Chapter III: Hedonism.

§ 47.

Well, in this connection, it seems first desirable to touch on another doctrine of Mill’s—another doctrine which, in the interest of Hedonism, Professor Sidgwick has done very wisely to reject. This is the doctrine of difference of quality in pleasures. If I am asked, says Mill, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competantly acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.(§ 47 ¶ 1)

Now it is well known that Bentham rested his case for Hedonism on quantity of pleasure alone. It was his maxim, that quantity of pleasure being equal, pushpin is as good as poetry. And Mill apparently considers Bentham to have proved that nevertheless poetry is better than pushpin; that poetry does produce a greater quantity of pleasure. But yet, says Mill, the Utilitarians might have taken the other and, as it may be called, higher ground, with entire consistency (p. 11). Now we see from this that Mill acknowledges quality of pleasure to be another or different ground for estimating pleasures, than Bentham’s quantity; and moreover, by that question-begging higher, which he afterwards translates into superior, he seems to betray an uncomfortable feeling, that, after all, if you take quantity of pleasure for your only standard, something may be wrong and you may deserve to be called a pig. And it may presently appear that you very likely would deserve this name. But, meanwhile, I only wish to shew that Mill’s admissions as to the quality of pleasure are either inconsistent with his Hedonism, or else afford no other ground for it than would be given by mere quantity of pleasure. (§ 47 ¶ 2)

It will be seen that Mill’s test for one pleasure’s superiority in quality over another is the preference of most people who have experienced both. A pleasure so preferred, he holds, is more desirable. But then, as we have seen, he holds that to think of an object as desirable and to think of it as pleasant are one and the same thing (p. 58). He holds, therefore, that the preference of experts merely proves that one pleasure is pleasanter than another. But if that is so, how can he distinguish this standard from the standard of quantity of pleasure? Can one pleasure be pleasanter than another, except in the sense that it gives more pleasure? Pleasant must, if words are to have any meaning at all, denote some one quality common to all things that are pleasant; and, if so, then one thing can only be more pleasant than another, according as it has more or less of this one quality. But, then, let us try the other alternative, and suppose that Mill does not seriously mean that this preference of experts merely proves one pleasure to be pleasanter than another. Well, in this case, what does preferred mean? It cannot mean more desired, since, as we know, the degree of desire is always, according to Mill, in exact proportion to the degree of pleasantness. But, in that case, the basis of Mill’s Hedonism collapses, for he is admitting that one thing may be preferred over another, and thus proved more desirable, although it is not more desired. In this case, Mill’s judgment of preference is just a judgment of that intuitional kind which I have been contending to be necessary to establish the hedonistic or any other principle. It is a direct judgment that one thing is more desirable, or better than another; a judgment utterly independent of all considerations as to whether one thing is more desired or pleasanter than another. This is to admit that good is good and indefinable. (§ 47 ¶ 3)