John Stuart Mill



Like Bentham, John Stuart Mill was a ultilitarian. In fact, Mill’s utilitarianism was, to some extent, inherited from Bentham because Mill’s father, James Mill, was a utilitarian in his own right and served as an assistant to Bentham. Unlike Bentham, however, Mill thought that it was important to distinguish between better and worse kinds of pleasure, writing,


“It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others.  It would be absurd that, while estimating all other things quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasure should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.”


In other words, if we think that food, and clothes, and everything else can differ in quality as well as in quantity, wouldn’t it be strange to think that pleasure doesn’t differ in quality as well? And if we often care about the quality of something like food, in addition to its quantity (unless you’re very hungry, you probably don’t want to have as much food as possible, regardless of how it tastes or is presented) shouldn’t we care about the quality of our pleasures too?


How, though, are we to decide which of two pleasures is of the better type? How can we assess the quality of pleasure? Mill is about to tell us.


Excerpts from Utilitarianism


If I am asked what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.


In this paragraph, Mill gives us his famous “Competent Judge Test.” If we want to know which of two pleasures – say going to a monster truck rally or going to an opera – is better, we should seek out people are “competently acquainted with” both and ask their opinion. If the majority of these people say that the monster truck rally is better, then the rally provides the better pleasure. If most of them prefer the opera, the opera does.


This makes sense. It is, after all, the way we make similar decisions about other things. If I want to know which of two restaurants is better, I’d ask people who have been to both. If I want to know which of number of wines is the best, I’d check with people who have some experience with wine.


Of course, there is one problem. It might be hard for us to find these competent judges when a decision needs to be made. If we need to decide between the monster truck rally and the opera by 7:00 tonight, we might not have time to locate people “competently acquainted with both.” Wouldn’t it be nice if we just knew what these judges would say if we could find them? Not to worry! Let’s keep reading.


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. They would not resign what they possess more than he for the most complete satisfaction of all the desires which they have in common with him. If they ever fancy they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme that to escape from it they would exchange their lot for almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence. We may give what explanation we please of this unwillingness; we may attribute it to pride, a name which is given indiscriminately to some of the most and to some of the least estimable feelings of which mankind are capable; we may refer it to the love of liberty and personal independence, an appeal to which was with the Stoics one of the most effective means for the inculcation of it; to the love of power or to the love of excitement, both of which do really enter into and contribute to it; but its most appropriate appellation is a sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one form or other, and in some, though by no means in exact, proportion to their higher faculties, and which is so essential a part of the happiness of those in whom it is strong that nothing which conflicts with it could be otherwise than momentarily an object of desire to them. Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness -- that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior -- confounds the two very different ideas of happiness and content. It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. 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 of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.


So these competent judges will always prefer pleasures that employ their “higher faculties,” such as their intelligence or well-developed aesthetic sensibilities. Of course they might “slum it” once in a while, reading a supermarket tabloid when they’re tired, or enjoying a good burger now and then, but under normal circumstances, they will opt for War and Peace over the tabloid, and choose escargot over the burger. And they will without question prefer the opera to the monster truck rally, so that’s what will give us the higher quality pleasure, even though we might enjoy the rally more.


Questions for Consideration:

·          “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 of 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 is a very famous quotation from Mill. How would you explain what it says to someone else? Do you agree with Mill’s point here? Why or why not?

·          According to Mill’s account, although we’re always able to determine which of two activities gives us more pleasure, we aren’t the final judge of which activity gives us the better pleasure. It might even be the case that the pleasure we think is better actually isn’t the better pleasure; we might be mistaken about which of two activities provides us with the better kind of pleasure. In many areas, we’re able to acknowledge this distinction between what we like best and what is best. I, for example, might easily defer to a wine expert and agree that the wine which I enjoy the most is, in fact, inferior to the wine I like the least. Mill would say that we can, and should, make the very same distinction about pleasures. I should be willing to say “Although I enjoy reading Ann Perry novels more than I enjoy reading Tolstoy, I accept the judgment of literature experts when they say that the pleasure that I get from reading Tolstoy is a better pleasure than the pleasure that I get from reading Perry.” Should I be willing to say such a thing? Why or why not?


So, what do you think? Let’s try to get a clearer understanding of what Mill is saying by diagramming his argument.