The Motivation and Morality in Enlightened Self-Interest An Exposition of John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism
For all atheists, where do your morals come from?
Do you believe in evil?
What is the meaning of life? Or better, does life have meaning?
John Stuart Mill, in his book Utilitarianism, establishes a theory of human motivation that leads to his code of morality. Within his theory, even a person raised in an "evil society" would eventually be able to become moral, despite social conditioning.
Mill believes humans are solely motivated by pleasure and pain-that is, the absence of pain and the augmentation of pleasure-and that actions should be judged only on the basis of whether they produce pleasure and diminish pain. As Mill states, "The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals utility, or the greatest happiness principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness" (Mill 16). However, this principle does not only apply to the self. Instead, Mill says that the goal should be to produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people (22).
But, if humans are only motivated by pleasure and pain and since a single human being can only feel her or his own pleasure/pain and nobody else's, then how are humans motivated to work towards the greatest happiness of everyone? Mill's answer is enlightened self-interest. In society, everyone is equal (45). When everyone's interests are treated equally, each individual must be conditioned over time to live cooperatively with other people, at least on a local level (45). In other words, in a society where everyone is equal, each person eventually learns that cooperation, at least over the long-run, will bring more pleasure to the individual than complete self-interest (since self-interest favors the interest of the individual over other equally as deserving people) (45). If people forget their place in society, sanctions provide reinforcement needed to help them remember.
Ideally for Mill, a person would belong to a just society where the laws reflect this system of morality that every person equally deserves happiness. That person would then be conditioned (as she or he internalized the laws) to live cooperatively in society. However, if the laws instead are partial to a certain group of people or for some other reason violate Mill' theory of universal moral law for all human beings (61-62), the person will be conditioned to those laws and his or her conscience will reflect it (and be immoral).
Nonetheless, the person would not be condemned to a life of immoral conscience. Instead, enlightened self-interest would step in again. Regardless of whether the law sanctions the equality of all, enlightened self-interest is basically an egotistical principle since in the end it promotes the interest of the individual. If a person repeatedly acts on the motives of immediate pleasure and pain, she will eventually be burned. For example, say a business owner repeatedly lies about the quality of her product to her customers to entice them to buy her product, but she sells the cheapest she can find, which quickly break. In the short term, she might gain a profit, increasing her pleasure. Eventually, though, word-of-mouth would slow down her business until it died out, definitely decreasing her pleasure in life. Had she, however, sold higher quality products and been truthful about them, her business most likely would have lasted, giving her the pleasure over time of a secure income. Therefore, acting for the whole is really in the interest of the individual. And, as Mill states repeatedly, people are motivated by self-interest in pleasure and pain.
For a person who belongs to an immoral society, he would, over time, begin to recognize that cooperation is really in his own interest and will be motivated to act accordingly. Even though it is self-interest that promotes working for the greater good, for Mill, this does not matter. It is the consequence of the action that matters. Therefore, a person, working in self-interest, who acts for the common good would be considered moral.
For Mill, morality is inextricably tied up with the idea of justice. Though Mill breaks justice into five practical applications, they can basically be summed up as: Justice is following the law (with a few exceptions, such as unjust laws), being impartial, and understanding it to be universal to all human beings (59-62). Laws supposedly should enforce these ideas, but if they do not, a person should still be able to learn justice (or feel justice) because justice is both the reasonable side of morality and the sentimental side. That is, justice can govern and critique laws through reason, but it also provides a sentiment, the feeling of justice. Mill contests that people have a tendency to believe that justice is a part of objective reality, almost an instinct (58). If justice has the emotional component, then it also makes sense that a person in an immoral society would have some idea of this sentiment.
In other words, a person who is raised in an immoral society, one whose laws do not work for the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, that person, despite social conditioning will be able to become a moral person.
the purpose within life is to be the best you can be at all times .