Friday, August 10, 2012

John Stuart Mill and the Qualities of Pleasure

When John Stuart Mill defended his version of Utilitarianism, he confronted an objection that the theory failed to account for a number of common observations.

In one set of objections, it was argued that if wtilitarian theory was correct, the happiness of a pig would be more valuable than the unsettled contemplation of a philosopher. This conclusion was absurd, it was claimed, so Mill's utilitarianism had to be rejected.

Mill sought to defend the view that Utilitarianism was compatible with these observations by arguing that there are different qualities of pleasure.

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.

For his argument, he claimed that we should trust to the judgment of those who are capable of both pleasures. If those people who are capable of experiencing the unsettled pleasure of a philosopher and the simple pleasure of the fool unanimously - or nearly so - declare the former to be superior, we are as justified as we can be in saying that it is actually superior.

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.

This is like determining that one coffee is superior to another by asking those who experience both. If those who have done so unanimously or nearly unanimously prefer Brand A (Socrates Unsatisfied) over Brand B (Fool Satisfied), we may conclude that Brand A is better in fact.

The argument fails on a number of levels. The most obvious objection springs from the coffee example itself where the conclusion most people will draw is simply that some most people are so constituted to prefer Brand A over Brand B. It is just as plausible and sensible that people could have been so constituted to prefer Brand B. Neither is actually better than the other in any sense other than being the most widely preferred.

In other words, arguing that Brand A is objectively better than Brand B because more people like Brand A is like arguing that having light skin is better than having dark skin because more people have light skin. After all, what we are really comparing is having a brain structured to like Brand A versus having a brain structured to like Brand B - with no obvious reason why we should treat differences in brain structure different from differences in skin structure.

However, for our purposes, concerning the intrinsic value of pleasure, we need to look at another consideration.

Let us assume that tasters do prefer Brand A over Brand B. Let us assume that it is because Brand A is stronger, or sweeter, or has an almond taste. Perhaps they cannot easily identify the reason for the preference. There is just something in Brand A that causes them to like it more.

Whatever it is that is responsible for this difference, it is not due to the coffeeness. If we took that which made it better out, we would still have coffee. Consequently, we cannot attribute these two values to coffeeness - the difference belongs to something else.

Similarly, if two pleasures have different value, the difference must not reside in its pleasantness. It is in something that can be removed and we would still have pleasure. It us that which can be removed that provides this quality, not its pleasure.

Desirism has no problem with the idea that things other than pleasure have value. For a person with a desire that P, any state of affairs in which P is true is one that has value for that agent. It is a state that the agent has reason to bring about. P can be any proposition. It is not limited to "I am experiencing pleasure." It could be "I am experiencing pleasure and I am experiencing a sweet taste" - a set of desires that would make the sweeter coffee preferable.

We have reason to reject Mill's theory on the quality of different characters - the dissatisfied philosopher or the satisfied food - as we do for rejecting that theory applied to different coffees.

But how does desirism evaluate the dissatisfied philosopher in relation to the satisfied food?

In making such an evaluating, David Hume provides us with a better method than Mill.

Mill would have us look only at the quality of pleasure experienced by the philosopher and the fool and judge the first superior.

Hume would have us ask a broader set of questions. He would consider Mill's concern with the pleasure provided to the philosopher or the fool. However, he would also ask whether the state is useful to the agent - will it help the agent to recognize opportunities and avoid strife? He would ask which is more useful to others? If it is the philosopher, then people generally have reason to offer greater esteem to those who prefer the philosophical arts to promote those interests in the population. Whereas, if the fool tends to be incapable of helping - and is sometimes a risk to others due basically to his inability to understand the world around him - people would have reason to view those traits as worthy of condemnation.

To be fair, Mill brings these other considerations into play as well. He is, after all, a utilitarian, and ultiamtely concerned with the greatest good for the greatest number. He falsely believes that this greated good includes a greater intrinsic value found in some pleasures and not others. However, this does not mean that he is going to exclude other goods in the final analysis.

That Mill is wrong in this one area - in the claim that value can be found in the different qualities of pleasure rather than in the objective satisfaction of desire - does not discredit the whole of his theory.


Paul Hobbs said...

I am sure that you have answered this question many times, but please do so again for my insignificant self. If there is no god then were does "should" come from. I have been told my many atheist that "should" is culturally derived. Is this you thought as well? I would also suggest that you view the debate between Sam Harris and William Lain Craig in this very topic. If you choose to do so, I would be interested in you thoughts.



Alonzo Fyfe said...

Paul Hobbs

Easily done. I have a page at the Desirism Wiki devoted to this subject.

Desirism Wiki: Should

"should" is not culturally derived - any more than "atom" or "planet" is culturally derived. It refers a real-world state of affairs - a relationship between desires, actions, and states of affairs.

I hold that Sam Harris is wrong about a few things.

Sam Harris and the Science of Morality