Mill's Hedonism

Class notes for 13-18 April

Main points

My plan is to introduce the major parts of Mill’s version of utilitarianism by comparing them with their counterparts in Bentham’s version. We began with the theory of the good, ethical hedonism.

Bentham’s version of ethical hedonism, seems to be open to several objections. Pleasures based on false experiences are just as valuable as those based on true ones and all pleasures, no matter how ridiculous or vicious, count as much as any others, no matter how refined or virtuous.

Mill’s distinction between higher and lower quality pleasures appears to be capable of addressing those objections.

How does he draw the distinction?

We began with two ways that Mill drew the distinction: one concerning different mental faculties and the other concerning the competent judges test. I asked whether the two tests obviously go together. We are competent judges and yet we often choose the pleasures that Mill considers lower over higher pleasures.

We talked about different ways of understanding the competent judges test that would be compatible with this fact about us.

There was also a question about whether I had really shown that the two criteria come apart. For example, Claire pointed out that even bad movies can exercise what Mill regards as the higher mental faculties.

Finally, there were questions about how to identify the competent judges. There’s a risk of circularity here. Mill can’t identify the competent judges as the ones who prefer the higher pleasures and also identify the higher pleasures as the ones that competent judges prefer.

You can make the circle yourself. Start at the top with, “Q: what are a higher quality pleasures?” Move 90 degrees, to 3 o’clock: “A: they’re the ones that competent judges prefer.” 90 degrees more, to 6 o’clock: “Q: who are the competent judges?” 9 o’clock: “A: they are the ones who prefer the higher quality pleasures.” You’ll have a nice circle of questions that are needed to answer one another and that cannot be answered without one another.

Notice how you can break the circle if you say that the higher quality pleasures are those that use the higher faculties.

What is the difference in value?

We know that the higher quality pleasures are better or more valuable than the lower quality pleasures. But how much better are they?

One thing Mill seems to say is that any amount of the higher quality pleasures, no matter how small, is better than any amount of the lower quality pleasures, no matter how large.

We considered several different alternatives that seem consistent with the text and/or the spirit of Mill’s proposal.

There was some dissent as well. Richard and Matthew thought that all of these proposals amounted to measuring quality using quantitative measures, contrary to what Mill was trying to say.

Is it hedonism?

When Mill says that some pleasures are better than others, isn’t he abandoning hedonism? Nathana thought so.

The issue would be whether the higher quality pleasures feel better than the lower quality pleasures. And “feeling better” can’t be the same thing as a quantitative measures, such as intensity or duration.

Perhaps that is what Mill thought. For a being with intellectual faculties, it just feels right to exercise them rather than indulging the lower faculties, even if the feeling isn’t as intense.

Is it elitist?

Rosie was really worried about whether this is an elitist view. Why count the pleasures experienced by the educated more than the pleasures of those who don’t much enjoy “intellectual” pursuits?

Mill’s reply to this concern was that the best way of maximizing the enjoyment of higher quality pleasures is education for everyone.

But how far will that go? Italia noted that there will always be hard jobs that don’t leave much time for intellectual pursuits. Daniel pointed out that some people don’t have the capacity to enjoy some of Mill’s higher quality pleasures.

Rosie thought there was something fishy about how the competent judges would be chosen as they would presumably be drawn from the educated, intellectual classes.

One might also say that the apparent elitism of the view doesn’t necessarily mean that Mill was wrong to draw the distinction between higher and lower quality pleasures as he did. Education is a good thing, even if not everyone can have it or enjoy it. You might, however, object to social policies that favor the educated at the expense of the rest of the population.