Mill and Hartshorne

by John C. Moskop

John C Moskop teaches philosophy and medicine at the East Carolina University School of Medicine, Greenville, N. C..

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 18-33, Vol. 10, Numbers 1-2, Spring-Summer, 1980. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Except for John Stuart Mill and Charles Hartshorne, process thinkers have not written much about ethics. These two bear a close relationship in their ethical insights and tell us much about what kind of experience is the end of morality.

Although it has been remarked that the moral philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead bears a resemblance to utilitarianism (WMP 85), it is surprising that no one, to my knowledge, has explored the nature or extent of the resemblance between process philosophy and utilitarianism. In fact, process philosophers have written relatively little about ethics in general; their major contributions to contemporary philosophy, like those of Whitehead himself, have been in the areas of metaphysics, philosophy of science, and philosophy of religion.1

A notable exception to process philosophy’s general lack of concern with ethics, however, may be found in two essays by Charles Hartshorne. In these two essays, The Aesthetic Matrix of Value" (AMV) and "Beyond Enlightened Self-Interest: A Metaphysics of Ethics" (BSI), Hartshorne spells out some major implications of his view of process metaphysics for ethical theory. I believe that the resemblance of Hartshorne’s ethical writings to classical utilitarianism, and in particular to John Stuart Mill’s version of utilitarianism, is a very close one indeed. In order to demonstrate this resemblance, I will compare Hartshorne’s position to that contained in Mill’s Utilitarianism (U). I will defend the following three claims: first, Hartshorne and Mill offer strikingly similar ethical theories; second, Hartshorne’s process metaphysics lends itself more convincingly to a defense of utilitarianism than do the psychological principles advanced by Mill; third, like Mill, however, Hartshorne’s position is vulnerable to one of the classic objections against utilitarianism, the problem of justice.

I. The Agreement of the Theories

In this section, I will argue that both Hartshorne and Mill accept the following five basic theses:

(1) The moral value or rightness of action consists in its furtherance of an ultimate end or goal, "the good."

(2) The ultimate or intrinsic good is experience of a certain sort.

(3) There exist morally significant differences of quality among experiences.

(4) In most general terms, experience is valuable insofar as it exhibits a balance between two poles (which Mill calls ‘tranquillity’ and ‘excitement’ and Hartshorne calls ‘harmony’ and ‘intensity’).

(5) The moral goal of enhancing experience must take into account the experience of all sentient beings, not just a particular individual or group.

In short, I will try to show that Mill and Hartshorne share a view of ethics as (1) teleological, (2) having its telos in experience, (3) requiring qualitative distinctions among experiences, (4) based on an aesthetic criterion of good experience, and (5) altruistic.2

The fact that Mill adheres to the first two of the above theses is a commonplace of ethics. The teleological basis of Mill’s ethics is clear in his statement of the principle of utility: "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness" (U 10). In this principle, Mill recognizes happiness as the ultimate end or goal of action and the criterion of rightness. Mill further characterizes happiness as a kind of experiential state: "by happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure" (U 10).

Hartshorne is no less clear in his acceptance of a teleological, experiential ethics: "If we know what experience is, at its best or most beautiful, then and only then can we know how it is right to act; for the value of action is in what it contributes to experiences" (AMV 303). Here, once again, right action is defined as that which contributes to the fundamental goal of achieving a kind of experience. Hartshorne offers his own version of a principle of utility: "To be ethical is to seek aesthetic optimization of experience for the community" (BSI 214; cf. MT 19). Mill and Hartshorne agree, then, that ethics aims at the goal of producing a certain kind of experience, although it is not yet clear that they would agree on what kind of experience ought to be fostered.

The third and fourth theses listed above provide some characterization of the kind of experience claimed to be the goal of moral action. Mill explicitly acknowledges the importance of such a characterization for his theory. Immediately after the statement of the greatest happiness principle, he adds: "To give a clear view of the moral standard set up by the theory, much more requires to be said: in particular what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure, and to what extent this is left an open question" (U 10). Although Mill retains Bentham’s term ‘pleasure’ to describe the good, he proposes a significant change in the sense of this term. That is, he introduces the notion of different qualities or kinds of pleasure in place of the narrowly sensual and quantitative conception of pleasure proposed by Bentham. Mill uses a distinction between "higher" and "lower" pleasures to respond to the criticism that utilitarianism cannot account for the moral significance of the differences between human beings and (other) animals. Human intellectual and imaginative activities, Mill claims, are intrinsically superior to mere sensual pleasure – "It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied" (U 14).

Hartshorne also recognizes an important difference between the relative worth of human symbolic activity and the instinctive behavior of animals. The increased awareness and control made possible by symbolic thought enriches human experience to such an extent that it can be said to represent a difference not merely in degree, but rather in kind, from the experience of other animals (BSI 212-13). This ability also enables human beings to act on the basis of a much broader scope of concern for others than is possible in the case of subhuman creatures.

