Is Mill’s distinction of higher and lower pleasures justified?
In an attempt to amend the traditional Benthamite hedonic calculus in which simply the quantity of pain or pleasure is considered, Mill, within his Utilitarianism, postulates an additional qualitative distinction resulting in the notion of a ‘higher’ or a ‘lower’ pleasure. Scholars have since questioned whether such a distinction is truly justified; as Martin observes: ‘Mill’s contention has been subjected to a widespread , and withering, philosophical criticism.’ (Rex Martin (1972). A defense of Mill’s Qualitative Hedonism. Philosophy, 47, p.140) In this essay, I will seek to sustain the line of argument that, if Mill is to maintain the label of a true hedonist, his distinction between higher and lower pleasures is unjustified. Hedonistic title aside, it appears that the higher/lower pleasure distinction presents numerous other difficulties, both theoretically and practically. Though many might view the distinction as a necessary one, Mill’s justification of it is not strong enough to avoid further problems for the Utilitarian.
Before engaging in evaluation of Mill’s qualitative hedonism, it is perhaps worth clarifying the distinction between, and reasons for the distinction between, higher and lower pleasures. Mill, amongst others, recognized the limits of Bentham’s utilitarian approach; Bentham argued that pleasure could be measured solely on quantity famously asserting that, ‘quantity of pleasure being equal, pushpin is as good as poetry.’ (Bentham, quoted in G E Moore. Principia Ethica ) All pleasures were, by nature, equal in value. Adopting this view could arguably open the Utilitarian up to issues like those presented in the ‘Haydn and the Oyster’ thought experiment; many would be unwilling to assert that the oyster life would be the more pleasurable, comparatively, than the life of Haydn though this is what Bentham’s quantitative approach would seem to imply. Martin highlights the key features of the qualitative distinction: firstly, mental pleasures are intrinsically higher in quality than bodily pleasures. Furthermore, ‘the ‘superiority in quality’ might be ‘so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account’ (Rex Martin (1972). A defense of Mill’s Qualitative Hedonism. Philosophy, 47, p.140) ; no amount of lower pleasure could outweigh one intrinsically higher. Finally, the decision as to whether a pleasure should be deemed desirable should be that of ”the preference’ of experienced judges’, (ibid.) someone who has knowledge of both and therefore the authority to assess.
It is widely recognized that Mill, in adding a qualitative aspect to pleasures, presents himself with a dilemma. It seems logically impossible for Mill to maintain his hedonistic ideals (evident, as Crisp demonstrates, from his affirming the greatest happiness principle: ‘pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends’), and still hold that pleasures differ qualitatively, since if he were to assert that a higher pleasure is higher because of its intrinsically being more pleasurable, he would be admitting that quantity of pleasure is of sole importance. Yet, if pleasantness is not what makes something preferable then he would have to relinquish the notion that pleasure is the only thing desirable as an end (M. Smith and E. Sosa, quoted in: Rex Martin (1972). A defense of Mill’s Qualitative Hedonism. Philosophy, 47.), thus, his hedonism. ‘Either quality collapses into quantity and Mill has made no advance on Bentham, or Mill can no longer count himself a (full) hedonist.’ (Crisp, Roger, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism. London, 1997.) Maintaining that a pleasure is intrinsically higher in quality without being higher in quantity implies that there must be an additional factor at play more desirable than pleasure itself. Crisp suggests this quality might be one of a ‘self- realizing’ (ibid.)nature; this would arguably not present a problem were it not to compromise the notion of pleasure as the highest good. Even if the defense of Mill’s hedonism was not of concern, the inconsistency between the greatest happiness principle and the higher/lower pleasure distinction still seem to be inconsistent as a matter of the internal logic of Mill’s argument.
However, it is worth noting, as Martin does, that the coherency of the above criticism rests on a specific interpretation of the text itself. It seems that Moore, for example, understood the text under the interpretation that ‘Mill was not attempting to hold with respect to pleasures that the preferred kind is more pleasant than the other.’ (Rex Martin (1972). A defense of Mill’s Qualitative Hedonism. Philosophy, 47, p.142) Upon this basis, he could construct the criticism that if a preferable thing is not more pleasant, ‘preference is just a judgement of that intuitional kind… good is good and indefinable.’ (G E Moore. Principia Ethica ) However, the situation is entirely transformed by an alternative textual reading such as that put forward by Martin: if ‘Mill believed that kinds of pleasure do differ in their degree of being pleasant and that the higher or preferred kind is the more pleasant one, then the critics would have no basis for saying that hedonism and Mill’s qualitative distinction are in principle incompatible.’ (Rex Martin (1972). A defense of Mill’s Qualitative Hedonism. Philosophy, 47, p.143) It is possible, then, to find consistency within Mill’s account if read under a certain interpretation; however, an opinion which requires re-interpretation and clarification by its readers is arguably ambiguous and therefore not fully justified in the first place. Mill doesn’t justify his qualitative distinction in enough detail to avoid these criticisms and his ideas being justified on his behalf doesn’t mean that he, himself, justified them well. In addition, I think the second potential reading put forth by Martin is, in itself, inconsistent with what Mill says; if he was saying that higher pleasures were, in fact more pleasant then Mill perhaps would not need to focus so much attention on the notion that humans would not want to relinquish these higher faculties/pleasures due to a sense of dignity.
