the naturalistic fallacy in three rounds

(From the Cites obscurs site)

In John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, he says a rather strange thing about happiness:

“I never, indeed, wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken _en passant_, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self- consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning.”

The logic of this passage is familiar, even if it is rather baffling. The pursuit of an end, according to Mill, entails the loss of that end, while its non-pursuit entails finding the end. There glimmers, here, the kind of pre-established harmony that Adam Smith identified with the invisible hand – the baker, the butcher and the candlestickmaker all pursue one end, which is the satisfaction of their greed, and enact another, which is the optimal provisioning of society as a whole. And there glimmers here, for those who’ve read their Freud as well as their Smith, a variation of the fort da game – which, remember, is also a way of detouring around an end – bringing Mommy back – to gain an end. “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life, for my sake shall find it. – Jesus’ paradox uses the condition – ‘for my sake’ – to soften the claim – but Mill, a secular man, is willing to embrace this truth unconditionally. This is the real cunning of reason, the glass bead game it plays with the Es.

G. E. Moore, in Principia Ethica, devoted a good part of his chapter on hedonism to refuting Mill’s elaboration of Bentham’s happiness thesis in Utilitarianism. Moore analyzed like an English gentlemen, which meant that statements contained in Mill’s autobiography were out of bounds. Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail, Harry Stimson, Harding’s Secretary of State, famously said as he closed down the first U.S. intelligence agency, the Black Room, which had been set up by Wilson. On the same principle, philosophers don’t read each other’s autobiographies. Rather, they joust only with the salient texts, those with the philosophy label clearly stitched to them.

Moore begins the chapter on hedonism recapitulating the terms of what he called the “naturalism fallacy”:

In this chapter we have to deal with what is perhaps the most famous and the most widely held of all ethical principles—the principle that nothing is good but pleasure. My chief reason for treating of this principle in this place is, as I said, that Hedonism appears in the main to be a form of Naturalistic Ethics: in other words, that pleasure has been so generally held to be the sole good, is almost entirely due to the fact that it has seemed to be somehow involved in the definition of good—to be pointed out by the very meaning of the word. If this is so, then the prevalence of Hedonism has been mainly due to what I have called the naturalistic fallacy—the failure to distinguish clearly that unique and indefinable quality which we mean by good. And that it is so, we have very strong evidence in the fact that, of all hedonistic writers, Prof. Sidgwick alone has clearly recognised that by good we do mean something unanalysable, and has alone been led thereby to emphasise the fact that, if Hedonism be true, its claims to be so must be rested solely on its self-evidence—that we must maintain Pleasure is the sole good to be mere intuition.

Moore then analyzes Mill with this fallacy in mind. Unsurprisingly, he finds that in Utilitarianism, Mill was operating as a semantic rent-seeker – that is, he was covertly using unanalyzed terms – like “desireable”, which Moore saw Mill using in two different senses – on the one hand, as a description of what is desired, and on the other hand, as a synonym for what ought to be desired.

Well, then, the first step by which Mill has attempted to establish his Hedonism is simply fallacious. He has attempted to establish the identity of the good with the desired, by confusing the proper sense of desirable, in which it denotes that which it is good to desire, with the sense which it would bear if it were analogous to such words as visible. If desirable is to be identical with good, then it must bear one sense; and if it is to be identical with desired, then it must bear quite another sense. And yet to Mill’s contention that the desired is necessarily good, it is quite essential that these two senses of desirable should be the same.

