Saturday, January 10, 2009

Higher and Lower Pleasures in Mill

Mill distinguishes higher and lower pleasures in his essay on "Utilitarianism." Presumably higher pleasures are generally more intellectual pleasures and lower pleasures are more sensual pleasures. Mill's utilitarianism is an ethics that says the highest good is what produces the most pleasure. Bentham before him hadn't made this distinction and his ultilitarianism had been criticized as an "ethics of swine." Clearly, it seems, to maximize pleasures you should just seek the most and best of food, drink, sleep, sex, etc. But Mill comes along and responds that you should instead there are higher pleasures. So, reading a good book, seeing a good play or other edifying pleasures would be far superior and would supersede food, drink, sleep, sex etc.

The question is, are the type of pleasures he designates higher pleasures really more pleasurable? They seem to be the types of things that a well educated Victorian gentleman would valorize. Most philosophers (with rare exceptions like Aristippus and the Cyrenaic school, who valorized bodily pleasures) would agree. But I don't think most people would agree. Is Mill right?

To be fair to Mill lets try to compare apples to apples, and compare the most pleasurable intellectual pleasures with the most pleasurable physical pleasures, and try to see what we would prefer. The most pleasurable physical pleasure I think is clear: sex. And of course, we should imagine here good sex, with someone that you very much want to have sex with. The most pleasurable intellectual pleasure is not so clear. I think it would be curiosity. And I think the best example of that is a book that you simply can't put down. So, to discern whether intellectual pleasures are really higher try to think of being in the middle of a wonderfully engaging book that you simply can't put down (neither to eat or sleep) until you're done. At this point, the man or woman of desire requests that you put the book down and have sex right now. Do you a) keep reading and defer the sex for an hour (we'll assume, to make things equal, that the person is willing to wait an hour) or b) have sex and defer reading for an hour? Many would put the book down simply because it can wait whereas the other is a real person with feelings, but for the sake of this thought experiment, to keep things equal, we should imagine that the person is infinitely patient and won't feel slighted. Try to give both sides a fair shake. And try to think of the aftermath, of the pleasures after the fact from the one and the other If you'd choose the book, then maybe Mill is on to something. But if you choose the sex, maybe Mill's attempt to dodge the criticism that utilitarianism is nothing but swine morality is groundless.

Postscript. What would happen if I said the best physical pleasure is a sustained mind-blowing, cosmic, out-of-body Tantric orgasm? Is there any intellectual pleasures as good as that? Or is that an example of an intellectual pleasure?

25 comments:

stregoica_ said...

I had a very similiar argument in my philosophy class but my proffesor just thought I had a very "dumb" argument and as far as I continue with the same argument I would fail. As reading your article, it made more sense, I just couldn't express it this well or support it. I definetly can't understand how can higher pleasures can be "higher" pleasure, till now, I have always enjoyed best my lower pleasures and I do actually think they did bring me benefit. So good subject to discuss : )

Anonymous said...

Most women, I'd imagine, would keep reading the book. Most men, would tuck it under the pillow for sex. Lots of other factors left out too...

Anonymous said...

hmm. no. sex is still sex whether its with someone you want to have sex with or not. i don't think you can quantify the "highest lowest pleasure" by specifying having sex with someone you want to have sex with - you have now added something intellectual, perhaps a "higher pleasure?" and people can read dan brown all day - that does not make it a higher pleasure. you are reducing a complicated argument to simple terms, have sex or read a book. hmm, i think a better way to put it would be actually try to understand mill or pretend that mill's claim is ridiculous and dodge the issue all together. here i see you've opted for the latter.

Anonymous said...

I think that finding those pieces of knowledge that change your perception of life (gaining of wisdom),is more pleasurable. That kind of pleasure that makes your eyes swell to tears.. better than sex.

Claire said...

i feel very confused sometimes witht this higher pleasures and lower pleasures, yes i understand that reading a novel that you love is more enriching that a bar of chocolate. But what about sex? i was told sex can become a higher pleasure when "with someone you love, ie. husband or wife." quoted from my teacher, who has infact now contradicted herself on this, as she always says how utilitareanism is a athesist theory. So, the arguement i have against that is, how can marriage have any significance to mill, when he is an atheist and getting married is something that is so special as it is "in the eyes of God" and also in a church? sorry if you see this as a waste of your time. thank you for puttting this online, most interesting. xx

Will said...

