Home > Ethics and Morality, Philosophy, Political Theory > Thoughts on Mill Pt.1: Contra Qualitative Considerations in J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism

Thoughts on Mill Pt.1: Contra Qualitative Considerations in J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism

February 14, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Beleaguered by criticisms that Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism debases human nature by setting mere pleasure as man’s greatest good, J.S. Mill proposes a qualitative distinction between higher and lower pleasures. However, Mill’s proposed change opens utilitarianism up to criticisms not present in Bentham’s formulation, and on these grounds ought to be rejected in favor of the original formulation (whatever its worth). I’ll begin by introducing the impetus for Mill’s proposed changes to utilitarianism and his panel-based test for higher versus lower pleasures. From there I’ll discuss key objections from Henry Sidgwick and G.E. Moore, who each argue that the nature of pleasure does not allow for nonquantitative distinctions unless they refer to some other property. Following these concerns, I’d like to introduce two additional problems for Mill’s proposal, viz. that his test for competing pleasures is plagued by ‘jury-stacking’ and that his proposed lexical scale for pleasure does not apply equally to pain.

J.S. Mill: Quality over Quantity

In setting pleasure1 as man’s highest aspiration, Bentham’s formulation of utilitarianism has been accused of debasing humans to the level of beasts. Bentham and Mill roundly reject this notion, arguing instead that the pleasures that sate beasts are not capable of sating man due to his higher faculties. Furthermore, such a view is not at all inconsistent with utilitarianism.2 Such anthropocentric pleasures, by Mill’s account, have previously been ascribed greater value due to the ease and safety with which we can promote and maintain them as opposed to physical pleasures.3

Mill argues further that an equally consistent, and more preferable, claim can be made by utilitarians, viz. “some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that, while in estimating all other things quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasure should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.”4 Mill states that the only possible method to test which desires are higher and which lower is a panel-based evaluation by competent judges.


In such a model, whether one pleasure is to be preferred over another depends upon the evaluation of those ‘judges’ with adequate knowledge of both pleasures. Whichever is preferred by the vast majority on such a panel is deemed the more desirable pleasure. Going one step further, Mill argues that when the majority of these judges prefer one pleasure over another to such a degree that no amount of the least preferred pleasure could possibly compare, such a pleasure can be considered of higher quality.5

Mill holds that is an “unquestionable fact” that all beings with proper experience of sensual and mental pleasures will always prefer those pleasures that employ their higher faculties, and would never wish to have lower faculties: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”6 Addressing the potential criticism that there may exist some judges who, knowing both, would choose sensual pleasures over mental, the lower over the higher, Mill contends that such judges have “become incapable” of “nobler feelings.”7 He says further that lower pleasures could be preferred because “they are either the only ones to which they have access or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying.”8 I shall return to this dubious aspect of Mill’s test in the final section by way of the ‘jury-stacking’ criticism, and turn for now to Sidgwick and Moore’s charges against Mill’s modification.

Sidgwick & Moore: Quality Reduces to Quantity

Sidgwick accurately points out that Mill’s desire for a qualitative aspect to utilitarianism is compatible with Bentham’s distinctions of some pleasures as inferior to others. At issue, however, is that such qualitative distinctions resolve to quantitative distinctions due to the mixture of pain and pleasure in the state of consciousness we call ‘a pleasure.’9 As Sidgwick argues, these pleasures are “in Bentham’s phrase, ‘impure’: and as the pain has to be set off as a drawback in valuing the pleasure, it is in accordance with strictly quantitative measurement of pleasure to call them inferior in kind.”10 That is, when we consider pleasures of seemingly differing qualities we are appealing to a calculus that weighs the amount of pleasure present against that of pain. Sidgwick argues further that, should we understand all pleasures to share a common property called ‘pleasantness’ then when we compare such pleasures, we are only ever looking for what is more pleasant, thus confirming Bentham’s solely quantitative view of pleasure.11 Any other considerations, on Sidgwick’s account, are measuring some other quality than pleasantness.

