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: 

  1. Pleasures fall into two disjoint categories — the "higher" pleasures and the "lower" pleasures.
  2. 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
small account.

This passage contains two sentences. Prima facie, the two sentences make different points:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

10 Replies to “Does Mill believe in discontinuities?

  1. Ralph,
    that’s interesting. What about the next paragraph though? He mentions the experiences of love of liberty and personal independence (as forms of the sense of dignity one can have). He then says that no-one who has experienced these pleasure would desire anything that would be in conflict with these pleasures. I take it that such persons would not chose anything over these pleasures. This does sound like the kind of discontinuity claim that you are looking for.

  2. Thanks, Jussi!
    The paragraph that you refer to contains all those famous proclamations: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” etc. But this is hardly a discontinuity claim: surely Mill thinks that Socrates had quite a significant amount of the higher-quality pleasures — while the quantity of lower-quality pleasures that the fool has is hardly unlimited!
    You highlight the passage where he says that “for those in whom [the sense of dignity] is strong, nothing that conflicts with it could be … an object of desire to them.” But perhaps Mill assumes that people with this sort of “sense of dignity” must already have had a significant amount of higher-quality pleasures. Moreover, the only practically feasible options that “conflict” with these people’s “sense of dignity” will be options that bring a lot less than the 10,000 years of lower-quality pleasure that Crisp imagines with his “Haydn and the oyster” example.
    So I also don’t see this passage as expressing the relevant sort of discontinuity claim. To find that sort of discontinuity claim, we need to find Mill saying that *any* amount of higher-quality pleasure (*however small*) is more desirable than *any* amount of lower-quality pleasure (*however large*). I just don’t see that in Chapter 2 of Utilitarianism.

  3. Hi Ralph,
    Interesting post! I am interested to hear how you explain this passage from book two:
    “Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. They would not resign what they possess more than he for the most complete satisfaction of all the desires which they have in common with him.”
    It seems to suggest that there is some finite (not infrequently experienced) amount of higher pleasure that is greater than an infinite amount of lower, animal pleasure. This is weaker than the claim you aim to attack, but I suspect is still something you want to resist.
    Maybe you could appeal to the fact that the relevant beast would only experience a finite amount of lower pleasure?

  4. Thanks Brad! I don’t see why Mill’s reference to the “most complete satisfaction of the [lower] desires” or the “the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures” has to be read as referring to an *infinite* amount of lower-quality pleasures. It may just refer to the maximum amount that is practically feasible — which is quite a lot less than infinite!
    However, you are quite right that there is also the intermediate view that there is a certain level of higher-quality pleasure such that no amount of lower-quality pleasure is more desirable than that level of higher-quality pleasures. This view is not quite so strong as the extreme discontinuity view that I was criticizing.
    It may well be Mill’s view. I find that view implausible too (I think we can always imagine a continuous spectrum of cases ranging from the higher-quality pleasures to the lower-quality pleasures, and it’s just implausible that there is a sharp dividing line on this spectrum, with extreme differences between the immediately adjacent pleasures on either side of the line….). But I agree that it is a reasonable interpretation of Mill to ascribe that view to him.

  5. Simon — thank you so much for that!
    I must check what Riley and Schmidt-Petri say about this. It’s obviously a danger of spending so much time blogging that one doesn’t read enough, and so simply ends up repeating what others have already said….

  6. Hi Ralph,
    I just has an odd thought.
    Like you, I was drawn to saying that the beast experiences only finite pleasure, but I started wondering how to cash out this talk of finite and infinite and am now stuck – I am not sure how to quantify pleasure in a way that would allow for this response to hold up.
    I got to wondering THAT from this potential objection to the claim that the beast experiences only finite pleasure:
    (P1) Beast B experiences pleasure for the time between t1 and t2
    (P2) There are infinite moments of time between t1 and t2
    (3) B experiences pleasure at each moment between t1 and t2 [from P1]
    (4) B experiences an infinite amount of pleasure between t1 and t2 [from P2 and 3]
    We could still talk about more and less while granting this, of course. But we would have to give up the simple response that the beast experiences only finite pleasure.
    Does Mill define quantity of pleasure in a way that blocks this argument?

  7. Hi Ralph,
    Here’s small point.
    You say this:

    Notably, [Mill] 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).

    But Mill needn’t have said these things even if he did hold the radical discontinuity view (i.e. your claim 2 above).
    Suppose that for any number x > 0, the value of x units of lower pleasure is 2x/(x+1), and the value of x units of higher pleasure is x+2, where the unit of measurement is the value of 1 unit of lower pleasure. Then any amount of higher pleasure is better than any amount of lower pleasure. So there is ‘discontinuity’. But there is no incommensurability. The value of 1 unit of higher pleasure is precisely 3 times the value of 1 unit of lower pleasure.

  8. Ralph,
    Your gloss on the second sentence in Mill is as follows:

    2. 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.

    I think that the point here is not that x has a dramatically higher quality, but simply that it is qualitatively higher. Here Mill is making a distinction between quantitative and qualitative differences in the value of pleasures.
    With this in mind, to say that an infinite amount of y would not equal the value of x seems to me ambiguous, and can misconstrue the nature of the difference: this may be the way we discover in reflection that x is qualitatively better, but it does not constitute what it is to be qualitatively better. It is true that no amount of x could equal the value of some amount of y, but because they are quantitatively incomparable, not because y is infinitely more valuable. A quick, and common, thought experiment: how many crappy sketches need I generate in order to equal the value of a single Rembrandt? The idea is no amount, because the Rembrandt is better in a way that no amount of crappy sketches could ever be.
    We need not attribute to Mill the implausible claim that a competent judge would prefer any amount of x to any amount of y (even none), even if we accept the claim that x is qualitatively more valuable. Mill does not say this, but a person whose life is one of utter and abject misery would surely not be capable of experiencing the higher pleasures. Thus, any competent judge would require some share of the lower pleasures, even if they still hold that the value of these pleasures is literally incomparable (quantitatively speaking) to the higher pleasures. Given Mill’s insistence that his moral theory is one for the real world, I see no reason to suppose he would not take this into account.

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