In the comments on Jussi’s thread, a side discussion developed about Mill’s theory of value.  Dale Dorsey indicated that he has concluded that Mill is not a hedonist.  I’m inclined to defend the claim that he is.  I’m not prepared to defend hedonism, and so I think that considerations of charity favor ascribing a different view to him, but I think the textual evidence is strong enough that we just have to say that Mill got this one wrong.  Of course, the first piece of evidence for me to cite is the following passage from Utilitarianism II2:

By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of
pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. . . .
[P]leasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as
ends; and . . . all desirable things (which are as numerous in the
utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the
pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of
pleasure and the prevention of pain.

Now this looks like as straightforward a statement of hedonism as you could want, but I concede that not much in Utilitarianism
is straightforward.  So there is more for us to discuss.  But as a
starter, let me mention Mill’s account of dignity, which Dale D. cited
as a reason for rejecting the hedonistic reading.  Here is the relevant

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 an inferior
type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to
sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence.  We may give
what explanation we please of this unwillingness; we may attribute it
to pride, a name which is given indiscriminately to some of the most
and to some of the least estimable feelings of which mankind are
capable: we may refer it to the love of liberty and personal
independence, an appeal to which was with the Stoics one of the most
effective means for the inculcation of it; to the love of power, or to
the love of excitement, both of which do really enter into and
contribute to it: but its most appropriate appellation is 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.  Whoever
supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness-
that the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not
happier than the inferior- confounds the two very different ideas, of
happiness, and content (II6).

Rather than seeing
this as evidence of Mill’s holding a nonhedonistic value theory, I want
to claim that he is asserting that the sense of dignity is a source of
(higher quality) pleasure.  This is kind of lame, but I’m going to
quote from a piece of my own, a chapter of the Mill book that I am
supposed to be writing.  I mean, that I am writing.

Mill’s belief that the mere possession of developed faculties can be a
source of aesthetic pleasure is also worth mentioning at this point.
This emerges when he invokes the notion of a sense of dignity to
explain why individuals with developed faculties would not willingly
surrender those faculties for any quantity of the lower pleasures.

may give what explanation we please of this unwillingness . . . but its
most appropriate appellation is 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.

This is
a passage that has largely been ignored by commentators.  Mill’s
contention that a person can come to take pleasure in the thought of
being virtuous and to find the thought of being vicious painful is the
key to understanding it.  To possess a sense of dignity is to take
pleasure in the thought that one has reached whatever level of
development that one has and to find the thought of regressing in one’s
internal culture painful.  This higher quality pleasure results from
the operation of the imaginative faculty; it comes from an individual’s
aesthetic appreciation of the degree of perfection that he or she has
attained.  (There will not necessarily be a strict proportionality
between the level of development attained and the amount of happiness
enjoyed.  Perhaps some of the most advanced individuals will still be
most conscious of and troubled by their own remaining limitations.)

obviously I don’t think that the dignity passage forces us to read Mill
as anything other than a hedonist.  What say you, PEA Soupers?  (And
since this is my first post, let me apologize in advance for any
formatting errors.  Including the one I already fixed.)

14 Replies to “Mill’s Theory of Value

  1. Thanks for posting! Let me just say a few words about why I’ve been convinced he isn’t a hedonist. I take genuine hedonism to require that all true ascriptions of non-instrumental value are ascriptions to psychological/experiential states, viz., the experience of pleasure. This leaves it open that certain kinds of pleasure will be better than others, or that pleasure taken in certain things will be better than pleasure taken in other things, but hedonism requires that all true ascriptions of non-instrumental value will ascribe non-instrumental value to a mental or experiential state. I think the “virtue” passage in Ch. 4 (4 v) is also helpful here, but I’m not sure I’d want to read it in the way you suggest. (I don’t think I’m saying anything that David Brink hasn’t already said before.) Mill writes that

    The ingredients of happiness are very various, and each of them is desirable in itself, and not merely when considered as swelling an aggregate. The principle of utility does not mean that any given pleasure, as music, for instance, or any given exemption from pain, as for example health, are to be looked upon as means to a collective something termed happiness, and to be desired on that account. They are desired and desirable in and for themselves; besides being means, they are a part of the end. Virtue, according to the utilitarian doctrine, is not naturally and originally part of the end, but is capable of becoming so; and in those who love it disinterestedly it has become so, and is desired and cherished, not as a means to happiness, but as a part of their happiness.