Recognizing that there are different qualities of pleasure, however, does not yet tell us very much about what kind of experience is, for Mill and Hartshorne, the end of morality. In fact, many have argued that the notion of different qualities of experience causes more problems than it resolves. F. H. Bradley, for example, maintains that Mill’s hypothesis of different qualities of pleasure introduces a criterion besides pleasure into the evaluation of experiences (ES 117-20). That is, Mill claims to rank pleasures as better or worse based on something other than the amount of pleasure produced. This new criterion, then, must appeal to some other feature of the experience, such as its relationship to human pride, liberty, or dignity, and in fact, Mill does appeal to these attributes in explaining the preference for higher over lower pleasures (U 13). Therefore, Bradley concludes, Mill cannot present the greatest happiness principle as a single or unitary principle of morality, since it requires the use of a value criterion other than pleasure.

Bradley’s argument (like those of many of Mill’s critics3) depends on the following two assumptions: (1) Pleasure is a unitary concept, that is, pleasure is the very same feature in every pleasant experience. Thus, if a ranking is not based on the amounts of pleasure present in two experiences, it must be based on something other than pleasure. (2) Attributes like pride, liberty, and dignity are separate from pleasure and hence represent nonhedonistic criteria for evaluating experiences.

Questions may be raised about both of these assumptions. In response to the first assumption, Rem Edwards has argued persuasively that "instead of a single quality of pleasantness which all ‘pleasures’ have in common," pleasure is a generic concept including "innumerable qualitatively different feelings that we like and wish to sustain and repeat" (PP 46). In response to the second assumption, I believe that Mill would respond in a manner similar to his later account of the relationship of virtue and happiness (U 45-49). That is, Mill could maintain that the pride, liberty, and dignity which distinguish the higher pleasures are not separate from pleasure or happiness, but rather are essential parts of human happiness. Indeed, Mill might have said, these attributes contribute more to human happiness than the lower or sensual pleasures.

Mill’s "qualitative hedonism" can, I believe, be defended against charges of incoherence. There remain, however, several serious questions about its adequacy as a foundation for ethical theory. First of all, extending the concept of pleasure far beyond the specific sense proposed by Bentham generates certain linguistic difficulties. For example, Mill’s statement that it is "better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied" (U 14) has the odd sounding implication that it is not only more dignified, but also more pleasurable (or more pleasant) to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. Moreover, elsewhere Mill appears to use the term ‘satisfaction’ as a synonym for ‘pleasure’. In response, Mill might argue that the concepts of pleasure and happiness must be understood broadly enough to support the judgment that, all things considered, Socrates is happier than the fool.

If pleasure or happiness is understood in this very broad fashion, however, hedonism loses what many view as one of its major attractions.4 That is, recognition of pleasure as a single dominant end makes possible the use of a determinate rational procedure for moral deliberation, such as Bentham’s felicific calculus (PML 37-43) or Rawls’s counting principles (TJ 411-15). Thus, the hedonist in the narrow sense is able to avoid the unattractive positions of ethical intuitionism or relativism. If, however, the end of pleasure is no longer a single thing, it loses much of its appeal as a guide to action. Different kinds of pleasures are preferred by different persons -- they may even be incommensurable for a single person, or at least not comparable in terms of specific rational principles. The qualitative hedonist, therefore, must retreat to a much heavier reliance on intuition.

In response to this last charge, Mill would surely respond that he does provide a principle for comparing different kinds of pleasures. This famous principle, which I will call ‘the experienced judges’ test’, is stated as follows: "Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference irrespective of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure" (U12). There is considerable doubt, however, whether this principle can accomplish the task Mill set for it. First of all, the kinds of experience called for may not be possible for one individual. Can Socrates experience the pleasures of a fool any more than the fool can experience the pleasures of philosophy? Even if the requisite experience were possible, would there be sufficient unanimity among the judges to establish anything more than a very rudimentary ranking of pleasures? And, if such a ranking could be established, would it in fact place the "higher" pleasures over the "lower" ones, as Mill claims? Given the great variety of human likes and dislikes, the answers to these questions seem far from clear to me. Moreover, even if the experienced judges did choose as Mill expected, we would not have any idea why the "higher" pleasures are generally preferred over "lower" pleasures.

