Mill discussion

PHIL 102, Spring 2018

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Scenarios for discussion

  1. Discuss & write down what answer you would give for the case
  2. Explain what sorts of reasons you’re using to support your answer, so we can think about what sorts of considerations would make an action morally right or wrong

Scenarios for discussion

1. Left side of room when facing front:

2.  Middle of room:

3. Right side of room when facing front:

Questions or comments about Mill? Put them below!


1. Left side of room when facing front:

You find yourself with an unexpected amount of money—a distant relative has left you an inheritance of $10,000. Would there be a moral difference between using it for the following reasons? In other words, would some uses of the money be morally better than others? If so, which and why?

a. use it to buy yourself new furniture, a new computer, new phone, and an excellent sound system for your home

b. save or invest it for your child’s university education

c. donate it to the local children’s hospital

d. donate it to a charity that helps build schools for children living in poverty in a different country than yours

What answer would you give, and why?

D. Morally right because it has good consequences and clears my conscience and contributes to the GHP for all.

Each is fine. Because the money source - inheritance, is irrelevant to morality, there is no morally better between each choice. There only exist immoral issues when you use immoral source of money to amuse yourself or to do immoral things.

We have no way to evaluate the amount of joy produced by any of these actions, therefore, so long as each option produces a similar net amount of happiness they are equal. In other words, if the rate of joy per dollar is the same, they are all equal, if one of the options has a higher rate it is more moral.

I would really feel worse spending someone else's money to try and benefit myself for materialistic objects.

There is no way to really determine what kind of outcome  any of these choices would truly produce. Why is the inheritance what drives you donate to

charity/those in need? If you strongly believe in donating, then why can’t you give (even just a small amount) prior to receiving  a large amount of money.

We believe that saving or investing the money in your child’s education is the best option as it is still helping you as it is your inheritance, yet you aren’t spending it on consumer goods.

C.        There is no life after death according to Epicurus. Therefore, the money being left behind is plainly money. The morality of it being spent depends on the consequence of what I spend it on. Donating to a local’s children hospital will immediately aid people and bring pleasure to me (in giving) and those who receive help from the money given

From this, can you say at least one consideration that might go into how we decide which actions are morally right?

2.  Middle of room:

A very good friend is dying of a terminal disease, and has not had time to change her will to represent her current wishes. She gives you the combination to a safe that has $100,000 cash in it, and she wants you to give it to her estranged son whom she left out of her will. No one else knows about this money. You find out later that this son is already a multimillionaire from his stock investments, and $100,000 won’t make much difference to him.

Would it be morally permissible to donate it to a charity such as children’s hospital or a charity that builds schools in poverty-stricken countries, instead of giving it to your friend’s son like you said you would? What if this is after your friend has died?

What answer would you give, and why?j

Consult the rich guy about the money (let him know about it, and if he doesn’t care too much, get his approval before donating).

Maybe consider giving half to charity and sending the other half to the son??

Giving the money to charity would produce more happiness than giving the money to someone who is already content financially. The only concern in this scenario is doing what is best for the most amount of people. Being the only person who knows about the money there is no reason to fulfill the wishes of your friend. 

No, because at the end of the day you are not respecting your “very good friend’s” wishes.


Mill might want us to donate to charity as this produces far more wellbeing, but personally we would honour the mother’s wishes and give it to the son

According to Mill this would be a morally correct choice since donating the money to charity will produce a greater amount of happiness.

Only with the consent of the friend or the friend’s son. Immoral to decide what to do with will money that isn’t yours. Have to consider the moral intentions of both the friend and the friend’s son, not considered in consequentialism.

No, going against your friend’s wishes may evoke more feelings of guilt in the future, creating pain. It is better to fulfill the promise you have made.

No, it would be morally wrong due to the fact that it would be against your friends dying wishes.

s. No, the fact that this was her dying wish, it is only morally right to complete it. The son may find an appropriate use of this money (charity etc.) but it is important because it comes as a reminder from his mother.

Give the money to the estranged son

No. it would be wrong to go against your friends wishes despite the fact that the children would appreciate it more.  Best solution:. You should give it to the son and then ask him to donate it


Donating the money to charity would create more happiness in the lives of more people

But you could tell the son about the money and suggest they donate it to charity so you are still respecting your friends wishes

What if the son is an asshole and won’t donate the money.

Even if we were following the principles of Mill, the consequence of reneging on her deathbed wish creates a world where it is acceptable to break deathbed wishes. It would create a world where people are uncertain about their legacy/aftermath of their death. There is nothing to say that the utility resulting from the money going into the charity outweighs that of people’s peace of mind at the last moments of their lives.

From this, can you say at least one consideration that might go into how we decide which actions are morally right?

Respecting the decision of another person

Have to consider the moral intentions of both the friend and the friend’s son, not considered in consequentialism.

