Internal Moral Sanction

Explain and assess Mill’s account of conscience as the ultimate internal sanction of all morality.

John Stuart Mill was an intellectual prodigy that grew in the shadow of James Mill and Jeremy Bentham. He took their ideas about Utilitarianism and made them more accessible to the public, as well as strengthening the arguments to support the philosophy by addressing difficulties and subtleties that their concepts encountered. One objection is what ultimate sanction the morality of utility rests upon.

Mill points out that this is an inquiry that is applicable to all accounts of morality. The conclusions that Mill draws from the Utilitarianism maxim of the greatest happiness for the greatest number are things people usually agree with, such as to not steal even when you can get away with it, but he points out that people both do not know what the foundation of such moral imperatives is, nor are they often open to the idea put forth by utility, but they are unsure as to why. The layperson often has the correct intuition in application, even though the underlying principle remains unknown to them.

Mill notes that the external sanctions used for any philosophy of morality also apply to Utilitarianism and the idea of the good as the greatest happiness. These are twofold. One, sanction from other people. Whether we are seeking their approval, or avoiding their disapproval. Whether the result will be a harsh remonstrance, a knowing glance, or something more sinister. Two, sanction from God. The same possibilities apply in that case.

The idea of an internal sanction is that the conscience is a felt duty to perform or not to perform an act. And when there is a violation of this duty then there is guilt, remorse, and regret. This too, Mill points out, is no different than other theories of morality. This internal emotional pain is the necessary sanction for any internal moral sanction. From whence it comes is a complex subject. Mill states that we develop it over our lives through our social and educational upbringing. If this is lacking then a person may not feel such an internal sanction, and the only way for them to be restrained by moral principles is through external sanctions.

External sanctions are always there, providing a context for the development of other moral capabilities. Humans have a propensity for social interaction and cohesion. As civilization advances and greater numbers work together this becomes self reinforcing, and more and more of necessity people see that their goals and objectives align, that cooperation is the key to achievement, and therefore caring for others is important. The natural social and moral dispositions that lay latent in the individual are able to be developed to such a degree that they hold the same or greater weight than external sanctions in some cases.

There are some that believe the internal conscience is more than an inner feeling. That it's a higher and more encompassing power. That there's a thread of morality that runs through the universe and includes the human soul. Mill says that this idea may or may not make a person more likely to believe in and comply with morality, but whether they do or not will still be a result of their inner subjective experience of conscience, or lack thereof.

In assessing this idea that Mill puts forth as to whether or not conscience is the ultimate internal moral sanction of morality it's important to remember to separate a few things from the consideration. Even though Mill is promoting Utilitarianism and advocating for it, the specific claim of conscience as the ultimate internal moral sanction is for all moral theories. Another thing to separate out is that he is talking about internal moral sanction, not external moral sanction. Keeping those two things in mind allows us to focus on the claim as it is.

The question then becomes from where can internal moral sanctions emanate from. If they are already in us as an innate mechanism that tells us what to do even in detail. Or, if they are already in us as an innate mechanism that tells us what to do in principle. Or, if there is an innate disposition in us to take in the moral social tendencies that we grow up with and around. Or, if there is no innate mechanism and all of morality is garnered through our education and upbringing. All of these potentialities converge in that they must exert an influence upon the acting person to be a moral sanction at all. Otherwise it may be an idea, but it cannot be applied to the world and is therefore inert and not an actionable morality.

This convergence point that leads to an actionable inner morality is what Mill terms the conscience. To contradict Mill's position then we would need to redefine his term of conscience from an all encompassing concept bordering on complexity beyond understanding to the extent that it's easy for people to believe that it has a mystical quality, as Mill recognizes. Any separation of such terms could easily be incorporated under the umbrella of the designation as an aspect of conscience as well. At that point the difference would be semantic rather than substantive.

The only other option is to say that there is an internal morality that is separate from our internal experience. Where may this other internal morality come from would be a grand uncertainty. How would we know of it even more so. And, since it has no compelling force it would exert no influence upon people or the world, making its existence the same as if it didn't exist.

If Mill's position about the conscience being developed from an innate disposition that is highly adaptable through education and social upbringing is true, then the particular moral system that is instilled in the conscience is open to a variety of avenues. And the social structures in a developed society can develop the conscience in a direction that would emphasize the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This is rational since all people desire their own happiness, and it is through structured rules across cooperative interactions that allows for the greatest happiness. This is what Mill proposes.

Mill in his effort to further promote Utilitarian ideas confronted difficulties that are shared with all moral theories. Others define terms and construct conceptual systems differently than Mill. But, in the way that he gives an account of conscience, it is the ultimate internal sanction of all morality.



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