Saturday, June 09, 2007

J.S. Mill: Socrates Dissatisfied vs. Pig Satisfied


With the Beyond Belief 2006 series having come to a close, I am in need of something new to write about on the weekends. I have decided in favor of a series of posts describing the philosophical roots of desire utilitarianism. The first historical philosopher that I want to discuss in this context is John Stuart Mill.

In his book, Utilitarianism, J.S. Mill gives a length defense of the idea that:

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

This has long been taken to be a problem with Mill's philosophy because it seems to directly contradict utilitarianism. If somebody holds that pleasure is the only good, and pain is the only evil, then in what sense can Socrates dissatisfied be better than a pig satisfied? The latter seems to clearly have more pleasure than the former. Claiming that the former has more value requires the assumption that value can be found in something other than pleasure. Yet, if value can be found in something other than pleasure, than there must be value in something other than utility, and utilitarianism itself is contradicted.

Directly Evaluating Desires

If we look at Mill's claim, we can find that a part of his defense rests with claims that a desire utilitarian would certainly want to make.

Specifically, when Mill talks about the difference between a Socrates satisfied and a pig dissatisfied, he asks us to consider both types of pleasure, and then asks us to consider which is the most desirable. As mentioned above, one is to consider one value beside the other and to judge which of the two options the evaluator wishes more.

Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both, do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs.

Mill states that it is an "unquestionable fact" that anybody acquainted with the two "pleasures" would prefer one over the other. His argument appears to suggest that this universal agreement proves that there is quality of value that is higher in the pleasure of the former over the pleasure of the latter. Mill can be questioned on both of these grounds; that not everybody would give the assent he claims, and even if they did this would only prove an inter-subjective preference not a difference in intrinsic worth.

Still, Mill gives us a way of evaluating different desires – such as the desires of the pig versus the desires of Socrates. We can evaluate desires by determining whether the desires themselves are the objects of second order desires - desires to have (or to not have) particular desries. In a desire-utilitarian system, desires themselves have value according to how well they fulfill other desires. This applies not only to the value that a desire has as a means to fulfilling other desires (as a tool, or an instrument, useful in fulfilling other desires), but the degree to which desires themselves (or states of affairs in which one has particular desires) are desired.

Not withstanding that some do not have a preference to be Socrates dissatisfied over a pig satisfied, and that even if they did this would only prove that people have a common preference, insofar as people do have a preference for Socrates dissatisfied over a pig satisfied, they have reason-for-action for bringing about a state of Socrates dissatisfied rather than a state of pig satisfied (if they must choose).

Indirectly Evaluating Desires

Another way of evaluating a desire (in addition to whether or not it is desired) is by whether or not it tends to lead indirectly to the fulfillment of other desires. In other words, we can recommend certain desires and aversions because of their usefulness.

I want to start looking at this option by noting that Mill does not require that people always and only act from a principle of utility. Other motives can direct a person’s actions.

The great majority of good actions are intended not for the benefit of the world, but for that of individuals, of which the good of the world is made up; and the thoughts of the most virtuous man need not on these occasions travel beyond the particular persons concerned, except so far as is necessary to assure himself that in benefiting them he is not violating the rights, that is, the legitimate and authorised expectations, of any one else.

An agent can act simply to realize something that he desires (other than general utility). Yet, we can still evaluate that desire by its usefulness - by its tendency to fulfill other desires.

In the case of abstinences indeed - of things which people forbear to do from moral considerations, though the consequences in the particular case might be beneficial - it would be unworthy of an intelligent agent not to be consciously aware that the action is of a class which, if practised generally, would be generally injurious, and that this is the ground of the obligation to abstain from it.

If Mill thought that we are to promote utility in all instances, then the above passage of foregoing instances that maximize utility would be frowned upon. Yet, Mill clearly states that a person should forego an instance of maximizing utility if the general practice "would be generally injurious". This would apply in cases where the desire for something is a desire that tends to thwart other desires.

Promoting Good Desires; Inhibiting Bad Desires

Finally, it is the purpose of law and social institutions to promote interests (desires) that are in harmony with the desires of others.

laws and social arrangements should place the happiness, or (as speaking practically it may be called) the interest, of every individual, as nearly as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole . . . so that not only he may be unable to conceive the possibility of happiness to himself, consistently with conduct opposed to the general good, but also that a direct impulse to promote the general good may be in every individual one of the habitual motives of action, and the sentiments connected therewith may fill a large and prominent place in every human being's sentient existence.

