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Is Qualitative Hedonism Incoherent?

  • Jonathan Riley (a1)

Geoffrey Scarre has recently argued that the version of qualitative hedonism which I attribute to Mill is unsatisfactory for various reasons. In his view, even if it is formally compatible with value monism, ‘the Mill/Riley line’ involves non-hedonistic elements and offers an implausible account of the relationship between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures. In this paper, I show that his objections, which are similar in spirit to those pressed earlier by Bradley, Moore and others against Mill, are unfounded where not confused. The Mill/Riley line does not rely on non-hedonistic standards and has sufficient flexibility to account for many different kinds of pleasures and pleasing activities. It remains a coherent version of qualitative hedonism, worthy of further consideration and study.

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1 Scarre Geoffrey, ‘Donner and Riley on Qualitative Hedonism’, Utilitas, ix (1997). For my earlier article, see Riley Jonathan, ‘On Quantities and Qualities of Pleasure’, Utilitas, v (1993).

2 Scarre, 355 f.

3 Ibid., 357.

4 Ibid., 352.

5 Ibid. Perhaps the most obvious reason that the view is contestable is that Mill explicitly and repeatedly commits himself to hedonistic utilitarianism. ‘Those who know anything about the matter,’ he says, ‘are aware that every writer, from Epicurus to Bentham, who maintained the theory of utility, meant by it, not something to be contradistinguished from pleasure, but pleasure itself, together with exemption from pain’ (p. 209). ‘By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure … [P]leasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and … all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain’ (p. 210). ‘I believe that [the relevant] sources of evidence, impartially consulted, will declare … that to think of an object as desirable (unless for the sake of its consequences), and to think of it as pleasant, are one and the same thing; and that to desire anything, except in proportion as the idea of it is pleasant, is a physical and metaphysical impossibility’ (pp. 237 f.). These quotes are taken from Utilitarianism, ed. Robson J. M., Toronto, 1969, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, x.

6 Scarre, 352.

7 Ibid., 360.

8 Perhaps I should make clear that, although I regard this version of qualitative hedonism as a plausible interpretation of Mill's view, I do not claim that it is a true psychology, which is an indispensable basis for moral theory. At the same time, I am not persuaded that hedonism is false. Nor do I think that qualitative hedonism is incompatible with genuine monism. Thus, I take seriously the possibility of a credible hedonistic utilitarianism, without ‘firmly accepting’ either qualitative hedonism or utilitarianism.

9 Scarre, 356. Scarre does not actually say anything about methods of measuring pleasures or of comparing them across persons so I shall not bother discussing such methods either.

12 On Liberty, ed. Robson J. M., Toronto, 1977, CW, xviii. 283.

13 For Rawls' theory of justice, see Rawls John, Political Liberalism, New York, 1993. Remarkably, a strict hedonist can consistently claim that a virtuous person may – as a result of habit – eventually cease to actually feel that she takes infinitely greater pleasure in respecting than in violating others' basic rights, even though she habitually acts as if she does. I shall return to this point later in the text.

14 Scarre, 357, emphasis added.

15 A problem would arise if it were possible to experience an infinite number of units of lower pleasure from some feasible act or state of affairs. But, as Scarre recognizes, the Mill/Riley ‘proposition that we experience some pleasures as infinitely more pleasant than others does not imply that we experience some pleasures as infinitely pleasant’ (358, n. 18).

16 Scarre, 357.

20 Ibid., n. 17. See also ibid., 359, n. 18.

21 Mill , Utilitarianism, CW, x. 211.

22 Ibid., p. 212.

23 Ibid., emphasis added.

24 Scarre, 358.

26 Bradley F. H., Ethical Studies, 2nd edn., Oxford, 1927, pp. 119 f. As quoted by Scarre, 352, 359.

27 Scarre, 359.

32 Mill , Utilitarianism, CW, x. 259.

33 Ibid., emphasis added. See also ibid., p. 251.

34 Scarre, 352.

35 Mill , Utilitarianism, CW, x. 234–9.

36 I wish to thank Roger Crisp and Molly Rothenberg for helpful suggestions. Responsibility for the views expressed remains mine alone.

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