Friday, April 27, 2018

A Conversation Between John Stuart Mill and John Locke on Natural Rights

John Locke
John Stuart Mill

An imaginary conversation between J.S. Mill and John Locke on the idea of natural rights

The scene: a pub somewhere in central London

Locke: Good evening Mill, I just read Utilitarianism, and was surprised and disappointed to find that you make no mention of natural rights.  As you know, natural rights are a staple of liberal political philosophy and I wrote extensively about this in Second Treatise of Government.
Mill: Yes, I read your book many times, but each time I asked myself the question "What is a natural right?" It is the word 'natural' that bothers me. I assume that you mean 'not artificial' or 'not man-made'?

L:   You are getting close.  The way I conceive it is that a natural right is a right that a person has in the state of nature, as determined by the law of nature.
M: Now I am even more confused.  What is the state of nature?  Is it a place where people live?
L:  The words “state of nature” do not specify a place.  They specify a type of relationship between two or more persons.  It is a pre-political relationship in which there is no authorized third-party or umpire to whom people can turn to settle disputes about what laws exist or whether a law has been violated.
M: So, if there is a dispute about what rights are valid, there is no way to decide this?
L: Now I get to ask you a question. What do you mean by a valid right?
M: A valid right is a claim on society to protect the alleged right-holder from harm, by either the force of law or by education and opinion.  For example, you and I have a right to life because a claim to have our life protected by the force of law is guaranteed by civil society.  On the other hand, we do not have a right to be given a new horse and buggy every year because any such claim is not guaranteed by society.
L:  So, based on your account of validity, there are no valid rights in the state of nature.  There is no mechanism for making a “claim on civil society,” because by definition, there is no civil society.  If anyone insists that what another person has done violates the law of nature, he is on his own.  Most people in a state of nature are ignorant of the natural law anyway, and even if you think you know the law, there is no one they can call on for validation or for enforcement. 
M: If there is no way to prove (validate) that something does or does not belong to a person “by right” in the state of nature, then your idea of a natural right seems to me to be so much empty noise.  What would be the point of going around announcing that you have a right to life if you have no claim on others to protect you in the possession of it?  As my godfather Jeremy Bentham once said, the idea of a natural right is “nonsense upon stilts.”
L: That assessment is a bit harsh.  The natural rights to life, liberty, health and possessions can still serve a purpose as an ideal set of rights that a society ought to adopt as positive law.  
M: I agree that these rights ought to be legally enacted, but if you ask me why I agree, I can give no other reason than general utility.
L:  Oh!  I was going to say that they ought to be adopted because they are natural rights.
M:  Isn’t that what you said when we started this conversation?    

[For more on J.S. Mill's theory of rights, read chapter V of Utilitarianism.  See also Understanding John Stuart Mill: The Smart Student's Guide to Utilitarianism and On Liberty .  This link takes you to my website.  Below the free book offer you will find the book cover image. Click on that to get to the Amazon detail page.]

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Mill on the Origin of Feelings of Injustice

Mill on the Origin of Feelings of Injustice

John Stuart Mill
Whether we believe they are natural feelings or instincts, most of us are familiar with the way we react to situations in which we believe that an injustice has been done.  If a woman is refused promotions that are regularly given to the men with whom she works, many of us upon hearing about this get upset or are outraged by the injustice of giving promotions based on gender.  But the acknowledgement that there is such an emotional response should not lead us to conclude that these feelings of injustice correspond to an independent moral principle. 
…it is one thing to believe that we have natural feelings of justice, and another to acknowledge them as the ultimate criterion of conduct… Mankind are always predisposed to believe that any subjective feeling, not otherwise accounted for, is a revelation of some objective reality. (Utilitarianism, 41)

You are at the zoo and you see a Bengal tiger.  You might turn to your friend and say, “That tiger is terrifying.”  You are reporting your own subjective feelings abut the tiger, not an objective feature that the tiger possesses.  You observe (see) that the tiger is quite large, has sharp teeth, a light orange coat, with black stripes and a white belly.  You do not see an additional feature called “terrifying.” 

