Higher and Lower Pleasures: Their Effects on Millian Utilitarianism

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In this paper, I examine Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures that he presents in his Utilitarianism. Then, I raise objections to Mill’s distinction by focusing on the ambiguity of his definition of pleasures and his concept of the competent judge. I conclude that, with a recalculation of the definition of pleasures, his distinction of higher and lower pleasures can support a broader theory of utilitarianism.
1. Examining Mill’s Distinction
Utilitarianism is a moral theory that is rooted in the belief that happiness, which is understood as pleasure and the privation of pain, is the only thing that is intrinsically good. Mill’s endorsement of this “greatest happiness principle” is as follows:
1.1: “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals "utility" or the" greatest happiness principle" holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.”
Thus, it seems that Mill is inclined to accept a version of Bentham’s hedonistic utilitarianism. That is to say, Mill seems to be endorsing a quantitative theory of utilitarianism, which works on the bases of maximizing the duration and intensity of pleasure. However, later in Utilitarianism, Mill addresses an objection concerning the idea that utilitarianism is a theory that “favors sensual or voluptuary pursuits (e.g. push-pin) over higher or nobler pursuits (e.g. poetry).” Thus, he makes the distinction between pleasures of the intellect, higher pleasure, and sensual, lower, pleasures. This is to ensure that utilitarianism is not seen as “a doctrine worthy only of swine.”

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..., we are able to find a definition that allows for a consistency between traditional hedonistic utilitarianism and Mill’s higher and lower pleasures by applying an interpretation based in Donner and Schmidt-Petri’s writings.

Works Cited

Brink, David, "Mill's Moral and Political Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = . sec. 2.3
Donner, W. and Fumerton, R. Mill, Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, 4-5, 15-35.
Green, T.H., 1883, Prolegomena to Ethics, ed. D. Brink, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. The Classical Utilitarians: Bentham and Mill. Edited by John Troyer. Hackett Publishing Co., 2003.
West, Henry R. An Introduction to Mill’s Utilitarian Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 48-73
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