Utilitarianism states that “an act is only right if it causes the greatest happiness in the greatest number. ” In his essay Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill added a qualitative component to this mathematically driven theory. Mill created a distinction between higher, intellectual pleasures and lower, bodily pleasures. Mill stated that some pleasures are of a higher quality, and therefore are worth more. Additionally he stated that no quantity of a lower pleasure could achieve the same quality as a higher one.
Finally, Mill proposed that the “competent judge” of pleasure is someone who has experienced both pleasures and would always prefer one over the other (chapter 2, paragraph 5). In this paper, I will explain advantages and my criticisms of Mill’s addition and explain the differences between this theory and hedonism. Ultimately I will argue against his claim that higher pleasures should always be chosen over lower pleasures because despite being valid, his argument is not sound.
I will start with by explaining the advantages of Mill adding quality into the equation and creating a distinction of pleasures to be introduced into the theory of Utilitarianism. To begin, it seems indisputable that not all pleasures deserve equal weight. In previous Utilitarian theories all pleasures were weighted equally, and the focus was on the quantity. The distinction allowed Mill to combat this earlier Utilitarian critique. For example, let’s say there are two options for pleasure, option one allows you to eat the best deep dish pizza of all time. Option two allows you to learn a new language.
The lower pleasure would be the bodily or sensory one, eating the pizza and the higher pleasure would be the intellectual one, learning a new language. Mill states that even if you could have as much of the world’s best deep dish pizza as you desire, the quantity of the pleasure you would receive wouldn’t be enough to outweigh the quality of a higher pleasure like learning a new language. Mill says, “Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures (Chapter 2, paragraph 6). In this quote, Mill is saying that no quantity of a lower or sensory pleasure, would be worth sacrificing higher or intellectual pleasures. When Mill stated it is “better to be Socrates unsatisfied, than a pig satisfied,” he reminds the reader that happiness and contentment are not the same thing. He argues that while it may be of a greater pleasure to learn an entire language, the person who chooses that will not be more content than the person who chose to consume the world’s best deep dish pizzain fact they may be less content or satisfied.
Mill states, “A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and is certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence (chapter 2, paragraph 6). ” For example, if you learned an entire new language and spoke with people of another country, you may learn of horrible things happening like rape, war, and starvation. Naturally this would lead to a lower level of contentment.
On the other hand, if you had chosen to eat the pizza, you will simply feel full and content. However, in Utilitarianism the goal is “the greatest happiness in the greatest number,” which means you must put society above yourself and focus on pleasure rather than contentment. When we look at the two options again, it seems obvious that learning an entire new language will benefit far more people than yourself, for example this increased communication can lead to a more bolstering economy, improved relations, or increased id for people who need it most, whereas eating the world’s best deep dish pizza only benefits yourself. Therefore just because you are more content with the pizza, does not mean it offers the higher quality of pleasure. The higher quality pleasure is the one that promotes the happiness of the majority. Thus, according to Mill’s Utilitarianism each person should think about the greater happiness or utility, not just their own, which leads to picking the higher quality pleasures of the world.
A final advantage to Mill’s argument is that it recognizes and improves upon a flaw in previous Utilitarian theory, which was the extreme difficulty in “quantifying” happiness. By adding a qualitative component, Mill makes it more realistic, however he also makes it much more complex. To begin my critique of Mill’s argument, I have rewritten it for clarity. Premise 1: Lower pleasures are those that can be experienced by animals or humans, they are more sensory, bodily, and physical.
Premise 2: Higher pleasures can only be experienced by humans and are more intellectual (page 11, paragraph 1). Premise 3: Lower pleasures are of a lower quality. Premise 4: Higher pleasures are of a higher quality (page 11, paragraph 1). Premise 5: Higher quality pleasures result in a greater happiness and “Utilitarian writers have placed the superiority of mental over bodily pleasures (page 11, paragraph 1). ”
Premise 6: According to Utilitarianism “an act is only right if it causes the greatest happiness in the greatest number (page 10, paragraph 2). Conclusion: For an action to be right in accordance with Utilitarianism, it must choose the higher pleasure over the lower pleasure. Despite being valid, I do not think Mill’s argument is sound. The premises do lead directly to the conclusion, that people should always choose the higher pleasures over the lower pleasures, but the premises are flawed themselves. The very “pleasures” that allow us to survive, like eating and drinking, or “pleasures” that allow society to continue, such as sex and reproduction, would be classified as lower pleasures.
If we are to follow Mill’s conclusion and always choose the pleasure of the higher quality, the situation could become deadly quickly. For example, if I was to choose to continue reading fine literature (the higher quality pleasure) instead of taking a break to eat (the lower quality pleasure), starvation would be in my near future. As Mill declared, I can judge that reading the fine poetry is a higher quality pleasure because I have received both pleasures prior in my life, as have many others, and we have collectively determined it to be of a higher quality (page 11, paragraph 2).
My critique of Mill’s argument surrounds premises three, four, and five. There exists a hierarchy of needs, and a human can’t even experience a higher level of pleasure unless the very biological needs like food, water, and shelter, have been satisfied first. A second critique I have of Mill’s distinction of pleasures added to Utilitarianism is that when the premises are not always true, they contradict themselves, and it makes the concept too hard to apply in everyday life. Every person receives a different quality of pleasure from a different thing.
The quality of a pleasure can change from person to person, with time, weather, places, situations, and with many more variables. For example, not everyone in the world would receive the same “pleasure” from eating a cheeseburger. A child starving in Africa would receive a much higher quality of pleasure from consuming a cheeseburger than a university student in Madison. Not just in happiness- as Mill mentioned, but in happiness of the greatest number. For example, the cheeseburger eaten by a student in Madison may not really change the student’s day or ability to help others.
However, giving a cheeseburger to a starving child in Africa allows them to have enough fuel to go get water for the village, resulting in happiness for the greatest number. On the other hand, reading a new book may give a student in Madison a much higher quality of pleasure when they can share knowledge and help others, but the starving child in Africa may not be able to use the knowledge in that book or derive a high quality of pleasure from it because it isn’t applicable to the situation at hand. If we do not have a rule that applies in all situations, it becomes very difficult to make the “right” choices.
And when the rule contradicts itself as it does in this example, where the lower pleasures are a higher quality in some situations (for example the starving child in Africa), versus higher pleasures being of a higher quality in other situations (like the university student), it takes on a cultural relativist adaptation. This distinction of pleasures is not consistent with Hedonism. Hedonists propose that pain and pleasure are the only two things considered when humans make choices or take an action. They believe that humans should only make decisions that enhance their own pleasure or completely eradicate their painful experiences.
A hedonist would act in response to the question “what can I do to bring myself the most pleasure? ” Whereas a Utilitarian would act in response to the question “what can I do to bring the most pleasure to society? ” In conclusion, I have explained Mill’s distinction regarding higher and lower pleasure in his essay Utilitarianism. Additionally I have explained why Mill’s argument is unsound and further criticisms of his argument. Finally I have explained why this distinction is not consistent with hedonism.