Mill’s Utilitarianism Part 1: John Stuart Mill’s Argument for Qualitative Hedonism

Hey er’body…I’m baaack!  Before we get down to biniz and talk about Mill an’ stuff here’s a brief updayt.  First, my sincerest apologies to the throngs of my adoring fans that had to go the whole summer without reading a new post, but I needed a break.  Also, I was studying for the state and national realtor’s license exam (which I successfully passed) as well as doing my usual pants off dance off to make mo’ money.  The three elements combined to form the perfect trifecta of excuses to not write.

Anyhow, I’m very pleased to announce that I’m only 3 1/2 months away (or 3 term papers and a couple of midterms–as I measure it) from gradulating from koledg with an MA.  This semester I’ll be taking the following courses/seminars:  Classics in the history of ethics (modern history); philosophy of special sciences (i.e., of biology, psychology, neurology); and philosophy of punishment and retribution.

After the first week of classes I get the feeling that this semester is going to be a lot of work.  The first two classes require a ton of reading (even more than usual).  I’m not really a fan of courses with a ton of reading because usually–since it’s often hard enough just to get through it once–I never really get to read it as carefully as I’d like.  I get more out of courses where you do close readings of less material but really get to know it… but I digress…

Lets get down to biniz

Mill’s Utilitarianism

Favorite Quote:
(vs the idea that humans can’t have “happy” lives–Mill disagrees and explains what he means by “happy” life.)
“If by happiness be meant a continuity of highly pleasurable excitement, it is evident enough this is impossible […] Philosophers that teach that happiness is the end of life were fully aware of [this].  The happiness which [utilitarians] meant was not a life of rapture, but moments of such, in an existence made up of few and transitory pains, many and various pleasures, with a foundation of the whole not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing.  A life thus composed, to those who have been fortunate enough to obtain it, has always appeared worthy of the name of happiness.”

Overview of Classical Utilitarianism

Ok, lets take a general view of utilitarianism.  (Unless otherwise specified, by ‘utilitarianism’ I mean classical utilitarianism).  In the most general/crude terms, utilitarianism is the view that an action is morally right or good to the degree that it produces the maximum amount of happiness for the maximum amount of people.   The assumption is that things/actions are good or bad based on their consequences, and happiness as an end is good.

Of course, this talk of happiness/utility doesn’t mean much unless we define our terms.  What do we mean by happiness?  Happiness means pleasure and absence of pain; unhappiness is pain and absence of pleasure.

So, if counting blades of grass makes people happy, then is an action ‘right’ or ‘good’ if allows the maximum number of people to count blades of grass?  Some early utilitarians like Bentham didn’t discriminate between sources of pleasure.  But this runs into objections pretty quickly.  If heroin makes me happy, then is it good? Are drug dealers’ actions good?  At this point, utilitarians are going to have to refine their view.  And that’s exactly what Mill tried to do.

In the broadest terms, Mill introduced “qualitative hedonism” (as opposed to quantitative).  That is, not all sources of happiness are on par.  Some happiness-producing activities/things are better than others.  The problem of course is how to measure sources/types of happiness against each other.  Who’s to say that the pleasure someone derives from eating cheezeburgers is less than the pleasure another derives from listening to opera or solving a math problem.  How do we even begin to compare these disparate things? And how do we do it in a non-question-begging way? That is, how do we do a comparison in which the judgments are impartial–by which all the things I think are best don’t just happen to be, after my own careful analysis, the ones that really are best?

It’s an interesting problem.  Think about it for a moment… Can we discriminate between types of pleasure?  How?

Well, this overview is turning into more than an overview so lets move on and get into some to the “especifics”.

Mill vs Standard Criticisms

Vs The Ranking of Pleasures Problem/Objection:
The critics accuse utilitarians of having the “ethics of swine”, for if consequent happiness is all it takes to make something right or good, then what’s to stop us from enacting policies that allow maximum wallowing in our animal pleasures in the name of goodness?  Mill’s brand of utilitarianism includes the premise that not all pleasures are equal, but how do we determine that “higher” (intellectual) pleasures have more intrinsic goodness than “lower” (sensual) pleasures?

Mills solution to this problem is summarized by the phrase “better to be a human being dissatisfied than a swine satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”.   (I’ve always loved this line…I still remember it from my very first intro philosophy class.)

