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Moral dilemmas and Mill's greatest happiness principle


To: Lautaro B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Moral dilemmas and Mill's greatest happiness principle
Date: 3rd May 2011 13:38

Dear Lautaro,

Thank you for your email of 25 April, with your essays for the University of London Introduction to Philosophy module, on the topic of Dilemmas:

''The truth of Mill's Greatest Happiness Principle is incompatible with the fact that we sometimes face dilemmas'. Explain and discuss.

'What is Mill's Greatest Happiness Principle? Is it undermined by the fact that people face dilemmas?'

'In what way, if any, do moral dilemmas pose a problem for moral principles such as Mill's Greatest Happiness Principle?'

(Your essays on the topic of Equality are on my desk for tomorrow. On Thursday and Friday I have to edit and send out the two Pathways e-journals!)

The point which you make in all three essays is that the existence of moral dilemmas is a fact, which is consistent with the greatest happiness principle -- in at least many if not all cases -- because we lack sufficient knowledge to calculate the 'best' consequences of different decisions, in terms of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

I said, 'in at least many cases', because presumably there will be some moral dilemmas which you can solve by carefully thinking about the consequences in terms of human happiness. What Mill advises (in effect) is that when you feel pulled ethically in different directions, what you have to do is calmly calculate 'what would happen if', and then act according to the result of your calculation.

I do think that there is a point you have missed here. The crucial question is whether moral dilemmas are 'real' or only 'apparent'.

I would distinguish between two kinds of situation which colloquially we describe as 'dilemmas'. In the first kind of situation, the decision that you have to make involves competing considerations of the same kind: e.g. saving the life of A versus saving the life of B. Here, arguably, there is nothing you can do but draw straws or spin a coin. However, in the second kind of situation -- the true dilemma -- the considerations are not comparable. There is no 'common denominator' (contrary to what Mill says about consequences for human happiness). Here, it seems that the utilitarian is merely assuming what needs to be proved, that you can translate, or calculate any situation requiring a moral decision into a 'common coin'.

According to the greatest happiness principle, moral dilemmas are only apparent. As you state, it is our lack of knowledge which leads to indecision. But there is a 'right' answer, out there in reality, if only we had the capacity to calculate it.

At this point one needs to take into account a complicating factor: Mill's acceptance of the intuitive distinction between 'higher' and 'lower' pleasures arguably does render the idea of a 'sum' of happiness which can be theoretically calculated problematic. It would be necessary to give precise numerical values to each kind of pleasure, and it is hard to see how this can be done on Mill's theory, where higher and lower pleasures are literally incommensurable. If you know both, you can as Mill states judge which is better, but how much better?

Leaving that point aside, someone who takes moral dilemmas seriously (as I do) would be more inclined to argue that there *is no answer in reality* to a moral dilemma. We certainly have no right to assume otherwise. On the contrary, the more you go into the nature of a moral dilemma and the kinds of circumstances which generate moral dilemmas, the less plausible the idea of an 'answer in reality' becomes.

The big question here concerns the onus of proof. Where does it lie? Does the onus of proof lie with the one who claims that dilemmas are only apparent -- relative to our ignorance -- not real? or does it lie with the one who claims that there 'is' an answer in reality? What do you think?

Taking moral dilemmas seriously poses a problem, not just to Mill's utilitarianism, but to any ethical theory (such as deontological theories) which aims at providing some kind of theoretical basis or foundation for our moral reasoning. Imperfect creatures as we may be, there are moral truths to be discovered, or in whose existence we must believe even if we are incapable of discovering them.

I don't believe that. Moreover, I don't think that the impossibility of a 'moral theory' in this sense necessarily requires us to take a moral subjectivist view. You can defend an objective view of ethics, the idea that there is something which ultimately serves as the foundation of all moral judgements, without viewing this as something which can be used to generate moral judgements, by some ideal method of ratiocination.

All the best,