How Mill Modifies Bentham's Utilitarianism





1. What is the basis of Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism?
2. What was the consequence of Bentham's hedonism?
3. What are the problems with Bentham's purely quantitative version of utilitarianism?
4. Why is this considered paradoxical?
5. How does Mill seek to improve upon Bentham's version of utilitarianism?
6. How does Mill propose to determine which pleasures are of "better" quality?
7. Which pleasures does Mill think the majority of those competently acquainted with both will prefer?
8. How does Mill explain why the great majority of people pursue what Mill would consider low quality pleasures?
9. What's the problem with Mill's explanation here?
10. What is the problem with trying to defend hedonism and also to rank different qualities of pleasures?

1. What is the basis of Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism?
 
Bentham builds his ethical theory on what he called "the
principle of utility" or "greatest happiness principle,"
according to which an action is right in proportion to its
tendency to produce the greatest happiness of all affected by the
action. By "happiness" Bentham means the maximization of
pleasure and minimization of pain; thus Bentham's utilitarianism
is a consequentialist and hedonistic doctrine similar to ancient
Epicureanism, however because it is concerned with "all affected
by the action" it differs from the egoistic hedonism of the
Epicureans and can be called "altruistic hedonism." Bentham
considered the empirical nature of hedonism to be its primary
virtue; in other words we can determine what is right or wrong by
directly measuring (or calculating) the pleasures and/or pains
resulting from an action. Ethical judgments are made only on the
basis of experience; thus an empirical science of ethics can be
constructed through studying exactly what sorts of pleasures and
pains are produced by any action. This was paramount for
Bentham, because he shaped his utilitarian doctrine for the
specific goal of providing a philosophical justification for
legislative and judicial reform.

2. What was the consequence of Bentham's hedonism?
 
If attaining pleasure and avoiding pain is the only thing which
is good as an "end" in-itself, and if all other things said to be
"good" are only "good" as "means" to the end of maximum pleasure
and minimum pain, then, Bentham concluded, the more pleasure an
action produces the better it is. In other words the ethical
value of an action (its goodness or badness) lies strictly in the
quantity of pleasure it produces imagined as summed up over all
the persons affected by the action over all time following an
action. Bentham believed that this quantity could be calculated
by measuring various characteristics of a pleasure or pain, such
as its intensity (how strong), its duration (how long), its
extent (how many persons affected), its purity (not mixed with
pains), its propinquity (how soon), and its fecundity (how many
other pleasures result from it). He thus attempted to set ethics
on a scientific basis by designing a "hedonic calculus" for
calculating just such a quantity of pleasure resulting from an
action.


3. What are the problems with Bentham's purely quantitative version of utilitarianism?
 

Unfortunately what Bentham considered to be the primary strength
of his ethics, its empirical nature, is also its weakness. If
ethical value is purely empirical, then the philosopher must
admit that whatever experience reveals does produce maximum
pleasure is by that very fact the right action. The philosopher
is never in a position to "preach," or in other words to say,
"Granted that experience reveals people find certain actions
pleasurable, but nevertheless they should not pursue these kinds
of pleasures but should pursue pleasures of a different kind."
As we have seen, Epicurus himself found it necessary to make
normative claims about the sorts of pleasures he thought people
should pursue, in spite of the fact that this was incompatible
with his determinism. However, Bentham was willing to "bite the
bullet" on this: if people actually find these sort of actions
maximize their pleasures, then the philosopher is never able to
say, "But they shouldn't."
4. Why is this considered paradoxical?
 
Bentham followed the ancient Epicureans in holding that pleasure
is the result of fulfilling desire. Thus what gives an
individual pleasure is determined by what that individual
desires. Now if a person's desires are simple and easy to
fulfill, it follows that that person will experience relatively a
lot of pleasure, whereas if a person has desires that are
difficult to fulfill, he/she will experience relatively fewer
pleasures. If we simplify what is obviously a very complex matter
of human psychology, we could divide "pleasures" into those which
result from fulfilling "intellectual" desires versus those which
result from fulfilling purely "bodily" desires. Among the
intellectual desires would be those for understanding, for
knowledge, truth, and beauty, the desires of a "Socrates"; among
the bodily desires would be those for food, drink, sex, and the
like, the desires of "the pig." Obviously the former desires are
harder to satisfy than the latter, thus the life of the "pig" is
likely to have more pleasure in it than the life of the
"Socrates." If we accept Bentham's ethical theory, that means
the life of the pig is morally superior to the life of the
"Socrates." Most philosophers (but not Bentham) consider this
conclusion "paradoxical" and indicating something is radically
wrong with Bentham's version of utilitarianism.
5. How does Mill seek to improve upon Bentham's version of utilitarianism?
John Stuart Mill's father, James Mill, was an ardent disciple of
Bentham and raised his son according to Bentham's philosophy.
Partially as a result of this upbringing the younger Mill
suffered a nervous break down at age eighteen, from which he
recovered at least partially, through reading the poetry of the
English Romantic poets. As a result of this episode, Mill
"reformed" Bentham's version of utilitarianism. He concluded
that what was wrong with Bentham's ethics was that it counted
only the quantity of pleasure and failed to distinguish different
qualities of pleasure, some of which Mill held to be much
"higher" than others. If we add a scale of quality to Bentham's
calculation we get the conclusion that "high quality" pleasures,
even though much harder to attain, are so much superior to lower
quality pleasures, even though easier to attain, as to make the
lower quality pleasures of virtually no account in determining
the moral value of an action. Thus the paradox of Socrates and
the pig is reversed. Socrates' life is the morally superior life
because the intellectual pleasures Socrates experiences (even
though fewer and further between) are of so much higher quality
than the pleasure of the pig (even though frequent and easy to
attain).