If we want to be morally virtuous, it’s important to be honest and respectful in our dealings with others

3. Right side of room when facing front:

You work for a company that donates money to an organization that supports refugees. But the leaders have said in various meetings that they are doing this only because it looks good to their customers and will help them sell products. They seem not to care about the plight of refugees at all but only how much money they can make by promoting themselves as being kind and helpful.

Would you call the company’s donation of money a morally good action? Why or why not?

What answer would you give, and why?

I would say that it is a morally right decision; although the intention is not correct, it would still result in aid for refugees in need. Therefore, even though their morals and ideals are questionable, the fact that they are still receiving aid means that someone in need is getting helped. I should also specify that it is the action that is good, not the intent.

If morally good = wholesome or intrinsically good and there’s grey in this situation is it morally good?

This is a morally good action according to Mill because of the likely outcome of this action, which is good.

Mill would say that the motive does not matter, they are still helping refugees so it is morally right, personally I disagree though because they are taking advantage of the refugees’ plight for personal gain

Morally right despite the thought process. Motive isn’t what makes the action morally correct or not.

Regardless of the intentions of the company, if the donations of money truly help the organizations and those in need then the consequences if this moral decision would be beneficial - to both parties in this case (despite the motive).

The intent or motive is an important part of an action: if some supervillain conceives of the most nefarious plan ever to be thunk up , but it ends up accidentally saving the entire solar system, the supervillain is still a supervillain, albeit one that is mistaken as a hero. The villain is still evil, and what they did was still meant to be horrible.

From this, can you say at least one consideration that might go into how we decide which actions are morally right?

Well the outcome is one of the most important parts. Judging intention is fine and good, but without visible results very little can come of it.

It is a morally right action, given that the consequences of it for the people being helped are highly beneficial and good for them.

In the eyes of a consequentialist, the consequences or outcome is all that matters when deciding if something is morally right/wrong. In this case, the consequences are morally correct because the the proportion of happiness would be larger those who are not happy. The intention does not matter, again in the eyes of a consequentialist.

We cannot consider the motive and intention if we are looking at situations such as these from the point of view of Mill. The overall consequence is the deciding factor in what actions are considered ‘morally right’.  

Intention vs outcome

Questions or comments about Mill? Put them below!

is there room to make a split between moral actors and moral actions? ie in common parlance, we think of moral actors as those with good intentions, not necessarily  those who perform good actions.

Christina: I answered this one briefly in class--yes, we can certainly make that distinction. Mill himself does so when he’s talking about how motive (the reason why you’re doing an action) doesn’t matter to the worth of the action. On p. 5 he says, “... utilitarian moralists have gone beyond almost all others in affirming that the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action, though much with the worth of the agent.” Here he is talking about how we can use people’s motives to determine whether they are morally good people, but an action can be good even with a bad motive. He uses the example of saving someone from drowning: the motive may be because one really wants to help the person, or may be because you hope to get a reward. The act of saving a person is good in either case, but we may judge the person differently based on their motive.

Christina: Yes, this could be confusing! In that section Mill is giving others’ views of utilitarianism; he’s giving a criticism of utilitarianism that he has heard from others. It’s not his own view. He gives the criticism and then says it doesn’t apply to utilitarianism. The criticism is that it seems problematic to say that what is morally good is to promote as much pleasure as possible...does that really seem to be what morality is about? It could just mean that we provide people with lots of wine and long naps and chocolate (just as examples of what might give some people pleasure). Does that seem to be what’s morally good?

Mill replies by saying that utilitarianism isn’t about producing only those sorts of bodily or “lower” plasures, but also about producing pleasures that are better in kind: the “higher” or “intellectual” pleasures. And thus, Mill argues, the view isn’t one that is only “for pigs” because pigs aren’t capable of the higher pleasures.

There’s something I’m mildly confused about in Mill’s view of happiness, and that premise is What if something actually makes someone’s lives better, but they do not appreciate/take happiness from it? Taking a bit of an extreme example, if someone donates a large amount of money for a well in a remote village, but none of the people in the village wanted it there and yet still take water from it; has the outcome of the action of “building a well” benefited them, yet they have had no happiness from it? If this is the case, then what is the happiness Mill refers to in relation to such a situation?

Christina: That’s a good point to raise. One can make a distinction in hedonistic consequentialism (like Mill’s utilitarianism) between what would actually make people happy, vs. what they themselves would prefer or what they think would make them happy. In this text from Mill I’m not sure he’s entirely clear on where he falls in that distinction, though my sense is that it would be the former: we should do what would actually lead to more pleasure, even if people don’t think it would or actually get some pain from it (but more pleasure in the long run, for example).

I get this in part from his focus on “subordinate rules,” as discussed in class on Monday Feb. 5: instead of looking at the actual consequences for happiness from each individual act, we should evaluate actions based on rules that say which kinds of actions tend to promote more happiness than others. So it could be the case (I don’t know...this is just for the sake of argument) that building a well that people don’t want might ultimately, in the longer term, be the sort of thing that leads to more happiness even if they don’t think it does or will. I guess this is kind of like: sometimes things are good for you but you don’t like them or derive pleasure from them until later…?

