Today let me talk about John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher who enormously influenced our modern world. Through his celebrated books, A System of Logic and On Liberty, he left his mark on many issues in politics, science, human rights, economics, psychology, philosophy and ethics. Many great thinkers like William James, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, Milton Friedman attributed some of their ideas to Mill. Even eminent scientists like Albert Einstein, Paul Dirac were studying the ideas of Mill as they formulated their philosophy of science.
For our purposes, let us talk about the influence of Mill on ethics. He advocated utilitarianism in moral issues. Utilitarianism says morally right acts are those that provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number’
We are all utilitarians to some extent. If I want to buy a book, I go to Amazon and see the reviews of the book. If I need to see a doctor, I google the local physicians and see what their previous patients wrote about them. Before I vote, I listen to the opinions of the other voters about the contesting candidates. It is natural that most of us would choose things highly rated by other consumers. There is nothing wrong with it. Can we take similar approach to morality?
John Stuart Mill took such an approach. He said, ‘Put away your Bibles. God has not spoken. God has no business in moral matters. People decide what is right and what is wrong. Take a survey, talk to people, whatever gives them maximum pleasure is moral, whatever gives them maximum pain is immoral.’
‘Amen, brother Mill, we love that. we will take a survey and see what is popular. What is popular is moral and what is unpopular is immoral’. Welcome to utilitarian world, you and I decide what is right and wrong, not God and Bible. Pain is the only intrinsic evil and pleasure is the only intrinsic good. The morality of actions can be determined by how much pleasure or pain they generate. If an action produces more happiness for more people than it causes pain, then it is morally good. If it caused more pain for more people than it causes happiness, then it is morally bad. The greatest good is the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
First let me give you some biographical details about John Stuart Mill. His life was between 1806 and 1873. He was born in Pentonville, an area in London. Soviet leaders like Lenin and Trotsky lived in this area. Later in his life, Mill was influenced by socialism. Mill’s father was a famous Scottish philosopher, James Mill. James took extraordinary care in the affairs of his son.He insulated him from other kids.
At the age of three, Mill was learning Greek. At the age of eight, he was studying Latin. At the age of fourteen, he was traveling the world. John loved poetry and took solace in reading the poetry of William Wordsworth. Though he was educated for the clergy, he became an atheist.
When he was 17 years old, he became a colonial administrator at the British East India Company. His utilitarian worldview thus entered the Eastern world from the Western hemisphere. In 1851 he married Harriet Taylor, a British philosopher. Under her influence, he also became one of the earliest advocates of women’s rights.
In On Liberty, he wrote, ‘Christian morality (so called) has all the characters of a reaction; it is, in great part, a protest against Paganism. Its ideal is negative rather than positive; passive rather than active; Innocence rather than Nobleness; Abstinence from Evil, rather than energetic Pursuit of Good; in its precepts (as has been well said) ‘thou shalt not’ predominates unduly over ‘thou shalt’. In its horror of sensuality, it made an idol of asceticism, which has been been gradually compromised away into one of legality. It holds out the hope of heaven and the threat of hell, as the appointed and appropriate motives to a virtuous life; in this falling far below the best of the ancients, and doing what lies in it to give to human morality an essentially selfish character, by disconnecting each man’s feelings of duty from the interests of his fellow-creatures, except so far as a self-interested inducement is offered to him for consulting them…’
‘many essential elements of the highest morality are among the things which are not provided for, nor intended to be provided for, in the recorded deliverances of the Founder of Christianity, and which have been entirely thrown aside in the system of ethics erected on the basis of those deliverances by the Christian Church. And this being so, I think it a great error to persist in attempting to find in the Christian doctrine that complete rule for our guidance, which its author intended it to sanction and enforce, but only partially to provide’
Mill was one of the forerunners to the modern secular tradition of staying silence about the influence of religion on important matters of life. In a letter to Auguste Comte, he wrote, ‘Today, I believe, one ought to keep total silence on the question of religion when writing for an English audience, though indirectly one may strike any blow one wishes at religious beliefs.’
