Ethical Theory Spring 2021

Mill’s Hedonism


Last time, we saw that Bentham’s version of utilitarianism is composed of five parts:

  1. A theory of the good: hedonism, pleasure is the only thing that is good and pain is the only thing that is bad.

  2. A theory of motivation: egoism, we are only motivated to act by considerations of our own good.

  3. A moral theory: utilitarianism, the right action is the one that produces the greatest overall good.

  4. A theory of sanctions: laws can rectify the gap between what people ought to do (promote everyone’s good) and what they will do (promote their own good).

  5. And the utilitarian calculus: assign numbers to the intensity and duration of pleasures and pains that various actions would produce, add up the numbers for different people, and then do the thing that would get the highest score.

Mill is going to modify each part in his version of utilitarianism.

Today, we are starting with hedonism, the theory that pleasure is the only thing that is good and pain is the only thing that is bad.

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 want 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?

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.

This is the first thing we will talk about. How, exactly, does this test work?

Is it really hedonism?

You might wonder whether it is appropriate to call Mill a hedonist. A hedonist holds that pleasure and pain are, ultimately, the only good and bad things, respectively.

Mill appears to be saying that some things are good or bad other than pleasures and pains. Specifically, the higher quality pleasures seem to be better than the lower quality ones even if the lower quality ones are more intense or last longer. That is, a smaller quantity of higher quality pleasure can be better than a larger quantity of lower quality pleasure.

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.