    This passage appears to commit Mill to the non-instrumental value of things like, for instance, virtue, music, health, etc. These things are (or can be) part of the end. It seems to me that this claim is beyond hedonism. If health, for instance, is part of the end, health is valuable for itself. If the higher pleasures doctrine really is hedonist, it would have to say that health, the state of being healthy is good only instrumentally, i.e., good only insofar as it gets you into the proper experiential state, viz., the state of experiencing pleasure. But he appears to deny this. (This also makes some sense out of Mill’s claim, in On Liberty that individuality, i.e., making one’s own decisions, is part of well-being.)
    I think this helps us understand the dignity passage. (There are some pitfalls here, as with any understanding of Mill, but anyway, this is one way of reading it.) There appear to be reasons we regard certain things, like the life of Socrates, as being part of our happiness, for itself. In particular, we believe that there is an external criterion of value, human dignity, and we believe higher activities exemplify this criterion of value. But because of this, we regard these activities as part of our end, rather than merely instrumental to some further experiential state–and this is what makes the competent judges reluctant to behave like the fool or the rascal.
    Then why all the pleasure talk? I think the virtue passage also illustrates a further way in which Mill’s seeming-hedonism isn’t real-hedonism. According to Mill, a “higher pleasure” is a “manner of existence which employs … higher faculties,” (2 vi). A “higher pleasure” is not a mental/experiential state, but rather a particular “manner of existence”, a state of being in the broad sense. (This is why the virtue passage counts “music” as a pleasure: music can refer to a state of being, i.e., when one listens and appreciates music, or when one plays music well.) Anyway, that’s one way of looking at this, I think.

  2. I take Mill’s comments about the higher and lower pleasures early in book 2 of Utilitarianism to be Mill’s stand on what pleasure is. I take his view there to be an early version of informed desire account, but one that weirdly seems to look to the informed desires of the group rather than to the informed desires of the individual. Some, I know, have claimed that Mill’s story here is merely an account of how to gain epistemic access to what gives the most pleasure, not an account of what pleasure is. I don’t see any evidence for this and I do see evidence against this. Mill, for example, says that the competent judges test answers the question of what makes one pleasure more valuable than another. Hard to read that epistemically.

  3. Dale D.,
    I think you’re right that on a first reading the passage about virtue that you cite suggests a non-hedonistic reading. So we have a couple of passages that, prima facie, pull us in two different directions. Assuming that Mill isn’t wildly inconsistent, the question is which passage has a surface meaning that actually fits his thinking, and which needs to be reinterpreted in a less obvious way. Here is where we disagree.
    A few paragraphs after the passage you cite, Mill continues:
    “Those who desire virtue for its own sake, desire it either because the consciousness of it is a pleasure, or because the consciousness of being without it is a pain, or for both reasons united; as in truth the pleasure and pain seldom exist separately, but almost always together, the same person feeling pleasure in the degree of virtue attained, and pain in not having attained more (IV, 8).”
    So those who desire virtue for its own sake desire it because of its connection to pleasure. The desire doesn’t explain the pleasure, as Butler might have thought, but the pleasure the desire. To me, this suggests that the pleasure is the real object of desire. In Chapter IV, Mill tells an associationist story about how we can come to take pleasure in new things. These “things” can include activities, but they can also include our consciousness (belief) that we possess either certain qualities (virtue, developed faculties) or objects (money, in the case of the miser).
    So what is Mill up to, in the “very various” passage? He is drawing a distinction between desiring something because of the “external” rewards that it offers to you, like the praise and rewards that you receive from other people when they consider you virtuous or the things you can buy with money, and desiring it because of the pleasure you take in its mere possession. In the strictest sense, virtue, money, or anything else distinct from pleasure is never desired as an end, in Mill’s view. At the same time, though, Mill is sensitive to the fact that it would be a little misleading to describe a person who takes pleasure in the mere thought of herself as a virtuous person as desiring virtue as a means to pleasure. The connection between the virtue and the pleasure is too close for that.
    I think I’ll stop this comment with this for now. Our disagreements continue on into the higher pleasures doctrine—where I disagree with David as well, alas—but one thing at a time.

  4. So David and Dale, if Mill has a view of what pleasure is on which it is something other than what pleasure actually is does he come out a hedonist or not?
    Offhand I inclined to think it depends on how far off he is. If he thinks pleasure turns out to be something really far removed from what pleasure actually is, then he’s not a hedonist anymore. If he thinks pleasure is something near enough to what pleasure actually is, then he’s still a hedonist despite not being quite right about what it is.

  5. Could it be that he is equivocating in his use of ‘pleasure’? There is a sense in which we say that ice-cream is a pleasure. By this, we don’t mean that ice-cream is a certain kind of a mental state. Rather, we think that ice-creams tends to create that certain state in us. So, similarly, Mill could say that music, health, virtue, knowledge, dignity and so on are pleasures. And, because they are pleasures having them makes lives go better. But, he doesn’t mean that they are anything mental in the same sense that other hedonists do. Rather, they do only tend to produce the relevant mental state of pleasure that determines their axiological status. This would at least explain the pleasure talk. It would also enable him to say that only pleasure has value even though all these things that are not mental states are pleasures too.