In Christian worldview, morality is not what brings greatest pleasure to greatest number. It is what God says about any particular matter. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve both followed a utilitarian ethic. Both loved the tree and ate of its fruits. There we have greatest pleasure to greatest number. Hundred percent of humanity was satisfied. Yet it is immoral because it is against the explicit commandments of God.
Only one family was spared in the great universal Flood that swallowed the whole human race. After the exodus, all Israelites, except two individuals, perished in the wilderness in their journey from Egypt to Canaan. Taking a moral stand often brings persecution, as Joshua and Caleb experienced in the wilderness. In Judeo-Christian worldview, morality often brings ‘pain to a minority’, not ‘pleasure to a majority’.
Kantian View: To some extent, this Christian worldview reflected in the Kantian view of morality. In modern ethics, utilitarianism and Kantianism are presented as two main contrasting alternatives in ethics.
John Stuart Mill was an atheist. Immanuel Kant was a theist. The starting points for Mill were the world and its inhabitants. For Kant, they were God and immorality of the soul.
They have two different principles. Kant described ‘The Principle of Humanity as an End’: ‘Act so that you always use humanity in your own person, as well as in the person of every other, never as a means, but at the same time as an end’. Treat others as an end, not as a means. This approach ensures their dignity, purpose and freewill.
Mill described ‘The Principle of Utility’: ‘the right action among available alternatives is that which will produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. Kant’s theory is called a ‘deontological ethical theory’ and Mill’s is called a ‘consequentialist ethical theory’. Deontological means – acts are regarded as right or wrong in themselves, and not because of their consequences. Consequential means – acts are judged right or wrong only by examining their consequences. The war between deontological view and consequentialist view is never going to end.
Here, we have to talk about four thinkers who influenced John Stuart Mill.
Scottish philosopher, David Hume (1711 – 1776)
French philosopher, Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857)
English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832)
and John’s own father, James Mill (1773 – 1836)
Scottish philosopher, David Hume (1711 – 1776)
David Hume argued that morals cannot have a rational basis. Reason is a slave to passions. Our moral actions are guided by our feelings and sentiments, not logic and laws. This view influenced Mill. He believed that reality exists only in experience. Material world is ‘the permanent possibilities of sensation’
French philosopher, Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857)
Then Auguste Comte, the father of sociology. He argued that our society goes through three stages in its journey to find the truth: the theological stage, the metaphysical stage, and the positive stage.
In the theological stage, people believed in God, demons and angels to explain natural processes. In the metaphysical stage, even though they did not believe in supernatural powers, they still held metaphysical ideas like universal human rights, love for all, justice for all etc. In the positive stage, all ideas must come from our own experience. Unless you prove through an experiment, your idea has no validity.
Comte’s ideas influenced Mill. Not only science, even ethics should move beyond theological stage and metaphysical stage. Ethics must be formulated from the hard world of human experiences using empirical methods.
English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832)
Then Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarianism. This English gentleman quipped, “Nature has placed us under the governance of twin masters: Pleasure and Pain”. Ethics are about how much pleasure and how much pain.
Bentham said, ‘Yes, I believe in reason. Our task should be to use reason to discover laws which are practical and beneficial to majority of people. The best society, the best government, or best institutions are those which brought the greatest happiness to the greatest number. Any law or ethic which violate this principle must be abolished.’
For Bentham, like the mass of a molecule, you can quantify pleasure. Bentham devised ‘hedonistic calculus’. Using this calculus, you can measure how much pleasure and pain you get in your actions. A 5 minute enjoyment of a sunrise could equal the pleasure of eating a pound of strawberry ice cream.
