With deep connections with hedonism, utilitarianism has long been plagued with a number of counterexamples that seem to demonstrate the inadequacy of utilitarianism in explaining which actions are moral. Many of these counterexamples appeal to human intuitions very strongly, making a case against utilitarianism, even if choosing the correct moral theory or approach is no clearer after the counterexample. For example, imagine a scenario in which a society of several hundred million people, such as the modern U.S., decided to enslave a few dozen of its population in order to host gladiatorial games. Assume, now, that millions of people would derive some pleasure from enjoying watching these games. Under a utilitarianism account, it would be difficult to argue that the decision not to host such games, even if it meant the enslavement of a few dozen citizens, would not result in a net gain in utility. After all, the amount of utility to be gained is associated with the total number of people who gain such utility. Even if millions of people gained only a little bit of utility from watching these games and each individual who is enslaved to participate in the games loses much utility, it would still likely be the case of a net gain in utility. For the pleasure of the majority, then, small minorities of people can be exploited under utilitarianism, it seems.
While there are many ways to rebut these charges, either by offering a reformed account of utilitarianism or disputing specific utilitarian calculations, a popular way has been to distinguish between different sorts of utility or sources of pleasure. Mill proposes a utilitarianism account that emphasizes a distinction between higher and lower pleasures. For Mill, there are certain high-level intellectual pleasures that are worth more or that are more valuable than surface-level or hedonistic pleasures. For example, Mill seems to consider reading a good book a higher form or quality of pleasure than getting a massage, eating chocolate, or drinking alcohol. Mill writes:
If I am asked 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. If one of the two is, by those who are competently 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. (Mill 42)
It is clear, then, that what is important for Mill is the quality of pleasure. In other words, Mill is not arguing that intellectual or higher-level pleasures tend to elicit higher levels of pleasure or greater quantities of utility per se. Rather, there is something about the nature of higher-level pleasures makes them qualitatively superior to hedonistic pleasures. In conducting utilitarian calculations, then, one may recognize that certain decisions would lead to a greater net utility than others, but such calculations should not stop with that. Instead, one may argue, one should consider the quality of the pleasures to be gained during such calculations.
The distinction between higher and lower-level pleasures by Mill is effective at defending utilitarianism from a number of charges in the form of counterexamples. Using the counterexamples presented above regarding the commission of gladiatorial-like games, the distinction between higher and lower-level pleasures would seem to tilt the calculation against the commission of such games. After all, the pleasure derived from watching such games must be considered a lower-level pleasure. It is not an intellectual pleasure, but one that only satisfied a deeply primitive want for aggression and violence. Similarly, individuals who watch violent sports such as boxing or mixed martial arts are not engaging in any high-level thinking or intellectual pursuits, but simply deriving pleasure from the competition and aggressive nature of the sport. If one were to make a utilitarian calculation regarding the commissioning of a gladiatorial games with the distinction between higher and lower-level pleasures in mind, it becomes much less clear that the games would be justified under utilitarianism. Millions of people deriving small amounts of lower-level pleasures may not outweigh, at least qualitatively, the extreme loss of pleasure from the enslaved participants.
In this way, the distinction between these qualities of pleasure is important for rebutting counterexamples to utilitarianism. But the distinction also helps distinguish advanced forms of utilitarianism from hedonistic forms, such as that which is defended by Bentham. Still, scholars, such as Brink (70), argue that Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures may betray Mill’s hedonistic utilitarianism. In other words, it is argued that Mill’s utilitarianism account may have contradictions that stem from his reliance on a Bentham-like account of hedonistic pleasures and his distinction between the different qualities of pleasure. By ordering pleasures and giving much greater weight to specific types of pleasures, Mill diminishes the importance of hedonistic pleasures. This seems like a good feature when considering extreme cases such as the commission of gladiatorial games, but in many other cases, much more common cases at that, diminishing the role of hedonistic pleasures seems to dilute Mill’s utilitarianism.
For example, when deciding what one could do with one’s day, if the higher-level pleasures should always be preferred to the lower-level pleasures, then engaging in lower-level pleasures would never seem to be acceptable morally. Would it ever be morally acceptable to get a massage or eat chocolate when the options to read, engage in intellectual discourse, and produce original intellectual works are available? Certainly one must eat to survive, but the indulgence of chocolate has little weight in day-to-day utilitarian calculations. Yet, Mill seems to be missing something here. A diversity of pleasures seems to be a significant factor in determining the assigned quality of any particular pleasure. Reading all day every day would surely not be preferred under a utilitarian calculation to reading most of the day on most days and engaging in a variety of other pleasurable activities, even if some of such activities are not intellectual in nature. By drawing stark distinctions between two types of pleasure, higher-level and lower-level pleasures, Mill strays very far from the hedonistic origins of utilitarianism, which may be quite problematic.