Aside from inconsistency worries, it seems that the notion of a qualitative distinction encompasses numerous other problems. Firstly, Mill suggests that expert judges who have experienced both higher and lower pleasures are those in a position to ascertain which pleasures are higher and which lower. ‘If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality…’ (Mill, Utilitarianism, chapter 2) However, it seems that even the judgement of these supposed experts would change with context; one might prefer poetry to drinking water, for example, until one is severely dehydrated. Arguably, higher faculties can only be used to produce higher pleasures if the more primitive needs are satisfied. Though Mill does not obviously say that our more animalistic desires, for example, need not be gratified, this needs to be the case before anyone would think of choosing so-called higher pleasures of preference. In addition, Mill stipulates that these judges must have experience of both types of life- essentially, one with the gratification of lower pleasures and then higher pleasures. However, a life evidently consists of the gratification of both; has any person really had experience of one without the other in order to make a judgement as to which is preferable? Most, I think, would agree that they would expect themselves to prefer a life full of higher pleasures but it is not the case necessarily.
Crisp certainly voices my own opinion when he questions the dividing line between bodily and mental pleasures which Mill emphasizes. Many do acknowledge that ‘pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments, a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation’ (ibid.) but at which point does a pleasure become either bodily or mental; couldn’t it be both? Crisp expresses the view with an example: ‘…it is difficult to find a clear criterion for placing a pleasure on one side of the divide or the other. When you savior the Lagavulin, the pleasure you take in it would seem to be quite different from that your whisky-loving dog takes in it. You can reflect on its origins and the way it is produced, comparing its flavor to other whiskies using a broad vocabulary referring to properties to which your dog is quite insensitive. But your pleasure is a bodily one, and certainly involves certain sensations.’ (Crisp, Roger, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism. London, 1997.) This argument seems to apply to rather many experiences we might consider pleasurable; a mental pleasure would not exist without a physical one and so the two are inseparable and, in turn, incomparable. In addition, it seems that a pleasure can only ever be deemed higher or lower within the context of comparison with another i.e. such and such a pleasure is higher or lower than some other. Higher and lower are, by their very nature, ‘relative terms.’ (ibid.) Moreover, when distinguishing one’s preference in terms of pleasures, some form of subjectivity is inevitable and, again, preference is context based with regards to who is judging. A wine taster, for example, tastes wine and discusses it in an intellectual sense; for him, wine tasting is a higher pleasure as it stimulates his intellect. Another person, a pianist, for example, might view wine-tasting as a lower pleasure indulging simply his base desire to be drunk. Both characters asked to choose their preference between the two (wine tasting or piano playing) would differ considerably. Any weakness to the preference test arguably weakens the notion of higher and lower since this is supposed to be the way of deciding which category a sensation falls in to.
Talk of preference with regard to pleasures also seems to me strangely misplaced; if Utilitarianism focuses on the greatest pleasure/ good for society or for people surrounding you, then what need is there to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures. Are moral decisions not meant to be made on an objective basis?
It suffices to say by way of conclusion, that Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures is, overall, unjustified. It is perhaps fair to say that the idea itself is, in a sense, justifiable as most would agree that a simplistic indulgence of base pleasures should be discouraged. However, it is evident that many find fault with the consistency between the qualitative distinction and Mill’s own hedonistic values. In addition, the utilitarian is arguably faced with a number of issues when attempting to actually enforce the distinction.
Mill’s Adopted Stance: Is Act or Rule Utilitarianism Better?
It is widely accepted that Utilitarianism, as a discipline, is not as unifying or as straightforward a moral theory as it might at first appear; as Crisp highlights, there are, in fact, ‘many variations, some of them subtle, others quite radical, between different forms of utilitarianism’; representing two of these various forms are ‘Act’ and ‘Rule’ Utilitarianism. In this essay, I will aim to discuss the efficacy of the Act and Rule Utilitarian stances respectively, ultimately concluding that Act Utilitarianism, the stance I believe Mill himself adopts, is the better of the two and promotes the most coherent and valuable interpretation of the Utilitarian principle. Prior to engaging in an exploration of the relative successfulness of Act and Rule Utilitarianism, it is perhaps worth outlining the distinction between them. At a basic level, Act (sometimes referred to as ‘direct’) Utilitarianism can be defined as the moral theory which advocates that ‘an act is right insofar as its consequences for the general happiness are at least as good as any alternative available to the agent.’ For the Act Utilitarian, as Crisp more concisely states, ‘the right action is that which maximizes happiness.’ For the Rule (or indirect) Utilitarian, the rightness or wrongness of an act is determined not necessarily by whether it promotes the greatest happiness but whether it complies with certain rules which, if everyone were to follow them, would result in the greatest amount of happiness; ‘An act is right insofar as it conforms to a rule whose acceptance value for the general happiness is at least as great as any alternative rule available to the agent.’
Undeniably, if one were to adopt the Act Utilitarian stance, one would be met with numerous points of contention which would require careful thought if one were to defend the chosen viewpoint coherently. Perhaps one of the most apparent issues is that of time-wasting. Act Utilitarianism requires an agent to consider, at the point of being presented with any dilemma, which of a series of potential actions, would result in the greatest happiness and the least amount of pain. For anyone, this would be a long and complex process and would not lend itself to making decisions at a pace which would then allow time for actual action. A moral dilemma, for example, which involved saving lives in a burning house would not be best approached using such a long-winded decision making process; it ‘lays an impossible burden of calculation on the moral agent.’ Secondly, I think the spontaneity problem is one which should be taken seriously with regards to Act Utilitarianism; many would acknowledge spontaneity as one of life’s great pleasures; if we were to analyse to such an extent, every action, life would become over-planned and over-examined and, in turn, decrease the general happiness. This is obviously not what any Utilitarian would be inclined to encourage. In addition, we might consider what is sometimes referred to as the ‘precedent effect’; if an Act Utilitarian deems an action to be correct in a given set of circumstances (theft, for example), he might set a precedent for himself or for others around him encouraging similar behaviour in a set of circumstances which are not exactly the same. Due to the obliviousness of the Act Utilitarian principle to moral laws, it is entirely likely that in certain situations the methodology would lead one to commit actions which he/she would deem morally repugnant by normal standards. Crisp alludes to this idea when he argues that if we were to live in a world of what he refers to as ‘single-level’ Act Utilitarians, ‘though presumably you could, being human, not help enjoying certain experiences, such as eating tasty food, you and everybody else would adopt no aim other than to maximize welfare. You would have no qualms about such actions as killing, hurting or lying to others.’ I do think, however, that Crisp’s distinction is an important one; ‘single-level’ act utilitarianism is arguably the type from which these numerous problems would stem. He certainly voices my own opinion in maintaining that a society which centred around this moral theory would be highly dysfunctional.