There is, however, another passage in Utilitarianism where Mill appears to suggest a different criterion of good experience, which is summarized in thesis (4) above. The passage in question is offered in response to a Schopenhauer-like objection that happiness is an unattainable goal. Because this passage is not as well known as those discussed above, I will quote it at some length:

The objectors perhaps may doubt whether human beings, if taught to consider happiness as the end of life, would be satisfied with such a moderate share of it. But great numbers of mankind have been satisfied with much less. The main constituents of a satisfied life appear to be two, either of which by itself is often found sufficient for the purpose: tranquillity and excitement. With much tranquillity, many find that they can be content with very little pleasure; with much excitement, many can reconcile themselves to a considerable quantity of pain. There is assuredly no inherent impossibility of enabling even the mass of mankind to unite both, since the two are so far from being incompatible that they are in natural alliance, the prolongation of either being a preparation for, and exciting a wish for, the other. It is only those in whom indolence amounts to a vice that do not desire excitement after an interval of repose; it is only those in whom the need of excitement is a disease that feel the tranquillity which follows excitement dull and insipid, instead of pleasurable in direct proportion to the excitement which preceded it (U 18).

Once again, in this passage, linguistic difficulties appear to hamper Mill’s explication of his extended senses of ‘pleasure’ and ‘happiness’ The relationship between ‘pleasure’ and the terms ‘tranquillity’ and ‘excitement’ first introduced in this passage remains unclear. For example, the phrase "with much tranquillity, many find they can be content with very little pleasure" is in apparent conflict with the later phrase describing tranquillity as "pleasurable in direct proportion to the excitement which preceded it." This conflict might be resolved by interpreting ‘pleasure’ in the former phrase in the narrow Benthamite sense and in the latter phrase in Mill’s own extended sense.

What is extremely interesting about this passage, however, is that it suggests the use of tranquillity and excitement as criteria for evaluating lives as satisfied or happy in the broad sense of those terms. Mill suggests that the satisfied life consists in a balance of tranquillity and excitement, not, as he had already pointed out, in a state of continuous highly pleasurable excitement (U 17). It should be noted that the distinction between tranquillity and excitement is different from Mill’s previous distinction between higher and lower pleasures, and the criterion here suggested is independent of the experienced judges’ test. Unlike the experienced judges’ test, this criterion attempts to characterize (in very general terms) the nature of valuable experiences and of happy lives.

I view the above passage, then, as an attempt by Mill to produce a criterion of valuable experience (and of a valuable life) which is both broader and more subtle than Bentham’s concepts of pleasure and pain. Unfortunately, Mill does not develop this criterion any further in Utilitarianism. It does, however, sufficiently resemble a criterion proposed by Hartshorne to merit a comparison of the two. Following Whitehead, Hartshorne uses the concepts of harmony and intensity to signify aspects of experience similar to Mill’s tranquillity and excitement (AMV 303-04; cf. MT 19). For Hartshorne, as for Mill, beautiful or valuable experience is a result of the balancing of these two qualities. Unlike Mill, however, Hartshorne provides a further characterization of the special sense in which he uses the concepts of harmony and intensity as criteria for valuable experience. Harmony is said to be the mutual adaptation of the constituents of an experience, including the absence of irreconcilably opposed elements. Intensity, on the other hand, depends upon contrast, the integration of diversified stimuli within an experience. Optimum experience, then, consists in a balance of harmony and intensity, or unity and diversity (AMV 304).

An experience may be unbalanced toward either pole -- too much harmony without sufficient intensity produces boredom or sleep, and too much intensity without sufficient harmony produces confusion, pain, or shock. Unlike Mill, Hartshorne applies these concepts primarily to the structure of individual experiences. Hartshorne also uses them to evaluate sets of experiences, however: "the very contrasts between cases of ideal beauty and distortions toward either extreme of un-unified diversity and undiversified unity can themselves, taking life as a whole and memory of other cases into account, enrich the total beauty of experience" (AMV 304-05). Though Hartshorne’s analysis of the aesthetic structure of experience is more sustained than Mill’s, both recognize the importance of a balance between simple harmonious experiences (tranquillity) and more complex or intense experiences (excitement). This agreement is noted in thesis (4). Given the basic similarity of their approach, Hartshorne’s more fully developed doctrine can, I believe, be viewed as at least a plausible interpretation of Mill’s briefer remarks on "the main constituents of a satisfied life" quoted above. It provides what Mill’s doctrine of different qualities of pleasure requires, namely, a broader conceptual framework for evaluating experience than that proposed by Bentham, and, I believe, a more attractive criterion than the experienced judges’ test.

Thesis (5) asserts the moral significance of all experience. This thesis points out the fundamental importance of altruism for Hartshorne and Mill. Both theories view the overall or total enhancement of experience, with the experience of each individual given equal consideration, as the ultimate goal of action. Concern for the good of others, then, should be a motivation as strong as, if not stronger than, one’s concern for one’s own good. Mill expresses this point as follows:

[T]he happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agent’s own happiness but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. (U 22)

Hartshorne also offers an unequivocal statement of the scope of moral concern:

Not just tomorrow concerns me but my life as a whole, and not just that one human being which I am, or my little circle, but human beings generally, so far as I have dealings with them or can influence them. Indeed, not human life only but life as such is the final referent of thought. (BSI 205; cf. AI 368)

Hartshorne and Mill both claim that in living an unselfish life one reaps benefits not only for others, but for oneself as well, such as a satisfaction experienced in benefiting others and a freedom from undue anxiety about one’s own personal future (U 18, 21-22; AMV 308).