Mill elaborated these Benthamite utilitarian ideas in his 1859 work, On Liberty. He said“I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right as a thing independent of utility”. Bentham approached pleasure quantitatively, but Mill took a qualitative approach, certain pleasures are qualitatively better than other pleasures, no matter how much quantity they are served with. No matter how much ice cream you eat, that pleasure is not going to be equal to the pleasure of watching a rainbow or of walking on the beach or of being loved.
and John’s own father, James Mill (1773 – 1836)
In 1789, James Mill was ordained as a minister of the Church of Scotland. But he had no faith in God, revelation or even in natural religion. He became friends with Jeremy Bentham and became his apostle of utilitarianism. In 1818 he published the influential The History of British India. James Mill micromanaged his son’s education to make sure it was thoroughly secular. In his Autobiography, John wrote, “I was brought up from the first without any religious belief, in the ordinary meaning of the term….I am thus one of the very few examples, in this country, of one who has, not thrown off religious belief, but never had it: I grew up in a negative state with regard to it. I looked upon the modern exactly as I did upon the ancient religion, as something which in no way concerned me.”
It’s not like I left religion. I never had one to begin with. Now, I don’t care. And my views on science, politics, philosophy, ethics or whatever should not be tainted by religious beliefs. Every position I take should be utilitarian, including freedom.
Every individual should have freedoms – freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of the press. Human progress comes through exercising these freedoms.Individual liberty should be promoted as long as it does not jeopardize the liberty of others, as long as it does not harm others. This is called Harm Principle: “the liberty of individuals can be justifiably limited by law or government or society only to prevent their doing harm to others.”
So, you can see the influence of these four thinkers on John Stuart Mill. Like David Hume, he believed that we are hardwired to feel with others. Like Comte, he believed that we are in scientific stage, in which every facet of life including ethics must be government by our own experience, not revelation or supernatural beings. Like Jeremy Bentham, he believed that morality is determined only by observing what people actually do and experience, their pleasures and pains. Like his father James Mill he believed that ethics must be cultivated under the canopy of secularism.
Natural Law and Natural Rights:
Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) described four kinds of law.
1.Eternal law: God’s providential ordering of natures including the design of human nature.
2.Divine law: God’s explicit commands, for example, Ten Commandments in the Old Testament or Two Great Commandments of Jesus in the New Testament.
3.Natural law: human behavior based on God’s eternal law, how we treat each other keeping in mind the divine laws.
- Human law: This is the positive law. What our lawmakers write: our constitutions, statutes, administrative decrees and orders. These laws should not violate natural law. Human law should follow and should be in accordance with eternal law, divine law and natural law. Being atheists,Hume,Comte, Bentham and the Mills did not believe in the natural law.
If there is a preordained ‘oughtness’ around us, our ‘is’ does not matter in ethics.
If God says ‘don’t eat the fruit’, then you don’t eat the fruit. It does not matter how many Adams line up before the tree. It does not matter how many Eves eat the fruit. It does not matter how much pleasure the first couple could get from eating the fruit. Adam would not need a ‘hedonistic calculus’ to see what is right or wrong.
You cannot reconcile natural rights with utilitarianism. Both Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill did not believe in natural rights. They are past both theological and metaphysical stages of progress. Bentham called unalienable natural rights ‘nonsense on stilts’.
Problems with Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism versus individual liberty
John Stuart Mill promoted both utilitarianism and liberty. They are contradictory to each other. Martin Luther King Jr wanted to have liberty to move freely in America. It would not matter how much pleasure or pain majority of Americans get from segregation. His liberty ought to be independent of the opinions and experiences of other people. Buddha questioned India’s caste system not because he calculated how many Indians would feel better without caste. Martin Luther did not challenge the Catholic Church because he wanted to bring maximum pleasure to most Catholics. Ironically, utilitarians fought for social reforms like women’s suffrage, but most reformers often had to fight against the majority opinion. So, utilitarianism and individual liberty contradict each other. Utilitarianism also does not tell us why the majority should value an individual’s liberty? Also, if words like freedom, liberty, bondange and slavery have only mechanical sense, not metaphysical sense, why should we value freedom and liberty more than bondage and slavery?