The challenge for Mill is in determining, specifically, how to calculate utility or pleasure. Traditionally, hedonism relies on subjective determinations. Individuals experience a particular phenomenon and then estimate the amount of pleasure that they derive from such phenomenon. These crude calculations made hedonistic calculations rather simple, even if there may be some accuracy lost during such calculations. By introducing an order of pleasures, Mill adds complexity to such calculations. How does one know, after all, the quality of pleasure one is experiencing, especially in relation to the quantity of the pleasure? In complicating such calculations, Mill helps defend utilitarianism, while presenting additional issues regarding how specific calculations are made. A common objection against act utilitarianism is that it is impractical, as one would waste too much time making utilitarian calculations. One may even end up relying on heuristics and rules for determining one’s best actions, making act utilitarianism somewhat superfluous. Adding to the difficulty of hedonistic calculations, Mill’s distinction between different qualities of pleasures severely complications these calculations.
Another problem facing Mill’s distinction is that it seems quite subjective. That is, Mill believed that certain intellectual pursuits lead to higher-level pleasures because Mill, in fact, was an intellectual. Someone who lives for excitement and adrenaline-filled action may argue on the other end of the spectrum by holding that only adrenaline-filled activities should be considered higher-level pleasures. Because Mill gives no solid objective grounds, at least not based on utilitarianism calculations, for the higher-level pleasure, it is reasonable to conclude that Mill sought to distinguish such pleasures based on his own subjective feelings towards them. The high-risk adrenaline junky may disagree on similar grounds, citing subjective evidence that he is genuinely happier when skydiving than when engaging in intellectual discourse. Perhaps Mill would try to stand his ground by arguing that the adrenaline junky is mistaken or has not yet experienced higher-level, intellectual pleasure, but without providing strong objective grounds for this distinction, Mill must rely on his own subjective feelings on the matter, just as the adrenaline junky does.
Even so, Mill’s distinction remains quite important for defending utilitarianism against certain counterexamples, even saving the theory from the charges leveled against hedonism. At the very least, Mill’s distinction provides the grounds for a version of utilitarianism that holds up much better than hedonism, but which still needs reform. In this way, the distinction may advance utilitarianism as a feasible moral theory, even if new problems are introduced with the distinction. There are several ways that utilitarianism may be advanced based, in part, on this distinction. For example, benevolence may be an aim of utilitarianism in part because it may, in the long run, promote the most good (Smart and Williams 32). In this way, benevolent acts may be considered of a higher-level pleasure than certain hedonistic acts, such as eating chocolate for pleasure. Performing benevolent acts may increase the total amount and quality of utility, especially in the long-run. These sort of tweaks to utilitarianism further reinforce the moral theory against charges based on counterexamples and issues with utilitarian calculations.
When considering the counterexamples presented against utilitarianism, Mill’s distinction between higher-level and lower-level pleasures seems to be a strong rebuttal, even if it does introduce its own set of problems. At the very least, Mill’s distinction allows for a qualitative comparison of pleasures. This means that there will be much less room for counterexamples which present the acquisition of small amounts of utility by the masses as outweighing the total utility lost by a small minority. If certain sources of pleasure are qualitatively superior to other forms, then one can exclude certain actions as ever being morally acceptable, given the opportunity costs of such actions. Mill’s order of pleasures argument also seems to advance society more than traditional hedonistic accounts, given that intellectual pursuits yield results that advance society more often than pursuits of physical pleasure. As discussed above, the order of the pleasures introduces substantial subjectivity into utilitarian calculations, despite hedonistic forms of utilitarianism seeking objective grounds for utility. Thus, just as Mill’ distinction defends utilitarianism against a number of common objections and counterexamples, it also introduces several new points of contention. Also, there are questions about how this distinction fits into Mill’s entire account of utilitarianism. Perhaps Mill presented no complete or coherent account of utilitarianism, but simply features of a possible utilitarianism account. Nonetheless, every feature Mill presented, including the distinction between the different qualities of pleasures, advanced utilitarianism as a moral system.