Utilitarianism Mill Essay, Research Paper
In Utilitarianism, J.S. Mill was trying to show that “actions and institutions should increase the overall amount of happiness in the world” , and stressed the importance of utilitarianism as the first principle in ethics, to which any ambiguities with second principles such as ‘do not kill’ may appeal. In this discussion, it is first of all necessary to examine what Mill meant by each of these statements in isolation, before going on to explore how he attempts to reconcile these two statements. We need to examine, therefore, exactly what Mill meant by ‘pleasure and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends’
Utilitarianism can be summed up by a very short phrase from Joseph Priestly’s Essay on Government, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. However, it is important to note that although this maybe a concise summary, it remains that it is merely a summary, and perhaps obscures the particular features of Mill’s Utilitarianism. Mill himself summarises his version of utilitarianism as “pleasure and freedom from pain’ are the only things desirable as ends”. However, this begs the question of what exactly did Mill mean by ‘pleasure’ and by ‘freedom from pain’. Mill believes, as did Bentham, that pain is the opposite of pleasure, and as such, an increase in pain means a decrease in aggregate pleasure for the individual. Furthermore, such pleasure or pain may be quantified according to intensity and duration, so that all other things being equal, a pleasure of greater intensity or longer duration is preferable to smaller intensity or shorter duration. However, on the actual definition of what constitutes pleasure, Bentham and Mill differed greatly.
Bentham believed that any pleasure could be quantified according to intensity and duration, and although intellectual pursuits were ‘better’ in that they produced more pleasure, this was entirely due to the fact that they were of greater intensity. In this way, in the Haydn and oyster though experiment, Bentham would choose the life of the oyster since however much more intense the pleasures of Haydn are, the oyster would receive infinite sensual pleasure due to the infinite life-span. In this way, total utility would be greater than that of Haydn. However, Mill would have disagreed as he would have argued that there is not merely a difference in intensity and duration, there is an insurmountable difference in quality, so that “it is absurd that… the estimations of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.” Mill, therefore, would opt for Haydn’s life with almost no need for consideration since the pleasures of Haydn were insurmountably superior than the ‘base’ sensual pleasure of the oyster. In fact, as we can see from the above quotation, the choice would be almost self-evident for Mill. In this way, the pleasures that Mill describes differ, not only in quantity, with regard to intensity and duration, but also in quality, which may be so different that a person would prefer a tiny amount of one pleasure rather than any amount of another. Similarly, Mill’s views on freedom from pain would most likely take the same route, so that someone might prefer a life-time of physical pain as opposed to a single act of mental anguish. Such reflection as to what constitutes a quality difference leads naturally to the idea behind the phrase ‘Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied’, so perhaps it might be prudent to first of all discuss what Mill meant by such an assertion.
“we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality so far out-weighing quantity ass to render it, in comparison, of small account”. For Mill, therefore, certain pleasures are so great that any amount of lesser pleasures will not make up for any loss in the former. These certain pleasures include pleasures of the intellect as opposed to purely sensual pleasures, and so by suggesting that he would prefer to be Socrates dissatisfied, rather than a fool satisfied, Mill is saying that the pleasures Socrates receives are greater than those that the fool receives even though the fool is satisfied. This highlights the main objection which may be levelled at the consistency of the two phrases; satisfaction.