Not science, a belief
John Stuart Mill desperately tried to carry ethics into a scientific realm. But there is nothing scientific about utilitarianism. It goes all the way back to Greek philosophers. Ancient Greek philosopher Democritus said, ‘Sweet is by convention, bitter by convention, hot by convention, cold by convention, color by convention, in truth there are but atoms and the void’. Everything including morality is by convention. Greeks had utilitarianism two thousand years before Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. ‘Law is the expression of the general will’ stated the French Declaration of Rights. What we think is right is right and it should be the law. Architects of French Revolution had a utilitarian worldview, deriving moral values without any reference to God.
Atheist Sam Harris describes secular utilitarian ethics in scientific terms. But scientific inquiry does not consider the relevance of greatest happiness for greatest number. Copernicus would not have proposed his heliocentric theory had he based it on the pleasure for majority. Einstein would not have formulated his theory of relativity had he taken into consideration the opinions of the majority because most scientists were guided by Newtonian physics. Utilitarianism is neither scientific nor a stimulant to scientific advance. In fact, it is detrimental to scientific progress. Einstein could not accept big bang theory because like majority of cosmologists he believed in a universe without beginning. For many generations ‘central dogma in biology’ was not challenged because most scientists were happy with it.
Recent scientific experiments have shown the futility of utilitarianism. Psychologist Solomon Ash performed some experiments on human behavior. In the experiments, the participants would be shown a series of charts with line segments of different length (labeled A,B,and C)
The experimenter starts an experiment with the subject surrounded by many participants. The subject would not know that other participants had a prior agreement with the experimenter to give out selected answers. The participants would answer first, then the subject. They would look at a series of charts with line segments of different length (labeled A,B,and C) and they would be asked to choose which one was the same length as a fourth line.
The first chart was shown, all participants answered correctly including the subject. The second chart was shown, same thing happened. The third chart was shown, willingly they all gave the wrong answer (A). They knew the right answer but they gave out the wrong answer as part of the experiment. The subject also knew the right answer but gave the wrong answer. He did not want to stick out. He knew the correct answer is C, but he said A because he wanted to get along with the majority. I would rather be wrong with my group rather than embarrassing myself. I would rather keep quiet rather than stick out. That is how most of us think. Psychologist Irving Janis called this group. Groupthink is detrimental to the discovery of truth, whether in science or in ethics. We sacrifice our convictions for the sake of consensus. So, there is nothing scientific about utilitarianism. In fact, science shows, as in the above experiment, utilitarianism hinders the search for truth.
Chicken or Egg?
Utilitarianism also has chicken or egg problem. Utilitarianism says that ultimate moral rule is to promote the greatest happiness of greatest number. So, even utilitarianism is advocated on the basis of morality. Which came first? morality or utilitarianism? If morality itself is the product of utilitarianism, what gives moral justification to adopt utilitarianism as the foundation for morality?
The founders of modern science were entangled with similar problem in scientific method. They started with a priori universal knowledge claims. But, how can you use experiments to validate universal knowledge claims? For example, let us take a universal knowledge claim: reality is knowable. How many experiments would suffice to prove this universal knowledge claim? In the same way, how many experiences of how many individuals would suffice to prove a universal moral claim, for example, all human beings are equal?
How do you measure happiness or pain?
I often give injections to patients who visit my clinic. I ask them, ‘Now, tell me about your pain. On a scale of 0-10, if 0 is for no pain and 10 is for most painful, how would you rate your pain? For the same injection, Tom says it is 10, Dick says it is 7, Harry says it is 1, Mary says it is 0. How can you build objective moral values based on subjective feelings? Jeremy Bentham introduced a calculus for measuring and comparing pleasures and pains in seven different categories: duration, certainty, intensity, remoteness in time etc. On Bentham’s scales, the pleasure of 10 girls walking on the beach equals to the pleasure of 10 guys involved in a sadistic gang rape. When the quantities are the same, which is more moral? Can we find any objectivity on these scales? Not surprisingly, Karl Marx mocked utilitarianism as a philosophy for ‘bean counters’ or ‘accountants’.