Thus far, then, we can see that there are numerous points at which the effectiveness of the Act Utilitarian principle on a one-dimensional, simplistic level might be called into question. However, I am unconvinced by the ability of the Rule Utilitarian stance to solve any of the issues explored above. Regarding the time-wasting objection, it does not seem that adopting Rule Utilitarianism could save any significant amount of time when making moral decisions; there cannot possibly be a list of rules so long they cover any possible dilemma (if there were, this would present a problem in itself as time would be wasted trying to remember such an extraordinary number of rules) and if the list of rules were only limited then time would be wasted attempting to choose the appropriate rule for the situation in hand. The spontaneity objection still remains; the addition of a series of rules to life would certainly suppress impulsiveness. Rule Utilitarianism might arguably rid one of the burden of the precedent effect but, in my opinion, it would replace it with a problem of greater proportions, namely, the worship of rules, potentially to an extent which is simply no longer Utilitarian. For example, if breaking a rule would undoubtedly lead to the greatest happiness and the least amount of pain, then surely it is the Utilitarian duty to disregard the rule? In the case of a rule, the precedent is already permanently set and it might be the wrong one in a given situation. Not only does rule utilitarianism not resolve many of the issues presented by act utilitarianism, it also carries with it numerous other problems. For example, the range of potential moral dilemmas is entirely too wide for a set of rules to cover all bases, so to speak; a number of questions would remain unanswered. In addition, rules often give guidance as to what not to do but might not shed any light on what to do instead.
Theories of action should answer the question ‘what should I do?’ and it doesn’t seem as if these rules would be extensive enough to answer that question. It seems, then, as if neither ‘single-level’ act utilitarianism nor rule utilitarianism are really sufficient. However, what I would consider to be Mill’s own interpretation of act utilitarianism, which Crisp terms a ‘multi-level’ view, seems a more moderate and workable stance. Mill maintains that society should continue to abide by the ‘customary morality’ which it has cultivated since those rules have proved historically to contribute to the general happiness. As Crisp maintains: ‘Mill thinks that customary morality…has emerged ‘due to the tacit influence of a standard not recognised’ (1.4). Human beings are by nature concerned with their own happiness, and this concern, extended to others, has led, without our fully being aware of it, to the development of a customary morality founded in large part on the principle of utility.’ These general principles of morality Mill believes should be put into practice until a situation arises in which these principles conflict; at this point the principle of utility should come into play. This adherence to supposed ‘rules’ or generally accepted moral principles, some have seen as a sign of Mill’s adoption of a rule utilitarian stance. But it seems that this is not the case since Mill simply maintains that we should follow these rules because, historically, they have proved to promote the most happiness after consideration via act utilitarian methodology. Adhering to these general principles is simply skipping a step already completed throughout history. Mill uses an analogy of navigation to illustrate his relationship to the rules of morality; they are guidelines for achieving the ultimate utilitarian end: ‘It is a strange notion that the acknowledgment of a first principle is inconsistent with the admission of secondary ones. To inform a traveller respecting the place of his ultimate destination, is not to forbid the use of landmarks and direction-posts on the way. The proposition that happiness is the end and aim of morality, does not mean that no road ought to be laid down to that goal, or that persons going thither should not be advised to take one direction rather than another.’
This view definitely seems to be a less extreme ‘one or the other’ approach to Utilitarianism than single-level act or rule utilitarianism and seems to avoid many of the pitfalls. This stance does not wed an agent to a particular set of rules which might, ultimately, lead to a non-utilitarian act being committed, yet it also saves time through the acceptance of generally accepted happiness-inducing principles. The evidence with Utilitarianism does seem to be consistent with the act utilitarianism viewpoint. Some, however, seem to identify Mill’s stance more with that of the rule utilitarian; Urmson holds such a view. It is not within the scope of this enquiry to examine Urmson’s viewpoint extensively but I shall attempt to mention a couple of his main arguments. He claims the correct interpretation of what Mill is saying in Utilitarianism is that: ‘A particular action is justified as being right by showing that it is in accord with some moral rule. It is shown to be wrong by showing that it trangresses some moral rule.’ He claims substantial textual support for this claim; for example, ‘But to consider the rules of morality as improvable is one thing; to pass over the intermediate generalisations entirely, and endeavour to test each individual action directly, is another’ This doesn’t however, wed Mill to the Rule Utilitarian view. Indeed, he does acknowledge moral rules which should be generally accepted but the fact is is that these moral laws have been previously crafted via the methods of act utilitarianism; only through discovering which moral rules tend to produce the greatest happiness, have these laws been adopted. Mill is not blindly following a set of rules, but is simply acknowledging that these rules enable one to skip a step which has already been completed; since it has already been decided which actions would benefit society as a whole if society, on the whole, were to adopt them, the act utilitarian can rest safe in the knowledge that they have acted in the most moral way.
