In this paper, I examine Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures that he presents in his Utilitarianism. Then, I raise objections to Mill’s distinction by focusing on the ambiguity of his definition of pleasures and his concept of the competent judge. I conclude that, with a recalculation of the definition of pleasures, his distinction of higher and lower pleasures can support a broader theory of utilitarianism.
1. Examining Mill’s Distinction
Utilitarianism is a moral theory that is rooted in the belief that happiness, which is understood as pleasure and the privation of pain, is the only thing that is intrinsically good. Mill’s endorsement of this “greatest happiness principle” is as follows:
1.1: “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.”
Thus, it seems that Mill is inclined to accept a version of Bentham’s hedonistic utilitarianism. That is to say, Mill seems to be endorsing a quantitative theory of utilitarianism, which works on the bases of maximizing the duration and intensity of pleasure. However, later in Utilitarianism, Mill addresses an objection concerning the idea that utilitarianism is a theory that “favors sensual or voluptuary pursuits (e.g. push-pin) over higher or nobler pursuits (e.g. poetry).” Thus, he makes the distinction between pleasures of the intellect, higher pleasure, and sensual, lower, pleasures. This is to ensure that utilitarianism is not seen as “a doctrine worthy only of swine.”
Mill rejects Bentham’s, hedonist, idea of focusing on the quantity (duration and intensity) of pleasure, and replaces it with a focus on the quality of pleasure. Thus, splitting pleasures into two categories: sensual and intellectual. Mill does believe that hedonists are able to defend the distinction between higher and lower pleasures, but their defense is unsatisfactory because it would only allow for intellectual pleasures to be superior extrinsically. But, Mill takes it a step further and says that intellectual pleasures are superior to sensual pleasures both extrinsically and intrinsically. Here is how Mill puts is:
1.2: “If I am asked what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures…there is but one possible answer. 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.”
He rejects the idea that the only thing that is...