Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Mill and Hedonism

**This is from guest blogger, Talia.**

John Stuart Mill promotes the idea that the rightness of actions depends on their ability to promote happiness, i.e. pleasure, and that all desirable things are sought out as a means to some pleasurable ends. He distinguished between two types of pleasures in order to support his view against possible objectors: pleasures of the body and pleasures of the mind. The former are those which even animals are capable of acquiring, i.e. satisfaction from food, sexual pleasures, while the later are those experienced by human beings, i.e. intellectual stimulation, use of the imagination. Mill prioritizes mental pleasures over bodily pleasures due to their "circumstantial advantages", i.e. permanence, safety, affordability, and tendency to be preferred by those who have adequate experience with both types of pleasures.

After reading through the article, a few questions/concerns came to mind: first, in our quest for happiness, must we necessarily seek pleasure? I'd be curious to hear other's opinions about possible alternative definitions for happiness. Additionally, is Mill promoting short or long term pleasure? There are cases in which we accept pain over pleasure in order to produce the best long-term outcome, i.e. breaking up with a boyfriend/girlfriend before college because it will be too hard to maintain the relationship. Some actions might initially bring about pleasure or pain, with the other sensation on the horizon. How do we prioritize which pleasure - short vs long term - to prioritize? And relatedly, how do we quantify both of these feelings? I find it difficult to personally measure the relative happiness or pleasure/pain a certain action will bring, let alone do so for all actions across all individuals. Finally, Mill's general categorization of mental pleasure being more desirable/valuable than bodily pleasures applies on a larger scale, but what about in individual cases? Yes, for the most part, everyone would agree on the pleasure brought about by most actions, but it seems that Mill is completely disregarding individual preferences. What if someone finds pleasure through something that causes most other people pain? Thoughts?


Anonymous said...

You break up with your boyfriend because (in the end) that action will promote more pleasure compared with trying to maintain the relationship.

By the way, isn't Mill's view that the rightness or wrongness of actions depends on "promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number"? If so, he's not saying that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on the extent to which it promotes your own happiness or pleasure.

Eric Bumbaca said...

I think this blog post does an excellent job of making us question the logic behind Mill's statements. I believe the idea of the individuals perspective is important and something overlooked by Mill. Happiness (and the actions to achieve it) are not static, they change continuously and may be different daily or weekly. What makes us happy on out fourteenth birthday is likely not to make us happy on our fortieth birthday. The desires that are the basis of happiness change with us, sometimes they are real and tangible, like the need for water after a few days in the Sahara. Sometimes our desires are more experiential, like that of an intelligent conversation or the desire to be loved by another. I believe that what we cannot do is rank these desires, we cannot say one is more important or one is can be preferred over another. We can only say that the happiness produced by the fulfillment of these desires is equal, so long as happiness is achieved by the individual.