Even modern atheists are having trouble with espousing utilitarianism. Professor Frans de Waal of Emory University wrote these words in his book The Bonobo and the Atheist:
“Let’s say, I live in an apartment building in which a single man makes over one hundred people miserable by playing the tuba all night, every night. Having failed to dissuade him from producing his din, one of us simply shoots him in his sleep. He never knew what happened. Given how much collective suffering was relieved, what could be wrong with out decision? And if you don’t like the shooting part, let’s say we gave him a lethal injection. Yes, it deprived one man of his life and possible happiness, but the total amount of well-being in the building clearly went up a notch. In utilitarian terms, we did the right thing”
“Other problems with this approach have been pointed out, such as the solution to put Prozac in the water. What a great way to produce a society of happy fools! Or we could follow the North Korean example, and manipulate the media to make everyone feel good about how things are going in the nation, creating a Brave New World of ignorant bliss. All of this raise the happiness barometer, yet doesn’t sound particularly moral”
Put prozac in the water, you got a society of happy fools, can they determine moral values?
Manipulate the media, you got a Brave New World of ignorant bliss. The happiness barometer went up. But how can it have any association with morality?
John Stuart Mill described utilitarianism as “experiment with values”. He aborrhed the values of Christian God in no unmistakable terms: “I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures; and if such a creature can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go.”
Unlike Jeremy Bentham, John took a qualitative approach to pleasures, classifying them into higher pleasures and lower pleasures. He loved reading the poetry of William Wordsworth. As you can guess, reading poetry is a higher pleasure. He classified several of his own hobbies as higher pleasures and the things he detested as lower pleasures. He insisted, ‘it is better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’. Whose values are better? Why can’t a satisfied pig have more value than an unsatisfied Socrates? worse, why can’t an unsatisfied pig have more value than a satisfied Socrates? Mill is saying put more value on more people. More people like myself. That is a value judgment. It is not scientific.
Then, why majority? science does not instruct us to favor majority opinion rather than minority opinion. If nature has placed under only two masters, there is no reason to follow majority criterion. Utilitarianism actually invalides atheism. Majority of people in this world engage in religious rituals, which give them pleasure. Atheists are a minority in almost every nation around the world. Applying utilitarian approach, then, religion is moral and atheism is immoral. If God does not exist, considering how many people believe in him is irrelevant to establish the truth of reality.
Does morality really depend on majority opinion?
Utilitarianism goes against the grain of morality because morality is what you ought to do irrespective of pleasure and pain, irrespective of majority or minority opinion.
Most of my patients refuse to get flu shots. Does it make it a right thing to do?
In a gang rape, all men around the female victim derive lot of pleasure. Does it make it a right thing to do?
If morality is determined by majority, then we cannot oppose such legal judgments like Dred Scott (black people could not become American citizens) or Plessy versus Ferguson or Jim Crow laws (racial segregation is constitutional). Majority of people approved of those legal outcomes.
If you are part of the majority and if you embrace this view, your life will be fine. But If you are part of the minority, settling moral questions based on majority opinion is not a good idea.
If you were a Jew in Nazi Germany, going by the majority opinion would be a bad idea.
If you were an African-American in Jim Crow era, going by the majority opinion would be a bad idea.
If you were a homosexual in Saudi Arabia, going by the majority opinion would be a bad idea.
If you were caught eating a steak sandwich in certain parts of India, going by the majority opinion would be a bad idea because for the majority, cow is the sacred mother and whoever dare to eat its meat should be thoroughly punished.