Thus far, I have attempted to demonstrate that Mill and Hartshorne accept five basic ethical theses. Both acknowledge the utilitarian principle that morality consists in the production of the best experience for the greatest number. Both recognize different kinds of experience and propose a general criterion for evaluating experience based on the interaction of contrasting qualities. Although Mill and Hartshorne use different terms to refer to these qualities, their characterization of the qualities suggests some basic similarities between the two sets. Given all of these areas of agreement and the absence of any significant disagreement, I conclude that Hartshorne defends a fundamentally utilitarian moral theory closely resembling that of Mill.

II. The Justification of Utilitarianism

Basic differences between Mill and Hartshorne are to be found, not in their principles of morality, but in the reasons each offers for accepting a utilitarian moral theory. These differences reflect, in turn, the basic divergence of the two philosophers in epistemological and metaphysical matters -- Mill is a thoroughgoing empiricist who holds that even mathematical propositions are generalizations from experience (SL 147-69) while Hartshorne defends a rationalistic metaphysics including a priori proofs for the existence of God (CSPM 43-56). Despite this basic divergence, however, the two philosophers face similar questions of justification. In this section I will briefly review and compare the claims made by each in two areas: (1) the justification of happiness as the fundamental object of desire and (2) the justification of altruism.

One of the most widely discussed aspects of Mill’s theory is his so-called "proof" of the principle of utility (U 44f). Mill contends that the general happiness must be held to be good because every person desires his own happiness. Happiness is, moreover, said to be the ultimate good because nothing is desired except as a means to or as a part of happiness (U 48f). True to his empiricist principles, Mill admits that his assertion of the ultimacy of happiness in human motivation is "a question of fact and experience, dependent, like all similar questions, upon evidence" (U 49). He does not, however, go on to offer any direct empirical evidence for this claim. Rather, he defends his position by responding to two objections.

Against the objection that virtue as well as happiness is desired for itself, Mill admits that virtue can be desired for itself, but argues that virtue is desired for itself only when its exercise is experienced as pleasurable. In that case, however, virtue is not different from happiness, but rather is a part of happiness (U 46-48). Against the objection that people do will things without thought of the happiness involved or even contrary to their own happiness, Mill replies that the will can be moved by force of habit to choose things which are in fact no longer desired (U 49f ).

In sum, then, what Mill offers is a series of psychological claims about relationships among desire, happiness, virtue, and will in human beings. In the absence of empirical data to support these claims, Mill simply appeals to his readers to make their own observations; he asserts that in doing so, they will recognize that pleasure or happiness is in fact the sole object of desire (U 49). General agreement on these claims, however, seems to be either unlikely or vacuous depending on how broadly the terms ‘pleasure’ and ‘happiness’ are understood. Also absent from Mill’s account is any explanation why pleasant experience is the ultimate object of desire. Perhaps Mill viewed this simply as a brute fact, or perhaps he would have relied on psychologists for a developmental or structural explanation for happiness as the basis of motivation. In any case, I believe it is clear that Mill grounds his "proof" of the principle of utility on what he believes to be observable regularities of human nature.

Mill has been widely criticized for making a fallacious inference from the fact that pleasure is desired by everyone to the moral claim that it ought to be desired. Although such an inference is clearly illegitimate, Alasdair Maclntyre suggests that Mill’s intentions here have been misunderstood. According to Maclntyre, Mill’s remarks are not intended as a formal deduction; rather, Mill is offering an ad hominem argument against anyone who claims that pleasure is not desirable (SHE 239). This ad hominem argument, of course, would be based on Mill’s efforts in this chapter to show that pleasure or happiness alone is desirable. Maclntyre’s interpretation squares better than that of critics like G. E. Moore (PE 66f) with Mill’s own claim that he cannot give what is "commonly understood by proof’ for his doctrine, but will present only "considerations capable of determining the intellect either to give or withhold its assent" (U7).

In a somewhat different vein, John Bawls suggests that Mill’s "proof" of utility amounts to this: If happiness is the sole good (and this is what Mill attempts to show in his chapter on the proof of utility), then the greatest happiness principle is the only plausible candidate for a single ultimate standard of morality. Hence, Mill can urge that utilitarianism be adopted on the grounds that it is the only plausible theory which can accomplish the all-important function of making moral judgments rational or systematic. In other words, only the principle of utility can avoid intuitionism (TJ 562, also 40f). I will not here venture an opinion as to whether Maclntyre’s or Bawls’s interpretation of Mill’s "proof" of utility is more nearly correct; I will only note that according to both interpretations, Mill’s conclusion depends on his psychological arguments purporting to show that happiness is the sole object of desire.

