Is a life of pleasure good for us? Is pleasure something that we should all pursue? There are some who think that pleasure is the most important thing in life. John Stuart Mill is, perhaps, the grandfather of this notion, at least in its modern expression. But, I have always found the way in which Mill speaks about pleasure betrays an unsophisticated understanding of it on his part.
Mill is best known for his moral theory, Utilitarianism. At one point, he tries to defend it from the accusation that it is a philosophy fit only for swine. Mill argues, quite rightly, that human beings have faculties that are more elevated than animal appetites. Thus, we are capable of pleasures that are qualitatively superior to the pleasures that animals are capable of. To establish and articulate this distinction between higher versus lower pleasures, Mill appeals to the notion of a competent judge as the means by which we are to distinguish between which pleasures are of a higher quality and which are of a lower quality. He says:
Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have had experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.
Distinguishing between pleasures
Clearly, Mill is appealing to the fact that higher pleasures feel different from lower pleasures. They are more profound perhaps. And because of this, we can distinguish them in feeling. Besides them feeling different however, what else can we say about their difference? Are they substantially different from one another such that we could point their difference out by some means other than a report on which feels better? Mill says that there is no other way. Mill says that there can be “no other tribunal” to distinguish between the quality of pleasures, since there is no other tribunal even on the question of the quantity of pleasure (Mill, 2016). We see then that Mill does not provide an explanation of the difference; he merely observes that there is a difference.
And we should assume that the two sorts of pleasure must be ontologically distinct if they feel so significantly different that it is possible to ground a qualitative distinction on the basis of this difference in feeling. It is odd to think that feelings that differ to such an extent can be of exactly the same ontological sort. Mill refers to higher pleasures as the gratification of our higher faculties, as apposed I suppose to lower pleasures as the gratification of our animal appetites. And in this sense, they are ontologically distinct from one another as they are each the gratification of a human need of a different sort, the lower to the lower sort, the higher to the higher sort. But, they are both considered to exist as the gratification of a need. And in this sense, they are ontologically alike.
Pleasure can be defined as..
I am not sure what Mill’s ultimate ontology of pleasure is, and he may perhaps have written more extensively about it elsewhere. But from his discussion on Utilitarianism I think we can distil the following position on the ontology of pleasure. Pleasure is either itself the gratification of a need, or the experiential state produced by the gratification of a need.
Human beings have animal appetites and higher faculties. Both of which have needs associated with them and it is the gratification of these that either is, or produces pleasure. Even putting Mill aside, I believe that this is a reasonably accurate reflection of what most modern hedonists would take pleasure to be. And this means the same as saying that pleasure either is, or is produced, by the satisfaction of our desires. Since a need is of the same sort as a desire, and “gratification” is synonymous with “satisfaction”. We could sketch the ontological picture as this:
The origin of the feeling
I think what is most significant to note about this ontological picture of pleasure is that it does not bestow on pleasure the substance of being needed to ground normativity in any sense. Each pleasant experience is ontologically limited by contradictions in its own nature. On this picture, for there to be a pleasure, there must first be a desire/want/need. It is the nature of a want to be experienced as in some sense painful. For example, an itch that needs to be scratched. These pleasures then are ontologically dependent on the existence of pains. Desires are an emptiness in your being; that seeks to be filled.
Therefore, we can say that all pleasures are preceded by pains. And every satisfied desire ceases to exist, or at least becomes inactive for a time, at which point, further gratification becomes painful. And so, all of these pleasures are necessarily short lived, to be replaced by their opposite.
Thinking of it in terms of “existence over time”. There are two periods within which these pleasures could possibly exist. The first is during the actual satisfaction of the desire; pleasure could either co-exist with or in some sense exist as the satisfaction of the desire. The second is immediately following the satisfaction of the desire as some sort of state produced by the satisfaction. Both of these are limited. How long does it take to eat your fill? How long do you stay full? They are both limited because for each to be again there must once again be a state of “being-in-desire” and of lack.
And each instance of pleasure is ontologically independent of the pleasures that went before it. Each pleasure is also ontologically independent of the pleasure that will come after. Each pleasure is the product of the combination of two things; the desire, and the thing that satisfies the desire; as they are combined in the moment that is the desire being satisfied. This means that each pleasure is not determined by the pleasures that went before it; and has no effect on subsequent states, other than the consequent desire that must follow a pleasure before it can be again. In this sense pleasures of this sort are causally inert and have no beneficial implications beyond themselves, normative or otherwise.
Will pleasure benefit our lives?
As a good thing, pleasure is still extremely limited. Even if such a pleasure is good itself, it cannot make one’s life better beyond itself. This pleasure then is a good that is of no benefit. Having it now will not benefit you later. It will not fortify your condition against unfortunate events as a good constantly available to carry you through. It has no prudential implications and thus can be of no prudential value. To highlight the point, it is useful to observe how poorly pleasure, so construed, stacks up against virtue as a good.
Virtue is a constant companion to you, ensuring as you enter each moment that you deal with the moment appropriately. This has striking prudential potential just simply because virtue has significantly positive implications for how well a person’s life goes; moment by moment, through every waking hour. And this really serves to highlight the ontological limitations of pleasure so defined.
By the way, Utilitarianism doesn’t make any sense!
John Stuart Mill, the grandfather of modern utilitarianism, is a legend among early modern philosophers. This surprises me, I find his ethical writing about as flat headed as it is possible for any piece of writing to be. So, just as a parting shot to his grand moral theory; if this is what you think pleasure is, then utilitarianism doesn’t make any sense!
If pleasure in this sense has no prudential value, then it can’t ground any of our normative claims. It makes no sense to believe that morality is a normative system that binds human beings to pursue pleasure when pleasure is not even prudentially good for a human being. How can we be asked to pursue the pleasure of all concerned even when we have no prudential reason to pursue our own pleasure? The notion is absurd.
Mill, J. S. (2016). Utilitarianism. In Seven masterpieces of philosophy (pp. 337-383): Routledge.
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