If you visit the National Mall in Washington DC, you will find many Smithsonian Museums on both sides of the aisle. Of all the Smithsonian Museums I visited, I found more references to God, Bible and Christianity in African-American Museum than any other Museum. Why is that so? Because when the majority would not accept to grant you liberty, you are only left with God.I spent some time in front of Nate Turner’s Bible, the central attraction of this museum. Nate Turner had to appeal to the Word of God because majority said his natural condition was slavery and a minority of slaves could be expendable for the pleasure of the majority.
Inside the museum, I found a huge wall celebrating the lives of abolitionists. On this wall, I found the words of Harriet Tubman etched in gigantic letters. It reads, ‘God’s time is always near. He gave me my strength, and he set the north star in the heavens; ˙he meant i should be free’
Harriet Tubman, 1859
God says I should be free, so it does not matter what majority thinks of my fate. You see, objective moral values cannot be determined by majority vote because objective moral values are right even if everyone thinks they are wrong. Even if all human beings were to agree that child abuse is pleasureful, abusing a child would still be evil. Even if majority in India were to agree they derive pleasure in caste system, caste discrimination would still be evil. Even if all human beings were to agree that they derive pleasure by racial discrimination, racism would still be evil. Even if all human beings derive pleasure from antisemitism, that would not make antisemitism moral.
Seen in their sociopolitical contexts, many moral positions are of minority positions taken in pain and persecution, not of majority positions taken in pleasure and comfort. Justice John Marshall Harlan was the lone dissenting vote in Plessy v.Ferguson (1896) which created the concept of ‘separate but equal’. Majority on the bench declared racial segregation is moral and constitutional. Justice Harlan, mocked and threatened for bringing Christian fundamentalism into the court, wrote that the majority’s opinion would ‘prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case’. ‘The Great Dissenter’ was a lone voice.
Today gay marriage shows bitter divide in the Supreme Court. If majority accepts gay marriage, does it become moral? If majority does not approve of gay marriage, does it become immoral? If majority of human beings were to derive pleasure in consuming human meat, would cannibalism become moral? Gladiator spectacles were one of the most pleasurable forms of popular entertainment in the Roman world. Was it moral to sacrifice a few prisoners to give ‘greatest pleasure to greatest number’?
Majority of where?
Then the next question, which majority? Greatest number of where? in a room? in a town? in a district? in a state? in a country?
John Stuart Mill was a colonial administrator in the British India. He said colonialism is good for India because majority in Britain hold the view that British Empire is ‘beneficial despotism’. But the majority in India did not think like that. Which majority decides the morality? in Britain or in India?
The British were rightly horrified when they came across the practice of sati – the Hindu widow’s self-immolation upon the funeral pyre of their husband. Mill objected to this practice. But Indians insisted that burning a few widows would be better for the majority of people in the society.
Majority in the Western hemisphere think slavery is evil, but there are countries around the world where the majority of their populace think slavery is just natural. Majority in the Western hemisphere feel homosexuality is among different equally moral sexual choices, but there are countries around the world where the majority of their populace think homosexuality is evil. The same thing which brings pleasure to a majority in one region gives pain to another majority in another region of the world. Then, which majority defines morality?
Majority of who?
One of the Mill’s memorable quotations is, ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’ Many animal rights activists protest such assessment. They believe that even a satisfied pig has as much value as a dissatisfied human being. They argue that with the money we burn on the healthcare of one dissatisfied, demented Socrates, we can feed a thousand pigs to satisfaction for a full year.
Professor Frans de Waals laments, “The math is mind-boggling. Is one person equivalent to a thousand mice? Is an ape worth more than a Down syndrome human baby? Does a patient with severe dementia have any value at all?”
These are not from my imagination. In Belgium, euthanasia is being advocated for children born with dementia and Down’s syndrome and for adults with depression and anxiety to channel the money to save birds and butterflies.
Even atheists confess the hollowness of utilitarianism
Sam Harris wrote, ‘While John Stuart Mill might conform to our cultural ideal of goodness better than Osama bin Laden does’ (Italics in the original). What is the source of this ‘our cultural ideal of goodness’? Atheism or Christianity?
