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.
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