How adequate is Mill’s conception of happiness? How good are his arguments to show that “higher” pleasures are intrinsically more desirable than “lower” ones? Is this distinction consistent with the thesis that pleasure is the only thing of value?
In “Utilitarianism” Mill argues that ‘higher’ pleasures are intrinsically more valuable than ‘lower’ pleasures, citing the invariable preference of men who have access to both available (pp.140). I am inclined to disagree, particularly with regards to his assertion that ‘higher’ pleasures have such a “superiority of quality”(pp.139), so as to render any quantity of ‘lower’ pleasures “in comparison, of small account”- this non-cardinal view of ...view middle of the document...
But does this mean that ‘higher’ pleasures are intrinsically better? Not necessarily. It is a non sequitur argument- the conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow from the premise. After all, even if they were just as enjoyable as ‘lower’ ones, we may still choose to be the intelligent man in Mill’s example. There are numerous arguments for this:
1. We may simply prefer a diversity of pleasures. The intelligent man has access to physical pleasures as well as those of the higher faculties. Even if both are equally enjoyable, it is reasonable to prefer the possibility of both in exchange for a slightly lower level of ‘contentment’.
2. Tellingly, in one of a series of comparisons used to highlight our intuitive respect and desire for a consciousness that has can employ the higher faculties, Mill compares “Socrates”, and a “fool” (pp.140). The fact that Mill even knows of Socrates, more than 2,000 years after his death suggests one reason why we may wish to chose the intelligent man over the fool- society as a whole respects these men and women, and they leave a far greater impact on history. Apart from the ‘higher’ pleasures available to the intelligent, there are other reasons that may lead us to choose their lifestyle, such as historic recognition.
3. There is nothing in this argument to suggest that ‘higher’ pleasures are better in kind- that our preference for them is not simply a matter of degree. Higher pleasures may be more pleasurable than ‘lower’ ones, but this is not necessarily enough to render considerations of duration or intensity “of small account” (pp.139).
Of course, we may be inclined to agree with Mill despite these objections- they do not prove him wrong, merely weaken his argument. In Mill’s favour is the seemingly fundamental difference between human and animal pleasures, and ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures as an extension of this. He draws our attention to this with his assertion that we would prefer to be a “human being unsatisfied than a pig satisfied” (pp.140). This seems similar to earlier comparisons, but there is an important distinction. Mill highlights that anyone who doesn’t believe there are intrinsically more desirable higher pleasures is forced to concede it would be better to live as a beast. ‘Higher’ pleasures are an embodiment of our higher faculties and I believe that our enjoyment of these is an important marker of what makes us human. Which animal enjoys solving mathematics? Thus, as far as the distinction between human and animal pleasures, Mill’s claim seems reasonable.
Another strength of Mill’s argument is his choice of words surrounding the ‘lower’ pleasures. We are told of a “satisfied” pig, and a “content” fool (pp.139-140). These sound like oxymoron, but also remind us of the much higher capacity for enjoyment of more intelligent people. A fool is easily contented, for he can easily exhaust the pleasure sources available to him. For the intelligent man or woman, the myriad of options available...