1. Mill on Bentham

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2. Mill’s distinction

As a utilitarian, Mill still accepts that happiness is pleasure, and the absence of pain; but he complicates this immediately by situating this idea in that of a life of happiness, which is not a life of constant rapture, “but moments of such, in an existence made up of few and transitory pains, many and various pleasures, with a decided predominance of the active over the passive, and having as the foundation of the whole, not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing” (Utilitarianism, 264). A much higher value is to be assigned to the pleasures of thought, feeling, and imagination. This is not because, on the Benthamite calculus, such pleasures have greater quantity, though often they do. They have a permanence (Bentham’s duration and fecundity), a safety (certainty), an uncostliness (purity), that can recommend them. It is rather that they are of a different quality than other pleasures: “some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and valuable than others” (258). This seems a strange claim to make: how can happiness be the only value, and pleasure the only factor in happiness, yet there be a distinction in value between pleasures? Mill’s test for establishing his claim that some kinds of pleasure are more valuable than others does not betray his utilitarian commitments:

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. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far out-weighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account. (259)
This test, applied to types of pleasures, establishes whether one type is more desirable than another type. To be more desirable is to be more valuable, for on the plausible assumption that people desire happiness, the judgments given here are judgments about how a pleasure contributes to happiness, the only value there is. And the test makes it clear that happiness is distinct from contentment or satisfaction. Whether Mill is correct in asserting that the pleasures of thought, feeling and imagination are higher pleasures depends entirely on the empirical outcome of the test.
Of course, the usual objections to the utilitarian’s hedonism can be raised. Desirability is not a test of how something contributes to happiness if we desire things other than happiness. And the only way Mill can defend the claim that happiness is all we desire is by stretching it to contain all values – freedom, authenticity, moral development, etc. But this empties ‘happiness’ of any substantive meaning; for it now seems that realizing what is of value independently is what makes us happy, rather than that what makes us happy being of value for this reason. But none of these objections touch Mill’s distinction, within happiness, of higher and lower pleasures.

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