Ok, admittedly we can still ax, how do we know this to be true?  Well, ax yourself (ouch!), given the choice would you rather be a happy swine rolling in the mud or would you rather be a disgruntled human?  I hope you answered the latter–and didn’t sustain any serious injuries while axing yourself.

So, if you’re not completely convinced, here’s the argument:  if the fool or the pig disagree with our assessment, it’s because they haven’t experience both positions.  That is, someone who has experienced both types of pleasure, both intellectual and sensual, will agree that the pleasure or happiness experienced from the former is of higher quality.  The judgment can only be made by someone who has experienced both.

Someone might reply that, “but sometimes even the most intelligent people succumb to the lower pleasures when they could be reading the latest translation of classical Russian literature.”  Surely, they know that reading Russian lit. is the higher pleasure.  One response to this is that, despite the slip up, the cultured person still knows that the intellectual pleasure is of higher quality.

Besides, I don’t think Mill’s talking about one-off acts here.  He’s talking about general ways of living and how to determine what types of policies and actions we should institute–about the activities that should be promoted on a society-wide level.  So, an individual who has experienced and is capable of an intellectual life is not going to chose a life purely indulgent in the sensual pleasures  and will recognize the greater good (happiness) in the former.

I have to say I find this argument compelling–(if we don’t try to get too fine grained about it).  Of course this is purely anecdotal so it doesn’t really count as empirical evidence in favour of Mill, but in my life I basically had the same choice–and the decision was easy…even if it took me a while!

Another way to look at how to determine what kinds of pleasure are best is from the flip side–that of pain.  How do we know which of two things causes more pain?  The judgment can only be made by those who have experienced both.  Likewise, in determining what types of pleasure are greatest, the judgment can only be made by someone who has experienced both–“or if they differ, that of the majority among them…”.

There are a couple of problems with this argument that I’ll table for now cuz I want to keep moving…but the quick and dirty problem with Mill’s proposal is that if “pleasure” is the thing that makes actions good, then there must be something other than pleasure upon which he makes the distinction between higher and lower quality pleasures.  

Pleasure is pleasure, just like squareness is squareness or hardness is hardness.  To distinguish between 2 square objects one has to be more or less square than the other.  Which implies that the difference lies in quantity, not quality. A poor quality square is such because its corners are perhaps rounded.  It has less squareness than its higher quality counterpart.  Ok, so maybe it’s not the best analogy, but I hope you get it.  If not, I’ll be more specific next post…

Vs Virtue as the Source of Moral Goodness
Another objection to utilitarianism is that what makes an action (or person) good is virtue rather than consequent happiness.  Suppose some noble person voluntarily sacrifices his own happiness for that of others.  Clearly, this virtuous act is good.   But why is it good?  Is it mere self-sacrifice what makes it good?  

Mill’s reply is that we regard this instance of self-sacrifice as good because its consequence was greater happiness.  What would we think of self-sacrifice that didn’t result in greater happiness for others?  That is, the end of the action was not happiness (broadly speaking)?  This action would be regarded as silly.  So, it is the fact that happiness is produced as a consequence of the act that the action is good.

Again, we needn’t only appeal to examples using happiness or pleasure to illustrate the point.  We can imagine a case where a hero sacrifices himself or his own absence of suffering so that others may be free of suffering.  If his action didn’t result in a diminution of pain or suffering for others it would be difficult to see why it is ‘good’.

Mill asks, “Would [the sacrifice] be made if the hero or martyr did not believe that it would earn for others immunity from similar sacrifices?  Would it be made if he thought that his renunciation of happiness for himself would produce no fruit for any of his fellow creatures, but to make their lot like his and place them also in the condition of persons who have renounced happiness?”

Utilitarians aren’t saying that self-sacrifice isn’t a good thing, only that it is not intrinsically good.  What makes it good is its consequences.

Of course, the Kantian will reply that even if the agents action produced no tangible increase in the happiness of others but he had intended for there to be an increase, then this action would be good.  Mills reply is that this confuses the rule of action with the motive.  The motive doesn’t tell you whether the action was good–it tells you about the character of the agent.  The goodness of the action is measured by its consequences.

Alright, that enough for right now…I’ll have more soon.

One thought on “Mill’s Utilitarianism Part 1: John Stuart Mill’s Argument for Qualitative Hedonism

  1. No worries arlene! And if you've found what makes you happy and it contributes positively to society I can't think of any reason why you shouldn't pursue it.


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