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No Philosophy for Swine: John Stuart Mill on the Quality of Pleasures


I argue that Mill introduced the distinction between quality and quantity of pleasures in order to fend off the then common charge that utilitarianism is ‘a philosophy for swine’ and to accommodate the (still) widespread intuition that the life of a human is better, in the sense of being intrinsically more valuable, than the life of an animal. I argue that in this he fails because in order to do successfully he would have to show not only that the life of a human is preferable to that of an animal on hedonistic grounds, but also that it is in some sense nobler or more dignified to be a human, which he cannot do without tacitly presupposing non-hedonistic standards of what it means to lead a good life.

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1 Green, Thomas Hill, Prolegomena to Ethics, 5th edn. (Oxford, 1906), pp. 183–90.

2 Bradley, F. H., Ethical Studies, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1927), pp. 116–22.

3 Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica (Cambridge, 1956), pp. 7781.

4 Donner, Wendy, ‘Mill's Utilitarianism’, p. 264, The Cambridge Companion to Mill, ed. Skorupski, John (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 255–92.

5 Mill, John Stuart, Utilitarianism, in Collected Works of John Stuart Mill (CW), vol. 10, ed. Robson, John M. (Toronto and London, 1969), p. 210.

6 Utilitarianism, CW 10, pp. 210–11.

7 Cf. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics, p. 184: ‘No one of course can doubt that pleasures admit of distinction in quality according to the conditions under which they arise. So Plato and Aristotle distinguished pleasures incidental to the satisfaction of bodily wants from pleasures of sight or hearing, and these again from the pleasures of pure intellect. . . . The question is in what sense, upon the principle that pleasure is the ultimate good by relation to which all other good is to be tested, these differences of kind between pleasures may be taken to constitute any difference in the degree of their goodness or desirability.’

8 The situation would thus be similar to the one that the dead face after each life cycle according to the myth of Er that Plato relates in the last book of the Republic. However, for Plato it appears to be less certain than for Mill that being human is preferable to all other life forms. Being completely free to choose any form of life they desire for their next incarnation, Plato's dead each make a different choice. Although there are some animals who decide to become human, there are also, contrary to what Mill should expect, many humans who elect to become an animal. Orpheus, for instance, chose to spend his next life as a swan, the Telamonian Ajax as a lion and Agamemnon as an eagle. At least for now, they have all had enough of being human.

9 Utilitarianism, CW 10, p. 211.

10 It is rather astounding that this is hardly ever noticed or remarked upon by modern critics. And even when it is, it does not seem to be considered a serious objection to Mill's argument. Guy Fletcher for instance admits that ‘the notion of quality remains somewhat mysterious’ (Fletcher, Guy, ‘Qualitative Hedonism and Malicious Pleasures’, Utilitas 20.4 (2008), pp. 462–71, at 467), but nonetheless defends Mill's qualitative hedonism against Bradley and Moore as completely consistent.

11 For a different view see Schmidt-Petri, Christoph, ‘Mill on Quality and Quantity’, The Philosophical Quarterly 53/ 210 (2003), pp. 102–4.

12 Wendy Donner claims that Mill assigns a ‘consistent meaning’ to the notion of quality, and that quality should not be taken to be synonymous with value. Rather, quality is ‘just another ordinary property’ that contributes to value, just as quantity does. The term ‘quality’ has to be understood as ‘that additional good-making characteristic of pleasures’ (Donner, ‘Mill's Utilitarianism’, p. 263). However, Donner fails to explain what this property is, except that it is something that makes pleasures good (or better than others). We would want to know, though, why it makes pleasures good, or what exactly makes them good. In the absence of such a reason, Donner's explanation is just as helpful as the Doctor's explanation in Molière's Le Malade Imaginaire, who, when asked why opium makes people sleep, replies that it possesses a vis dormativa, i.e. a sleep-making power.

13 Utilitarianism, CW 10, p. 211.

14 Utilitarianism, CW 10, p. 211 (my italics).

15 See Crisp, Roger, Mill on Utilitarianism (London, 1997), pp. 24–5.

16 Plato, Protagoras 345d.

17 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics VII.3, 1145b 21; VII.11, 1152a 15.

18 Utilitarianism, CW 10, p. 212.

19 Utilitarianism, CW 10, pp. 212–13 (my italics).

20 Utilitarianism, CW 10, p. 213.

21 There is an elitist tendency in Mill to find only ‘cultivated’ people worth considering. Thus, in his study Auguste Comte and Positivism, in which he clearly sympathizes with Comte's religion of humanity, he recommends that, so that ‘the ennobling power of this grand conception may have its full efficacy, we . . . regard the Grand Être, Humanity, or Mankind, as composed, in the past, solely of those who, in every age and variety of position, have played their part worthily in life. . . . The unworthy members of it are best dismissed from our habitual thoughts’ (CW 10, p. 334).