Moore then makes two further steps. One is to reverse Mill’s terms regarding pleasure – instead of pleasure being the object of desire, Moore think it makes more sense to call it the motive of desire. This involves a tricky bit of casuistry, and an example that can’t be more clubbish:

For instance, granted that, when I desire my glass of port wine, I have also an idea of the pleasure I expect from it, plainly that pleasure cannot be the only object of my desire; the port wine must be included in my object, else I might be led by my desire to take wormwood instead of wine. If the desire were directed solely towards the pleasure, it could not lead me to take the wine; if it is to take a definite direction, it is absolutely necessary that the idea of the object, from which the pleasure is expected, should also be present and should control my activity. The theory then that what is desired is always and only pleasure must break down: it is impossible to prove that pleasure alone is good, by that line of argument. But, if we substitute for this theory, that other, possibly true, theory, that pleasure is always the cause of desire, then all the plausibility of our ethical doctrine that pleasure alone is good straightaway disappears. For in this case, pleasure is not what I desire, it is not what I want: it is something which I already have, before I can want anything.

There’s nothing that makes a person feel more like adopted Alex’s habits in Clockwork Orange than this port wine talk in the works of the Oxbridge philosophy set. After a while, you want to put on your hobnailed boots and crunch the wine glasses underfoot with sadistic glee. But leaving this to one side – Moore definitely has Mill on the ropes here. And now comes a bit of fun – even Oxbridgian philosophers can have fun with a bit of close work in the corner:

But now let us return to consider another of Mill’s arguments for his position that happiness is the sole end of human action. Mill admits, as I have said, that pleasure is not the only thing we actually desire. The desire of virtue, he says, is not as universal, but is as authentic a fact, as the desire of happiness . And again, Money is, in many cases, desired in and for itself . These admissions are, of course, in naked and glaring contradiction with his argument that pleasure is the only thing desirable, because it is the only thing desired. How then does Mill even attempt to avoid this contradiction? His chief argument seems to be that virtue, money and other such objects, when they are thus desired in and for themselves, are desired only as a part of happiness . Now what does this mean? Happiness, as we saw, has been defined by Mill, as pleasure and the absence of pain. Does Mill mean to say that money, these actual coins, which he admits to be desired in and for themselves, are a part either of pleasure or of the absence of pain? Will he maintain that those coins themselves are in my mind, and actually a part of my pleasant feelings? If this is to be said, all words are useless: nothing can possibly be distinguished from anything else; if these two things are not distinct, what on earth is? We shall hear next that this table is really and truly the same thing as this room; that a cab-horse is in fact indistinguishable from St Paul’s Cathedral; that this book of Mill’s which I hold in my hand, because it was his pleasure to produce it, is now and at this moment a part of the happiness which he felt many years ago and which has so long ceased to be. Pray consider a moment what this contemptible nonsense really means. Money, says Mill, is only desirable as a means to happiness. Perhaps so, but what then? Why, says Mill, money is undoubtedly desired for its own sake. Yes, go on, say we. Well, says Mill, if money is desired for its own sake, it must be desirable as an end-in-itself: I have said so myself. Oh, say we, but you have also said just now that it was only desirable as a means. I own I did, says Mill, but I will try to patch up matters, by saying that what is only a means to an end, is the same thing as a part of that end. I daresay the public won’t notice. And the public haven’t noticed. Yet this is certainly what Mill has done. He has broken down the distinction between means and ends, upon the precise observance of which his Hedonism rests. And he has been compelled to do this, because he failed to distinguish end in the sense of what is desirable, from end in the sense of what is desired: a distinction which, nevertheless, both the present argument and his whole book presupposes. This is a consequence of the naturalistic fallacy.

So much for Moore’s fun and games – which is just LI’s way of introing our next post, (we hope), which is about Colin Heydt’s “Mill, Bentham, and Internal Culture.”


Praxis said…
Interesting stuff. I'd forgotten that Moore had worthwhile things to say. (The port is what stays fresh in the mind...) Since you mention fort-da, I've been meaning to ask (forgive me if you've already addressed this somewhere): how does psychoanalysis fit into your account of happiness triumphant? That's probably not a question with a short answer, though, so feel free to ignore it. :-) And merry new year!
roger said…
Merry new years yourself! And yes, I haven't really gotten to Beyond the Pleasure principle yes. All in good time! And besides which, I haven't thought that through, yet. I'm so far exploring psychology that is not Freudian. I'm not yet sure what to make of Freud in the framework of my story.