Mill, John Stuart (1806–73)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC054-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2005
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

9. Qualities of pleasure

Happiness - pleasure and the absence of pain - is the sole final end of life. But Mill’s idea of it is altogether more romantic and liberal than that of earlier utilitarians. He takes into account the fact that a variety of notions - for example, purity, elevation, depth, refinement and sublimity, and their opposites - enter into our assessments of pleasure. We do not assess pleasures along a single dimension. In his general ethical and political writing, Mill freely draws on that extensive and flexible language. He sees the need to recognize it also in utilitarian theory, but here he does so rather more mechanically by distinguishing ‘quality’ and ‘quantity’ of pleasure. From the first publication of Utilitarianism, at least three sorts of question have been asked about this famous distinction. The first is whether it is reconcilable with hedonism. The second is epistemological: is there a cogent way of establishing that some pleasures are superior in ‘quality’? The third question, perhaps the most challenging, though less often discussed, is how the distinction fits into the framework of utilitarianism.

As to the first question: there is indeed, as Mill says, no reason in logic why more than one characteristic of pleasures should not be relevant to estimating their value - though if we call those characteristics ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’, we need to maintain a careful distinction between the quantity and quality of a pleasure on the one hand and its degree of value on the other. All that hedonism requires is that the only things that make a pleasure valuable are its characteristics as a pleasure (see Hedonism).

Nevertheless, an impression lingers that Mill’s discussion appeals to intuitions which are not hedonistic. For example:

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; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs.

(1861a: 211)

He also notes that 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’ (1861a: 212). So a being of higher faculties may be faced with a choice: on the one hand a life of acute suffering, with no access to any of the higher pleasures which its faculties make it capable of appreciating, on the other, a cure (for example, an operation) which relieves its suffering but leaves it only with the pleasures available to a fool or a dunce. Is Mill saying that in all such cases the life of suffering should be preferred? He does not say so explicitly and if he does adhere to hedonism he should not. For cases are surely possible in which life after the cure offers a stream of pleasures more valuable overall, taking quality as well as quantity into account, than the life of suffering in which one retains one’s higher faculties but is bereft of higher pleasures.

What of the epistemological question? Mill compares assessments of the comparative quality of pleasures to assessments of their comparative quantity: both are determined by ‘the feelings and judgments of the experienced’ (1861a: 213). But a judgment that the pleasure derived from film A is of a higher kind than that derived from watching film B is clearly, as Mill conceives it, an evaluative judgment. The proper comparison would have been with the evaluative judgment that pleasure as such is desirable. A higher pleasure has some feature, qua pleasure, that makes it more desirable overall than a lower pleasure of like quantity. And Mill could have said that with this judgment, as with basic evaluative judgments in general, the only criterion is reflective practice - self-examination and discussion. In such discussion, some people emerge as better judges than others - this is not a circularity but an inherent feature of normative judgment.

Yet now the third question becomes pressing: how are such judgments of the quality of pleasures to be registered in the utilitarian calculus? In requiring utilitarianism to take them into account Mill makes a move of political as well as ethical significance. For what rank do we give to these pleasures in our social ordering - the rank which highly developed human natures attach to them or that which lower human natures attach to them? Mill’s answer is unambiguous: it is the verdict of ‘competent judges’ which stands.

Suppose that beings of highly developed faculties place the pleasures of scientific discovery or artistic creation so much higher than those of material well-being that (above a certain modicum of physical comfort and security) any amount of the former, however small, is ranked by them above any amount of the latter, however large. Suppose, however, that beings of considerably less developed faculties would not share this assessment. And now suppose that the question is put to Mill, how much of the lower pleasure of the less developed being may be sacrificed to maintain the more highly developed being’s higher pleasure? Mill’s view is that the more highly developed being delivers the correct assessment of the relative value of the higher and lower pleasures. But, by hypothesis, it would be prepared to sacrifice any amount of the lower pleasure, down to a modicum of physical comfort and security, for the smallest amount of the higher. Must the same hold for the interpersonal case? Must it be correct for the utilitarian to sacrifice any amount of the lower pleasures of lower beings, down to a level at which they are provided with the modicum of comfort and security, in order to secure some higher pleasure for a higher being? Mill provides no answer.

Citing this article:
Skorupski, John. Qualities of pleasure. Mill, John Stuart (1806–73), 2005, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC054-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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