In order to justify his acceptance of a utilitarian moral theory, Hartshorne must also face the question why a certain kind of experience should be acknowledged as the ultimate end of human action. Like Mill, Hartshorne responds to this question by making a factual claim about the fundamentality of "high quality" experience as an object of desire. Unlike Mill, for whom this is an empirical claim about human nature, however, Hartshorne views it as an implication of a Whiteheadian metaphysical system which is held to be valid for all possible states of the universe.5 In this system, experiences (or "feelings") are the primitive constituents of all reality. Moreover, the basic principle of motivation -- in fact, the "glue" of the whole universe -- is the "intrinsic value of experiencing," "the appeal of life for life, or feeling for feeling, of experience for experience, consciousness for consciousness -- and potential enjoyment for actual enjoyment" (BSI 203).

This "intrinsic value of experiencing" is measured according to the criteria of harmony and intensity mentioned in the previous section. Those criteria are also held to have metaphysical generality, that is, they are valid not only for human beings, but for any possible state of reality. Both intellectual value, or truth, and ethical value, or goodness, are said to presuppose the aesthetic value of experience and to have primarily instrumental value in their ability to enhance the intrinsic value of experience (AMV 308). Unlike Mill, then, Hartshorne does not merely assert the fundamentality of happiness for motivation; rather, he derives this conclusion from a metaphysical system in which the concept of experience figures prominently in the basic structure of reality. The philosophical appeal of Hartshorne’s argument, therefore, is heavily dependent on whether one finds his metaphysical principles themselves well-founded.

Our discussion thus far has focused on the importance of individual happiness as a motivating force in human beings, as expressed in Mill’s claim that each person desires his own happiness and his claim that virtue is desired because it makes the virtuous individual happy (U 48). It appears, however, that Mill commits a simple fallacy of composition in inferring from each person’s desire for his own happiness that the general happiness is a good to the aggregate of all persons.6 The egoist will surely reply as follows: "The fact that I desire my own happiness is no reason why I ought to desire the greatest happiness for the greatest number. In fact, a desire for the general happiness might often interfere with my achievement of my own happiness." Mill seems, then, to require a further premise in order to make an inference from desire for individual happiness to desire for the general happiness.

Justifying the need for an altruistic point of view may, in fact, be the most important task of any utilitarian. It is, after all, utilitarianism’s basic appeal to concern for others which most clearly distinguishes it from all those ethical theories based primarily on self-interested desires. Such theories range from simple egoism to the sophisticated theory of justice developed by John Rawls. Rawls acknowledges, in fact, that if one substitutes perfect altruism for Rawls’s own assumption of mutual disinterest as the primary motivation of individuals in the philosophically most favored choice situation (the original position), the principle of utility would be chosen over Rawls’s own principles of justice as the best guide to a just society (TJ 188f). Rawls describes perfect altruism as the attitude of persons whose desires conform to an optimal social distribution of happiness as determined by an impartial and benevolent spectator with complete knowledge of the relevant circumstances. This notion of the impartial spectator, which Rawls attributes to Hume and Adam Smith, is also employed by Mill (TJ 184; U 22).

Given the importance of altruism for his theory, then, why does Mill not anticipate and respond to the egoist’s objection stated above? Does Mill have an argument in defense of altruism? I suspect that the force of the egoist’s objection to his "proof" of utility did not strike Mill because of his previous arguments in Utilitarianism regarding the ultimate sanction of the principle of utility. There Mill argues that the primary source of utilitarianism’s strength as a guide to action (its "ultimate sanction") is to be found in "the social feelings of mankind -- the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures" (U 40). Like the desire for happiness, Mill claims that this desire for unity is "a powerful principle in human nature." Akin to his claim for the primacy of happiness in human motivation, then, Mill offers as yet another assertion of psychological fact, another "principle of human nature," the claim that the happiness of others is a desire of each person and an important part of each person’s happiness. It is significant, however, that Mill holds that the pleasure of acting beneficently is not innate; rather it is a result of the fact that acting beneficently is an important cause of one s own pleasure, and hence is closely associated with pleasure early in life (MEW 259-60). In fact, Mill believes that the continuing growth of civilization will encourage individuals to form an even stronger association of their own interests with those of others:

In an improving state of the human mind, the influences are constantly on the increase which tend to generate in each individual a feeling of unity with all the rest; which, if perfect, would make him never think of, or desire, any beneficial condition for himself in the benefits of which they are not included. If we now suppose this feeling of unity to be taught as a religion, and the whole force of education, of institutions, and of opinion directed, as it once was in the case of religion, to make every person grow up from infancy surrounded on all sides both by the profession and the practice of it, I think that no one who can realize this conception will feel any misgiving about the sufficiency of the ultimate sanction for the happiness morality. (U 41f)

In what sense, however, is Mill’s assertion that altruistic concern is a principle of human nature a defense against the egoist’s objection? It is, I suppose, a defense in the same ad hominem sense in which his assertion of the centrality of happiness as an object of desire is a defense against the critic who denies the desirability of happiness. That is, in response to the question: Why should I be concerned about the happiness of others? Mill can respond: "You should be concerned because your own happiness depends on theirs."