American atheist Sam Harris loves Mill’s utilitarianism. Harris’ ‘scientific ethics’ are being promoted in academic circles in our time. I don’t want to belabour to challenge his ideas here. Let me bring in a British atheist, Professor John Gray to reveal the impotence of Harris’ eloquent defence of current day utilitarianism. Let me quote from his book Seven Types of Atheism,
“The American new atheist Sam Harris wants ‘a science of good and evil’. He assumes that this science will support liberal values of human equality and personal autonomy. Why it should do so is never explained. Many value-systems have claimed the authority of science. For many advocates of a ‘scientific ethics’ in the inter-war years of the last century, liberal values were redundant in the communist (or Nazi) future they believed to be imminent.
The project of a scientific ethics is an inheritance from Comte, who believed that once ethics had become a science liberal values would be obsolete. In a rational society, value-judgements would be left to scientific experts. Atheist illiberalism of this kind is one of the strongest currents in modern thought. The more hostile secular thinking is to Jewish and Christian religion, the less likely it is to be liberal. Though he may consider himself a liberal, Harris belongs in this illiberal tradition.
It is not by accident that neither he nor any of the new atheists promotes tolerance as a central value. If ethics can be a science, there is no need for toleration. In fact, all these versions of ‘scientific ethics’ are fraudulent, and not only because the sciences they invoke are bogus. Science cannot close the gap between facts and values. No matter how much it may advance, scientific inquiry cannot tell you which ends to pursue or how to resolve the conflicts between them.
Believing that ‘the link between morality and happiness seems straightforward’, Harris revives a familiar type of Utilitarian ethics in which the only things that have intrinsic value are the pleasures and pains of sentient creatures. It is a long-familiar theory with no less familiar difficulties. How is the value of pleasures and pains to be measured or compared? The founder of Utilitarianism, the early nineteenth-century philosopher and legal reformer Jeremy Bentham, suggested a number of criteria, including duration and intensity. But should pleasures that most people would condemn as bad – the pleasures of cruelty, for example – count equally with others of the same duration and intensity? Bentham though so, but few have followed him in this view. Again, Harris assumes that Utilitarianism supports the priority liberals give to freedom over other goods. But does it? John Stuart Mill, the greatest exponent of liberal Utilitarianism to date, devoted his famous essay On Liberty (1859) to arguing that it did. The end-result of a massive philosophical literature is that Mill’s argument failed. Utilitarianism and liberalism are distinct positions, with conflicting implications that cannot always be reconciled.
Harris’ ethical stance betrays signs of this conflict. He has endorsed liberal values of freedom and human dignity. At the same time, he has defended the practice of torture as being not only permissible but necessary in what he describes as ‘our war on terror’. Even it it violates basic freedoms, he argues, torture may protect freedom on balance. Reasonable people may have different responses to this claim, some thinking it betrays core liberal values, others that it reveals conflicts these values face in practice. But, either way, science cannot decide whether or when torture can be justified.
The reason Harris passes over these questions is not only a lack of knowledge on his part. By cultivating a willed ignorance of the history of ideas, he is able to avoid noticing that atheism and illiberalism have often been bedfellows. He can then pass over the fact that the liberal values he claims to profess originated in monotheism.”
“Mill’s conception of the species was not based on observation. It reflected his moral beliefs, which were derived from Christianity. The evidence that the human animal learns from its mistakes and follies is at best mixed. On this point, empiricism and liberalism are at odds.
For all his secular upbringing, Mill never shook off the influence of Victorian Christian values….Above all, Mill never questioned the Christian idea that ‘morality’ is an overriding imperative. As a result, he failed to explain why anyone should want to be moral.”
It is long winded but there are some profound ideas in this analysis of utilitarianism. Professor Gray correctly diagnosed the problem in the arguments of both John Stuart Mill and Sam Harris.
