More on Mill’s understanding of higher and lower pleasures

Marisol asked:

How is Mill’s understanding of higher pleasures related to questions of beneficence, self-sacrifice and social reform?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is a continuation of a question which I answered last week, from Jessica who asked Why dissatisfied Socrates is better than a satisfied pig.

Let’s assume that Mill is right in drawing a distinction between higher and lower pleasures within a utilitarian theory that seeks to maximise happiness. Last time, I considered the problem of quantifying the difference in value between different pleasures. But let’s assume that isn’t a problem. We are not looking for a quantifiable decision theory but just a guide to making the right moral choices in a particular situation.

In utilitarianism, of whatever flavour, every moral act is an act of self-sacrifice, insofar as I, the agent, consider my needs, interests and desires as counting for one and no more than one in the overall calculation. Very few people would think like this, but that is what utilitarianism requires when strictly followed through. Given the millions and millions of potential recipients of my beneficence, my needs and interests don’t get much attention.

On the other hand, a utilitarian could make the case that if I don’t look after myself, and see that I need the basic things to keep me happy, then I am not going to be very good at promoting the happiness of others. So let’s waive this point.

What is beneficence? I love philosophy. I think it’s a wonderful thing. So, naturally, I would like others to like it too. But let’s say you prefer getting drunk and partying all night. All you ask from me is money for beer. You are most upset that I will only give money to pay for your self-improvement by taking a course in philosophy. This is one of the fracture points of consequentialist ethics. R.M. Hare takes the view, for example, that it is ‘fanatical’ to impose one’s likes and dislikes on others, and that includes beliefs about which pleasures are ‘higher’ or ‘lower’. If money for beer is what you desire, then I should give you money for beer.

(Just as an aside, in terms of beer money, it occurs to me that the cost of a Pathways Program taken over 30 weeks, is equivalent to one bottle of beer a day. Not such a good example, then!)

So the thing with beneficence in relation to the higher and lower pleasures is that one is faced with the old problem, do you give people what they want, or what you think would make them better, lead them to experience the higher pleasures?

With the distinction between higher and lower pleasures there arise new opportunities for self-sacrifice. If you lack the intelligence to take a course in philosophy, then it seems that according to Mill you are morally bound to support those who can, even at the cost of denying yourself the lower pleasures.

I’m not going to discuss social reform, because I think you can probably work this out for yourself, from what I’ve said.

Good luck with your essay.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.