Wednesday, July 21, 2004

John Stuart Mill on Higher and Lower Pleasures

In normative ethics, hedonism is the doctrine that pleasure is always good for its own sake, and that it is the only thing that is good for its own sake. Other things may be instrumentally good, good for the sake of what is ultimately good, but on the hedonist scheme pleasure alone is ultimately good. But if pleasure is the criterion of the good, will it be possible to distinguish in some principled way between higher and lower pleasures? Will it be possible to say that some types of pleasure are not just different from, but intrinsically superior to, others? Or is pleasure just pleasure, so that no type of pleasure is preferable to any other?

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) addresses the question of qualitative distinctions among pleasures in Chapter 2 of his Utilitarianism (1863). Mill’s utilitarianism consists in the view that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to promote the opposite of happiness.” (Piest, p. 10) Mill’s hedonism consists in his identification of happiness with pleasure. “By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.” (Ibid.) Presumably, one could be a utilitarian without being a hedonist.

The notion that the ultimate end of human existence is the enjoyment of pleasure and the avoidance of pain strikes many as ignoble, something porcine rather than Socratic. Hoping to counter this perception, Mill tries to show that not all pleasures are equal, that some are intrinsically superior to others and ought to be preferred. Of course, intellectual pleasures are more permanent, less costly, and safer than the pleasures of the flesh. Think of the ill-starred John Belushi whose pursuit of the lower pleasures culminated in his taking the ‘speedball’(heroin + cocaine) express to Kingdom Come. Had he engaged in the more sober delights of Socratic dialectic he might still be among us – as a philosophical blogger perhaps. But the difference between safe, permanent, and inexpensive pleasures and those that are dangerous, short-lived, and expensive is merely descriptive, not normative. What Mill wants to show is that the higher pleasures of intellect, imagination, and emotion are superior in their intrinsic nature and not merely in their circumstantial advantages. In other words, what Mill aims to prove is that the higher pleasures are better, and so ought to be pursued for their own sake and not merely because they are advantageous to us.

Mill’s argument (pp. 12-15) is essentially as follows:

1. Let A and B be two types of pleasure.
2. Those with experience of both types prefer A over B.
3. A-pleasures are preferable to B-pleasures.
4. A-pleasures are intrinsically better than B-pleasures.

This argument is invalid, as has been noted on many occasions. Although (3) follows from (1) and (2), given that ‘preferable’ simply means able to be preferred, (4) does not follow from (3). For what is able to be preferred need not be worthy of preference, i.e., better. Such words as ‘desirable,’ ‘preferable,’ ‘choosable,’ ‘electable,’ ‘delectable,’‘nubile’ are systematically ambiguous. They invite the illicit slide from the descriptive to the prescriptive/proscriptive. Take ‘nubile.’ Distracting connotations aside, it means marriageable. But that can mean either able to be married, or worthy of being married.

Mill’s Problem: If the ultimate end of human action is pleasure, if this is the supreme goal of all striving and the final moral criterion, then how can one class of pleasures be intrinsically better than another? Compare the pleasure of sexual orgasm with the pleasure that comes from solving a mathematical or chess problem. The former pleasure cannot be repeated as often as the second. But this difference, being merely descriptive, does not make the second better than the first. To suppose that some pleasures are better than others is to suppose that there is a
standard of goodness other than pleasure.

The Millian hedonist faces a dilemma. Either pleasure is the ultimate standard of goodness, or it is not. If the former, then there is simply no ground for saying that some pleasures are of higher quality than others: pleasure is pleasure regardless of its origin. If the latter, if plesure is not the ultimate standard, then hedonism has simply been abandoned.

At this point, the argument may proceed in one of two directions. We either hold fast to hedonism, and abandon the view that some pleasures are better than others; or we adhere to the view that there are qualitative distinctions among pleasures, distinctions that presuppose a standard of goodness other than pleasure, and consequently reject hedonism. My inclination is to move in the second of these directions.