This argument for altruism, however, has a serious weakness which is not shared by the previous argument for happiness. Mill readily acknowledges that the identification of self-interest and other-interest in human beings is far from perfect -- in fact, we have seen that Mill urges the inculcation of a stronger concern for others into everyone. But since this is the case, the above response to the egoist’s challenge will fail whenever the egoist faces a self-sacrifice situation, a situation, that is, in which self-interest and the interests of others do not coincide. In such a self-sacrifice situation, promoting the general happiness does not enhance one’s own individual happiness. Furthermore, if Mill’s response to the egoist would depend solely on the fact that altruism often enhances individual happiness (and I can see no other grounds for a response in Mill), then Mill requires an independent argument for his claim that a more complete identification between self-interest and other-interest in human life should be encouraged.

With regard to the altruistic nature of utilitarianism, Hartshorne once again offers a metaphysical justification in place of Mill’s psychological claims. As we have seen, the process metaphysics defended by Hartshorne takes momentary individual experiences or events (Whitehead’s actual occasions) as the primary and concrete constituents of reality. Each individual experience, according to Hartshorne, is influenced by and in turn influences a plurality of other experiences. The basic structure of reality, therefore, is social. Personal identity picks out but one strand of inheritance within a much more complex network of social interaction. Because the influence of an experience is not restricted to its own personal sequence, its concern need not be restricted to future states within that sequence. Rather, Hartshorne claims, the basic concern is for all future experiences to which one can contribute. Personal self-interest is but one special case of this general concern, albeit one with regard to which the subject usually has the most knowledge and influence. Given this fundamentally social structure of reality, Hartshorne maintains that striving only to achieve one’s own future satisfaction is an irrational limitation of the scope of one’s efforts (BSI 209, 212-14).

Hartshorne offers another (and stronger) defense of altruism in response to a serious criticism of the previous justification. It may be argued that if reality is a social process composed of momentary feelings, all contributions made by one individual to others are bound to be ephemeral, ultimately insignificant, and hence not a rational concern. One’s achievements, in other words, are scattered about in other experiences, and are, sooner or later, forgotten and lost. Hartshorne asserts in response that the value achieved through human effort need not be ephemeral or insignificant. Indeed, he maintains that individuals can make a lasting contribution to the entire future, not just a short-lived contribution to a few successors. This goal is achieved, according to Hartshorne, by the inclusion of all felt values within the divine consciousness. Hartshorne conceives God as a being who experiences every event as it occurs, retains all achieved values with his cosmic experience, and makes that experience available in turn as a guide to future events (CSPM 236-40). Thus, all achieved values are held forever in the divine memory; moreover, these values become a part of God’s supreme and all-embracing influence on the world.

Hartshorne’s doctrine of God, which he has developed and defended throughout his long and prolific career, plays a crucial role in his justification of utilitarianism. In fact, given his emphasis on the nature of God as a universal experiencer who shares the joys and sorrows of the world, God assumes, for Hartshorne, a role in some ways similar to that of Hume’s impartial spectator. God possesses all the relevant information, perfectly adequate reasoning ability, and a perfect sympathy with the feelings of each individual within the social system (BSI 207). Moreover, at every moment God actually integrates the feelings of every individual into his own all-embracing experience. The divine experience, therefore, perfectly reflects the net balance of happiness over suffering in the world. It is a perfect measure of the degree to which the utilitarian goal has been achieved.

For Hume and Mill, the idea of the impartial spectator is chiefly an heuristic device, a tool for weighing goods within a single system and unprejudiced by selfish interests. Rawls criticizes this device on the grounds that it "does not take seriously the distinction between persons," but rather combines the disparate interests of different individuals into a single value system, that of the impartial spectator (TJ 27, cf also 188-90). Mill’s only apparent reply to this criticism, namely his claim that taking the interests of others into account in fact serves individual happiness, depends on self-interest. As we have seen, Mill admits that self-interest and altruism are not always congruent. Hence, he appears to have no justification for a general practice of including the interests of different individuals within a single system of evaluation.