By analogy, if you have a strong feeling of injustice when you witness an unarmed man being shot in the back by the police, you see the act of the man being shot by the police, but you do not see an unjust act. Instead, you infer the injustice of the act from what you have witnessed. 

The philosophical question that Mill asks is whether the subjective feelings of justice and injustice, which are admittedly much stronger than the feelings which attach to simple expediency, “require a totally different origin”?   Is there a moral principle, independent of utility, that both supports your inference, and explains your feelings of injustice in the gender discrimination example and the police shooting case?  As Mill puts it, does justice “have an existence in nature as something absolute, generically distinct from every variety of the expedient, and, in idea, opposed to it?” (41).  Is justice the name for an absolute moral rule or “criterion of conduct” that exists independently of the principle of utility, and which requires conduct that is a higher obligation than an obligation to promote the greatest good?

Mill's answer to this question is "no."  I'll give his reasons in my next blog.

[For more on Mill's Utilitarianism, go to Understanding John Stuart Mill: The Smart Student's Guide to Utilitarianism and On Liberty]

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Mill on Conscience and the Utility Principle

John Stuart Mill

Mill on Conscience

As Plato often stressed in Republic and other dialogues, the external motives for moral behavior do not guarantee that people will do the morally right act or refrain from wrongful conduct.   The favor of others motivates the bad person to maintain a good reputation, not necessarily to do what is morally right.  There are bad people who know how to “game the system.”  They manage to maintain a good reputation because they know how to lie, cheat and steal without ever being found out (Republic, 362c). 

In chapter III of Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill  proposes another motive for being moral, a motive that will have a stronger prohibitive effect on a person who contemplates wrongdoing.  He suggests that the motive we seek is to be found internally, in ourselves.  It is called “conscience.”

Mill defines “conscience” as
"…a feeling in our own mind; a pain, more or less intense, attendant on violation of duty, which in properly cultivated moral natures, rises, in the more serious cases, into shrinking from it as an impossibility" (27).  
This is what is lacking in the person who is only taught that being moral is a means to keeping a good reputation in the community.  If he does not have a conscience to restrain him, then he will violate a moral duty whenever he can safely get away with this.  There is little or no internal pain that this person feels when contemplating a future wrongful deed.
[Conscience is a prospective moral feeling, that is, it is what we feel before we violate a rule of right conduct.  Remorse and guilt are retrospective.  They are feelings we must encounter after the violation.]
Mill refers to conscience as the “ultimate sanction of all morality” (28).  Hence, the feeling of conscience should also be the sanction of the utilitarian moral standard, there being no reason why this feeling “may not be cultivated to as great intensity in connection with the utilitarian as with any other rule of morals” 28).

Is it possible for feelings of conscience and remorse to attach themselves to the utilitarian principle?

This begs the meta-question: “What kind of question is this?”  Is it a scientific question, answered empirically, with reference to observation and experience, or is it a philosophical question, answered analytically, with reference to relevant concepts and their interrelationships? 

Perhaps the best way to answer the  question is to look at Mill’s methodology.  Here is his argument for the conclusion that conscientious feelings (conscience) can and do serve as a sanction for the utilitarian standard.
1. Conscientious feelings (conscience) can firmly attach to the utilitarian standard only if there is a natural sentiment for the utilitarian morality.
2. There is a natural sentiment for the utilitarian morality: the social feelings of mankind (the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures).
3. Therefore, conscientious feelings can firmly attach to the utilitarian standard.
The argument is deductive, and it is valid, that is, if we accept the premises as true, then the conclusion must be true. 
But are the premises true?  In premises 1 and 2, the term natural sentiment is a concept often used in the nineteenth century to express the view that morality is based on a sentiment or feeling that is part of our natural makeup (Oxford Reference).  This does not mean that the feeling is innate, nor does it mean that everyone has these feelings.  Mill believes that it is acquired in the same way that speaking and reasoning are acquired.  And like speaking and reasoning, some people develop it to a high degree by cultivation.  Others develop it to a lesser degree, and still others do not develop it at all. 