According to Urmson, the use of the term ‘tendency’ seems to be acknowledging an adherence to Rule Utilitarianism. Quinton summarises why this might be the case: ‘An individual action cannot have a tendency. Producing certain effects more often than not cannot be characteristic of an individual action which occurs once and once only and has one and only one set of effects. Only a kind or class of actions can have a tendency to promote happiness or anything else.’ However, this doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the adoption of rules and only rules; we might follow moral laws because they have a tendency to promote happiness because this is what we have historically found. Why would we act alternatively to what has historically encouraged happiness? In addition, Crisp notes that ‘it was standard in the utilitarian tradition to refer to the tendencies of individual acts.’ The word has no bearing on Mill’s understanding of the definition of utilitarianism and should perhaps just be accepted as a linguistic point as opposed to philosophical.
It seems apparent that neither a simplistic act utilitarianism nor rule utilitarianism can provide a fully comprehensive moral view. However, an act utilitarianism which accepts certain basic moral generalisations (founded via the methods of act utilitarianism) seems to achieve more success and avoids many of the common pitfalls. Within the text, it is clear that this is the interpretation Mill himself adopted.
 Crisp. Mill on Utilitarianism. Chapter 5, P.97  Brink, David, “Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
Reconciling the Contradictions of Mill’s Preference-based Utilitarianism
In Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill advances the “greatest happiness principle,” which “holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to produce happiness…[and] by happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain.”  Mill supplements the “greatest happiness principle” with the argument in Chapter II that some types of higher pleasures are intrinsically of a greater value than others, as competent judges prefer them even though they are attended by a lesser degree of pleasure. However, it is difficult to defend the anti-hedonist principle of higher pleasures as a central doctrine of Mill’s hedonist utilitarianism. Given that hedonism considers one pleasure of a finite amount as equal to another pleasure of the same finite amount, it seems that qualitative distinctions between pleasures cannot be reconciled without importing value-based principles foreign to traditional hedonism. This conflict is further complicated by the implications of Mill’s conclusions on virtue. Mill claims in Chapter IV that virtue has no superior intrinsic value, despite its preferred status – it is merely instrumental to happiness. It quickly becomes evident that the higher pleasures of Chapter II are unlike the virtue of Chapter IV: the higher pleasures are intrinsically more valuable, whereas virtue’s value lies only in its preference. In Chapter IV, Mill provides a new framework for his preference-based utilitarianism – based on a dichotomy between will and desire – which offers a means to attempt reconciliation between the inconsistent implications of Mill’s conclusions in Chapter II and IV. Nonetheless, it becomes evident that Mill’s theory of utilitarianism cannot be supported, as the distinction between will and desire proves to be an insufficient antidote against the internal contradictions of his preference-based utilitarianism.
In Chapter II, Mill posits his view of preference-based utilitarianism. It is possible to distinguish between two interpretations of this form of utilitarianism: the first claims that it is the satisfaction of our preferences that has value, and the second claims that it is the objects of our preferences that have value. In Chapter II, Mill clearly aligns himself with the second form of hedonist utilitarianism. Mill’s argument in Chapter II seeks to answer an essential phenomenological question: Is an object valuable because we prefer it or do we prefer an object because it is valuable? Mill argues for the latter: the intrinsic value of the object precedes the preference and a competent judge’s preference for one object of pleasure over another indicates a superior intrinsic value in that object. Note that this argument is largely contingent on the competence of the judge. Mill develops the following argument in Chapter II as justification for his initial position on preference-based utilitarianism:
Pleasure Preference Argument
A) “Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all of almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable [and valuable] pleasure” (9).
B) “Those who are equally acquainted with and capable of appreciating and enjoying both do give a marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties” (9).
C) Therefore, the pleasures which employ the higher faculties are more desirable and valuable.
Assuming those who are equally acquainted with both types of pleasure in Premise B act irrespective of any moral obligation to prefer it (a requirement of Premise A), and the judges are competent and well acquainted with both pleasures, the argument is deductively valid. Mill’s argument may even be defended against the objection that an object being desired is not desirable, per se – Mill uses “desirable” to mean necessarily desired, but this conclusion may not follow from the fact that the object is desired. However, Mill would likely respond that the “competent judges” will always be successful in identifying the more valuable pleasure and so for these wise judges, the higher value object will always be desired. Therefore, Mill could argue that those pleasures of higher faculties, always preferred by the competent judges, are necessarily desired – or desirable – at least to the competent judges. Because a full investigation of the conditions necessary to be a competent judge is well beyond the scope of this paper, Mill’s argument will be accepted. Additionally, Mill claims that the higher value of the preferred pleasure is more clear in those instances where they prefer one object of pleasure “even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent” (9), or less pleasure. If this is the case – and if the judges are truly competent and unmistaken in their preference – then Mill’s argument is sound.
Mill then distinguishes between satisfaction and happiness, demonstrating that pleasure and happiness are not necessarily the same. Mill argues “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” (10). It should be noted here that Mill does not say that it is better to be Socrates unhappy than a fool happy – happiness and satisfaction are not synonymous. Mill is incredibly clear: “Whoever supposes that this preference [for the pleasure of higher faculties] takes place at a sacrifice of happiness – that the superior being in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior – confounds the two very different ideas of happiness and content” (9). And again, Mill claims that the satisfaction of the higher pleasures brings a greater amount of happiness, even when accompanied by “a greater amount of discontent” (9), or a lesser amount of pleasure. Therefore, it becomes unmistakably clear that while satisfaction/contentment are obviously not synonymous with happiness, pleasure is not the same as happiness either. However, this seems to be in conflict with Mill’s earlier definition of the ‘greatest happiness principle,’ in which he claims “by happiness is intended pleasure” (7). The only conceivable solution to this contradiction is the following: even if pleasure is the sole constituent of happiness (according to Mill’s earlier claim), not all pleasures contribute equally to happiness: the pleasures of the higher faculties contribute more to happiness than do the lower pleasures.