6. How does Mill propose to determine which pleasures are of "better" quality?
 

Mill tries hard to be faithful to Bentham's empiricism. Thus
even though he has changed the determination of pleasure by
adding a qualitative scale, he still wants to make the
determination of what is a higher quality pleasure purely
empirically. Thus the only way to show that out of two
pleasures, one of them is of "higher quality" is to show that
offered the choice of either of the two pleasures, the vote of
the majority of all who have had competent experience of both as
to which pleasure is preferable will determine which is of
"higher quality."


7. Which pleasures does Mill think the majority of those competently acquainted with both will prefer?
 

Mill argues that it is "unquestionable" that those competently
acquainted with both "intellectual pleasures" and "bodily
pleasures" will prefer those which make use of the intellectual
capabilities of the person and that they would prefer these even
knowing that they are harder to attain than those of the body.
Thus although Mill does not actually put the question to a vote,
he thinks he knows without any doubt that if any such a vote is
taken, the intellectual pleasures will win.


8. How does Mill explain why the great majority of people pursue what Mill would consider low quality pleasures?
 

Of course Mill knows full well that the great majority of people
are much more interested in the pleasures of "the pig" than the
pleasures of the "Socrates." So he has to explain why this is
so. His answer relies on the crucial proviso: "competently
acquainted with both." The reason most people desire bodily
pleasures much more strongly than intellectual ones lies in the
fact that most people are not "competently acquainted with both"
kinds of pleasures; in other words, the "pig" is ignorant of the
pleasures of Socrates, but Socrates knows full well the nature of
the pleasures of the pig. The capacity to enjoy the higher
quality pleasures is easily killed off if not given the right
sort of "cultivation," thus Mill argues that "poor education" and
"wretched social circumstances" have killed the ability of the
"pigs" to enjoy the higher pleasures, thus making them
incompetent to judge. By adding this twist to the argument, Mill
now makes utilitarianism a philosophical position to justify not
only legislative and judicial reform (as Bentham wanted), but
also social and educational reform, an issue which had become a
very significant one in Mill's lifetime, and that remains so
still today.


9. What's the problem with Mill's explanation here?
 

Unfortunately, Mill begs the question by in effect assuming he
knows which pleasures are highest when he assumes he knows who is
competent to judge. If a well educated and socially advantaged
person chose bodily pleasures over intellectual ones, Mill would
no doubt claim he/she was not competent to judge. But if we ask
how Mill knows he/she is not competent to judge, Mill can only
say, because that person chose the "wrong" kind of pleasures. In
other words, Mill has assumed all along that the intellectual
pleasures are superior and therefore preferable, even though he
knows full well that experience would reveal that most people do
not in fact prefer them (even though, Mill would say, they
"ought" to). He has, therefore, "cheated" on his empiricism.

10. What is the problem with trying to defend hedonism and also to rank different qualities of pleasures?
 
One way of criticizing Mill is to say that he has begged the
question or cheated on his empiricism in assuming he knows whois
competent to judge and who isn't. But another way to make the
same point is to say that in effect Mill has set up another
standard other than pleasure, in order to rank pleasures as
"better" or "worse." That standard is in effect an "ideal human
life" as envisioned by Mill, namely the life of an intellectually
aware and aesthetically sensitive individual who is capable of
enjoying (what Mill considers) the "higher" pleasure of life.
There is nothing wrong with this in itself, but in defending this
view Mill's conception of an ideal life becomes the real moral
standard which is the real grounds for determining the moral
worth of an action, rather than pleasure, as hedonism maintains.
Thus Mill basically abandons hedonism and the original Benthamite
view that one can make ethics into an empirical science.