22 Utilitarianism, CW 10, p. 213.

23 Utilitarianism, CW 10, 213 (my italics).

24 Martin, Rex, ‘A Defence of Mill's Qualitative Hedonism’, Philosophy 47 (1972), pp. 140–51, at 146.

25 Martin, ‘A Defence of Mill's Qualitative Hedonism’, p. 147.

26 West, Henry R., ‘Mill's Qualitative Hedonism’, Philosophy 51 (1976), pp. 97101, at 99.

27 West, ‘Mill's Qualitative Hedonism’, p. 100.

28 Riley, Jonathan, ‘Millian Qualitative Superiorities and Utilitarianism, Part I’, Utilitas 20.3 (2008), pp. 257–78, at 278.

29 Riley, Jonathan, ‘Interpreting Mill's Qualitative Hedonism’, The Philosophical Quarterly 53 (2003), pp. 410–18, at 416.

30 Riley, Jonathan, ‘Millian Qualitative Superiorities and Utilitarianism, Part II’, Utilitas 21.2 (2009), pp. 127–43, at 128.

31 Utilitarianism, CW 10, pp. 215–16.

32 Remarks on Bentham's Philosophy, CW 10, p. 15.

33 Cf. Bradley, Ethical Studies, pp. 118–19 [1927 in n. 1], who puts this point rather nicely: ‘The “higher pleasure” is here the pleasure which contains in itself most degrees of pleasure, or which contributes on the whole to the existence of a larger number of degrees of pleasure. Here the principle of the greatest amount of pleasure is adhered to; that is the top, and what approaches to it or contributes to it is nearer the top. But since the moral “higher” is here, as we see, the more pleasurable or the means to the more pleasurable, we come in the end to the amount, the quantity of pleasure without distinction of kind or quality; and having already seen that such an end is not a moral end, we get nothing from the phrases “higher” and “lower” unless it be confusion.’

34 On Liberty, CW 18, p. 270 (my italics).

35 Riley, ‘Millian Qualitative Superiorities and Utilitarianism, Part II’, p. 129, confuses the issue even further when he claims that the higher pleasures are infinitely more pleasant by being infinitely more intense: ‘In effect, Mill's hedonistic innovation is to enlarge the meaning of “intensity” so that it covers not only the finite superiority of a larger quantity over a smaller quantity of pleasure of the same kind but also the infinite superiority of a higher quality of pleasure over a lower. A higher pleasure is infinitely more intense than a lower pleasure, keeping in mind that the feeling of “infinitely more intense” (that is, qualitative superiority) may not actually feel (and is not required to feel) anything like the feeling of “finitely more intense” (that is quantitative superiority).’ In other words, an infinitely more intense pleasure doesn't feel more intense at all. In what sense then is it more intense? Apparently in the sense of being more valuable. That would mean, though, that we cannot explain the alleged greater value of the pleasure in terms of its greater intensity. It remains unexplained and cannot be accounted for by the utilitarian theory that Mill defends.

36 Bentham, CW 10, p. 94.

37 David O. Brink, ‘Mill's Deliberative Utilitarianism’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 21.1 (1992), pp. 67–103, at 68.

38 Utilitarianism, CW, p. 212.

39 Bentham, CW 10, pp. 95–6.

40 Utilitarianism, CW 10, p. 212.

41 On Liberty, CW 18, p. 266.

42 Bentham, CW 10, p. 98.

43 Nature, CW 10, p. 397.

44 On Liberty, CW 18, p. 267.

45 On Liberty, CW 18, p. 278.

46 Theism, CW 10, p. 459.

47 Theism, CW 10, p. 488. Although decidedly hostile and frequently unjust in her reading of Mill, Raeder, Linda C. has a point when she insists that the ‘aim of Benthamite utilitarianism, certainly in the hands of the morally impassioned Mills, was not pleasure or happiness but virtue’ (John Stuart Mill and the Religion of Humanity (Columbia and London, 2002), p. 15).

48 Quoted in On Liberty, CW 18, p. 215.

49 On Liberty, CW 18, p. 266.

50 Ryan, Alan, The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (London, 1970), p. 255.

51 By this I of course do not mean that, for the utilitarian, it doesn't matter at all what we do. Obviously, an action that is conducive to general happiness (including the happiness of animals) is better than an action that is not, and the more conducive it is, the better it is from a utilitarian point of view. However, whether I contribute to the general happiness by producing and distributing exciting video action games or by creating great works of art should not matter to the utilitarian as long as the amount of happiness produced is the same.

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