Hartshorne, in contrast, is able to challenge the moral significance of individual independence on several grounds. First of all, his conception of reality as social process makes individual personal identity through time an abstraction from a more concrete network of social interaction which unites individuals. Moreover, Hartshorne is able to appeal to the divine experience not merely as an heuristic device, but as an actual integration of disparate feelings into a single all-embracing reality. Relying, then, on a process metaphysics, Hartshorne might reply to Rawls that distinctions between individuals are less significant than their social interaction and their unification within the divine experience. Thus, utilitarian moral principles most closely correspond to the basic structure of reality as posited by his metaphysical system Since ultimate value in Hartshorne’s view is achieved in the divine experience, human beings are morally bound to contribute to that experience by acting according to utilitarian principles.

In sum, then, we have seen that Mill and Hartshorne address similar problems of justification, albeit with different solutions. Mill’s defense of utilitarianism in both of the areas discussed is based on appeals to psychological fact. Mill’s first claim that happiness is the ultimate object of all desire seems very questionable, based as it is on psychological evidence which is both suspect in itself and too narrow in scope to establish his conclusion. I have suggested that Mill’s defense of altruism relies on a second claim that altruism contributes in some degree to each individual’s own happiness. This claim, however, cannot sustain the unqualified altruism of the greatest happiness principle. Hartshorne, on the other hand, grounds his utilitarianism on basic metaphysical doctrines. Utilitarianism in ethical theory does indeed appear to reflect most faithfully the emphasis of process metaphysics on experiential values and social interdependence.

III. The Problem of Justice

Probably the most well known, and the most serious, objection to the classical utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill is the charge that it conflicts with certain fundamental claims of justice or fairness. According to this objection, if we adopt the greatest happiness principle as the ultimate criterion of morality, it becomes our duty to treat some people unfairly, provided it can be shown that such action would promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Two standard examples will serve to illustrate this objection. If the cultivation of the greatest amount of Mill’s higher or intellectual pleasures could be realized in a certain society only by the slave labor of a small group within that society, then it appears that we would, according to the principle of utility, be required to enslave that group in order to promote the greatest happiness. Or, if we could avoid a great amount of suffering (a riot, perhaps) by the sacrifice of an innocent individual, then we ought to sacrifice that individual. In these cases, the grossly unfair practices of slavery and the killing of the innocent, although they seem intrinsically reprehensible, would be obligatory according to utilitarian principles.

Mill himself recognized some degree of tension between justice and utility, for the entire final chapter of Utilitarianism is devoted to an attempt to clarify the relationship between the two concepts. Mill concludes, however, that although justice may sometimes appear to be a moral standard independent of utility, in fact we can adequately account for the claims of justice only if we view them as derivative from and subordinate to the greatest happiness principle. Mill does not consider anything like the slavery and riot examples presented above. Remarks like the following, however, suggest that he would be forced to concede the possible justifiability of slavery or the killing of the innocent on utilitarian grounds: "All persons are deemed to have a right to equality of treatment, except when some recognized social expediency requires the reverse (U 77f). A defender of Mill might argue that unfair practices like slavery never promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. This generalization, however, depends as much on the nature of all the social conditions which could obtain as it does on the principle of utility. Given a commitment to utilitarian calculation as the basic decision procedure, one cannot rule out the possibility that circumstances might arise which would justify unequal treatment in a particular case.

In section I, we have seen that Hartshorne, like Mill, affirms as an ultimate principle the maximization of intense, harmonious experience. For Hartshorne, too, then, the value of justice or equal treatment is dependent upon its contribution to overall utility. Like Mill, of course, Hartshorne can allow that establishing certain basic rights may be a good way to promote overall utility, but he must also allow that such rights should be abolished if they interfere with the production of the greatest good. In the previous section, we have seen that Hartshorne’s commitment to a process metaphysics allows him to offer a stronger defense of a utilitarian ethical theory than Mill. One might also argue that this metaphysical view provides some explanation for subordinating the claims of justice to those of utility. That is, claims for equal treatment for individuals may be held to depend on a doctrine of personal identity which is less fundamental than the doctrine of social inheritance underlying claims for the maximization of the total welfare.

Like Mill, Hartshorne must contend that a full philosophical analysis of our intuitions regarding justice will demonstrate that whatever legitimacy they have derives ultimately from their role in maximizing utility. Accordingly, he must reject as misleading and false the strong intuitions and considered judgments of those who would oppose slavery and the killing of the innocent in the above mentioned examples. Although Hartshorne provides more in the way of an explanation for subordinating justice to utility than does Mill, his position is still vulnerable to any theory which can provide a cogent defense of the centrality of justice for ethical theory.

