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Moral dilemmas and Mill's principle of utility


To: Stephen C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Moral dilemmas and Mill's principle of utility
Date: 25th March 2008 12:24

Dear Stephen,

Thank you for your email of 12 March, with your University of London Introduction to Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Does Mill’s use of the principle of utility threaten the reality of moral dilemmas? In so far as there is a tension between Mill’s theory and the reality of moral dilemmas, what is the best way of resolving it?'

I would expect you to do well if you took the Introduction to Philosophy exam this year. However, it's your choice and if you feel that you would get a better mark if you waited a year then that is a consideration you have to take into account. However, in your decision you also need to factor in the danger of getting 'stale' because you have spent too long on a module. In any case, however well prepared you are, there is always a risk when you sit an exam that you will have an off day.

I agree with you that the topic of moral dilemmas is difficult. We look to moral theories for guidance about making moral decisions, and if all a theory can say is, 'Here's a case where there really is no single "right" thing to do,' then there is a suspicion that our theory isn't up to much, and we should look for a better theory.

Of course, that is not the only role for moral theories, but it is one very important role. And certainly it is one that Mill took seriously.

A lot of thought has clearly gone into this essay. However, you are right in your suspicion that it is somewhat diffuse in relation to the question, which is relatively precise. You are not being asked to give a general overview of the problem of moral dilemmas and the various views taken but rather evaluate the argument that 'Mill's use of the principle of utility threatens the reality of moral dilemmas'.

On the face of it, either it does or it doesn't. It does, if Mill's use of the principle of utility implies that every moral dilemma has a solution AND if we accept that some moral dilemmas don't have solutions. Otherwise, it does not.

This suggests a relatively simple structure for an essay in response to this question:

1. Examine whether Mill's use of the principle of utility implies that every moral dilemma has a solution.

2. Examine the claim that some moral dilemmas don't have solutions.

Even if you reject 1. you can still look at 2. In fact, the examiner would expect you to do this, rather than simply doing the absolute minimum required to answer the question.

The question pointedly refers to Mill, rather than utilitarianism generally. That is the point of the second part of the question where you are invited to supply a fix to Mill's theory which resolves the alleged tension.

You make an interesting against Williams' claim that moral dilemmas are more like conflicts of desire than conflicts of belief, citing the example of a 'change of religion'. Perhaps a better illustration would be a physicist trying to decide between accepting one of two theories, where there is no possibility of embracing both. Accepting a theory has long term practical consequences for one's choice of research project, and in this sense a wrong decision could lead to regret. Perhaps the moral here is that difficult dilemmas can arise with beliefs whenever there are important practical consequences. However, Williams might come back at this example (as well as the example of religion) arguing that this is not a typical case of 'belief', but on the contrary more like the choice of a course of action.

My view of the question, for what it is worth, is that Mill has already given up the possibility of a calculation which decides the 'right' thing to do in accepting that there are different and incommensurable grades of happiness. How many pigs would you slaughter in order to make Socrates happy (even in his discontendedness)? Is there a finite number, or is the tiniest amount of 'higher pleasure' worth any amount of 'lower pleasure'?

That aside, the utilitarian's guiding idea is that even though with good will we don't always choose the ultimately 'right' action -- because the calculation is just too difficult, or because we are ignorant of the 'correct' weighting to give different levels of pleasure/ happiness -- nevertheless the answer objectively exists. We either hit the mark or we don't hit the mark. And Guttenplan's objection is that this falsifies the experience of grappling with a moral dilemma. We don't think, 'I hope I got it right' but rather we already know that we have, in a sense, done something 'wrong'. That is the point about the insoluble 'remainder'.

Of course, a utilitarian can always go up a level, and argue that the greatest happiness for the greatest number is best served by cultivating moral agents who respond to moral dilemmas in precisely this way. That is not really a 'fix' or improvement to utilitarianism but rather a last-ditch defence.

All the best,