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Does J.S. Mill have a coherent conception of happiness?


To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Does J.S. Mill have a coherent conception of happiness?
Date: 13th November 2009 13:50

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 9 November, with your one-hour timed essay for the University of London Ethics: Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'Does Mill have a coherent conception of happiness?'

This question is not on the face of it about Mill's theory of utilitarianism. Other philosophers (e.g. Aristotle) have put forward theories about the nature of happiness which were not intended to provide a definition of a 'good' to be 'maximized'. However, you are right to consider the use that Mill wished to put his notion of happiness, because this is one of the main sources of tension.

Mill needs a notion of happiness which can plausibly be inserted into the formula, 'The most happiness for the most people'. This creates a constraint on possible definitions of happiness which arguably threatens the coherence of his theory.

In describing Mill's critique of Bentham's undifferentiated notion of pleasure, you neglect to mention that Bentham does have a fairly robust explanation of why we prefer some pleasures to others. The explanation is in terms of 'fecundity'. By indulging myself in the pleasure of writing philosophy, I give others the opportunity to experience pleasure, while they in turn benefit others through the effect that the study of philosophy has on their character and behaviour.

In Bentham's own example, the pleasures of 'pushpin' (a popular pub game) and poetry are the same qua pleasures; the only consideration is length, intensity etc. However, the pleasure of writing poetry has greater fecundity than the pleasure of playing pushpin.

You make a very good point about Maslow's hierarchy of needs. We have very strong intuitions that no amount of 'higher' pleasures would justify failing to meet the need e.g. for food and shelter -- which seems to contradict Mill's claim that higher pleasures are 'more desirable' than lower pleasures from the point of view of an impartial judge who has experienced both; and therefore, by implication, the view that higher pleasures count for more in the utility calculation.

But isn't it surprising how little thought Mill gives to calculating 'utility'? There's no thought here of a 'calculus' of utility, only the appeal to the consequences for human happiness as the only acceptable basis for moral decision making. Surely, it can't be a criticism of Mill's conception of happiness, as such, that he fails to deliver an measurable quantity that can be used to determine which of various courses of action ethically right from an objective standpoint.

It is, however, a potential criticism of Mill that he attempts to define happiness in terms of pleasure. But does he do this? Or is it rather the case that what Mill wants to do is 'have it both ways'? In which case there is a potential for incoherence between a hedonistic view of happiness and views which attempt to move away from pure hedonism.

In conceding that virtue is a part of happiness and not merely the means to happiness (= pleasure), Mill effectively recognizes a more Aristotelian conception of happiness according to which one can say that a person is not 'really' happy, even though they think they are. Though Mill doesn't actually say this, one can infer from the claim that virtue is a part of happiness that an evil sadist who gets an enormous amount of pleasure from torturing his victims is not 'really' happy. This would certainly be Aristotle's view.

You have focused on Mill's essay 'Utilitarianism', basing your exposition on what Mill says in that book. However, a case could be made that a vital element of happiness, according to Mill, is what he terms 'individuality' in his other major essay 'On Liberty'. The notion of individuality implies that happiness is not just an experience or feeling but rather a state which one achieves as a whole person, involving integrity, the coherence of one's aims, interests and ideals. Making a life for oneself as an individual is a creative process. Mill wants to encourage 'experiments in living' so that human beings can have the opportunity to thrive in different ways, with on one plan of life being the ideal.

I guess the question of the coherence of Mill's conception of happiness comes down to his attempt to keep on board the idea of a necessary link between happiness and pleasure. Given that he wants to include elements of virtue, character, integrity, creativity -- will this hold together, or is the solution to give up hedonism and reconstruct the notion of happiness along more Aristotelian lines? As I have indicated, whether or not Mill's utilitarian theory of moral judgement is coherent or defensible is a different question.

All the best,