Mill and higher pleasures

Lance asked:

Mill states that it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”. What reasons does he give for thinking this?

Answer by Craig Skinner

The reason he gives is that a wise man can experience the “higher” pleasures, whereas the fool experiences only the “lower” ones. And, since a small amount of a higher pleasure is worth any amount of a lower one, even if Socrates is not fully satisfied enjoying the higher pleasures, he is better off than the fool who is completely satisfied with the lower ones.

Why does Mill introduce the idea of higher and lower pleasures, and how does he distinguish between them ?

Mill frames utility in terms of pleasure (the best action to take is the one maximizing overall pleasure). In this he followed the example of his father’s friend Bentham. The latter thought all pleasures could be rated on a single scale and that “pushpin is as good as poetry” (pushpin was a simple pub game). But if pleasures can all be measured on a single scale (intensity multiplied by duration),  we get unwelcome consequences. One standard example is Haydn and the oyster: if an oyster were to  enjoy a tiny bit of pleasure for millions of years, this would outweigh the pleasure in Haydn’s 77-year life, and we would have to say that the oyster’s life was more worthwhile than that of the great composer. Indeed, in Utilitarianism (Ch.2) Mill refers to critics who say it is a “doctrine worthy only of swine”.

To avoid these consequences, Mill said there were higher and lower pleasures. Importantly, a small amount of a higher one was worth more than any amount of a lower one, thereby avoiding the eternal oyster and myriad contented pigs problems.

So, what are the higher pleasures, and how do know that they are ?

Well, the higher ones are distinctly human, whereas we share the lower ones with some other animals. He’s not very specific about the higher pleasures, and one gets the feeling these are just the pursuits he and his friends liked. And they are unnecessarily intellectual. I wonder what he’d make of today’s popular pleasures, like shopping, cooking, playing darts or poker, bungee jumping, jogging, watching people bake, dance or play football on TV.

As to how he knows the status of a pleasure, he says that those who have experienced both higher and lower pleasures prefer the higher, even in small amount, to the lower, even in large amount. But no detail is given as to this social survey, and again, I suspect he just echoes the view  of his friends and himself.

In addition to the higher/ lower distinction, Mill extended the notion of pleasure beyond sensation or feeling of wellbeing to something more like Aristotle’s eudaimonia (flourishing, living and doing well).

He would have been better off, avoiding these problems, if he had abandoned the Benthamite narrow, hedonistic view of happiness, given up talk of higher and lower pleasures altogether, and instead framed utility (maximizing the good) in terms of welfare, benefit, satisfaction or preferences, as later Consequentialists have done.


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