Mill married harriet taylor largely due to social pressures of the time. He wanted to live with her and this was something that was frowned upon at the time outside of marriage. He actually saw marriage as an enslaving institution for women. Hence, he stated before his marriage that he would rescind the legal power he would gain over his wife in marriage.

hope that helps

Claire said...

thank you, that explains alot. :) x

Anonymous said...

Good sex is most definitely a higher pleasure that requires emotional and mental involvement. Consider a tantric episode to a rough bump. In my opinion, experience of higher pleasure requires a prolonged duration of mental and physical input (much like Nietzsche's ideas) rather than an immediate return for little effort. Its easy to consider sensual pleasures as being lower and mental as higher though its defininitely not a rule of thumb to be argued.

opal said...

I don't think you are comparing apples with apples - sex and reading are very different. I think a better example would be reading The Da Vinci Code/Twilight or any crappy populist novel versus reading War and Peace/Hamlet. Most people may well get a higher quantity of pleasure from reading Dan Brown, but even if the Shakespeare fan is not getting that same immediate pleasure, is he nevertheless experiencing a pleasure that is more valuable than the Dan Brown fan?

Anonymous said...

I like to compare Mill's philosophy in terms of food. Lower pleasures are like fast foods, while fine dining is more associated with higher pleasures. Fast food may (at times) taste better than it's fine dining counterpart but yet we still associate fine dining as "better" than fast foods. To be more specific, I believe Mill is arguing that a higher pleasure is more of an experience, such as traveling the world or attaining personal goals, whereas lower pleasures focuses mainly on physical pleasures

Anonymous said...

Wanted to thank you for this very enlightening post. Currently writing a 5 page paper on this topic for a college ethic class. This has given me a lot of good material to think about!

Anonymous said...

I think you needed to do a little more reasearch before posting this. in this case you were reading a book that you found enjoyable. but if you find something more enjoyable like sex than you would be inclined to have sex, mill would not argue with you on that. but ethics is about what you should or ought to do. if you were reading a textbook so you can study for the test at school you have in the morning, the right thing to do would be continue to study because doing well on the test in the long run will be more satisfing rather than the immediate satisfaction of sex.

Anonymous said...

What about the amount of pleasure? Would a good book that causes you to change your perspective on life generate more pleasure over the remainder of your life than fifteen minutes of sex? :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi I am Natasha!
I am a student in Philosophy. I believe Intellectual Pleasure is a great pleasure of the world that is not known or experienced by everybody. I gain intellectual pleasure when I am among my books, writing an essay, taking references from different books, having all my books scattered on a big table!!!! :-)...See you guys!

Anonymous said...

I realize that the original post I am commenting on is over three years old, but I think you've missed Mill's point about higher pleasures. He is not referring to mere intellectual pursuits, rather he is referring to the profound pleasure one gets from helping others. Mill believed, as all utilitarians do, that happiness is the summum bonum and the way to maximize happiness is not in seeking personal pleasure, but in perpetrating actions whose consequences will result in the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people... When Mill writes of "higher pleasures" he is referring to the knowledge and understanding that true happiness lies in the profundity of helping society as a whole, despite the fact that this may not be the way an individual maximizes their own pleasure. Swine, and fools, are creatures that live purely for themselves, they cannot recognize, nor even comprehend the true happiness one receives from working to benefit many. Through education, anyone can attain the faculty required to grasp such notions. For Mill, true happiness lies in the knowledge and ability to do good for others, even though the troubles of the world can be burdensome for the one trying to do good. It is better to strive for the greater good, at your own personal cost, than it is to ignore the outside world and indulge in your own personal pleasures. Those who seek true happiness are willing and able to shoulder the burdens of sacrificing lower pleasures for higher pleasures. "A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of the inferior type… 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."

Anonymous said...

...over four years old, rather!