Mill’s valuation hierarchy of pleasures becomes more difficult to defend, however, once he addresses the concept of virtue in Chapter IV. In this chapter, Mill arrives at conclusions regarding the relationships between pleasure, desire and happiness that seem to directly contradict the implications of Chapter II. Mill’s utilitarianism “maintains not only that virtue is to be desired, but that it is to be desired disinterestedly, for itself” (36). However, Mill explains that this is merely a psychological phenomenon: an individual may originally desire an object (virtue) as a means to pleasure, but as he becomes more and more habituated into this mode of behavior, he may cease to look beyond this object of his originally instrumental preference. This object then becomes a final preference, pursued as an end in itself. Mill is clear that virtue does not gain a higher degree of value through this normative phenomenon, but is desired more nonetheless. Mill even relates the instrumental desire for virtue to a miser’s desire for wealth, as both are merely means to happiness that become conflated with ends in themselves. Ultimately, Mill concludes that virtue becomes a part of happiness, as it is pursued as an end yet happiness is derived from it. A person who desires virtue “is made, or thinks he would be made, happy by its mere possession; and is made unhappy by the failure to obtain it” (38). And Mill argues that preferences make those preferred “sources of pleasure more valuable” (38). Thus, while Mill argued in Chapter II that the pleasures of the higher faculties are intrinsically superior in value to the lower pleasures, Mill argues in Chapter IV that virtue’s value lies predominantly in the desire and preference for it.
Mill then claims that based on his explication of the psychological phenomenon surrounding virtue’s status as a part of happiness, it is evident that “to think of an object as desirable (unless for the sake of its consequences) and to think of it as pleasant are one and the same thing” (39). However, in Chapter II, Mill demonstrated that competent judges desire those higher pleasures that will bring them the most happiness, even when they are attended by less pleasure or more pain. Mill’s previous argument in Chapter II was based on the assertion that not all pleasures contribute equally to happiness, and so the “competent judge” will desire those objects of pleasure that contribute the most to happiness. Based on Mill’s previous argument, if an individual merely desires those objects that are the most pleasant (as Mill argues should be the case in Chapter IV), then he may only attain the lower pleasures of sensuous objects and will never attain happiness. Mill would refer to this individual as a “satisfied fool” in Chapter II, as opposed to the unsatisfied Socrates who still possesses more happiness than the fool. It seems that Mill’s position in Chapter II cannot be supported in light of Mill’s later claim that the desirable is the same as the pleasurable.
At the end of Chapter IV, however, Mill provides an explanation to this seeming contradiction and provides a new framework in which to reevaluate the higher pleasures in Chapter II and virtue in Chapter IV: “the will is a different thing from desire” (39). Mill continues to explain that will is an active phenomenon and is different from the passive sensibility of desire for pleasure. Mill explains that will “may in time take root and detach itself from the parent stock” (40), and through mere habit, an individual may desire an object only because he wills it. This may explain how virtue can be desired for itself, even when accompanied by less pleasure, and also may explain the phenomenon of the higher pleasures being preferred, and even desired, despite their providing a lesser degree of pleasure than the lower pleasures offer.
Nevertheless, Mill clarifies that “will, in the beginning is entirely produced by desire” (40). Therefore, the competent judge’s will toward the pleasures of higher faculties in Chapter II must be preceded by desire for them. Given Mill’s claim in Chapter IV that we only desire that which is pleasurable, it becomes necessary that at some point in the past, the pleasures of the higher faculties were accompanied by a greater degree of pleasure than were the lower, sensuous pleasures. This desire must have later transformed to will and even after the pleasure derived from the higher pleasures decreased to less than that of the lower, sensuous pleasures, the will remained and desire for the will formed out of habit. On first glance, this seems to be an effective reconciliation of Mill’s treatment of higher pleasures in Chapter II based on the framework provided in Chapter IV.
Mill challenges this new theory, however, when he claims in Chapter IV “that which is the result of habit affords no presumption of being intrinsically good” (41). Yet he claimed in Chapter II that the higher pleasures are intrinsically “more valuable than others” (8). As it becomes a necessity to consider the competent judges’ preference for higher pleasures a habitual preference – in order to avoid the contradiction that is present when an individual desires an object which affords less pleasure than other objects (from Chapter IV) – it becomes impossible to maintain that the higher pleasures are intrinsically more valuable than the lower pleasures in Chapter II. Clearly, the conclusions drawn by Mill in Chapter II cannot be reconciled with the contradictory conclusions of Chapter IV.
In Chapter II, Mill “assigns to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation” (8) – even though the pleasures of the higher faculties are accompanied by less pleasure than the lower, sensuous objects. In Chapter IV, Mill argues that the pleasures of virtue are “sources of pleasure more valuable than the primitive pleasures,” (41) – even though they too may be accompanied by less pleasure than the primitive, lower pleasures. On first glance, these conclusions seem to be in agreement. However, Mill posits in Chapter II that the higher pleasures are intrinsically more valuable than lower pleasures, whereas he claims in Chapter IV that the preference for virtue is the source of its value and that one can only prefer an object that gives less pleasure than another based on simple habit. Mill argues at the end of Chapter IV that people are mistaken to value these objects of habitual preference over other more pleasurable objects and, in doing so, directly opposes his assertion that higher pleasures have more intrinsic value than lower pleasures which are subjectively more pleasurable. Thus, the additional happiness derived from higher pleasures is merely additional happiness derived from habitual action. Perhaps these contradictions could be explained through an investigation of the temporal relations at play, as the preference of higher pleasures occurs at one instant in time whereas the preference for virtue is formed over a certain length of time. However, without this additional inquiry, Mill’s position on higher pleasures simply cannot be reconciled with his treatment of virtue.
 Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Ed. George Sher. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001. Print. 7
Mill’s Proof of Utilitarianism
The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible is that people hear it: and so of the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it. If the end which the utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself were not, in theory and in practice, acknowledged to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was so. No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness. This, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons. Happiness has made out its title as one of the ends of conduct, and consequently one of the criteria of morality.– J.S. Mill, UtilitarianismMill’s proof of the utilitarian doctrine, that happiness is the only thing desirable as an end, has been accused of committing more than one error. Scholars have berated the fourth chapter of Mill’s Utilitarianism for containing sloppy logic, false analogies, and improper generalizations. He apparently misuses an analogy between the way the senses perceive information about what is true, and the way that we can tell if something is desirable, confusing what is capable of being desired with what is worthy of being desired. Later, he seems to make an unjustified generalization from the claim that happiness is a good to each individual, to happiness being a collective good worthy of promoting. In this paper, I will give an interpretation of Mill’s proof that rescues him from committing the naturalistic fallacy, and the fallacy of aggregation. This interpretation hinges on a close reading of the third paragraph of Chapter Four and a clarification of what Mill really means when he says that happiness is a “good” to each person. The origins of Mill’s method are empiricist; his proof is grounded in experience and observation, which empiricists believe to be the sources of knowledge. Alternative theories suppose the existence of a priori knowledge, or try to base proofs on intuitive or innate notions. But to evaluate Mill’s proof, we must first accept this epistemological theory of knowledge. This theoretical perspective informs proof and examples Mill offers, which draw from our experiences and from what seems innately true. The proof that appears in chapter four is meant to show that happiness is desirable as an end, and that it is the only thing desirable as an end. Essential to this proof is the controversial claim that the only way we can know if something is desirable is that people do actually desire it. This central contention is the source of much debate, but I will discuss its validity for now. First, I will examine the context in which Mill makes this claim. Mill’s project is to demonstrate that people do, in fact, desire happiness (and happiness alone). He admits that there are things that people desire which seem to be apart from happiness: money or power, for example. But the pursuit of an end that seems to be distinct from happiness, Mill argues, must be driven by a desire to seek pleasure. “Whatever is desired otherwise than as a means to some ends beyond itself, and ultimately to happiness, is desired as itself a part of happiness, and is not desired for itself until it has become so,” (Mill, 37). This is a fail-safe conception, according to Mill, for even if we desire things that are not happiness, we do them only because they produce pleasure, which is itself a part of happiness. In that way, when we desire things apart from happiness in and of themselves, we do so because they ultimately produce that happiness which is our ultimate end. While Mill acknowledges that people might pursue things other than happiness, he insists that they never desire to do so. Since, according to his conception, desire serves as the only evidence of moral value, happiness reappears as the only end worth pursuing.After addressing the separate ends apart from happiness that humans seem to pursue, Mill sums up his defense by claiming that with “practiced self-consciousness and self-observation, assisted by observation of others” we can discern that people do, in fact, desire happiness and happiness alone as the ultimate end, (Mill, 38). This is all the evidence Mill believes he needs to successfully prove that happiness is uniquely desirable for every- and anyone. Criticisms of Mill’s Proof: The Naturalistic Fallacy and the Fallacy of AggregationThe first objections to Mill’s proof arise from his earlier claim about the way we know something is desirable. In the first phrases of this third paragraph, Mill compares this process by engaging an argument from visibility to desirability:The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible is that people hear it: and so of the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it, (Mill, 34).Just as we take someone having seen something as evidence that it is visible, so, Mill argues, do we take someone actually desiring something as evidence that it is desirable. This argument provides the shape for Mill’s claim that happiness it the only thing desirable as an end.Mill’s analogy is a response to the opening claim of the fourth chapter, which is that “questions of ultimate ends do not admit proof, in the ordinary acceptation of the term,” (Mill, 34). According to Mill, proving that humans desire happiness uniquely as their ultimate end will not be possible by ordinary means. Instead, he seeks to convince the reader through this analogy. Mill asserts not simply the validity of his analogy from visibility to desirability, but also the exclusive power of his example to serve as proof for his claim.This is also where Mill supposedly commits the naturalistic fallacy, sometimes called the “is-ought” fallacy because it involves the confusion of what seems to be the case with what ought to be the case. It emerges as Mill appears to confuse two possible meanings of the word “desirable.” His line of reasoning posits that the only evidence it is possible to procure that something is visible or audible is that someone sees or hears it. We use our senses to assign these qualities to objects. Similarly, Mill would like to argue, the fact that something is desirable can only be proved by whether or not people view it as such. If people desire something, then, it is desirable. It is this line of reasoning which leads Mill to claim that he has provided the only possible proof that happiness is, indeed, desirable as an end. And from here, he goes on to show that happiness is the only thing desirable as an end. But critics of this argument argue that, even if his line of reasoning from visibility to desirability were valid, it would prove only that happiness is “capable of being desired’ in the same way that something might be capable of being seen. This analogy cannot make any claim about the second meaning of “desirable” — whether happiness is at all valuable or worth desiring. It is this second definition of desirable that Mill needs to prove. As Moore seems to points out:Mill has, then, smuggled in, under cover of the word ‘desirable,’ the very notion about which he out to be quite clear. ‘Desirable’ does indeed mean ‘what it is good to desire’; but when this is understood, it is no longer plausible to say that our only test of that is what is actually desired, (Moore, 67). Indeed, Mill’s original assertion is that