Friday, September 26, 2014

Utilitarianism: a doctrine worthy only of swine?

The subsequent paragraph, the third of Utilitarianism II, introduces the first and most famous objection to utilitarianism: it is “a doctrine worthy only of swine”, meaning that it includes an unacceptable reduction of all values to a lower kind of satisfaction.

Mill notes that precisely the same accusation was levelled against the Epicureans. It has therefore preceded by a long history of misreadings. (§3)

Epicureans were told to react to the charge by saying that the scandal is all in the eye of the accuser “who represent human nature in a degrading way” from the start by mistakenly presupposing “human beings to be capable of no pleasure except those of which swine are capable” (p.7).

But Mill does not content himself with that response, and sets out a claim that has brought about endless arguments. Roughly, the controversial statement can be broached as follow:

Pleasure coming from the satisfaction or activity of the HIGHER HUMAN FACULTIES (among them Mill cites “pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments” p.8), has been considered INTRINSICALLY MORE VALUABLE than the exercise of merely ANIMAL FACULTIES (Mill reports here only “sensation”), i.e. has been considered more capable of representing “human being’s conception of happiness”.

Utilitarians have fallen into the error of professing “mental pleasures” superior to the “bodily” ones for merely “circumstantial advantages”, such as “permanency, safety, uncostliness, etc”, not for their intrinsic nature. However, Mill maintains that it is “quite compatible” with utilitarianism allowing the distinction between superior and inferior kinds of pleasure. This distinction can be spelled out in terms of quality/quantity opposition.

To sum up, according to Mill, there are two distinct kinds of pleasures and two valuing attitudes we can take over them:

Values can be appreciated in view of their INTRINSIC nature or for their EXTRINSIC / CIRCUMSTANTIAL / INSTRUMENTAL function. (§4)

But things are more complicated than that, as is proved by Mill’s subsequent discussion (pp. 8-12).

Q1: what do you mean by “difference in quality of pleasure”?

R1: a pleasure is more valuable than another, as pleasure, when all of, or the majority of, competent judges PREFERE it over the other as the “more desiderable”. Competent judges are those “who have experience of both”, “who are competently acquainted with both”, “equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both”, but also simple “human beings” in general or “intelligent human being” in particular. Their judgment is definite, they are “the experienced” (see §8).

After that remark, Mill provides the criterion. The superiority in quality is proved by this fact: “If one of the two is, […], placed so far above the other that they {competent judges} prefer it, […], and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable […]”.

It seems, then, that in order to ascertain the qualitative superiority of a pleasure over another we need always to take quantity into account. As a consequence of this, Mill seems to allow a fixed hierarchy of pleasures, even if he doesn’t specify it in detail. Each class of pleasure is incommensurable to the others because inferior level pleasures cannot be preferred over superior ones even if infinite in quantity. But within the same class, quantity is the solely relevant criterion. (§5)

According to Mill is simply a matter of fact that human beings tend to prefer higher/mental pleasures over animal ones. But why they do that? Pride, love of liberty and personal independence, love of power and excitement? Maybe. However, Mill adds a further explanation, a SENSE OF DIGNITY “which all human beings possess in one form or other, and in some, though by no means in exact, proportion to their higher faculties, and which is so essential a part of the happiness of those in whom it is strong that nothing which conflicts with it could be otherwise than momentarily an object of desire to them.” (p.9)

After that, Mill takes into account two objections:

1.      It might be thought that superior natures cannot fully satisfy their capacities/faculties, and that this leads to sufferance.
The preference for superior pleasures cannot take place at the expense of happiness, as Mill points out immediately. We have to distinguish “happiness” from “content”.  The following lines strike me as a piece of suffered autobiography: “It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. IT IS BETTER TO BE A HUMAN BEING DISSATISFIED THAN A PIG SATISFIED; BETTER TO BE SOCRATES DISSATISFIED THAN A FOOL SATISFIED.” (p.9-10) (§6)
Question: how the sense of dignity is related to pleasure? It seems that dignity has value irrespective of any real possession or satisfaction of pleasure. Is dignity a kind of value distinct from pleasure? Is it related with self-value/self-esteem? In which way?

2.      The second objection addresses the problem of temptation. Under the influence of urges human beings actually prefer lower pleasures, or nearer goods, to the higher and difficult ones. This is Mill’s plain reply:
o   This is no objection to the distinction between higher and lower pleasure.
o   A psychological explanation might be given: the cultivation of higher / mental pleasures is more likely exposed to exhaustion. Responsibility for this distortion, affecting younger generations in need of sustenance, bears on society, which thwarts noble aspirations by subtracting time and opportunities to develop intellectual tastes (this is Mill’s first criticism of present organisation of society).
o   The just given psychological remark doesn’t affect the intrinsic superiority of mental pleasures: on deliberation, human beings tend to prefer higher pleasures. (§7)
Mill then emphasizes that the criterion just offered is not “an indispensable condition to the acceptance of the utilitarian standard” of morality. The utilitarian principle concerns “the greatest amount of happiness altogether” and utilitarianism “could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness in character..”. Mill is here anticipating complexities we will encounter in subsequent pages.

Before introducing further objections, Mill recollects his findings. The ultimate end of human conduct is “an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality…” (§§9-10).

Next post on the further objection according to which happiness is unattainable.

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