  6. Dale M. –
    That’s a great passage for the hedonist cause. I don’t have any really great response. In particular, I can’t make that “non-experiential pleasure” move, because he explicitly links pleasure with “consciousness” there. But let me try something out that probably doesn’t work at all.
    In the beginning of Ch. 4, Mill sets forth the following epistemological principle: “the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable is that people actually do desire it.” He also links the “desirable” with questions about value or “ends”. So being “desirable” entails, for Mill, being non-instrumentally valuable. But then the evidence that something is desirable is that it is desired non-instrumentally. Ok.
    Now, in the passage you cite, Mill appears to be offering a psychological story about the origins of the desire for virtue: virtue is desired because people take pleasure in it. But he also says that virtue is desired for its own sake. But we can’t read the “because people take pleasure in it” as a claim about agents desiring virtue only instrumentally for pleasure (that pleasure is the real object of desire). That, it seems to me, commits Mill to a stright contradiction (virtue is desired for its own sake and desired only instrumentally). I think the way out here is to make a distinction between “conditional” desires and “instrumental” desires. Something can be desired non-instrumentally, but conditionally. I might desire to be a trombone player for itself, but only conditionally on being able to play in the Max Weinberg 7. The same, I think, should be said of virtue here. Mill is saying that agents desire virtue for its own sake under the right conditions. But that leaves virtue, under the right conditions, as non-instrumentally desired and hence itself part of happiness. Under these conditions, virtue is desired for itself, and is hence desirable, and hence an “end” (given his criterion at the beginning of Ch. 4). Now you might follow Aristotle and say that happiness must be both non-instrumental and non-conditional. But given everything that Mill says about virtue being part of happiness, I’m not sure that Mill would want to commit himself to that. Does that make any sense? (Again, probably not.)
    David –
    I go back and forth on Mill qua informed desire theorist. I think it’s probably the most charitable way to read Mill, but I do think there’s evidence that he treats it as purely epistemic. (Maybe not decisive evidence.) We’ve talked about this before, maybe, but 2 viii seems to me decisively epistemic. (I won’t quote it here.) Anyway, Mill speaks of appealing to the competent judges, or a majority among them if they offer different verdicts. This seems epistemic to me. Also, he compares the competent judges test for higher pleasures to the competent judges test for “quantity” of pleasures, and declares that these tests are on a par. But the latter is clearly epistemic, and framed in epistemic language by Mill: “What means are there of determining which is the acutest of two pains…”, “What is there to decide whether a particular pleasure is worth purchasing…”, etc. Anyway, these passages are just suggestive. But I’d really like to read Mill as you say.

  7. Mark –
    I think you’re right about that. Brink uses the term “objective” pleasures to refer to what Mill has in mind in the higher pleasures doctrine. But “objective” pleasures aren’t really pleasure in the experiential sense. They’re “modes of being” or “manners of existence” or something like that.

  8. I’ll grant you that it is odd that Mill seems to say that what is good for minority competent judges is determined by what the vast majority of competent judges prefer. But that is just as odd read epistemically as metaphysically. Further, I think the epistemic reading is, philosophically, quite odd and we should be drawn to that interpretation of Mill only if forced to. On the other hand the metaphysical reading has (with modifications) appealled to very many excellent philosophers.

  9. Dale D.,
    I take it that the “right condition” would be taking pleasure in virtue, so that the theory of value you’re ascribing to him would be a hybrid one (i.e., something is valuable if it objectively contributes to a person’s well-being and she takes pleasure in it)? A couple of questions, then, about that reading. Do you think it is consistent with II2? Second, how do you see him defining ‘happiness?’ As pleasure and the absence of pain, so that it isn’t accurate to say that he thinks that happiness always has intrinsic value and that nothing else ever does? Or would you want to say that he doesn’t really intend to define ‘happiness’ hedonistically, i.e., entirely in terms of pleasure and pain?

  10. Mark,
    Interesting question. Certainly if a would be hedonists view of pleasure was so far from being a plausible account of pleasure that it came close to conceptual incompetence, then I think we should not see them as best understood as a hedonist. However, if the view of pleasure is clearly within the bounds of conceptual competence with the term, then I would be more tempted to say they count as a hedonist.