there are no ordinary methods of proof available for the claim that happiness is the only thing capable of being desired. But once understood in this way – not as what it is possible to desire, but as what is worthy of being desired — desirability seems to admit alternative sources of evaluation. When Mill moves to ascribe moral value to the pursuit of happiness based on this apparent example of the naturalistic fallacy, critics claim that his analogy undermines his entire argument.In the very same paragraph, Mill continues to commit a second apparent fallacy; after moving from the observation that people do, in fact, desire their own happiness, to the claim that happiness is desirable as an end, he contends that the general happiness is desirable. To Mill, it seems to follow logically, from the conclusion that happiness is desirable to each individual person, that the general happiness is desirable: “No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness,” (Mill, 34). This is known to critics as the fallacy of aggregation, since Mill does not appear to provide any compelling reason we should believe that, since individuals perceive their happiness as a good, that the aggregate of all persons’ happiness would be considered a good. It seems just as reasonable to deduce that people would consider their own happiness to be a good, but have no similar feeling about happiness for all people.Rescuing Mill from These Two Fallacies: A Reinterpretation of What it Means to Be “A Good”Mill claims that whether or not happiness is the only thing desirable as an end cannot be proved by ordinary logical methods. “It has already been remarked that questions of ultimate ends do not admit proof, in the ordinary acceptation of the term,” (Mill, 34). Instead, the validity of such a principle can be brought out by examining our experience, and determining whether or not it seems to be the case – based on the way we conduct ourselves – that something is a good.For something to be a good is for it to be recognizable as something that is desired in and of itself, and regardless of who is the recipient. Anyone would recognize a good as valuable and desirable, independently of whether or not it was valuable or desirable to them, personally. For example, suppose that there were delicious candy right in front of me. Regardless of whether or not I get a piece of that candy, I acknowledge that it is a good; it is something desirable, not in the sense that it is “capable of being desired” , but that it is worthy of being desired. The value we place on this candy makes it a good because it does not depend on whose good it is — its worth is intrinsic to its nature.This is what Mill means to convey when he declares that “the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable is that people do actually desire it,” (Mill, 34). The only way to come to a conclusion about what is valuable as an end is to determine whether or not people recognize that end as an intrinsically valuable good. The only way that we know that candy is a good is that anyone would admit to its value: (and regardless of whether or not it was theirs). As Tim Mawson describes in his interpretation of Mill, “Actually being (ultimately) desired is the only evidence we could have that a thing is capable of being (ultimately) desired,” (Mawson, 397). It is this objective determination of what is desirable which leads Mill to claim that happiness is a good. Thus while it seems that Mill commits the naturalistic fallacy, such a reinterpretation of what it means to be a “good” has the immediate effect of rescuing him. While he appears to confuse what is the case with what ought to be the case, in fact, Mill is actually trying to make an empirical claim about the nature of the way we know something to be the case. According to this view, “we have the concepts, evidence, and knowledge we do only thanks to our having experiences of a certain sort,” (Sayre-McCord, 12). In this way, we can only know that something ought to be desired based on conclusions we can draw from what we observe people desiring. The things we desire are objectively valuable “goods.” Mill is depending on the fact that we desire something as establishing that we see it as a good. We have no other way of knowing that something should be desired other than to ascertain whether or not that thing is a good. If something is a good, then it is objectively valuable, and therefore worthy of promoting.It is Mill’s very conception of what it means to be a good which rescues him from the fallacy of aggregation. To Mill, that “happiness is a good to the aggregate of persons” is a corollary of happiness being a good. By “the aggregate of persons,” Mill does not mean to claim that the general happiness is a good to each and every individual. Instead, he claims that those individuals who hold that their own happiness is a good to them as an individual are committed to view the happiness of others as a good to those others. If I recognize that my own happiness is a good to me, then I acknowledge that happiness is a good to anyone who desires it. Thus, the happiness of all people is a good to all people. This, again, follows from Mill’s conception of the objective value of a “good.” In this light, we have rescued Mill from the apparent fallacy of aggregation that exists in his claim that:…we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons, (Mill, 34). This statement is logically valid so long as we accept Mill’s premise – his conception of a “good.” From that premise, it follows both that individuals desire their own happiness, and that the general happiness is desired by the collective of all people. ConclusionWhile this interpretation rescues Mill from committing two obvious and costly errors, it also adjusts the scope of his claim. When he wrote this defense of utilitarianism as a doctrine, he must have had a particular sort of audience in mind: someone who would be willing to acknowledge that they view their own happiness as a good. Mill then demonstrates that this acknowledgement is the only evidence we could ever possible ascertain to prove that happiness is desirable. He concludes that happiness must be desirable because people do desire it, just as something must be visible if people do see it.But what of those who would not agree to this original contention, that we view happiness as a “good?” This is a question which Mill himself does not address. His method is to identify notions which people generally hold, and show that those generally-accepted ideas commit people to further conclusions. Mill observes that happiness seems to be desirable, and intends to use this as happiness that happiness is the only thing desirable as an end. If we would not agree, as we very well might not, that people seem to desire happiness – that they instead seek other things, like power – then Mill has in fact done nothing in this chapter to convince us of his view. Works CitedMawson, Tim. “Mill’s Proof.” Philosophy. Vol. 77 No. 301 (2002): 375-405.Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Edit. George Sher. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1979.Moore, George E. Principia Ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903.Sayre-McCord, Geoffrey. “Mill’s ‘Proof’ of the Principle of Utility: A More Than Half-Hearted Defense.” Social Philosophy and Policy. Vol. 18 No. 2 (2001): 330-360.