John Michael Reed said...

Most of the pleasure from sex comes from making someone you like happy - the orgasms you get from sex aren't significantly better than those from a vibrator or fleshlight. Some people actually experience more raw, pleasurable, physical sensation (and better orgasms) from a sex toy than from a real person. But sex toys can wait for something more important. People, on the other hand, can not. And if you don't believe me, imagine how horny you would be if your partner told you that they always fake orgasms with you and that they don't particularly like the sex.

Anonymous said...

We aren't comparing apples to apples when talking about intellectual and physical pleasures. It's apples to oranges.

Anonymous said...

The movie 'Happy' is about a study that was conducted over a long period of time with a global look at diffrent cultures. The study discovered that three activities lead to unhappiness: money, power and image. They are activities which bring suffering because for most people there is never enough to grant satisfaction. The three activities which bring happiness are relationship, cooperation (helping others share the burden) and personal development.

Higher pleasures have most commonly been defined as those that are spiritually worthy. Meaning that the only personal pleasure is one of inner spiritual development, the rest are about helping others. Any activities which bring you closer to 'light' are conferred a higher status. The disdain of the sensual is rooted in a spiritual philosophy which considers the release from matter as the release from suffering. Yet I feel closer to 'the light' when engaged in simple earthly pleasures: eating an orange, hiking in the mountains, listening to good music. I cannot view these sensual aspects of life as lowly. It must be how you approach the sensual instead of teh sensual itself. It is the lower attributes of the psyche such as greed, jealousy, etc. which tip the scales and make it a lower pleasure. Sex is biologically programmed pleasure. It is the distorted and diseased aspects of psyche which drag sex into the lower realm. My point is that pleasure is pleasure. It is how we engage pleasure that is higher or lower. Since most people can be easily swept along by their appetites, most of the world's sages tell us just to avoid them altogether.

Selim 'Selim' Talat said...

In my opinion, the *creation* of art or some intellectual pursuit is the highest of higher-order pleasures.

Creating something of value, something that resonates and inspires, something which was a worthwhile use of time and effort - this is a feeling that cannot be diminished with time.

It is rare, coming out of a place deeply internal and private, yet when it does emerge, you want to share it with the world. It is unique to you, a truly higher-order individualism which arises from a genuine place and wants only to make things better for everyone; the self-confidence and self-love gained from such pure creativity renders one incapable of bitterness, jealousy, or hate.

You do not have complete control of when it emerges, but you can assist the conditions under which it might arise, through rhythm and self-discipline; things which are not promoted by instant gratification or visceral experiences.

Whilst I would not look down upon someone for choosing sex, it is nonetheless an ephemeral experience, and the desire to repeat it will again arise very quickly. Being of an Epicurean bent, I do not see the satisfaction of desire as leading to as much fulfillment and happiness as self-creation, sobriety, or a life-long 'marinading' in the gentle joy of philosophical introspection and dialogue!

Anonymous said...

Mill does not say this at all! Yes , he expects that intellectual pleasures will be higher but in choosing between the two pleasures it is down to the competent judges who have an experience of both to decide which one is deemed the higher pleasure. Therefore, if one chooses sex, then it is not that Mill is wrong, but that this is just generally a higher pleasure.

Anonymous said...

They didn't have D cups back then... lol

Anonymous said...

http://www.swami-krishnananda.org/brdup/brhad_II-04.html
this will help you clear all the doubts. Suggests you read it thoroughly. This talks about pleasures & why we run behind them and science behind that and whether they will make us happy. you may have to omit the sanskrit sentences written in english and just focus on the english explaination. Peace Peace Peace

Anonymous said...

To Salim Salim Talat.

