Mill’s Utilitarianism, mt 2012. C fabre. Week 3: Mill’s theory of the good life II happiness, Experiences and Desires Handout

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Mill’s Utilitarianism, MT 2012. C Fabre.

Week 3: Mill’s theory of the good life II

Happiness, Experiences and Desires

1. Introduction

  • L2: Mill’s theory of happiness as encompassing lower and higher pleasures.

  • Two further features to be explained: (a) The theory is experiential; (b) The role of desires and preferences in it.

2. Happiness and experiences

  • An experiential account of the good: something contributes to my good only if I experience it as such. Call this the Experience Requirement of the good and bad.

  • Mill’s theory of happiness is experiential: ‘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.’ (II.) Pleasures and pain are mental states: if I do not experience something as pleasurable, then it is not good for me.

  • Some problems:

(a) For a start, the account seems to suppose that mental states are homogeneous: pleasure, or pain. But it is not so: something which I experience as very painful might also, at the same time, be a source of pleasure.

(b) Experiencing something as pleasurable is not a sufficient condition for it being part of my good life. Ex: the sadist and the addict: two cases where they experience something as pleasurable, yet it would be a strain on normal understanding to say that it is a contribution to their good. Could Mill say: alright, but so long as we rule out irrational and immoral pleasures, we can safely say that it is a sufficient condition for something to form part of my conception of the good that I should experience it as pleasurable? But that reply would not get him around other difficulties:

(c)Nozick on the experience machine. (Nozick, 1974.)

(d) Moreover, it matters not merely that we engage in those pursuits which we experience as pleasurable, but also that those pursuits be authentically ours.

(e) Experiencing something as pleasurable is not a necessary condition of it being part of my good life: Some things are good for us even though we do not experience them at all. Some things are good for us even though we do not experience them as good. (cf Crisp and the example of the scientist.) Some things are bad for us even though we do not experience them as bad. Some things are bad for us even though we do not experience them at all.
3. Desire-satisfaction as constituent of the good life

  • What seems to have gone wrong, here, is a failure to recognise that what makes a life go well or badly, indeed what makes us happy or unhappy, is not what we experience as pleasurable or painful, but whether our desires are satisfied or not. Works well for the case of death or the scientist; not so well in other cases.

  • Mill himself seems to oscillate between experiencing pleasure and satisfying one’s desires, as the most appropriate characterization of a happy life. If Mill is not to forego too much of Bentham’s hedonistic heritage, he must hold on to the view that happiness consists in experiencing pleasure, and that we desire things in so far we find them pleasant. Pb (cf lecture 4): he has to confront the objection that we often desire things that are not pleasant. Would a mixed account work?

  • The desire-satisfaction model (DSM) of happiness is a central plank of utilitarian theories which were developed in the wake of Mill’s work, particularly in economics.1 On that view, I am happy to the extent that my desires or preferences are satisfied, and unhappy to the extent that they are frustrated. Is that a plausible account of happiness? At first sight, yes. Having my desires constantly frustrated will make me unhappy, and vice versa. However, there are problems with DSM (For good discussion, see Crisp, 1997, ch3; Griffin, 1986, chs 1 and 2):

    • Actual desires?

    • Informed desires?

    • Desires central to one’s life?

    • We often desires things which are bad for us.

    • Current v. future desires.

4. Concluding remarks

1 For good, accessible discussions of utilitarianism in economics, see Hahn, 1982;Mirlees, 1982.

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