John Stuart Mill and Slavery
In the mind of John Stuart Mill, free education for children is one of the major duties of society in order to maximize not only happiness but a higher form of pleasure. In fact, John Stuart Mill’s version of utilitarianism was the basis of most of his liberal beliefs including the emancipation of slaves and equal rights for women. In his response to Thomas Carlyle on the subject of slavery, he states “Work, I imagine, is not a good in itself. There is nothing laudable in work for work’s sake. To work voluntarily for a worthy object is laudable; but what constitutes a worthy object?” (Mill, Jan 1850) Utilitarianism renders Carlyle’s main argument that slavery is good for the slave because the slave is put to work moot.
This characterizes much of Mill’s philosophy. John Stuart Mill encapsulates utilitarianism when he states that: “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. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” (Mill, 1863) While this statement makes utilitarianism sound like a hedonic philosophy, Mill took a social approach to explaining utilitarianism. One should note even here that Mill did not say personal happiness or personal pleasure even that is a fairly expected interpretation.
One could also note that Mill often used the arguments of utilitarianism to promote projects that he felt were beneficial to the social order. The above quote about slavery comes as a direct challenge to Thomas Carlyle who argued that slavery was part of the natural order and that it was ultimately beneficial since it put the slaves to work. In the context of utilitarianism, neither argument is solid since slavery was created from an unjust system of piracy and kidnapping. Furthermore, work cannot be an end in itself and must have a higher purpose.
Fortunately, we need not extrapolate Mill’s position from other works as he attacks the belief that making pleasure and freedom the only desirable ends is somehow “a doctrine worthy only of pigs.” (1863) John Stuart Mill states that some kinds of pleasures are more desirable than others. He specifically notes that in judging pleasures, “we take into account the quality as well as the quantity.” (1863) In other words, there are mental pleasures which last longer are the higher pleasures and they have the quality. There might be a pleasure in eating beef, but it is a pleasure that is lower because it is a transitory animal desire that is being fulfilled.
In discussing the higher and the lower pleasures he makes the judgment that “it is an unquestionable fact that the way of life that employs the higher faculties is strongly preferred to the way of life that caters only to the lower ones are equally acquainted with both and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both.” (1863) While he makes a point when he offers up the examples of intelligent human beings, educated persons and person of feeling refraining from choosing to be foolish, ignoramuses or selfish, it does seem like there is a little too much positivism in the argument. After all, human beings can be capable of being intelligent and foolish in equal measures. A respected community leader could become caught up in a scandal involving prostitutes. Medical doctors are the most enthusiastic purchasers of cigarettes even though they know the dangers.
On the other hand, we are talking about an ideal state in which people can choose the best possible way to bring higher pleasure to the most people. Mill answers this challenge by noting that “Men’s infirmity of character often leads them to choose the nearer good over the more valuable one.” (1863, p. 7) There are other dynamics including addiction, compulsion and mental illness. These were not the kind of dynamics that would often appear in 19th century philosophy and certainly not in the ubiquitous state that they enjoy today.
John Stuart Mill makes an argument for the education of children when he states: “I believe that before they devote themselves exclusively to the lower pleasures they have already become incapable of the higher ones. In most people a capacity for the nobler feelings is a very tender plant that is easily killed, not only by hostile influences but by mere lack of nourishment; and in the majority of young persons it quickly dies away if their jobs and their social lives aren’t favorable to keeping that higher capacity in use.” (1863)
In order to enjoy the higher pleasures in life, people need to be educated. The social milieu that characterized 19th century discourse was brutal and highly polarized. Children would begin working at a young age and they would never have the chance to be exposed to the higher pleasures. The capacity for nobler feelings that John Stuart Mills characterizes as a very tender plant would automatically die and shrivel in an environment that lacks education.
Mill continues his discourse by stating that “Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they don’t have time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to lower pleasures not because they deliberately prefer them but because they are either the only pleasures they can get or the only pleasures they can still enjoy.” In this case, Mill is talking about someone who has a choice of higher or lower pleasures. However, in the case of these men, the lower pleasures are more available. There are several difficulties in this discourse. The most prominent question is what constitutes a lower and a higher pleasure. Generally, we can say that lower pleasures are basic and carnal pleasures like food and alcohol or dangerous carnal relations. The higher pleasures are mental pleasures like reading poetry or going to the symphony. Yet, where does that put folk music or popular literature? The pleasure from reading Tolstoy is different than the pleasure that comes from reading a romance involving a vampire and a young girl; however, can we put these books in different levels of pleasure? Or are they both higher pleasures because they are both signs of literacy? How would John Stuart Mill judge the act of reading Varney the Vampyre? Thankfully, the discussion of exactly what constitutes higher or lower pleasure is outside the scope of this paper. John Stuart Mill makes a case for the fragility of higher pleasures. People may want to engage in higher pleasures, but often they are blocked from enjoying these higher pleasures due to the societal pressures of employment and daily life.
Free education for all children means that children from all walks of life are given the choice between higher and lower pleasures. Furthermore, Mill would see the societal obligation to educate children to be the highest pleasure of all since it is a pleasure that is based on helping the most people and doing harm to the fewest. John Stuart Mill believed that everyone should indulge in higher pleasure, yet he knew that not everyone would indulge. He felt that if given a choice that more people would indulge in higher pleasure and therefore more people would have the chance since there is often a social pull in choosing one’s pleasure.
In conclusion, John Stuart Mill defined utilitarianism in the light of higher and lower pleasures. He believed that the higher pleasures were the best choices and that these choices were not always easy to make. He championed the education of all children in order to make sure that every citizen of Britain had the choice between higher and lower pleasures, since the default often went to the lower ones, especially in the cases where people lacked the ability to read or write or think critically about their social order.
Mill, John Stuart (Jan 1850). The negro question. Originally published in Fraser’s Magazine. Retrieved from http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=255&chapter=21657&layout=html&Itemid=27
Mill, John Stuart (1863). Utilitarianism. Edited by Jonathan Bennett in Sep 2005.