This approach by Sidgwick forms one of the two prongs in Moore’s criticism. On Moore’s account, Mill’s modification means he must either accept that qualitative distinctions resolve to quantitative distinctions or betray his hedonist principles and admit there are other ends aside from pleasure with which utilitarians must concern themselves.12 Moore’s argument for accepting Bentham’s original quantitative argument is almost identical to Sidgwick’s, framing the attack in terms of the judgements of experts: “[Mill] holds, therefore, that the preference of experts merely proves that one pleasure is pleasanter than another. But…how can he distinguish this standard from the standard of quantity of pleasure?”13 If Mill chooses to deny this reduction, then any time an expert prefers one pleasure over another it cannot be because it is more pleasant. Such a move would betray Mill’s commitment to pure hedonism because it implies that something can be “more desirable, although it is not more desired,” and insofar as this is the case, Mill would be affirming that something can be seen to be a good irrespective of how pleasant it is.14 A helpful distinction that Moore makes is that, in order for Mill to maintain the utilitarian maxim that pleasure is the only good, he must admit that pleasures may only differ in degree and not kind.15

These criticisms by Sidgwick and Moore carry significant weight. Itseems tempting to grant Mill that no amount of some lower pleasures, perhaps eating a candy, can match the higher pleasure of getting a promotion. In such cases, however, we can merely argue quantitatively that the modicum of pleasure gained from eating a candy pales so much in comparison to the amount of pleasure gained from a promotion that it is not likely to be preferred. This maintains utilitarian principles yet makes no appeal to outside qualities. Further, even Mill’s original defense of Bentham’s position that certain pleasures are available to beings with higher faculties admits only that different pleasures are available, not necessarily that such pleasures possess additional qualities over and above the requisite mental faculties. Having introduced the primary criticisms against Mill’s position by Sidgwick and Moore, I shall now introduce two additional issues, viz. ‘jury stacking’ in his test and that his lexical scale of higher and lower pleasures does not apply equally to pain.

Further Issues: Jury-stacking and Lexical Ordering of Pain

Earlier, while discussing Mill’s proposed test for higher and lower pleasures, I mentioned his pre-emptive defense against the possibility that judges may prefer a lower pleasure to a higher pleasure. Mill’s description of disqualifying features for judges in his test can easily be seen to be either jury-stacking or ad hoc additions. For example Mill dismisses instances where a lower pleasure is preferred over a higher one on account of temptation for the “nearer pleasure,” or else the judges in question have lost the ability to appreciate the higher pleasures appropriately.16 By selecting only judges who prefer higher pleasures to lower, or disregarding majority votes in favor of lower pleasures, Mill neuters the justificatory power his test holds for his proposed lexical scale of pleasures.

A second, related criticism is that applying such a lexical scale to considerations of pain yields asymmetrical results. For when we appropriately invert Mill’s assertion of always preferring pleasures that employ the mental faculties to pains, we are left with the consideration that any minuscule amount of higher pain is worse than any large amount of lower pain. On this account, one should prefer hours upon hours of excruciating torture to a single hour of grief or disappointment. Even ranking all instances of pain as higher would mean that one should never trade a great amount of lower pleasures for any small amount of pain, despite this being practically plausible.

Concluding Remarks: Rejecting Mill’s Modification

In his attempt to provide a stronger defense of anthropocentric pleasures in utilitarianism, Mill proposes a qualitative distinction and attendant test that only serve to multiply criticisms against utilitarianism. Sidgwick and Moore are correct that Mill must admit such qualitative distinctions amount only to differences in quantity, or else he allows for ends other than pleasure, and thereby betrays the principle of utilitarianism, viz. that pleasure is the highest good. Even if we grant Mill such a distinction, the problems remain that his test for pleasures is biased to generate preferable outcomes for higher level desires, and that his lexical ranking of pleasure does not apply equally to pain. On these grounds, Bentham’s original formulation is to be preferred over Mill’s modification.

————–

1 Mill equates happiness with pleasure, saying: “By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.” (Classical Utilitarians, 99). For the purposes of this post I’ll use these interchangeably.

2 Utilitarians, 100.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Utilitarians, 100-101.

6 Utilitarians, 102.

7 Ibid.

8 Utilitarians, 102.

9 Methods, 94.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Principia, 78.

13 Ibid. By ‘experts’ Moore means the judges in Mill’s panel test.

14 Principia, 79.

15 Principia 80.

16 Utilitarians, 102.

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