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J.S. Mill on pleasure and happiness


To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: J.S. Mill on pleasure and happiness
Date: 28th January 2010 13:49

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 22 January, with your essay for the University of London Ethics Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, ''By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain.' Does Mill retain that conception of happiness? If not, what does he replace it by?'

This is a good essay which covers a lot of ground.

You start by describing Bentham's version of hedonism, according to which pleasures are evaluated by the criteria of duration and intensity. Mill, by contrast, wanted to allow for a distinction between 'higher' and 'lower' pleasures. This raises serious difficulties with the hedonist interpretation of Mill's account of happiness. How can you genuinely be a hedonist while allowing that pleasures differ by other criteria than the degree to which you are pleased? On the face of it, it looks like a contradiction in terms.

There is a significant omission in your short sketch of Bentham. There is a third criterion which Bentham considers, which relates to the causal properties or consequences of a particular state of pleasure, which Bentham calls 'fecundity'. Some pleasures drive us to do, or involve, actions which give pleasure to others, while other pleasures do not. Bentham gives the example of the pleasures of playing pushpin (a pub game of the day) and writing poetry. Writing poetry gives pleasure to indefinitely many others, while playing pushpin only gives pleasure to the participants and immediate onlookers.

This provides a rationale for promoting poetry over pushpin, which does not require that we relax our account of the intrinsic nature of pleasure in any way. It's a neat solution. (You do in fact mention 'a possible answer' to the question of why for Mill higher pleasures are preferable, that they 'may be more likely to be beneficial to others'. This is very close to Bentham's position, if not identical with it. It only needs to be added that the objective measure of 'benefit', for Bentham is in the same coin as all pleasures, namely intensity, duration -- and fecundity.)

Mill's thought, as you observe, takes an Aristotelian direction in allowing for different levels of pleasure. I can be blissfully 'happy', enjoying the maximum amount of lower pleasures and thinking to myself how wonderful life is, when all the while an observer would say that I have failed to attain the potential for 'happiness' available to a human being. I'm less 'happy' than I think I am.

However, there is still a significant gap between Aristotle and Mill on this point. Aristotle would say that a man who lives a full life, up to the highest standard of which a human being is capable, fully exerting all his powers and deriving pleasure therefrom, can still be 'unhappy' if circumstances in the external world are significantly different from what he believes them to be. For example, if unknown to him, people laugh behind his back, or if his wife has for a long time been unfaithful. He didn't die happy because he was not truly 'happy'. He had not attained eudaimonia. He is to be pitied rather than admired.

What this shows is that Aristotle is not a hedonist, period, while Mill remains a hedonist, or tries to be.

The problem with this position, as you correctly observe, is explaining why the 'value adding' aspects of higher pleasures cannot simply add value on their own. Oughtn't we to say that the preferability of higher, noble pleasures is due to the fact that they are pleasures and they are noble, rather than saying that they are special kind of pleasure, incommensurable with less noble pleasures?

You also make a good point questioning the validity of Mill's distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Where does Mill stand on sport and dance? How indeed would he respond to de Sade or von Masoch who sought to raise the erotic to an art form?

There's still something more to say on the topic of happiness and pleasure. At the beginning of your essay, you note the strong dependence of Mill's moral psychology on his empiricist, associationist view of the nature of the mind. Isn't this the limiting parameter? How should we view the nature of pleasure, if we cast aside the associationist theory in favour of a more realistic view of the nature of feeling and emotion? Then again, is the distinction he draws between higher and lower pleasures even consistent with the associationist view?

Worth noting also is that, although most of what Mill says about happiness and pleasure can be derived from his book Utilitarianism, he also has important things to say in On Liberty, about the 'value of individuality'. Perhaps expanding on this idea would lead to a more realistic notion of happiness which is not defined in purely hedonic terms.

All the best,