Mill's arguments for this position are the source of later interpretations that Mill was a rule utilitarian

It is a strange notion that the acknowledgment of a first principle is inconsistent with the admission of secondary ones. To inform a traveller respecting the place of his ultimate destination, is not to forbid the use of landmarks and direction-posts on the way. The proposition that happiness is the end and aim of morality, does not mean that no road ought to be laid down to that goal, or that persons going thither should not be advised to take one direction rather than another.

These landmarks or guideposts, according to Mill, are necessary because we cannot be expected to calculate utility entirely from scratch at the moment of every action. Indeed, it would be irrational for us to do so.

Nobody argues that the art of navigation is not founded on astronomy, because sailors cannot wait to calculate the Nautical Almanack. Being rational creatures, they go to sea with it ready calculated . . .

And so it is with morality, that we enter into our moral universe with certain guideposts and landmarks already calculated. The rational person does not refer to the principle of utility itself in deciding each individual question, but refers instead to guideposts that have been calculated, debated, and promoted through thousands of years of civilization. He uses rules that, as a matter of experience, tend to produce far better results than the time-consuming task of evaluating every option from scratch

Desire utilitarianism makes the further claim that these rules are written into the brain in the form of culturally acquired 'sense' of right and wrong – in fact, a culturally acquired desire for or aversion to particular actions. The person who appeals to his or her 'conscience' in making decisions appeals to these desires and aversions as guideposts and landmarks.

However – and this is important – those guideposts are capable of being flawed, miscalculated. A person who appeals to his conscience can still perform wrong actions. More specifically, actions are not right or wrong in virtue of the testimony of conscience, and anybody who appeals to conscience as the final resting place of moral argument are mistaken. The 'guideposts' of conscience themselves need to be justified – shown good or bad – by their tendency to promote or inhibit overall utility.


Once again; under Mill's rule utilitarianism, a person can and should appeal to their conscience in making moral decisions. However, conscience is not the end of moral argument. We can also ask whether a state in which people generally have a particular conscience would tend to promote or inhibit the universal good.

The traditional interpretation of Mill is that these guideposts take the form of rules.

This interpretation leads Mill to a problem. Why should we follow the rule even when we know that it will not maximize utility? This would be as absurd as saying that the navigator has an obligation to continue to follow his rules of thumb even after he has determined that they are pointing him in the wrong direction. This would be madness.

However, another possible interpretation is that these guideposts take the form of learned sentiments of approval or disapproval – desires for and aversions to – certain types of actions. If these guideposts are desires, rather than rules, then the problem disappears. As desires, the 'landmarks' themselves become not only a means for getting to some final destination, but a destination in their own rights. If your goal is to get to New York from Kansas, then you have no reason to take a side street in Ohio that you know takes you out of your way. However, if you have a desire to get to New York from Kansas by going through Ohio, then the side trip to Ohio is no longer a distraction.

As described, Mill makes it much of the way to desire utilitarianism. He has rules functioning as landmarks for maximizing utility. These landmarks are to be taken to be the guideposts of utility. These landmarks are, among other things, the dictates of conscience. However, conscience is not the end of moral questioning. We must still ask whether it is conducive to utility to have individuals generally with a particular conscience. These sentiments, including the moral sentiments, are not only to be evaluated according to their usefulness. They are also to be evaluated according to whether they fulfill desires more directly – such as the stronger desire to be Socrates unsatisfied than a pig satisfied.

We only need to add a few drops of desire utilitarianism to Mill's theory of utilitarianism to create a theory that can handle many of the objections raised against it.


anticant said...

These days, far more people think like pigs than like Socrates.

Hume's Ghost said...

I think it's interesting to note that Mill's deviation from the utilitarianism of his father and Bentham was spurned on by his relationship with his wife, who is sometimes credited as almost being a co-author/developer of his ideas.

Anonymous said...

Mill distinguishes between pleasures. He calls them lower and higher, the lower being the pleasures of the flesh, sexual, emotional, and the like, while the higher pleasures are of the intellect. This is why his dissatisfied socrates quote is not in contradiction. It is better to be intellectual then to be concerned solely with physical pelasures

James McCarthy said...

The reason why Mill distinguishes between pleasures is that he thinks some are more valuable than others - for example the feelings of moral sentiments. Mill was also in support of the Aristocratic pleasure which is why his theory differs from Bentham. Bentham’s utilitarian principle focuses on a maximization of pleasure, Mill on the maximization of happiness which has built into it a different kind of pleasure. Hence 'it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a FOOL satisfied'. I wholeheartedly agree - the joy the white van drivers took from throwing a bottle of water at me yesterday is not of the same value as my reading of Mill.