  11. David-
    I think that the “majority” comment has to be written off entirely. On the one hand, remember that Mill also says “It may be questioned whether any one who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures, ever knowingly and calmly preferred the lower…” He doesn’t expect any dissent at all on the question of whether the distinctly human pleasures are better than the bodily ones. On the other hand, it stands to reason that when you compare two pleasures that are equally valuable, a majority will prefer one to the other. Of course the author of On Liberty recognizes that there will be legitimate differences of taste, and the odds that these will be so evenly distributed that the competent judges will tie are pretty slim.
    Let me toss out a statement that will maybe seem crazy, just to see what response it gets. We know that there is a lot of Bentham in Mill, along with some James Mill, some Aristotle, and so on. There is also some Thomas Reid in him, I submit, and for Mill the desirability of happiness—pleasure and the absence of pain—amounts to “common sense.” As does the claim that the distinctly human pleasures contribute more to happiness than the bodily ones. People with the relevant experiences can’t help but desire pleasure and desire the distinctly human pleasures especially. Moreover, they can’t help but believe that all pleasure is desirable as an end, and the distinctly human pleasures especially. And, for Mill, under the right conditions a belief’s inescapability counts as justification. I’ve been very influenced by John Skorupski’s reading of Mill’s epistemology of value, although I don’t think that I’ve taken away from it exactly what he intended.

  12. Dale M. –
    I don’t think I have anything really satisfactory to say about the view I was floating in the previous post and II2 besides what I already said, i.e., that one might read Mill as having a non-experiential view of pleasure. (Mill seems to admit that the notion of pleasure might not be obvious or coextensive with one that the readers are used to: “much more requires to be said; in particular, what things [utilitarianism] includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure.”) But I admit that that view has some tiptoeing to do, and perhaps will end up on a land mine one of these days. (This view would also commit Mill to an Aristotelian view of “happiness”–as distinct from pleasure.)
    But I don’t think the “majority” passage can be written off that easily. (Perhaps it could be written off, but I think more work is required.) The question is whether the competent judges test is epistemic. Mill frames the “majority” passage conditionally: if there is a disagreement, we go with the verdict of the majority. That’s perfectly consistent with him denying the antecedent, that there will be no disagreement in fact. But if he asserts the conditional, it seems to me, this appears to suggest an epistemic reading. And he appears to justify, at 2 viii, the competent judges test by insisting that “there is no other tribunal.” Again, this smacks of the epistemic. (Though, as David rightly notes, this position has its own problems that we shouldn’t ignore.)

  13. Dale D,
    Okay, I had taken you to be backing away from the non-experiential notion. Sorry for the confusion. Fair point about Mill’s claim that more needs to be said about the nature of pleasure, although I take that statement to refer to his discussion of the higher quality pleasures. That discussion is surely non-obvious and not co-extensive with what his readers are used to.
    I want to agree with you about the epistemic nature of the test; I think that there is support for that even if the majority test is taken as no more than slack drafting. I don’t think that I can be persuaded that the guy who wrote On Liberty just before he wrote Utilitarianism believes that an individual would be better off experiencing pleasure A than pleasure B, even though she has a decided preference for B, just because the majority of other people who have experienced both prefer A.
    Maybe I should clarify: I support the epistemic reading of the test, but given my understanding of Mill’s underlying epistemology, the test can only serve this role if the results are for all intents and purposes unanimous. This is what I was saying with my “common sense” comment.

  14. I hesitate to wade into this discussion with Mill scholars, not being one myself. So this is kind of outside the discussion, but I think it pertains to some of its points, but not directly to how we should interpret Mill.
    I have a problem understanding what exactly is meant by phrases such as ‘desirable in itself’ and ‘desired for its own sake’ when they are attached to certain states/conditions such as health. For example, what does ”health is desired for its own sake” mean? When I look up ‘health’ it is defined as “soundness of any living thing” and “general condition of body or mind, as to vigor and soundness.” It seems that I do not desire health; I simply have it as a necessary condition of being alive. If I desire not to remain living it is not because I do not any longer desire health in itself, but for some other reason (which may be related to the condition my health is actually in). I suspect that in order to desire something I have to be alive, so having health is a necessary condition to obtain anything that I do desire whether I be in good or poor health. What I do desire is some end state and the means to obtain that state such as actually having good health as opposed to poor health, but I desire good health because having good health as opposed to poor health enables me to do other things that I value and desire. But can I desire ‘good health’ for its own sake? It seems that when I try to understand why I desire good health it is because I desire not being in poor health and living a decreased quality of life relative to some norm of quality relative to something where having a higher quality is better then having a lower quality relative to that thing. If this is the case, I do not desire good health for itself but because it is not poor health and consequently I can live a higher quality life. I suspect that good health can be both an end and a means; I watch my diet because I want good health and I want good health so I can take my dogs for long walks, etc. Consequently I have a tendency to interpret phrases such as ‘desirable in itself’ and desired for its own sake’ to mean ‘necessary as a condition for obtaining some state, or means to obtain that state, that I do desire.’

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