- Happiness is the sole intrinsic good.
- If happiness is the sole intrinsic good, then we should maximize total happiness.
- Maximizing total happiness is just what utilitarianism claims we should do. Therefore,
- Utilitarianism should be accepted as an adequate moral theory.
If your life up until this moment was without pain and misery would you be you as you are now, without the pain, loss, grief, heartbreak and all that comes with a human life? Of course, you wouldn’t, for these are essential to the development of our authentic selves. Who we are is the product of our past. A negative experience will leave behind scar tissue, it becomes part of us forever. But that is no reason to remove this vital element of human experience. We learn from unhappy moments, we build strength, we reference those moments when the present moment is of the negative kind. My main focus through this essay is to introduce with why happiness is not the sole intrinsic good, and then to explain why utilitarianism is not only contradictory to Mill’s On Liberty, but is actually closer to a form of tyranny.
The topic chosen proposes that happiness is the sole intrinsic good, and that we should accept utilitarianism as a moral theory because it promotes the maximizing happiness for us all. But where does unhappiness come into this? The role of unhappiness in our lives is excluded from Mills work. How could he have missed this simple error?
Happiness (X) cannot be the sole intrinsic good. Without the experience of a negative emotion (Y), you cannot identify the opposite.
X requires Y – its antipode counterpart – to exist, therefore; unhappiness is essential to X.
Pleasure with the absence of pain is how Mills chose to define happiness. This can be cheekily denounced by referring to masochists who view pain as pleasure – and pleasure as pain. This can also be done in a more PG rated sense of course.
Certain artists throughout history can be used to represent the perfect example of those who lived a life of pain, never knowing true happiness. Artists who in then end got what they desired, dreamed for, but ultimately remained unsatisfied. Who turned all that pain and suffering, misery and heartbreak, into art. Charles Bukowski was (and still is), one of the greatest authors of all time. He remained unknown for most of his life. He converted his miserable childhood and his alcoholic vagrant adulthood into amazing literature. Books that are still revered to this day just over 24 years since his death. When Bukowski did strike fame and fortune later in his life he was still miserable, it felt hollow, the sense of accomplishment seemed to late, and not up to the expectations he had.
Though, without the misery and suffering, he would never have wrote Post Office, Ham on Rye, Factotum or Notes of a Dirty Old Man; we would never have had the chance to view the world through that broken mindset, to experience such compelling writing. Would utilitarianism approve of Bukowski’s suffering for our happiness?
Utilitarianism calls for both the greatest happiness for the majority. Mill also wrote On Liberty which calls for your own person to be sovereign – your individual rights to not be infringed on by the Other.
Bukowski loved to drink, he chose to do so voluntarily, to stop him from doing so would violate his sovereignty – His drinking effected himself.
The drinking helped Bukowski cope with unhappiness – Utilitarianism would remove this happiness.
Alcohol causes depression – Utilitarianism would then remove alcohol as it causes unhappiness.
Preventing Bukowski from drinking would be violating his liberty – Utilitarianism would be violating Mills principle of sovereignty of the individual.
Bukowski’s books have brought pleasure to countless individuals. Bukowski himself loved turning his negative experiences into his fiction/non-fiction work – The majority are made happy by reading his work.
This gives us a view of conflicting positions between Mills ideas. Sovereignty of the individual means do not interfere with another Being’s choices, provided it isn’t to the detrimental effect of another. Therefore, utilitarianism has within it a totalitarian element.
X makes you happy, however, X makes 5 people unhappy, so you can no longer have X. This is a violation of your personal choice for the majority.
“Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through acts of the public authorities.”1 John Stuart Mills then continues discussing the danger of the tyranny of the majority. Yet as I have been discussing, his form utilitarianism itself is giving power to the majority. Tyranny of the majority is no less dangerous than any other form of authoritarian rule.
The other dangerous element to this is the issue of the majority not always being correct. The world was once believed to be flat, 1000 years old, that the sun orbited it. All believed by the majority. The Salem Witch trials, the KKK in America, the National Socialist Part lead by Hitler – the majority is not always right. All these things and more were done with the majority approval; for the happiness of the majority; under the terms of the utilitarian principle.
Since I have attacked one theory, it would be wrong to conclude without putting forward an idea of my own. Do not pursue happiness directly and relentlessly. Do not even make the end of every goal happiness, we need to relearn the ability to settle for less. You can enjoy being content, this will allow you in the long run to value happiness higher when you do achieve or stumble onto it. The western world, and certain areas of the east, have become infatuated, obsessed and blinded by excess and the material possession. I am not refuting material possessions as a whole, I mean those that have no practical purpose, those that contain happiness in the pursuit but there is no end, just a cyclical process of chase. But most importantly we need to learn to be happy within ourselves, and to become our own free self; eigentlichkeit (authenticity). I part with a quote by Slavoj Zizek when asked if happiness is important today.
“Happiness was never important. The problem is that we don’t know what we really want. What makes us happy is not to get what we want. But to dream about it. Happiness is for opportunists. So, I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself”2
- Mill, J.S, On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays (NY: Oxford University Press, 2015).
- Slavoj Zizek, ‘Slavoj Zizek Webchat – As It Happened’, The Guardian [blog], (20 Sep. 2017), para. 2, accessed 25 Apr. 2018.