Is ignorance truly bliss?

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Josh Shapiro

Classical Ethnical Theories


This year, in my models of social science class, I answered that the meaning of life is happiness. My response was ridiculed and called “Mickey Mouse”. Everyone claimed it was much too simple and that there had to be more to life than just pleasure and happiness. At the time I was unsure how to respond to these claims. I knew I meant much more than simple pleasure but I could not articulate my thoughts. A couple of months later, I learned how I could have responded. The objection I encountered has come to be called the “doctrine of swine” objection, and is one of the many that Mill tries to refute in his explanation of why utilitarianism is valid for all humans. In this essay I will set up the critic’s objection (doctrine of swine), and show how Mill responds. Also I will include how Bentham might respond to this objection, analyze both responses, and identify which argument seems more valid, in my opinion.

Mill, a utilitarian, sets out his main view of the principle of utility: promoting the greatest good for the most amount of people. He states, “The theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded- namely, that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends…” (278). But critics who do not believe that mere pleasure can be the true end of human life compare it to a pig’s pleasure, and claim that if the utilitarian view of pleasure holds, than the lives of a pig and human are equal. They believe “to suppose that life has – no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit – they designate as utterly mean and groveling; as a doctrine worthy only of swine” (278). To compare the pig’s life to that of a human seems completely absurd to them. These critics believe that to use utilitarianism to describe the meaning of life is to debase humans’ meaning of life, and therefore should not be used.

Mill’s first response is rather ironic in that he thinks it is not the utilitarian, but the cynic who is debasing human life. He believes that the accusers are degrading human life, “since the accusation supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable” (278). Mill sees humans as having a higher intellect that allows them to enjoy things that a pig never could. He states, “because a beasts’ pleasures do not satisfy a human beings conception of happiness…human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites” (279). According to Mill, humans’ ability to enjoy things beyond the pleasures of an animal is proof that our intellect is far superior and allows us to enjoy the higher pleasures. Mill, to combat the critics is distinguishing between types of pleasure in that he sees, “some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others” (279). For the reason that we gain pleasure from reading poetry or listening to classical music, it seems a little far-fetched, to Mill, to compare those pleasures to the swine’s enjoyment of rolling around in the mud.

Therefore, the distinguishing factor in Mill’s counter-argument is between higher and lower pleasures. Mill believes that humans’ ability to seek the higher pleasures in life in no way debases human life to simple pleasure, like the critics claim. Much like Aristotle, who believes that a rational adult would never choose the pleasures of a child or an animal, so too does Mill think that no one would ever choose to be an animal that could only enjoy the lower pleasures. He states, “It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied” (281). Even though Mill believes that a human, because of his or her higher faculties is liable to experience more adversity and pain than an animal with only the lower faculties, he maintains that a human would not want a content life as a pig, but would rather suffer hardship as a human. Mill’s conception of dividing pleasure into higher and lower, allows him to escape the critics objection of debasing humans’ meaning of life by pointing to humans desire to cultivate the higher faculties.

Thus, if the criterion for separating human pleasure from that of swine is that humans can enjoy the higher pleasures, what determines what is a higher or lower pleasure? Mill coins the term “competent judge” to refer to people who have experienced both the higher and lower pleasures but “do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs the higher faculties” (280). He believes that one should follow the path of competent judges because they have the experience and knowledge to make the right decisions. Although Mill does concede that on occasion even a competent judge will decide to partake in the lower pleasures knowing full well that it is inferior to the higher pleasures, he does not see this as a contradiction. Rather, on occasion men or women will indulge themselves in something they know to be inferior. Mill would also claim that the higher pleasures are not necessarily longer lasting or more intense than the inferior pleasures, but he believes that the competent judge will, for the most part, always chose the higher. Therefore, while the objection of the doctrine of swine against utilitarianism is concerned that men and women’s life will be reduced to the lower pleasures of a pig, Mill refutes the argument by maintaining that humans will not regularly choose the lower pleasures.

Unlike Mill, Bentham would have no way to counter the doctrine of swine objection, but he would contend that it does not hurt the utilitarian principle in the slightest. Bentham does not believe that one pleasure or pain is greater in quality to any other; only the quantity of the pleasures and pain is important. He does believe that there are two main types of pleasure: simple and complex; and it could be argued that humans experience the complex pleasures or pains, where as a pig can only feel the simple ones. Bentham asserts that “simple ones [pleasures] are those which cannot any one of them be resolved into more: complex are those which are resolvable into divers simple ones” (90). This would lead some to believe that because humans can experience complex pleasures or pains, this separates them from mere swine, and therefore human life is in some way superior to that of a pig. But Bentham sticking to his utilitarian philosophy would conclude that the complex pleasures can simply be broken down into the simple, and for this reason the quality of the pleasure is the same. Bentham, unlike Mill, does not see the difference between higher and lower pleasures, but maintains they are all of equal value. In response to the doctrine of swine objection, he would maintain that the human pleasure could not be any better or worse than pigs, and the only relevant factor is the quantity of pleasures.

Bentham believes one cannot judge the feeling of a pleasure or pain for another person. He believes there are many relevant factors involved in rating a specific pleasure or pain, which include; its intensity, its duration, its certainty, its remoteness, its fecundity, and its purity (87). But Bentham sees these attributes of an individual pleasure or pain as something that only the actor can feel, and therefore another cannot rate the actor’s feelings. There can be no universal quality for a feeling because everyone will react differently to pleasures or pains. One can only judge for oneself the quality of a pain or pleasure, and, therefore, Bentham would conclude that the critics are right in claiming that the purpose of life is to seek pleasure, which is just the same as the pleasures a pig can derive through its life.

When first reading over these two ideas on the doctrine of swine and applying the utilitarian principle, I felt it was obvious that Mill had the right idea. I felt that my pleasures were very different than a pig’s, and it seemed only natural that my life, in some way, should be more important than a pig’s life. This led me to fully support Mill’s view that the reason a human life is more meaningful in that we can experience the higher pleasures that a pig cannot. I felt very sure that this was the right way to combat this objection of the swine, but after thinking about what Bentham had in mind, I completely changed my mind.

Referring back to the title of my paper, I believe answering this question will provide the best explanation of why Bentham, and not Mill, has the right interpretation of utilitarianism. I would have to answer that an individual that is unaware of the world around him or her but simply enjoys what he or she has, is truly happy. Mill contends that humans choose the higher pleasures, which separates humans from animals, but I cannot claim that I am happier with the higher pleasures than the lower ones. Rather, when I partake in a pleasurable activity, I am not concerned with whether the pleasure is high or low but that it bring me enjoyment. Intellectually, I can say that studying philosophy is higher than say, playing basketball, but in reality I can always choose the lower pleasure and be just as happy. Like Bentham, I conclude that the distinguishing factor of pleasures or pains revolves around the frequency as opposed to whether it is a higher or lower one. I am unable to judge the pleasure or pain that another feels from a given activity, and he alone can judge this. Therefore, if one derives more pleasure out of the lower pleasures on all occasions, I see no problem with his or her pursuit of these alone. In sum, like Bentham, I would not disagree with the critics that state a human life is no different than a pig’s life if viewed through the eyes of a utilitarian, but I ask them what’s wrong with that?

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