In premise 2, Mill gives a name to the natural sentiment.  It is “the social feelings of mankind--the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures” (30).  This is reminiscent of Aristotle, who famously wrote:
Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god (Politics)
Mill goes somewhat farther than Aristotle by writing not just that humans are “social,” but that they have “social feelings, the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures.”  Mill agrees with Aristotle that humans are beings who naturally “partake of society.”  Mill adds to this the observation that after a relatively short period, humans will begin to have “a temporary feeling that the interests of others are their own interests” (31).  That feeling, with proper cultivation, soon becomes permanent:
Not only does all strengthening of social ties, and all healthy growth of society, give to each individual a stronger personal interest in practically consulting the welfare of others, it also leads him to identify his feelings more and more with their good, or at least with an even greater degree of practical consideration for it.  He comes, as though instinctively, to be conscious of himself as a being who of course pays regard to others.  The good of others becomes to him a thing naturally and necessarily to be attended to, like any of the physical conditions of our existence (31).
This is clearly an empirical claim about human nature.  However, social psychologists in the twentieth century cite obvious counter-examples that falsify the idea that humans are naturally oriented toward each other in the ways suggested by Aristotle and Mill. 
We engage in acts of loyalty, moral concern, and cooperation primarily toward our inner circles, but do so at the expense of people outside of those circles. Our altruism is not unbounded; it is parochial. In support of this phenomenon, the hormone oxytocin, long considered to play a key role in forming social bonds, has been shown to facilitate affiliation toward one's ingroup, but can increase defensive aggression toward one's outgroup. Other research suggests that this self-sacrificial intragroup love co-evolved with intergroup war, and that societies who most value loyalty to each other tend to be those most likely to endorse violence toward outgroups (Waytz).

By extension, social psychologists would also disagree with Mill that the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures is something we naturally feel toward all humans, no matter what we know about their race, ethnicity, social class or religion.   

 In fairness to Mill, he does point out that our moral feelings are susceptible “of being cultivated in almost any direction.”  If they are cultivated to favor one’s ingroup, it is still the case that people in these groups will have social feelings for one another, even if they are weaker or nonexistent for those who are in outgroups. 
If we agree to the limited claim that humans naturally have social feelings, but only for persons in their ingroup, then it does not follow that conscience is or can be “the ultimate sanction of the greatest happiness morality” (33). The conclusion (3) of the preceding argument does not follow from the premises because there is no natural sentiment for the utilitarian morality.  The utilitarian principle requires us to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number, not the greatest happiness for the people in my ingroup.  The internal sanction of conscience may act as “a powerful binding force,” but it only binds us to promote the interests of people in our inner circle, not those outside the circle.

This does not mean that the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures cannot ever extend to a desire to be in unity with all persons.  It means only that this desire does not naturally so extend.  If it does extend to outgroups, it does so by education.  You have got to be taught to identify your feelings with the good of those outside your ingroup as much as you identify your feelings with the good of those in your circle. 

So did Rogers and Hammerstein get it backwards when they wrote this controversial song for their 1958 musical South Pacific?

You've Got to be Carefully Taught

[Verse 1]
You've got to be taught to hate and fear
You've got to be taught from year to year
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught

[Verse 2]
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade
You've got to be carefully taught

[Verse 3]
You've got to be taught before it's too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You've got to be carefully taught

[For more commentary on Mill's famous books Utilitarianism and On Liberty, go to my book Understanding John Stuart Mill: The Smart Student's Guide to Utilitarianism and On Liberty.  Click on the book cover image just below the free book offer on my website:]