Sunday, October 14, 2012

Elitism in J.S. Mill's Utilitarianism



Elitism in J.S. Mill's Utilitarianism

"It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides." (Utilitarianism - J.S. Mill) 

It is this quote, parroted in ethics classes that slowly bugged me more and more while studying moral philosophy. Doesn't it just seem to reek of elitism? I thought it did and because of this slowly moved away from Mill's two-tiered conception of pleasures (lower and higher - bodily and intellectual, etc) to Bentham's more 'pure' conception of utility that is based on only intensity, duration, certainty/uncertainty and propinquity/remoteness.

Recently, however, I read an article by D.D. Raphael[1] that led me to reconsider Mill's utilitarianism, or at least led me to drop my accusations of elitism on him. The passage in particular that appealed to me was this one:

"It is possible for Mill to maintain, as he does, that it is quite consistent with hedonism to say that the pleasure of philosophy is better in kind than the pleasure of rolling in mud - so long as he also maintains that the qualitatively higher pleasures are superior in quantity as well." (pg 11)

D.D Raphael's interpretation of Mill might look something like this:


 Whilst the fool is completely satisfied they are still not be as satisfied as Socrates. The scale on the above graph should represent absolute pleasure (10 representing bliss and 0 being nothingness). It's not that the fool isn't happy - the fool is indeed happy, as happy as he can possibly be! It's just that the fool is unaware that his potential for happiness could be increased if he were to take up poetry instead of pushpin. Socrates, on the other hand, is dissatisfied because there is a gap between his potential pleasure (the pleasures of philosophy perhaps) and his actual pleasure. So if we take an absolute perspective on happiness based on something fairly objective (maybe the level of endorphins and serotonin in someone's body) we can understand that it's completely possible to be dissatisfied yet still happier than someone who is completely satisfied. Being satisfied isn't everything - it matters the extent of the pleasure that is derived from the satisfaction too. 

I think that this is the most charitable interpretation of Mill because it avoids jumping to the conclusion that there is something metaphysically different between the higher and lower pleasures. Instead it is conluded that whilst both pleasures have the same quality (pleasure is pleasure no matter what its source) it is impossible that a lower pleasure can ever exceed a higher pleasure in terms of gross utility. So this type of thing would be inconceivable to Mill:


In this case although Socrates is engaging in higher pleasures he still has less overall pleasure than the fool. This does not compute for Mill. He says:

"It may be questioned whether anyone who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures ever knowingly and calmly preferred the lower...From this verdict of only the competent judges, I apprehend there can be no appeal...What means are there of determining which is the acutest of two pains, or the intensest of two pleasurable sensations, except the general sufferage of those who are familiar with both?"

The underlying argument here is simply that somebody who has experienced both higher and lower pleasures would always choose the higher pleasure. The temptation is to flatly deny this argument and say something like "But right now I'd much rather have sex than be working on my metaphysics essay, philosophise that Mill!" and D.D Raphael does exactly that. Raphael responds:

"Could not the fool and the pig retort in kind? Socrates knows all about mental pleasures but not enough about bodily [pleasures]. The pig has no capacity to enjoy philosophy, but Socrates has spend so much time on philosophy that he has not given rolling in the mud a decent chance. He does not know the exquisite pleasure that it can bring to those who go in for it in a big way." 

 I wholeheartedly agree with Raphael. It is entirely conceivable that a lower pleasure could bring more utility than a higher pleasure and the attitude in which the pleasure is approached probably influences the utility derived also. I do not doubt that Mill gets more pleasure from philosophy than eating or sex. But maybe the reason that this is so is because he presupposed his conclusion beforehand and hence psychologically tricked himself into enjoying the food and sex less and the philosophy more. Perhaps cultural and societal influences were at play here - people who enjoy food are called gluttons, people who enjoy sex are deviants, etc, etc. 

Overall I still rather like Mill as a utilitarian but I'm looking forward to moving on and reading some Sidgwick for his more egalitarian account of pleasure as "desirable consciousness of any kind".


[1] Raphael, D.D., Bentham and the Varieties of Utilitarianism, in: B. Parekh (Hrsg.), Jeremy Bentham: Critical Assessments, London 1993.

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