Mill and the Footnote on Davies

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  1. 1.

    See U II 2, 55/210. References are by chapter and paragraph of Utilitarianism, the page numbers refer to the edition by Roger Crisp first (Roger Crisp, ed., John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) and the Collected Works edition (John M. Robson, ed., Collected Works of John Stuart Mill: Volume X: Essays on Ethics, Religion and Society, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969) second.

  2. 2.

    U II 19, 64/219.

  3. 3.

    U II 19, 64f/219.

  4. 4.


  5. 5.

    As quoted by Mill in the footnote to U II 19, 65/219.

  6. 6.

    U II 19, footnote, 65/219f, numbering and all line breaks added, italics in original.

  7. 7.

    See Roger Crisp’s editorial notes, “Notes to Utilitarianism” in Roger Crisp, ed., John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, 111–150, pp. 121–123, and Jonathan Dancy, “Mill’s Puzzling Footnote,” Utilitas 12 (2000): 219–222.

  8. 8.

    Intention is the foresight of consequences, according to Mill in his comments to his father’s Analysis of the Human Mind, see John Stuart Mill, “James Mill’s Analysis of the Human Mind” in John M. Robson, ed., Collected Works of John Stuart Mill: Volume XXXI: Miscellaneous Writings, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1989, 93–255, pp. 252f., as mentioned by Crisp, op. cit., p. 121, but see the further discussion of this below.

  9. 9.

    Expected consequence utilitarianism becomes somewhat more plausible if we calibrate it to the expectations of a ‘reasonable’ agent. But then an explanation of what might count as ‘reasonable’ in this sense would be of vital importance, and Mill is not offering any such explanation here. So it’s hardly plausible to ascribe that view to Mill either.

  10. 10.

    Praiseworthiness and moral value need not be identical for a utilitarian as it might sometimes promote the general happiness to, for instance, praise an unselfish sacrifice which, for some unfortunate reason, didn’t turn out to actually promote the general happiness. With hindsight, it might turn out that some other action would have had better consequences. Such an unsuccessful action might still be praiseworthy, as praising it might encourage others to perform similar yet successful actions, thus promoting the general happiness. The details would depend on the circumstances of the case.

  11. 11.

    U II 19, 65/219.

  12. 12.

    I think we may suppose that the selfish rescuer does not merely hope to be rewarded, though ex hypothesi he does that too. If he really is selfish, the hope itself would not be enough to motivate him to jump in the water. Because jumping in the water means he is, were he not to get a reward, definitely making himself worse off – he is certainly getting wet and might even himself risk his life; in any case he is not anyway jumping in the water for his own pleasure – he also needs to think there is a sufficiently high probability that his hopes become reality, that is, that he does get a reward which more than compensates him for his getting wet and taking the risk. It would be irrational – for a selfish person – to accept a certain loss in his own welfare if the probability of a reward is so low that realistically speaking, a reward may not be expected. So, if he is selfish and jumps in the water, he must expect to actually be rewarded. His hoping reflects the fact, to be discussed below, that he cannot be entirely sure to be rewarded.

  13. 13.

    I thank an anonymous referee for helping me clarify this issue.

  14. 14.

    See Dancy, op cit.

  15. 15.

    Op. cit, p. 221.

  16. 16.

    Loc. cit.

  17. 17.

    I should add that Dancy himself seems sceptical whether Mill would have endorsed this interpretation, but Dancy’s reasons for being sceptical are different from mine.

  18. 18.

    Because the example wouldn’t make much sense otherwise, I assume that the rescue is not legally obligatory and also carries no legally due reward.

  19. 19.

    U II 19, footnote, 65/219.

  20. 20.

    In John M. Robson, ed., Collected Works of John Stuart Mill: Volume VII: A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, Books I–III, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974, at p. 55.

  21. 21.

    As will become clear, the tyrant’s intentions still play an important role. My view differs from Dancy’s mostly in that the tyrant’s intention is not taken to create a complex action.

  22. 22.

    U II 19, footnote, 65/219.

  23. 23.

    Mill, op. cit. 252f., italics in original.

  24. 24.

    U II 19, footnote, 65/220, italics in original.

  25. 25.

    For a related argument about the relevance of Mill’s comments to his fathers’s book, see Christoph Schmidt-Petri, “On an Interpretation of Mill’s Qualitative Utilitarianism,” Prolegomena 5 (2006): 165–177.

  26. 26.

    The preceding only holds in general, unfortunately. Other people or events might interfere with the outcomes of an action or the agent might be unable for other reasons to bring about the effects he intended. This is an important issue in its own right and it is not clear what Mill would say about it. Importantly, however, it doesn’t seem to be the issue between Mill and Davies. Both Mill and Davies seem to assume that in the cases under discussion, people manage to bring about what they want to bring about. For purposes of clarifying the overall structure of his theory, focusing on clear cases is a legitimate strategy for both Mill and Davies. His objection does not turn on intentions and effects coming apart. It would be uncharitable to infer from this that neither Mill nor Davies realised that not all actions turn out as intended. Because I am also merely clarifying the overall structure of Mill’s theory, it would be equally uncharitable to claim that the interpretation of the footnote I am offering is intended to suggest that Mill’s theory is exhaustively described as simple act utilitarian in this sense.

  27. 27.

    U II 19, footnote, 65/219f and U II 19, 65/219.

  28. 28.

    U II 19, footnote, 65/219f, italics in original.

  29. 29.

    Cf. Crisp, op. cit., pp. 122f.

  30. 30.

    Cf. Dancy, op. cit., p. 222.

  31. 31.

    The fact that the actions are different not because the tyrant’s motive is different (though plausibly that too is different since apparently it is neither benevolence nor selfishness) but because his intentions and hence the consequences of his action are different is what Davies seems not to realise. Davies’s example is one where the motive “makes a difference in the act” as mentioned in (7), U II 19, footnote, 65/219.

  32. 32.

    I want to thank Luc Bovens, an anonymous referee, and audiences in London and Regensburg for help with this paper.

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Correspondence to Christoph Schmidt-Petri.

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Schmidt-Petri, C. Mill and the Footnote on Davies. J Value Inquiry 47, 337–350 (2013).

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  • Complex Action
  • Intended Effect
  • Moral Evaluation
  • Rescue Action
  • Moral Estimation