At first sight, these two phrases appear inconsistent since how, if pleasure is the ultimate goal, can someone prefer to be unsatisfied than satisfied. the answer lies simply in the definition of satisfaction. As Mill himself states “it is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low has the greatest chance of them being satisfied”. The point that Mill is trying to make is that maximum pleasure is not synonymous with satisfaction. In this way, the fool knows of very little pleasure. This he gains from his senses, and believing these to be the only pleasures in the world, he is satisfied. However, Socrates is aware of all manners of different pleasures, only some of which he is party to. However, Socrates does indulge in some intellectual, emotional and such pleasures, which as we have seen are insurmountably greater than those of a fool. In this way, although Socrates is not satisfied, he does receive considerably more pleasure, in absolute terms, than does the fool. The argument can be restated thus, if both Socrates and the fool were to receive the amount of pleasure just to satisfy the fool, then Socrates would not be satisfied since to use a more extreme example “a beast’s [and thus a fool's] pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s idea of happiness.” Thus for Mill, an educated man would not wish to reduce his level of utility by the transformation into a fool, or again to use the more extreme analogy, “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 pleasure”. However, one criticism levelled at this reasoning is that the distinction between higher and lower pleasures is relative, so that contemplating the subtleties of a fine wine is a higher pleasure than drinking Coca- cola which ‘tastes nice’. However, reading Mill is higher pleasure than contemplating the subtleties of fine wine. However, i would suggest that this provides no obstacle to Mill’s theory, since some pleasures are insurmountably greater. Although an individual might prefer five gallons of Coca-Cola to a sip of wine, he would never prefer (assuming he had enough other fluids to drink) five gallons of Coca-Cola to a page of philosophy. However, such an exposition leads to the problem of deciding which is the higher pleasure.
The problem of which pleasures are to be considered ‘higher’, is particularly pertinent to the current discussion, since if intellectual pleasures are not considered insurmountably higher than sensual pleasures, then our two statements are inconsistent. Thus, Mill appealed to ‘competent judges’ who were people who had enjoyed both kinds of pleasure, and so were in a position to judge which is the higher. In this way, a majority vote of competent judges signals which kind of pleasure is the higher, and thus we can proclaim ‘Better to be Socrates’, a point Mill made stating ”
What means are there of determining which is the acutest of two pains, or the intensest of two pleasurable sensations except the general suffrage of those who are familiar with both” However, such an analysis meets a host of problems, which are best summed up by Ryan “the philosopher who is a half-hearted sensualist cannot estimate the attractions of a debauched existence any more than sensualist flicking through the pages of Hume can estimate the pleasures of philosophy.” . However, Mill avoids this to some extent with his idea of general suffrage, in order to attempt to ‘iron out’ any such opinions. Moreover, there is another important way in which he could be said to avoid this problem; the idea of ‘macro-utilitarianism’
“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.” It can be argued, therefore, that the pursuit of intellectual pleasures, then results in greater happiness for mankind as a whole, since it affects not only the person involved, but anyone he or she comes into contact with, who may be enriched by the exchange, in a way that they are not if the former merely eats an apple. The idea of macro utilitarianism is a point central to Mill’s philosophy, and cannot be underestimated, especially with regard to the current discussion, since consistency is not an issue if we consider maximum global pleasure and global freedom from pain. This is because, even if there were the unlikely event of Socrates’ intellectual pleasure being less than the fool’s sensual pleasure, then Socrates’ philosophy must also be regarded as providing enjoyment for other people due to these people reading his writings and such. Such an analysis also provides our model of utopia with the possibility of heroes and martyrs, since although they themselves suffer, the effect they have is a net increase in utility, which Mill argues is the sole reason people become heroes or martyrs. “I ask, would the sacrifice be made if the hero or martyr did not believe that it would earn for others immunity from such sacrifices”. In this way, Martin Luther King’s death was not in vain, due to the increased utility caused by his actions. In this way, our second phrase could just as easily be “better to be a hero who dies young than a miser that dies a centenarian”, since this would retain the concept of maximum global utility. This tells us the basic relation between our two phrases; both phrases suggest maximum global utility.
In conclusion, when Mill suggests that ‘pleasure and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends, Mill means the maximum pleasure and freedom from pain among all people, are the only things desirable as ends. Similarly, the second phrase can be summed up as ‘better to have maximum utility than be satisfied at a lower level of utility’. If we then compare the two phrases, no obvious inconsistencies occur. However, we must always be aware that simplification obscures problems, and although Mill’s Utilitarianism does seem highly plausible in theory, in practice things may be very different. However, it remains that the two phrases are compatible, and that Mill himself demonstrates the reasons why at least some of the criticisms levelled at the incompatibility of the two sentences can be allayed,
“the greatest happiness principle…whether we are considering our own good or that of other people, is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in quantity and in quality”