In his Essay Utilitarianism Mill elaborates on Utilitarianism as a moral theory and responds to misconceptions about it. Utilitarianism, in Mill’s words, is the view that ‘»actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. ‘«1 In that way, Utilitarianism offers an answer to the fundamental question Ethics is concerned about: ”How should one live ‘ or ”What is the good or right way to live’. In the first chapter, General Remarks, Mill points out that, even after 2000 years, this fundamental question remains controversial.
In his opinion, neither the idea of a natural moral faculty nor the idea of intuitionism can help to solve the problem. Most of the people who have tried to solve it, however, have been influenced ”tacitly’ by the greatest-happiness principle, the author argues. At the end of chapter 1 Mill conveys the ”plan of his essay’: an account of and considerations in favor of Utilitarianism, equivalent to a proof, although a direct proof can never be given of any end. 2 Before offering this kind of proof, however, Mill draws the reader’s attention to Utilitarianism itself and deals with some common objections to it in chapter 2.
In Chapter 2, What Utilitarianism is, Mill presents the aforesaid definition of Utilitarianism as the criterion of an action to be right or wrong. We have seen that Utilitarianism puts great emphasis on happiness. ‘»By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. ‘«3 The fact that pleasure is the only good for Mill makes his Utilitarianism a form of Hedonism which is most associated with the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus who claims that ‘»Pleasure is our first and kindred good.
«4 The difference to Epicurus’ Hedonism, however, is that ‘»the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent’s own happiness, but that of all concerned.«5 Being a Hedonist, Mill tries to respond to what is referred to as The Philosophy of Swine Objection: ”since hedonistic utilitarianism suggests that nothing is good except pleasure, it is a philosophy worthy of pigs. Human happiness is different from animal happiness, in fact humans have higher faculties than animals. ‘
Mill responds to this objection that Utilitarianism is perfectly compatible with the view that there are different kinds of pleasures. In fact, differences in the quality of a pleasure must be considered as well as differences in quantity. Mill argues that differences in quality are to be measured in preferences rather than quality. “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. “6
Ergo, Mill distinguishes between higher and lower pleasures in order to respond to The Philosophy of Swine Objection. However, the distinction between quality and quantity is not new. Mill himself asserts that ‘»utilitarian writers in general have placed the superiority of mental over bodily pleasures. ‘«7 What is new in Mill’s theory is that he rejects to measure pleasure in any kind of numerical scale. His scale is an ordinal scale, in which pleasures are ordered in terms of preference, i. e. pleasure A is greater than pleasure B and so on.
The problem with that measurement is that it is not transitive, which means that if pleasure A is greater than pleasure B and pleasure B is greater than pleasure C, it does not follow that pleasure A is greater than pleasure C, simply because we are not talking about quantity but quality. For example, I may prefer banana ice cream to chocolate ice cream, and I may prefer chocolate ice cream to strawberry ice cream, but I may also prefer strawberry ice cream to banana ice cream. It does not follow that I must prefer banana to strawberry.
Mill might defend himself by claiming that the example given is trivial and that on important moral matters preferences will be transitive, but this has to be discussed in further study. Another problem that people have with Mill’s respond to The Philosophy of Swine Objection is that ‘»it may be objected that many who are capable of the higher pleasures, occasionally, under the influence of temptation, postpone them to the lower’«. Mill responds to this with the argument that this does not make any difference for the higher-lower-pleasure principle, since the person consciously chooses a lower pleasure.
It has also been objected that ‘»people loose their enthusiasm for the higher pleasures.’« Mill’s answer to this is that they do not choose this but became incapable of higher pleasure. There is, however, another objection to Bentham’s form of utilitarianism, which can be responded to with Mill’s higher-lower-pleasure distinction. This is referred to as the Haydn-Oyster-Objection, which, in short, hints at the following problem: suppose you could choose between the life of the great composer Joseph Haydn, involving great success and enjoyment – and the life of an oyster, which only involves primitive pleasures.
Given only these facts, most if not all people would prefer Haydn’s life, but if you were told that the oyster’s life could be as long as you like, say millions of millions of years. According to Bentham’s scale which only includes time and intensity of pleasure8, there has to be some point in which the oyster’s life becomes more worth than Haydn’s, which is counter-intuitive for the most people.
Mill, giving up the precision of a felicifc calculus, can respond to this objection with his higher/lower pleasure distinction, saying that for no amount of an ‘oyster-pleasure’ would you exchange the life of a composer like Haydn. There are, however, three problems with this. The first one is the fact that Mill gives up a lot of exactness in the measurement of happiness, which is clearly necessary if one wants to know which action brings about the greatest happiness.
Secondly, in making the claim about higher/lower pleasures, Mill seems to deny hedonism.’»If he remains a hedonist, then he must accept that the only value is pleasantness, and, if this is the case, then adding pleasantness to one side of the scale must eventually lead it to the tip.«9 The oyster life, in other words, must become more valuable at some point.
Thirdly, the strict preference explanation of Mill’s higher/lower pleasure distinction: ”for no amount of the one pleasure would you give up the other’. This seems counter-intuitive at some point, since there are cases where you would give up, say poetry for a certain amount of food. The second objection, however, seems to be a formal issue only. Whether you call Mill a Hedonist or not, does not change his theory.
The third objection, in contrast has been addressed to by Mill with his incapability- and conscious-option respond, on page 4 of this essay. The strongest claim, however, against [this part of] utilitarianism in my opinion, is the first objection which is the measurement problem. Mill seems to have captured our intuitions about morality at this point, but his theory lacks utility at this point, since it is hard to find out whether an action brings about more pleasure if we have to be aware, not only of its duration and intensity, but also the possibility of being a higher or lower pleasure.