Ethical Theory Spring 2019

Mill’s Hedonism


Mill claims to have a hedonistic theory of good and bad. He describes utilitarianism as:

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.

In case you had any doubts, he adds that the “theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded” is “that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain” (Mill [1861] 2000, 2.2).

For Bentham, the value of pleasure and pain can be given by two quantitative measurements: intensity (how strong is the feeling?) and duration (how long does it last?) (see Bentham [1789] 1993, ch. 4).

For Mill, there is a qualitative dimension to pleasure that Bentham did not recognize. According to Mill, some pleasures are more valuable than others because they are higher quality pleasures. Take two pleasures of similar quantities, that is, of the same intensity and duration. If one is higher quality than the other, it will be better, even though the quantities of pleasure are the same. In fact, a smaller quantity of a higher quality pleasure will be more valuable than a larger quantity of a lower quality pleasure.

We wanted to know how this works and whether Mill still qualifies as a hedonist.

Why think there is a qualitative difference?

Mill says that human beings have different faculties than other animals. The pleasures they experience by using these faculties include “the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments.” These pleasures, according to Mill, “have a much higher value as pleasures than those of mere sensation” (Mill [1861] 2000, 2.4).

You might ask two questions about this.

  1. What is Mill’s reason for saying that these pleasures are better?

  2. How would we go about distinguishing between higher and lower pleasures in specific cases?

As Zane pointed out, Mill has one answer to both questions: the comptent observer test.

If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account. (Mill [1861] 2000, 2.5)

Mill thinks the fact that almost everyone agrees that one kind of pleasure is better than another serves as evidence that the first kind of pleasure is better than the second kind. But what could being better mean? It doesn’t mean “feels more intense” or “lasts longer.” So the only thing to say is that it’s better because it is a higher quality.

This also tells us how we would distinguish the higher quality pleasures from the lower quality ones. We would have competent observers test different pleasures against one another.

Once you start getting down to specifics, however, questions start popping up.

For example, Kenny noted that a lot depends on when you ask the competent observer to make the comparison. For instance, if you ask me whether I would like to read a book or take a nap when I am exhausted, I’m going to say I would rather take a nap. Does that mean that the sensual pleasures of taking a nap are higher quality than the intellectual pleasures of reading a book?

I suspect Mill would say that in this case the observer isn’t genuinely comparing two different pleasures. If I’m exhausted, I won’t actually experience the intellectual pleasures of reading the book. So I’m not choosing anything over the intellectual pleasures of reading. The intellectual pleasures of reading aren’t available to me in this case.

But suppose both the intellectual pleasures and sensual pleasures are genuinely available and people choose the sensual ones. After all, everyone in our society could read books or watch lowbrow comedy and, alas, they generally go for the latter. Wouldn’t Mill have to admit that he was wrong to say that the intellectual pleasures would be chosen?

Here Mill makes a prediction. He says that if you examine the people who prefer what he considers lower pleasures over the higher ones, it will turn out that their capacities to enjoy the higher pleasures have either not been developed or that they have been damaged. If so, they are not truly comptent to judge.

Zoë suspected that Mill is cheating here. He gives a test that is guaranteed to lead to the result he believes in. That is not a compelling way of arguing that you are right. I think that Mill has something to say in his own defense, but that the case would be close.

Is he a hedonist?

Jacob asked whether it was appropriate to call Mill a hedonist. A hedonist holds that pleasure and pain are, ultimately, the only good and bad things, respectively. As Jacob sees it, Mill is saying that there are things that are good besides pleasure. When he says that the higher quality pleasures are better than the lower quality ones, he must mean there is something about them that makes them better besides the fact that they are pleasures. After all, he thinks higher quality pleasures are better than equal or even smaller quantities of lower quality pleasures.

As with Zoë’s point, I offered a defense of Mill, but I think the argument would be close at best. I said that I thought that Mill used the competent observer test because he did not think there is any way of explaining why the higher quality pleasures are better than the lower quality ones. If he could have explained it, you might say that the explanation would point to the non-hedonistic kinds of value. For instance, “This pleasure is better than that one because it involves the intellect and intellectual activity is good.” If you said that, you would be adding something that is good, intellectual activity, that isn’t a pleasure. But Mill wasn’t willing to say something like that and that’s why I think he thought he remained a hedonist. There are just pleasures and pains and some are, for reasons we can’t articulate, better than others.

I don’t know how persuasive I find that. Among other things, I think you will find your competent observers saying exactly the sort of thing I quoted in the previous paragraph. That means something, doesn’t it? As I said, I think the argument would be close.

How much does quality matter?

Compare two things Mill says in 2.5:

  1. If almost everyone who experiences two pleasures has a decided preference for one, then it is the higher quality pleasure.

  2. If those who are “competently acquainted” with two pleasure would prefer any quantity of one pleasure, no matter how small, over any quantity of the other, no matter how large, then it is the higher quality pleasure.

The second point, B, is a much stronger claim than the first one. It says, in effect, that higher quality pleasures have infinite weight compared with lower quality pleasures. That would be tough to prove.

The first point, A, just says that the higher quality pleasure is more valuable. It doesn’t give us a numerical value of quality, though. So we don’t know if a higher quality pleasure is, say, 10 times more valuable than a lower quality pleasure or 1.4 times more valuable.

We would need a number, eventually, if we are going to make the utilitarian calculus work.

Key Points

These are the things you should know or have an opinion about from today’s class.

  1. How Bentham and Mill measure the quantity of pleasure.

  2. What Mill thinks the higher quality pleasures are (look at the list of human faculties).

  3. Mill’s competent observer test.


Bentham, Jeremy. (1789) 1993. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. British Philosophy: 1600-1900. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.

Mill, John Stuart. (1861) 2000. Utilitarianism. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. British Philosophy: 1600-1900. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.