No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable except that each

No reason can be given why the general happiness is

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No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness. This, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons. Happiness has made out its title as one of the ends of conduct, and consequently one of the criteria of morality. (4.3) It is hardly surprising that this paragraph is the most notorious in Mill’s writings, for, as we shall see in the next section, it appears that
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T H E P R O O F A N D S A N C T I O N S O F U T I L I TA R I A N I S M 73 Mill is attempting to prove the utilitarian principle in a single paragraph. In this section I shall restrict the discussion to his attempt to show that the happiness of each person—that is, the pleasurable experience of each person—is a good to that person. The suggestion that pleasure is desirable is hardly difficult to accept, and one might be forgiven for wondering why Mill thought he had to argue for it. The paragraphs following paragraph 3 provide the answer. Mill uses the same type of argument in an attempt to demonstrate something much less plausible, that we desire nothing other than happiness or pleasure. The most famous and influential criticism of Mill’s argument is that of G.E.Moore in Principia Ethica (1903). After quoting 4.3, Moore begins his spirited critique: There, that is enough. That is my first point. Mill has made as naïve and artless a use of the naturalistic fallacy as anybody could desire. ‘Good’, he tells us, means ‘desirable’, and you can only find out what is desirable by seeking to find out what is actually desired…The important step for Ethics is this one just taken, the step which pretends to prove that ‘good’ means ‘desired’. Well, the fallacy in this step is so obvious, that it is quite wonderful how Mill failed to see it. The fact is that ‘desirable’ does not mean ‘able to be desired’ as ‘visible’ means ‘able to be seen’. The desirable means simply what ought to be desired or deserves to be desired; just as the detestable means not what can be but what ought to be detested and the damnable what deserves to be damned. (Moore 1903:66–7) ‘Naturalistic fallacy’ is a term of art for Moore, and he seems to have meant several things by it. Here his objection to Mill is that he defines the word ‘good’ as ‘desired’. The basis of Moore’s disapproval of such definitions has come to be known as the ‘open question argument’. An acceptable definition, Moore claims, should not leave an open question. If I define ‘triangle’, for example, as ‘plane figure bounded by three straight sides’, my definition has succeeded; for it is not an open question whether triangles are plane
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T H E P R O O F A N D S A N C T I O N S O F U T I L I TA R I A N I S M 74
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