Saturday, May 20, 2006

Happy Birthday J. S. Mill!

Happy Birthday John Stuart Mill
The 19th-century British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was born 200 years ago today, and although he has been dead for more than 130 years, he still undeniably lives. His thoughts fashion our laws, enliven our scholarly debates and shape our political opinions. Best of all, his genius still inspires and provokes us.

As an undergraduate I had to take a required history of philosophy course that covered the territory from Kant to the turn of the 20th Century. Kant was ok, though it seemed to me needlessly complicated but the rest of the stuff was perfectly awful--except for Mill. When I told the instructor that I wanted to write my term paper on Mill he was disgusted: "You have been given Fichte and Schelling, Nietzshe and Kierkegaard, and yet you choose to write on Mill??!!?" he said. Needless to say, the only other philosopher in the 2 volume anthology we had who interested me was Mach--and he wasn't on the syllabus.

Cutting to the chase what always struck me, pace Plato, was the irreconcilable conflict between Beauty and Goodness. Butterflies and Wheels has a link to a piece by Scruton on Mill with the blurb "'Harm' doctrine has subverted laws founded in inherited sense of the sacred and prohibited." And that is it: utilitarianism, the harms principle, the whole Enlightenment package that Mill bought into, which I myself buy, is inimical to romantic notions of moral heroism and honor, of goodness as beauty and nobility. Goodness as Mill conceived of it is strenuous but practical and pedestrian--achieving the greatest good for the greatest number, not interfering with people who aren't interfering with that project, fighting the dead hand of tradition that imposes pointless constraints. The good people are the political activists, licking envelopes for the cause, and the humane technocrats making tedious adjustments in policy.

This is a tragedy. I understand the pull of Beauty, of heroism and honor, of the Great Chain of Being. I learnt about all this in English classes--Spenser and the Court of Glorianna, the Great Chain of Being, the juicy, religious, vermin-infested 17th Century, with the Metaphysical Poets, the hopelessly romantic Stuarts and all the baroque eccentricity of the old world expiring. Further back, I've read The Waning of the Middle Ages at least 20 times and thrilled to the introduction, describing a world where the colors were brighter, the emotions more intense, the rituals, hagiography and iconography of the Church dominated everyday life and everyone lived in a costume drama. It amazes me that the undergraduates I teach are completely cut off from this romance and that most people, apparently, aren't susceptible to the seduction of it: I am.

But it always struck me how costly that fantasy was--how the opulence of the high aristocracy ate up resources, how the Great Chain of Being cashed out for the bulk of the population who worked to eat and ate to work ground under the heel of their social betters higher up on the food chain, how notions of honor wasted people and wealth, how utterly constrained people were by the circumstances of their lives, how utterly unlovely it was on the ground.

That's where utilitarianism comes into the picture for me: better a population living in little boxes made out of ticky-tacky and spending their evenings vegging in front of the TV than a population of peasants in picturesque cottages without indoor plumbing drudging all their waking hours; better real opportunity for all to improve their lives than the Great Chain of Being where everyone knows his place; better a world tarmacked over, with clean water, medicine, food and clean cinderblock houses for everyone than an expensive fantasy at the cost of widespread human misery; better dishonor than death.

It's a horrible choice, but that is the choice for now.


Sanpete said...

I'm a big fan of Mill too. I especially admire his little book on Utilitarianism, which is a very useful book on so many points in moral theory.

I'd be surprised if Mill felt as you do about the conflict between beauty and goodness, in quite the same way at least. He was set against Uncle Bentham's idea that pushpin is as good as poetry, even if the intensity of the pleasures are the same. (One way he explains the importance of different qualities of pleasure is in terms of quantity, but there seems to be some question about what he understands there, since he'd rather be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. You seem to incline to the opposite preference, on behalf of your kids, at least.) I don't think he would accept your description of goodness as "practical and pedestrian," which is exactly the view of utility he was at pains to distance himself from.

Whatever Mill would have thought, no conflict between beauty and goodness follows directly from the principle of utility. It all depends on how things are weighed. Indeed, there could be a version of utilitarianism that explicitly followed the Great Chain of Being in assigning disproportionate value to the "higher" pleasures associated with the higher end of that scale, based on principles that Mill outlines. It would depend on a view of human psychology that saw human pleasure that way. How much starvation is an epiphany of God worth? One could argue on utilitarian grounds that the latter would outweigh any amount of the former, given the right psychological framework (in this case one that accepted the possibility of an experience of something like infinite goodness). Mill didn't believe in God, but he did recognize higher pleasures.

