J.S. Mill on higher and lower pleasures

Amanda asked:

One objection to utilitarianism is that it places too much emphasis on pleasure. After all, if we lived for pleasure we would just spend all of our time eating and getting massages. Such a life, according to those objectors is fit only for swine. John Stuart Mill says that it is not utilitarianism but those objectors who represent human nature in a degraded light.

Explain Mill’s point here.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Mill was unable to completely break free of his father’s and Bentham’s tradition of framing all consequences in terms of quantity of pleasure and pain.

This produced several problems:

(1) if total quantity of pleasure is what matters, then an oyster with a tiny bit of pleasure but living a very, very, long time, would be a better life than, say, Haydn’s full and successful 77 years (the ‘Haydn and the Oyster’ objection).

(2) a life of swinish pleasures would seem satisfactory, provided the pleasures are pleasurable enough.

(3) a brain-in-a vat life with intense pleasure supplied by the mad scientists in charge would also seem satisfactory.

(4) the pleasure felt by, say, sadistic child torturers would count on the plus side.

Your question refers to (2).

You ask what is Mill’s point when he says that it is not utilitarianism but rather the objectors who represent human nature in a degraded light.

As far as I can make out from the text (Utilitarianism, Chapter 2), both Mill and the objectors agree that humans are capable of more than swinish pleasures. The objectors say that utilitarianism ‘supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable’. Not so, says Mill, he recognizes the distinctly human pleasures, so that it is not he, but rather the objectors, who take this degraded view of humanity.

But then Mill has to depart from the simple ‘quantity of pleasure’ view. which, earlier in the text, he endorsed. In order to elevate the distinctly human pleasures above the swinish, he distinguishes ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures, but of course this introduces a moral good other than straightforward quantity of pleasure. Mill also explains that a small quantity of a higher pleasure is worth more than any vast quantity of a lower pleasure, that a higher pleasure is preferred even if it entails some discomfort, and that these distinctions between the two kinds of pleasure have been made by people who have experienced both. It all seems ad hoc, he gives no survey data to support his position, and one feels that the so-called ‘higher’ pleasures are unnecessarily intellectual, and just the pursuits that Mill and his friends enjoyed.

Mill would have done better to abandon the Benthamite narrow, hedonistic view of happiness as quantity of pleasure, given up talk of higher and lower pleasures altogether, and framed consequences in terms of welfare, interests, satisfaction, preferences (as later consequentialist views do), or a broader view of happiness akin to Aristotle’s eudaimonia (flourishing, fulfilment).


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