To kind of follow up on that question, what takes precedence in Mill’s theories then? Does it flow as simple happiness, then happiness produced through subordinate rules, then happiness produced by morality/justice? What is the “better” happiness?

Christina: The way I understand Mill, there just is happiness though you can produce it through actions or following rules, etc. The only “better” sense of happiness for Mill is intellectual vs sensual pleasure. Then you think about what would produce more intellectual/sensual pleasure--would it produce more in the longer term to have certain rules of justice, for example? My sense of the importance of justice is not so much that it produces better happiness, but that rules of justice are so important for producing happiness that to violate them for the sake of some other value ultimately will lead to more unhappiness than happiness.

So, take an example of saying, well, could it be okay to kill an innocent and healthy person when 5 other people need their organs to survive? (This case will come up later in our class!) Utilitarianism might suggest you could do this, but Mil is arguing that it wouldn’t produce more happiness to have a rule in a society that says any innocent person might be killed when needed to save five other people. It’s not that the happiness produced by having a rule of justice saying such things wouldn’t be allowed is a better happiness, necessarily; it’s rather that justice has to do with things that are abolutely crucial to our lives, survival, and happiness (like right to life, right to property, right not to be enslaved).

I don’t know if that fully answers your question; if not, you could write something on the discussion board for the course because I don’t get notifications if there are new questions here!

By stealing a doctor who may be helping other patients in order to save someone’s life that matters to you, aren’t you valuing one person’s life over others and imposing your will on the doctor’s duties? If so, then would the doctor kidnapping rule only apply when the doctor was off-duty?

Christina: Good questions! I think a utilitarian could say that by kidnapping a doctor you are valuing the life of a person over the temporary loss of freedom to the doctor. And if you think about it in terms of what kinds of general rules will lead to more happiness in a society, it could make sense to say that having a rule that said it can be okay to kidnap a doctor to save a life when that’s the only way to save a life. If that were a rule everyone knew and followed it could make for more happiness in the group of people than if one didn’t ever allow kidnapping doctors to save lives.

You bring up an important point about pulling the doctor away from her other duties, though. If, say, the doctor were in the process of saving someone else, and you kidnapped her to save someone you wanted saving, then that might not be such a good thing to have a rule allowing. Would it produce more happiness if we had a rule of justice saying anyone could pull a doctor away from saving a life in order to save another person’s life? That’s at least questionable!

-ALSO Unrelated; is it morally wrong to lie and say you’ve read and accept the terms of service agreement? Should people then actually read the entire 50 page document to avoid moral injustice??

Christina: Interesting case. Mill does say in Utilitarianism that generally lying is a bad thing, that in order to have a society where we can live together in trust, cooperate to get things done, etc., we should have a policy of usually telling the truth. But sometimes you don’t need to, and again, it always is about whether lying in a particular kind of circumstance would generally produce more happiness or not. And this is a good example because in some sense one could say the vast majority of people get more happiness by skipping reading the Terms of Service (ToS) because, honestly, they’re usually really boring and written in a way that can be difficult to fully understand. And the consequences of not doing so are usually pretty minor.

But that said, you are most of the time signing away some rights with those agreements, and it’s possible that it could produce more happiness if you knew what you were getting yourself into and made an informed choice, rather than finding out later when you couldn’t do anything about it because you already agreed to something you didn’t want to agree to. Still, for utiltarianism it’s not only what would make me or some other single person happy, but what kinds of actions would generally lead to the most happiness overall. And there one would have go imagine whether, in the aggregate, better consequences would come from people reading the ToS every time or not!

What are some examples of subordinate rules under the GHP?

Christina: I addressed this one in class a bit. It’s true that the subordinate rules could be all put together under: what generally gives happiness is good,” though that could be considered another way of describing the General Happiness Prinicple itself! So insofar as the rules all fit under that rubric it makes sense because they should be things that, if generally followed, would produce more happiness.

Mill introduces the subordinate rules in response to an objection: there isn’t time to calculate the consequences of actions every time before one makes a decision on how to act. And he says we don’t need to because we have all the years of human history to learn from--we have a pretty good sense of what kinds of actions lead to happiness and which don’t! So all we really need to do is look to that experience, generate a set of rules that fits it, and determine if acts are right or wrong based on whether they follow those rules. So he introduces the rules as serving a practical purpose, to make it easier to determine what’s morally right/wrong.

Thus, examples might be: lying generally produces less happiness, if you have a great deal of extra wealth while many around you are starving it generally produces more happiness to contribute some of your money or time to their welfare, etc. But, as discussed in class, Mill also says every rule could have possible exceptions based on circumstances that could mean actions that normally don’t produce more happiness, actually do in one case. And that means the rules aren’t hard and fast but more of a guideline.