cause more happiness. On a more reasonable standard, if Kant was able to decide the morality of the bombing, he would have backed it up with two parts of his theory. First of all, Kant would argue that his theory that everyone should be treated as an end and not as a means to an end was violated. Those who owned them used gladiators as only a means for the ends of entertainment and for profit. They were not thought of as anything more than a way for thousands of citizens to make money and be entertained – nor were they given any other option. Also, by killing over 200,000 Japanese residents to send a dark message of power to their government, Truman used all of them and the people that cared about them merely as a means to his end intention of finalizing the war. Secondly, the action violates Kant’s idea that no action should be taken if it would not be okay for everyone to do it all of the time. Killing thousands upon thousands of people would not be a viable way to end conflicts whenever they arose (Utilitarianism p 6-10, Grounding p 7-14).

Another objection that can be formulated against Utilitarianism and specifically Mill’s Theory of Right Action revolves around vies for happiness. Since Mill lays out his theory on the basis of actions that produce the most overall happiness, the question becomes one of the limits of action severity. The Theory of Right Action suggests that an action would be morally right if it produced the most happiness for the whole group of involved individuals. However, this pays no respect to individual rights because the most important being in a situation may have a different opinion of what might bring about the most happiness. An action that makes many people happy does not make it right, especially if harming individuals is included in that process. Take for example an anecdote presented by Dr. Sayre-McCord related to another medical procedure. Imagine that a patient is in the hospital for a routine checkup and some small tests. There are four other patients in bays nearby that are suffering from life-threatening diseases affecting a different organ in each patient (one has a severe heart deformity, one has terrible liver cancer, etc.). Fortunately, each patient only needs a transplant of his or her affected organ to be totally healthy once again and live a long life. The doctor running the tests and checkup on the healthy patient has the opportunity to kill him and make his death look completely natural. Killing the healthy patient and cutting out his organs could maximize happiness for the sick patients and their families. In this case, Mill would agree that, since happiness is highest among the sick patients that are cured, the healthy patient should be killed. Thankfully, the reason individuals do not have to worry about being killed every time they go to the hospital for small tests or a checkup comes back to the simple fact that Mill’s Theory of Right Action is unsound. Kant would utilize his second maxim to back up this objection by stating that it would not be acceptable to kill the healthy patient because the doctor would be using the patient as only a means for the ends that he has for other patients. With no consent or acknowledgement of what he is doing, the doctor is taking the life of someone without any regard to the patient’s end. Mill might argue that there is usually some error in any situation related to medical procedures and that the transplants would never go exactly according to plan. He may also carry over his argument to say that no event ends up with no repercussions so his Theory of Right Action would still hold true. However, even if a small fraction of an ideal situation did not go according to plan, the happiness produced by the morally wrong action could still very easily outweigh the happiness produced by the morally right action (Utilitarianism p 6-10, Grounding p 7-11).

Concluding Remarks

Utilitarianism revolves around the idea that overall happiness produced by actions makes them morally right. After studying and evaluating Mill’s Theory of Right Action, it is clear that the basis of the theory fails on many levels due to the teachings of Mill’s opponent theorist, Immanuel Kant. Based on Kant’s theory, Mill unsuccessfully recognizes that everyone: must be treated as an end rather than a means to an end, must be able to do the action all of the time, and must be the absolute moral authority of the entire universe. Kant’s book reveals the holes in Mill’s Theory of Right Action and Utilitarianism through his opposed thinking and his ability to reassess specific situations and choices of actions.


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