Finally, Hartshorne’s ethics raises some puzzles of its own. For example, Hartshorne’s position would appear to imply the same subordination of justice to utility considerations in the divine will as is demanded of human wills. But this view of the divine will has some seriously counterintuitive consequences. Hartshorne holds that suffering or evil is the result of inevitable conflicts between creatures (CSPM 237f; see also AMV 311f). Given such inevitable conflicts, then, it would appear that a God motivated by utilitarian aims must will that some individuals be forced to suffer in order to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But willing that some individuals be forced to suffer for the good of others would appear, at least, to be incompatible with a divine concern for the welfare of every creature: There is a sense, then, in which Hartshorne’s God is not impartial after all. That is, he is willing to permit the suffering of certain individuals, namely, those whose suffering can contribute most to the welfare of others. Thus, the conflict between considerations of utility on the one hand and justice on the other appears to be as problematic on the divine level as it is on the human.

IV. Conclusion

This paper is intended as a first attempt at relating the traditions of process philosophy and utilitarian ethics. I have argued that there is a close similarity between the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill and the process ethics" of Charles Hartshorne. This conclusion, if it can be sustained, offers both advantages and disadvantages for both traditions. On the positive side, process philosophers may look to the substantial utilitarian literature to help clarify and develop the ethical implications of process thought. Utilitarian moral philosophers may likewise appeal to process metaphysics as a powerful external justification for their ethical theory. On the negative side, insofar as either tradition depends on the other, it may also be subject to long-standing criticisms and weaknesses of that other tradition, as, for example, the problem of justice.



AMV -- Charles Hartshorne. "The Aesthetic Matrix of Value," in Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method. LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court, 1970. Pp. 301-21.

BSI -- Charles Hartshorne. "Beyond Enlightened Self-Interest: A Metaphysics of Ethics," Ethics 84/3 (April, 1974), 210-16.

CSPM -- Charles Hartshorne. Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method. LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court, 1970.

ES -- F. H. Bradley. Ethical Studies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1876.

ME -- Henry Sidgwick. The Methods of Ethics. 7th ed. London: Macmillan, 1907; rpt. New York: Dover, 1966.

MEW -- John Stuart Mill. Footnote to Chapter XXIII of James Mill’s Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind (1869), reprinted in Mill’s Ethical Writings, ed. J. B. Schneewind. New York: Collier-Macmillan, 1965.

PE -- G. E. Moore. Principia Ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903.

PML -- Jeremy Bentham. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, in The Utilitarians. Garden City, New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1973.

PP -- Rem B. Edwards. Pleasures and Pains: A Theory of Qualitative Hedonism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979.

SHE -- Alasdair MacIntyre. A Short History of Ethics. New York: Macmillan, 1966.

SL -- John Stuart Mill. A System of Logic. London, 1843; rpt. London: Longmans, Green, 1936.

TJ -- John Bawls. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap-Harvard University Press, 1971.

U -- John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism. London, 1863; rpt. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.

WMP -- Richard S. Davis. "Whitehead’s Moral Philosophy," Process Studies 3/2 (Summer, 1973), 75-90.



*I would like to thank Loretta Kopelman, James LeRoy Smith, and an anonymous reader for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

1 Whitehead produced no extended or systematic treatment of ethical theory, and his remarks on ethical topics are scattered throughout his later writings, especially RM, AI, and MT. Commentary on Whitehead’s moral philosophy has been largely limited to attempts at description, clarification, and systematization: see, e.g., Paul A. Schilpp, "Whitehead’s Moral Philosophy" in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, ed. Paul A. Schilpp (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1941), pp. 563-618; Lynne Belaief, "Whitehead and Private Interest Theories," Ethics 76/4 (July, 1966): 277-86; and WMP.

2 I believe that a good case can be made that Whitehead also would accept these five theses. I do not intend to defend this claim at length, but I will refer parenthetically to some particularly suggestive statements by Whitehead.

3 Sidgwick’s reply to Mill, for example, makes the same two assumptions (ME 94f).

4 See, for example, Sidgwiek (ME 406) and Rawls (T 552-56).

5 For Hartshorne’s conception of metaphysics, see "What Metaphysics Is," in CSPM, especially pp. 19-24.

6 Edwards suggests as a more sympathetic interpretation of this argument that "Mill might have been anticipating what R. M. Hare has called the ‘universalizability’ feature of language. Both descriptive and normative language incorporate a rule which says that if we ascribe a given predicate to something, we are logically committed to ascribing that predicate to anything which is like it in relevant respects’ (PP. 142f). Edwards grants, however, that Mill makes no explicit appeal to a linguistic rule of universalizability. Moreover, it seems to me that an egoist could accept the universalizability principle but insist that one of the relevant respects for ascribing goodness to something is that it be experienced personally by the egoist.

7 This problem is analogous to that faced by St. Thomas Aquinas in attempting to reconcile the Pauline statement "God wills all men to be saved" (I Timothy 2:4) with the doctrine of God’s eternal reprobation of sinners (cf. Summa Theologiae Ia. 19,6 ad 1).