Response to Mill’s Utilitarianism

This is for tomorrow’s lecture. Sorry it tails off at the end, but I had to clip it to fit one page.

Mill, John Stuart. “Utilitarianism.” Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 5th ED. Wadsworth Publishing, 2007.

While John Stuart Mill also proposes a type of utilitarianism, his theory differs from Bentham’s most notably in his conception of pleasure and pain. One point I found interesting was his evaluation of the quality of pleasures. Basically, he says that one pleasure can be more desirable than another if the majority of those who have experience it believes that it is better. Thus, his judgment of pleasure seems to be somewhere between preference dependence and independence. The pleasure one experiences aren’t really dependent on his or her preference, but that of everyone else’s. Mill is actually slightly ambiguous on whether that person’s preference should at that point be considered, but then again, he’s actually quite vague on the domain from which “the majority” should be taken. We could take a hypothetical set of all persons living, dead, and those yet to be born. Otherwise, the quality of pleasures would change with time, and that would be an evolving morality, which I find somewhat strange.

Mill makes another point that the pleasures involving the higher faculties are absolutely better than those involving the lower faculties because all those who have experienced it believe that it is better. Let us temporarily assume that his non-empirical assertion about the majority’s opinion is correct. His reasoning here, however, still seems somewhat circular. By higher faculties, I believe Mill means intelligence, and intelligence is typically gained through experience, which is a prerequisite for being included in the domain of those who can be counted in the majority. So it would almost seem that there’s an inherent bias in the measurement for the pleasure of higher faculties. I also don’t see why a similar argument can’t be used for, say, physical strength as enabling greater pleasures. Since both that and intelligence are both developed skills, I would think that they would be incomparable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.