John Mill’s Distinction between Pleasures

The utilitarianism theory, founded by John Stuart Mill, attempts to decide whether a particular action is right or wrong. Mill decided that an action is correct if it maximizes the subjects’ or the public’s satisfaction while minimizing their suffering. However, he was widely criticized, and his theory was dubbed “the philosophy of the pig” because it claimed that life had no greater purpose than to achieve pleasure. Mill used a distinction between mental and physical pleasures to support his point, with the mental or intellectual enjoyment being higher than the sensual or physical pleasure. He clarified that his utilitarianism implied that an unhappy Socrates was preferable to a happy pig (Crisp 620). The following essay seeks to show that the distinction between the mental pleasure and physical pleasure contradicts his argument that pleasure is good as an end. The first section of the essay analyses the distinction as presented by Mill. The second section illustrates the flaws in Mill’s distinction of pleasures while the last section gives a conclusion (Martin 145).

The Distinction Between Physical Pleasures and Mental Pleasures

In his distinction of the two pleasures, Mill gives an analogy of the Haydn and Oyster life. The experiment involves a soul that was in heaven and was about to be allocated a life on earth. An angle presented to the soul the life of Hayden which was characterized by success, fame, honor and so much enjoyment in life. Besides, the soul has presented the life of Oyster which comprised of mild sensual pleasures alone and thus less exciting (Crisp 622). The soul had to choose between the two, and it chose the Hayden life. However, the angle promised a better deal if the soul changed his mind and chose Oyster. He promised to prolong the Oyster life, but the soul stuck to the Hayden life. Similarly, Mill explains that many people would have chosen the life of Hayden even if they were promised a longer Oyster life. Jeremy Bentham, another critic of Mill’s utilitarianism, argues that he would have chosen the Oyster life because of his believe in Cardinal commensurability of pleasure. Bentham explained that the quantity of pleasure was determined by how valuable it was and how long it lasted. However, the problem with Bentham’s argument is the sense of intuition in which many people would not be willing to choose the Oyster life (Crisp 624). Despite the number of years one will be given in an Oyster life, it will never be comparable to the Hayden life. In terms of welfare, the Hayden life is far much better than that of an Oyster and the experience of a Hayden is completely different from the experience of an Oyster.

Mill based his argument on the distinction between the pleasures on the lives of Hayden and Oyster. He claims that he would have chosen the life of the Hayden because he considers the life of an Oyster to be less satisfying as far as the human happiness is concerned. According to Mill, our faculties are more elevated than that of animals, and it would be inappropriate to for those who criticize him to compare human beings with pigs. This is because it implies that pigs have the capacity to experience pleasure the same way human beings do. Therefore, Mill concluded that we are higher than pig seeking pleasure. In an effort to show the difference between pleasures of the same quantity, Mill explains the case of the competent judges who are presented with two pleasures of the same quantity and are qualified because of the knowledge they have on the pleasures (Driver 235). The pleasure that the majority of the judges will prefer is the most desirable. His reasoning is emphasized by the theory of discontinuity which holds that even if the less preferred pleasure were placed above the most preferred pleasure, people would still not choose it. That means, no quantity of less preferred pleasure will make people change their mind and choose it over the most enjoyed pleasure. That way a superiority of the higher is ascribed to the most preferred pleasure. Mill affirms that no one will be willing to change into any of the lower animals even if they are presented with pleasures of a beast.

The Flaws of Mill’s Distinction of The Two Pleasures

Mill’s distinction of pleasures seems to challenge his intrinsic nature of pleasure itself. Full commensurability of pleasures holds that the pleasures balance when their duration and intensity are equal, and in case of any tilt, the value of the more weighted pleasure is increased. On the other hand, Mill’s discontinuity theory and superiority of pleasure present a situation in which there is no scale that can be used to weigh pleasure (Driver 239). It suggests the need for some other sets of scales in which we can account for the for the additional qualifications that are incompatible. According to Mill, human beings have some unwillingness to which could be attributed to nobility, dignity or pride against the lower pleasures and poses a situation where the higher pleasure is dignified and noble (Martin 146). This creates a problem for Mill because when he argues that there is the quantifiable difference between pleasures, then he should abandon his argument that pleasure is good as an end. In his distinction, Mill suggests that there is a quality that represents the good as an end that is neither in the mental pleasure nor the physical pleasure (Crisp 626). The suggestion contradicts Mill’s theory of molarity which explains that an action is right if it yields the greatest happiness and this happiness is the intended pleasure in the absence of pain. Besides, the fact that Mill uses pleasure as an intrinsic quality in his hedonistic utilitarianism is a flaw to his distinction of pleasures. In other words, If I were to use whiteness as an intrinsic quality of a white concept, adding another qualification such as a little green would lose its intrinsic because it will not be purely white. Therefore, it is not appropriate for Mill to use pleasure as an intrinsic quality in explaining the hedonistic utilitarianism.

If pleasure is the one that determines the goodness of an action, then Mill has no ground to state a higher and a lower pleasure. On the other hand, hedonistic utilitarianism lacks integrity if we would say that pleasure does not determine the molarity of an action. Pleasure can either be the ultimate end of goodness or not. Therefore, few can only come to a conclusion that Mill is a true hedonist and therefore holds onto his theory of pleasure as the ultimate good thus abandon the idea of differentiating pleasures or saying that there is a pleasure that is superior to the other (Driver 242). Alternatively, Mill can hold onto his argument that there exists a difference between the physical pleasures and mental pleasures and therefore, provide distinctions that are the completely different definitive criterion that has nothing to do with pleasure. Finally, Mill is not clear enough in explaining why the mental pleasure is higher than the physical pleasure. Both hedonism and principle of Great Happiness should not differ in the path that leads to happiness. It was enough to defend himself from the utilitarianism of Bentham by saying that human beings have two types of pleasure and cannot be compared to animals. The further explanations he makes regarding intellectual pleasure being higher than sensual pleasure creates a fault in his argument.


Despite the stance that Mill holds regarding the distinction between pleasures, the argument does not add any value to the original theory of utilitarianism which states that an action is right if it yields the most utility to the public (Martin 148). In the real world, there are people who would find great pleasure in reading philosophy which is an intellectual pleasure while others may yield great happiness when eating a burger of which it is a physical pleasure. Therefore, Mill’s distinction of pleasure in which he claims one pleasure is morally right than the other is not necessary for determining the molarity of an action, and it contradicts his own beliefs and ideals. The origin of pleasure does not matter in determine the goodness of an action.

Works Cited

Crisp, Roger. “Hedonism reconsidered.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 73.3 (2006): 619-645.

Driver, Julia. “Roger Crisp, Reasons and the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 178.” Utilitas 23.02 (2011): 235-237.

Martin, Rex. “A defence of Mill’s qualitative hedonism.” Philosophy 47.180 (1972): 140-151.

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