Why dissatisfied Socrates is better than a satisfied pig

Jessica asked:

What do you think of Mill’s ‘pig and Socrates’ argument for the difference between sensual and intellectual pleasures?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

J.S. Mill in Utilitarianism asserted that it is ‘better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.’ This is an excellent topic for classroom discussion, especially if the instructor takes the side of the pig and challenges the class to prove him/her wrong.

Mill’s point is one that seems fairly intuitive. There are ‘better’ and ‘worse’ pleasures. Other things being equal, you would prefer the better pleasures to the worse. In fact, when it comes to doing philosophy or pigging out at a burger bar, the pleasure of philosophy is SO much better that you would prefer the not inconsiderable pain of exercising your thinking muscle to the pleasure of a Happy Meal.

In making this point Mill is arguing against Jeremy Bentham who held the view that ALL pleasures should be counted the same in the ‘hedonic calculus’ that we use to determine the morally right course of action. The only difference between the pleasure of poetry and the pleasure of pushpin (a popular bar game at the time) was that poetry is more ‘fecund’ because it has the potential to produce pleasure in a lot more people who read and enjoy the poet’s work.

The problem is that once you discriminate between pleasures in the Mill wants to do you spoil any possibility of calculating ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. How do you quantify the pleasures of philosophizing and eating, for example? Do all foods count the same? Or all philosophy?

There’s a book by a French writer Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, La Physiologie du Goût 1848 (Published by Penguin as The Philosopher in the Kitchen) which has inspired generations of master chefs. Brillat-Savarin makes the case that cooking is one of the high arts, as well as being a science. If you don’t care about the best way to fry a fish, or how to bring out the flavour of a truffle, there’s no hope for you. You are not a civilized human being.

Where I live in Sheffield, most people appreciate a well fried fish. You’d have to go further afield to find fresh truffles. The sober point is that human beings are not pigs, nor should human enjoyment of food be denigrated in the way that Mill wants to do.

In the pantheon of great achievements of human culture, great chefs and their works will be up there along with great artists, poets, and philosophers – even if they are not necessarily standing on the top row.


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