Rethinking ‘Higher’ and ‘Lower’ Pleasures

by Ben Davies

One of John Stuart Mill’s most well-known claims concerns the distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Higher pleasures—which are, roughly, ‘mental’ pleasures—are, says Mill, always preferable to lower pleasures—the pleasures of the body.

In Mill’s rendering, competent judges—those who have experience of both higher and lower pleasures—will choose a higher pleasure over a lower pleasure “even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent” and “would not resign it for any quantity of the other [lower] pleasure which their nature is capable of”.

There are two ways we might interpret this claim:

[1] For any amount of a higher pleasure, no matter how small, we would not trade it for any amount of a lower pleasure, no matter how great even if we were left with considerable higher pleasures.

[2] We would not trade our capacity for higher pleasure for any amount of lower pleasure.

Let me spell out the difference more clearly. Consider a particular instance of a pleasure that Mill would categorise as ‘higher’. Although the examples used are often explicitly intellectual, I think we can actually make Mill’s argument a little more plausible by focusing on a pleasure that is mental but not explicitly intellectual, such as an enjoyable but not particularly highbrow evening out with friends (as Gibbs (1986) notes, Mill seems to include not only intellectual pleasures, but also our feelings, imaginations, and moral sentiments, as higher pleasures). You are deciding whether to take up the offer of such an evening out, or to stay in and order a takeaway, mindlessly flicking through whatever is on television.

Interpretation [1] is a common one; on this view, no competent judge would ever choose the mindless evening in. But, I suggest, that makes a great many of us incompetent; we do not always choose the option that speaks to our higher faculties, and we often turn down mental stimulation. And it is not plausible as a claim about the respective values of our mental and bodily pleasures.

More plausible, then, is interpretation [2]. On this view, we are considering not a single instance of ‘higher’ pleasure, but rather our very capacity for mental pleasure. And Mill’s claim can thus be read as saying that there is no amount of bodily pleasure that could substitute for the loss of our capacity for higher pleasure.

This interpretation fits better with Mill’s famous examples. Consider, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” Now it is worth noting that, once we move away from the assumption that higher pleasures must be intellectual, there is something a little odd about these examples: pigs, for instance, cannot plausibly be said to have lives without emotions or fellow feeling. Still, it seems clear that the difference between Mill’s stereotypical human and pig is one of capacity.

If we reject [1] and embrace [2], we get the following conclusion: although it can be rational to sometimes prefer some amount of bodily pleasure to some amount of mental pleasure, there is no amount of bodily pleasure that could justify forfeiting our capacity for higher, mental pleasures. To put things another way, on the view I am outlining the two types of pleasure are commensurable and comparable (since we can trade them off against one another). What they are not is “fully fungible”: there is a limit on the extent to which some increase in bodily pleasure can compensate for the total and irreversible loss of mental pleasure. I want to reiterate here that what is at stake is not the life of the detached philosopher. On its typical construal (and not helped by Mill’s second famous example, comparing Socrates and the ‘fool’) as intellectual pleasure, Mill’s higher pleasures exclude those with significant cognitive disabilities; if we interpret mental pleasures more broadly, though, this seems unnecessary.

In fact, I think we should move even further from the canonical interpretation of Mill. Just as we can compare Mill’s stereotypical human with the stereotypical pig, supposedly devoid of any capacity for mental pleasure, perhaps we can also compare ourselves with the stereotypical robot: capable of a rich mental life, but without the capacity for, or understanding of, bodily pleasures. Such a life also seems unattractive; for my own part, at least, there is no amount of mental pleasure that could induce me to abandon my capacity for bodily pleasure entirely. The incomplete fungibility applies both ways.

Of course, this idea of incomplete fungibility might simply be a product of our inability to fully comprehend large numbers. The committed aggregating consequentialist will insist that we have simply failed to understand how big “any amount” could get. Still, even if this is right, it might be that the kinds of trade offs that would make abandonment of our capacities for either mental or bodily pleasures are only available in theory. In the real world, it might be that no actually available trade-off could be worth it.

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