As we all know, J. S. Mill claims that pleasures differ from each other, not only in quantity, but also in quality. Many commentators have read Mill as making the following two claims:
- Pleasures fall into two disjoint categories — the "higher" pleasures and the "lower" pleasures.
- There is a radical discontinuity between these two categories — there is no amount (however large) of the lower-quality pleasures that can be more valuable than any amount (however small) of the higher-quality pleasures.
I believe that such discontinuity claims are intrinsically implausible. But that is not what I want to argue here. What I shall argue here is that there is no evidence that Mill made this second claim (2).
The key passage is the following (Mill’s Utilitarianism, chap. 2, para. 5):
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 competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other
that they prefer it, … 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
This passage contains two sentences. Prima facie, the two sentences make different points:
- The first sentence just gives a general account of the conditions under which one pleasure x is "more desirable" than another pleasure y — viz., when all or almost all competent judges have a "decided preference" for x over y.
- The second sentence focuses on a special case of this — where the first pleasure x is not just more desirable or more valuable than the second pleasure y, but x has (as we might put it) a dramatically higher quality than y.
As I said, these are two different points. So we should not infer that Mill assumes that whenever one pleasure x is more desirable than another pleasure y, that is because x has a "dramatically higher quality" than y. (Someone might wonder whether Mill means anything special by a "decided preference". But surely in Victorian English, a "decided preference" is just a "definite preference" —
i.e. there is nothing vague or indeterminate about whether the judges
have this preference or not.)
Now, as he later makes clear, when all the competent judges prefer one pleasure x over another pleasure y (and so, in consequence, x is more valuable than y), this could be because the first pleasure x has a higher quality than y, but it could also be because x has a higher quantity than y (para. 8):
And there needs be the less
hesitation to accept this judgment respecting the quality of pleasures,
since there is no other tribunal to be referred to even on the question
of quantity. What means are there of
determining which is the acutest of two pains, or the intensest of two
pleasurable sensations, except the general suffrage of those who are
familiar with both?
This then is how I interpret the first sentence that I quoted from paragraph 5 above: it gives a perfectly general account of the conditions under which one pleasure is more desirable or more valuable than another — whether because of its greater quality or quantity (or indeed both).
So let us turn now to the second sentence that I quoted from paragraph 5 above. Notably, he does not say here that where a pleasure x is of a ("dramatically") higher quality than y, then the value of y is "infinitesimal" compared to x (or that x and y are "incommensurable", or anything like that). What he says is that the higher quality of x renders the difference in quantity between x and y "in comparison, of small account". It seems to me that the strongest defensible interpretation of this phrase would take it that to say that the quantity-difference D1 between x and y is "of small account" compared to their quality-difference D2 is to say for practical purposes, our choice between x and y should be guided entirely by the quality-difference D2, and the quantity-difference D1 can be safely ignored. But this is obviously not the same as saying that D1 is literally infinitesimal by comparison!
Moreover, this dramatic difference is not said to arise when the competent judges would prefer any amount (however small) of the same type of pleasure as x over any amount (however large) of the same type of pleasure as y. This difference arises when the competent judges prefer x itself (with its particular combination of quality and quantity) over any amount
of the same type of pleasure as y "which their nature is capable of".
Now, since we (unlike the oyster in Roger Crisp’s textbook Mill on Utilitarianism) are not going to live for 10,000 years, there is a definite upper limit to the quantity of pleasure which our "nature is capable of". So the comparisons that Mill has in mind are quite different from the comparisons between
the most minuscule amounts of the higher-quality pleasure and the most
endlessly vast quantities of the lower-quality pleasures that would be relevant to establishing that these "higher-quality" pleasures are literally infinitely more valuable than the "lower-quality" pleasures. Mill is just focusing on the comparisons between (i) the quantity of pleasure in this particular higher-quality experience x, and (ii) the greatest amount of lower-quality pleasure of the same type as y that we might reasonably hope to have.
So it seems quite clear to me that these famous passages in chapter 2 of Utilitarianism give no support to the reading of Mill as accepting the radical "discontinuity" claims that many of his commentators foist upon him.