Part 1:

Your comment is brilliant. Happy to know we still have many bright people in this world who value knowledge, intellectually social relationships, friends, family and other greatest components of our lives vs. societal culture of talking open sex topic every day at every channel that manipulates and poisons people's perception of what "Greatest Happiness" has to be upon its Greatest Humanistic level and the level of a "swine”. Although, I find animals, including pigs, being way more intelligent than most of us humans, or these "inspired philosophers" around us, lol.
This post about the "Higher and Lower Pleasures" was the worst written and badly articulated piece of an argument I've ever expected to read from a philosopher (???) Really? lol. I'm sorry, but it was just too primitive on its whole context. I guess, to be a deep-brain thinker, researcher, philosopher, requires indeed at least an Undergraduate degree(not necessary PhD)but rather better school that matters the most, like Stanford, Yale, NYU, Amherst College, or University of Michigan. The hardest and prestige Philosophy Faculties in the World contained with Intellectuals. Perhaps, personal vulgarity of self-intimate desires of sex expressed publicly within comparative argument to Mill's concept of "Higher/Lower Pleasures" would be more intelligent if applied properly as secondary analyses of Legendary Political or Philosophical figures in History like Mill himself. I found this post being irrelevant to Mill's work but rather a self-description of a man who came on philosophy-blog while proclaiming sex as his only true desire as his best satisfaction and Happiness. It's kinda sad.
I was so confused with poor quality of its correlation to Mill's concept of "Greatest Happiness" and such weird interpretation. Continuously, sex is a pleasure indeed. However, it is not an ultimate goal and is not always first thought in mind for so many people, including men. Sex is certainly an animal (Low) pleasure, but of a short and mostly short repetitive duration. Sex is not a part of high emotion or values vs. the Feelings of Love, Self-realization via Knowledge and Education, emotion of value in Friendship, Family, Travel the World and aim at new discoveries, Interesting people and goals of self-growth. The duration and consistency of sex fades with time and age upon people's biological clock. Sex can't function as happiness even as lower pleasure if someone is not socially accomplished, or struggles in financial troubles, or if he himself or his loved ones have been ill or dying, or, he faces other more important life's issues that has to be resolved or achieved.

Anonymous said...

To: Selim "Selim" Talat:

Continued in RE:Of post "High and Lower Pleasures" by an 'inspiring philosopher",lol.Part 2:

Therefore, there are so many intellectual people who observe the world around and see World’s many miseries while try taking action by changing things for better, or get more knowledge via hard work as its biggest happiness and the means of Higher Pleasure by the end of the day. Therefore, emotional or intellectual encounters are way more valuable to human's soul vs. a relief of sperm-bank-orgasm worth of few seconds. Sex is too short of a term of meaning in Life, it’s just being “momento” against deeper meaning of Happiness and Satisfaction of Life itself as a whole. Continuously, if any lower pleasures make its native Happy-it only indicates the Lower Level of a Human himself who is a slave of his own little unimportant reflexes of low pleasures. When new day rises - it brings so much hidden treasures within and so much of the unknown; either it's the pain or pleasure. Therefore, sex, food, clothes, bigger house or bigger car, or more money, indeed, cannot satisfy the internal level of Happiness, nor it can become the Happiness itself if without its major components of Higher Pleasure before the Low One.
Also, to reply back to blogger who compared a piece of chocolate (lower pleasure) to a book (higher pleasure, lol. I still think anyone can eat chocolate and read the book at the same time. lol. The only guilt of this Low Pleasure has to be watched is understanding of TOO much quantities of lower pleasures (Bentham) leads to bad consequences, that is: Any overdoing distorts reality of Happiness with aversive effects later on. That is, too much sex-disrupts life's important agendas and goals as well as, it produces a dull-effect upon Happiness in relation of sense of Love, as Love- generates best emotions and feelings at its Higher level even without sex being part of it.
In case of chocolate, as any-over-consumption without moderation of thoughts and desires-if not watched, might really badly damage woman's body, lol. So, I'm not sure if this modern American discussion now with desires of more sex and more and more of only more sex topic as mentally shaped dependence on lower pleasure being meaning of life and most Happiness is anyhow related to Mill's thinking process at large, lol. It has been sadly by being badly interpreted by some cave-man's analogies of his personal desires: either upon sex-deprivation or sex-addiction like mentality by a not well-developed animal-human. No offence.
In short: there are way more beautiful and valuable things in life than lower pleasures such as sex, food, or other consumerism. That what distinguishes human from animal, and, furthermore, an Intellectual from primitive among us.