I take your point that there can be a conflict between beauty and goodness, if one takes the good to be something not well tied to beauty. Plato (whom I'm also a big fan of) was able to assimilate beauty and goodness because he had a very broad vision of beauty. Any good thing is beautiful to the extent it's good. For the person who sees good in terms of the physical welfare of people, a system that delivers that end might well appear more beautiful than the Mona Lisa. If you experience beauty that way, then of course the conflict isn't possible. Mill was probably a subjectivist about beauty in the same way Hume was, and may have thought it psychologically possible, even desirable, to experience beauty as just an aspect of the experience of goodness. He saw our sense of virtue as tied to goodness in a similar way, as developed in relation to what produces pleasure.

I think the conflict as you see it isn't a matter of utilitarianism but of a general shift in values more earthward, so to speak. And that probably has more to do with science and markets and such than philosophy. God hasn't backed his goods in the marketplace enough to compete with other goods as much as they would if he really delivered. They compete mainly on the basis of vague promise and hope, along with community and such delivered by effective churches. In the mean time, science produces amazing results and goods that the market keeps in our faces.

H. E. said...

Actually I'm with Benthem--a pig heaven utilitarian. The fascinating thing about Mill was that he felt that tug of Beauty, and romance, whereas Benthem probably didn't--and James Mill surely didn't--and I don't think he ever resolved it.

There really isn't any resolution, and unlike Mill, we face it in the starkest terms. Just the opportunity costs of the support we give to art and intellectual luxuries--money that could go for malaria medicine--is enough to give one pause. Or for that matter, my salary.

This is what eats me about environmentalism. Yes we want that lovely wilderness and conservation will benefit all of us in the long run when we're all dead, but the peasants in South America need land and the peasants in Africa and Asia don't want the local wildlife eating them and their kids. It's all a what-if but I've had this out with a green friend: what if you could provide a decent, healthy, minimally comfortable life for everyone by tarmacking over the world and putting up sanitary cinderblock houses with flush toilets for everyone? What is the alternative? Sorry, you'll have to live in misery, sorry you kid will have to die--because we want to preserve that lovely wilderness, because we need to protect those endangered species. Not that this is anything new. Sorry, we can't afford to feed you: we have to build that cathedral and buy silverware for the altar.

But the conceptual issue is deeper than that. Utilitarianism on any interpretation is a pedestrian ethic. Everything that stirs us in the Illiad or in the Grail Quest or in Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is, by utilitarian standards wasteful and hateful. One item I managed to read in German was Durremat's play, "Romulus, der Grosser." Romulus the last Roman emperor in the West lets the "barbarians" in--what is the point of resistance and bloodshed?--and has a pleasant conversation with Odoakar. They discover both have the same hobby: chicken breeding. Says Romulus, "Ich bin ein unheroischer mench."

Sanpete said...

Utilitarianism is only as pedestrian as one's view of human pleasure (or preference, which more obviously opens up more possibilities). If a utilitarian believed the claims that were made on behalf of the Grail, he would view the romance of the grail in the same glowing way anyone else would. Mill argued in favor of heroism and that utilitarians value virtue for itself, and if he had believed in God, he would have argued for valuing the divine for itself in the same way (because of its ties to pleasure--it's a tricky but sensible argument). It's a pedestrian view of pleasure that leads to a pedestrian view of utilitarianism.

Mill faced the same choices we do about weighing the value of arts and other such things against basic human physical needs. He was in favor of support for the arts. He was serious about preferring to be Socrates dissatisfied, and no doubt believed it better on the whole to have arts and some starvation than no arts and no starvation, though I don't know if he ever put it that way. It's all a matter of how you weigh different pains and pleasures. (Talking with greens about environmental issues is often complicated by their belief that nature has intrinsic value and something akin to rights.)

In addition to the earthward movement of values I mentioned before, I would guess it's elements of your latent Christianity that make you pause over these issues (as I do), and which influence your view of utilitarianism. If you were brought up to believe that God is in every person, and that our love for God is manifest in our seeing God in every person and treating them accordingly, thinking of the Good Samaritan and the Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief (know the hymn?), then spending on arts and such while people suffer may be hard to take. The values of the New Testament are very light on, even antagonistic to, the "higher" pleasures of this world but give an oddly prominent place to the material basics that we are to provide for our neighbors in need. The conflict isn't one of utilitarianism versus some other view, but can be seen as between different views of what constitutes (genuine) human pleasure. The New Testament view is different from the view that predominates among us, even among Christians. I believe (and I'm not alone) that Marx and other socialists were very much influenced by this New Testament ethic (not directly, of course), so we get a dose of it there too. And the sentiments that underly it are just natural to us. Along with those supporting its contrary.

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