First, the why question? ‘science will support liberal values of human equality and personal autonomy. Why it should do so is never explained’. Why should science teach us morality? Why anyone should be moral? Why should we run to everyone with a hedonistic calculus?
Second, the gap problem. ‘In fact, all these versions of ‘scientific ethics’ are fraudulent, and not only because the sciences they invoke are bogus. Science cannot close the gap between facts and values.’ Mill feigned that his utilitarian arguments were scientific. Sam Harris is doing the same today. But honest atheists like Professor Gray recognize that science cannot close the gap between facts and values. New atheists invoking science to defend their atheism is nothing but perfidy.
Third, the source problem. ‘He (Sam Harris) can then pass over the fact that the liberal values he claims to profess originated in monotheism’.
It reflected his (Mill) moral beliefs, which were derived from Christianity.’
Sam Harris and John Stuart Mill, both shouted for liberal values and moral values at the top of their lungs. They fail to recognize or ignore the fact that their moral values came from monotheism and Christianity.
Professor Benjamin Wiker wrote these words in his book, 10 Books that Screwed Up the World, ‘As Bentham and the Mills were all atheists, they could not rely upon such a theistic foundation for morality. They had to invent something to take its place. This is trickier than it might sound at first, especially for these three because they were comfortable atheists. That is, they wanted all the moral benefits of Christianity, except without the Christianity part. They were the kind of self-assured chaps (so common in the nineteenth century) who took the fruits of centuries of Christian moral formation for granted even as they cheerfully chopped down the tree that thad borne them.’
It’s an apt analogy. Atheists take the fruits of Christian tree while mowing it down.
Christian worldview: God is not against greatest happiness
In Christian worldview, God is our master. Pleasure and pain must be our slaves, not our masters. Only God reconciles utilitarianism and liberty in a rational way. He created human beings in his image, put a value on them and gave them commandments which reflect His nature. If individuals follow the Ten Commandments, it is beneficial for the whole society. In utilitarian atheism, morality is a product of pleasure. In Christianity, pleasure is a product of morality. Our true happiness comes when we follow God’s moral codes.
The founders of America were utilitarian in a sense. They wanted to build a nation which brings greatest happiness to greatest number. But they wanted it under God.
Thomas Jefferson starts the Declaration of Independence with these words: We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness–That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
…Pursuit of happiness, consent of the governed, Right of the People…their Safety and Happiness. This great document was designed to produce greatest happiness for greatest number, but it started with a Creator.
President George Washington warned us in his farewell address, ‘Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens….Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle’.
George Washington says, how can we build a prosperous and happy society? We need religion and morality. Reason and experience do not produce morality without religion. In fact, both show that morality cannot prevail without religion.
At Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, on the left side of the exquisite statue of Abraham Lincoln, there were words etched on the wall taken from his Gettysburg Address. ‘That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth.’ True liberty comes when people are under God.
Martin Luther King Jr wrote these words when he was imprisoned at a Birmingham jail, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God … An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”
In utilitarianism, morality succeeds us, in Christian faith, it precedes us. It was a moral universe even before we were created. Our man-made laws should square with the law of God.
Jesus loved the masses. He called people to follow him, experience his love and joy. He warned not to go by majority opinion, but by the word of God.
“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4)
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it” (Matthew 7:13)
If you want to go to heaven, don’t look for the wide gate chosen by the majority of people. You have to enter through the narrow gate. That does not mean Jesus wants only a minority to enter into heaven. It means while Jesus wants everyone get saved and enter into eternal life, it must be done according to God’s truths, not majoritarian human opinion.
Only Jesus brings both individual liberty and utilitarianism in a rational way. He described himself as a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to find one lost sheep, puts it on his shoulders, goes home and rejoices with his friends for finding that one lost sheep. He values every human being (Luke 15:1-7). ‘And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’ (John 8:32). Liberty and freedom come from truth, God’s truth, not by utilitarianism.
Paul Kattupalli MD is a physician, a medical missionary and a Christian apologist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org