Monday, May 4, 2009

Putting myself through Mill

I am buried in schoolwork as I complete my first year of graduate studies in theology. Please pray for me, and please pray especially that I find summer employment (writing, editing, or doing public relations). I need extra divine help in that area, because preparing for exams in five classes makes it hard for me to find the energy to job-hunt at the same time.

Currently working on a paper critiquing the proof that John Stuart Mill offers for his principle of utility in Utilitarianism. Here is a sneak peek (with no slur intended to my sister, who is in fact an excellent cook and is the one in our family who keeps kosher):

Mill’s conflicted attitude towards Christian morality comes through early on in Utilitarianism, such as in his explanation in Chapter 2 of “what makes one pleasure more valuable than another” (emphasis mine): “Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.”

In adding the caveat “irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it,” Mill effectively rules out the validity of moral obligation as a factor in one’s judgment of pleasure.

Now, God need not even enter into the argument for one to see the fallacy in this assertion. Suppose dinner is served at my sister’s home and I see, on the buffet table, two main dishes: a delicious-looking fettuccine Alfredo, made by a caterer; and a less appetizing (but certainly edible) brisket,* cooked by my sister. I am keeping kosher, so, if I choose the fettuccine, which contains milk, I cannot eat the brisket, and vice versa. I want the fettuccine, but I feel obligated to eat the brisket, because it is the only dish my sister cooked for the meal, and, since she is my hostess, I feel obligated—by the rules of etiquette—to taste the food she took the trouble to prepare. If I eat the fettuccine the pleasure I receive will be outweighed by the pain of the guilt I will feel for breaking etiquette—and that’s not even counting my sadness at seeing the disappointed expression on my sister’s face when I pass over the fruit of her labor. At the same time, the pleasure I will receive from being a good guest by eating the brisket will outweigh my pain at forgoing the far more yummy pasta. (In real life, my primary moral obligation would be to charity and not etiquette. However, since charity is directly referrable to God, and since Mill, while denying the necessity of theism for utilitarianism, admits the necessity of living in society—he is, after all, a Victorian gentleman—I am using the example of a socially conditioned feeling of obligation.)

My sense of moral obligation plays an integral role in my choice—and there is nothing wrong with that. The etiquette that I follow, although conditioned by my culture, nonetheless stems from something that is not only natural to human beings, but encourages their social thriving—the feeling of being obligated to another.

And isn’t that what moral obligation is in fact about, at least from the Christian perspective? The Christian is not obligated to God as a concept. He or she is obligated to God as a Divine Person. To claim that moral obligation does not belong to the sphere of human decision is to deny the possibility that the act of “owing” is built into the human person, in that we owe to God our existence. In making that denial, Mill believes that the only possibility it opens to his disciples is that of increased pleasure, when in fact it also opens the possibility of increased pain. For, if man is made for obligation, he will suffer when he has no one to owe and no one to thank.

*Changed from "turkey casserole"—see my note in comments section.