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John Stuart Mill (1806-73) was an English empiricist philosopher best known for On Liberty (1859) and Utilitarianism (1863).
In the latter, Mill follows David Hume‘s principle of utility by saying
Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.
Mill critiques Immanuel Kant‘s categorical imperative. Put simply, the categorical imperative means that we should do those actions which are morally good in every circumstance.
Mill believes the principle of utility amounts to the same thing as the categorical imperative because moral actions are defined as good and bad through a cost-benefit analysis of their results.
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David Hume (1711-76) was a Scottish philosopher who developed a naturalist perspective on all aspects of human life.
For Hume, the highest good is based on the pursuit of happiness. We are personally happy when we’re good to others, not due to some high spiritual reward but because this approach leads to a harmonious social whole. So personal and social well-being go hand in hand.
This means that morality isn’t based on austere rational principles but on the desire for enjoyment. Accordingly, Hume believes that reason cannot determine anything without experience. And he goes as far to say that reason is the “slave of passion.”
Hume’s metaphysics, in particular his critique of the belief in cause and effect, remains an important challenge to our conventional way of seeing. All we can be sure of, says Hume, is that certain events occur one after another in a given region and for a certain duration.
In billiards, for instance, the white ball appears to cause the motion of other balls when impacting them on the gaming table. But here’s the radical part. Hume says that all we can truly know is that, in the past, the first ball impacted and the other balls moved. We cannot prove that the first ball’s impact will always be followed by movement of the other balls. And for Hume, there is no rational way to demonstrate a causal connection:
Reason can never shew us the connexion of one object with another, tho’ aided by experience, and the observation of their constant conjunction in all past instances. When the mind, therefore, passes from the idea or impression of one object to the idea or belief of another, it is not determin’d by reason, but by certain principles, which associate together the ideas of these objects, and unite them in the imagination.¹
Put differently, from prior experience we build up a series of expectations and habitual ways of interpreting observations. Hume calls these “ideas.” But ideas they simply are. Although we expect the billiard balls to move, we have no way of proving or knowing that they always will.
At first, this may seem absurd. But Hume’s critique of causality had a profound effect on one of the most important thinkers in the history of Western philosophy, Immanuel Kant. Mortimer Adler says “…Kant tells us that David Hume awakened him from his dogmatic slumbers.”²
In addition, on a quantum level of reality, contemporary physicists claim that observations of subatomic particles support the ideas of probability and simultaneity instead of linear causality.
However, some say it’s invalid to compare quantum and macroscopic levels of reality because subatomic particles exist in an entirely different arena, and behave in different ways than the larger aggregate objects which they make up.
This debate continues to this day, the answer to which might depend on one’s core beliefs and related worldview. Or in Hume’s terms, one’s “customs of thought.”
¹ David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1896 ed.), SECTION VI.: Of the inference from the impression to the idea, paragraph 278.
² Adler, Mortimer J. (1996). Ten Philosophical Mistakes. Simon & Schuster. p. 94, cited at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critique_of_Pure_Reason#cite_note-2
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Determinism is the belief popularized by John Stuart Mill that choice and free will are unreal. In determinism, every event is the outcome of previous causes and nature is believed to be uniform. Moreover, the notion of chance is merely a concept incorrectly used by those unaware of all previous causes.
This differs from the idea of fatalism, where things unavoidably happen but not necessarily from previous causes. For instance, with fatalism a sovereign transcendent power or powers could arbitrarily decide what will happen to mere mortals. This is a widespread idea, not particular to recent religions. For example, the Homeric Fates were able to have power over the future.¹
The distinction between determinism and fatalism is further outlined at Wikipedia:
Fatalism is normally distinguished from “determinism”. Fatalism is the idea that everything is fated to happen, so that humans have no control over their future. Notice that fate has arbitrary power. Fate also need not follow any causal or otherwise deterministic laws. Types of Fatalism include Theological determinism and the idea of predestination, where there is a God who determines all that humans will do. This may be accomplished either by knowing their actions in advance, via some form of omniscience or by decreeing their actions in advance.²
This quotation raises some difficult philosophical questions. For instance, does God knowing in advance what we will do mean the same thing as God determining what we will do? Some say yes, and others no. On the yes side, we could say that God created everything in the first place, and having full knowledge (omniscience) not only knows but also is responsible for what we do. On the other side, the no side, we could say that God creates us with free will. Although God knows how we will choose, we are totally free to go any way we wish. This latter argument is usually held by Christian theologians while the former crops up among agnostics and atheists (atheists do not believe in God but may use the argument to try to lampoon the whole idea of God).
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Life usually involves some degree of suffering but human beings have interpreted the experience in diverse ways.
Some believe that suffering is meaningless and something to be avoided. This view is prevalent in Buddhism, where meditation is said to eradicate suffering.
For many Hindus suffering is a necessary teacher. As we work through our personal karma the unpleasant aspects of life can teach us not to do the ethically bad things that, so Hindus believe, caused the suffering in the first place.
Epicureanism attempts to minimize suffering through a life of prudence and termperance.
John Stuart Mill‘s utilitarianism minimizes suffering through a cost-benefit analysis of all actions, a position which Mill felt was ethically equivalent to Kant’s categorical imperative.
Freud saw suffering as an inevitable aspect of the human condition. He wrote that “Psychoanalysis can cure neurotic suffering but not normal human unhappiness.” For Freud individuals are, in effect, the walking wounded.
Catholicism recognizes the value of suffering, i.e. unavoidable suffering permitted by God, but doesn’t condone persecution nor advocate the pathological role playing of ‘victim’ or ‘martyr.’ For Catholics suffering may be redemptive and lead to increased purity and wisdom.
This notion of redemptive suffering differs from sheer depair or destitution in that the grace of God enables one to embrace one’s particular ‘cross of suffering’ with dignity and, with some exceptional persons like St. Francis of Assisi, even gladness and joy.
Along these lines, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, a prayer accepted by Catholics, asks God for a reasonably happy life here and a supremely happy one in the afterlife.
The idea of redemptive suffering has been further institutionalized by an organization called Knights at the Foot of the Cross (KFC) based on the life of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who died by lethal injection of carbolic acid in a Nazi death camp after willingly accepting the torture of a starvation bunker in place of another prisoner. KFC is an offshoot of The Militia of the Immaculata, an international evangelical movement founded by St. Kolbe in 1917 (http://www.consecration.com/).
Last, we have those positively-minded people who may hold no particular spiritual belief other than the idea that wisdom can come from suffering.
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