Pleasure: A Comparison of Mill and Plato’s Views
Human action should aim at its proper end. Everywhere people aim at pleasure, wealth, and honor. Although these ends have some type of value, they are not the chief good for which people should aim. To be an ultimate end, an act must be self-sufficient and final and it must be attainable by people. Perhaps, all people will agree that happiness is the end that alone meets all the requirements for the ultimate end of human action. Indeed, as Plato and John Stuart Mill have argued, we choose pleasure, wealth, and honor only because we think that they can be the vehicles or catalysts to the attainment of happiness.
It was John Stuart Mill who was one of those who philosophized the meaning of happiness in the life of a man. His most memorable contribution to the assessment of sense experiences is the theory of utilitarianism. According to this theory, moral actions are those which produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people (Mill, 1901).
The moral and political views of John Stuart Mill dramatically influenced the direction of Western philosophy. Rarely has a way of thinking captured the imagination of generations of people so completely as did his theory of utilitarianism. What attracts people to it is its simplicity and its way of confirming what most of us already believe; that everyone desires pleasure and happiness. From this simple fact, indeed Mill argued that moral and societal goodness involves achieving the greatest amount of pleasure, and minimizing the greatest amount of pain, for the welfare of the society as a whole (Crisp, 1997).
Mill’s purpose in writing his famous essay on Utilitarianism was to defend the principle of utility, which he learned from his father and Jeremy Bentham. In the course of his defense, however, he made such important modifications of this theory that his version of utilitarianism turned out to be different from Bentham’s in several ways. His definition of utility was perfectly consistent with what Bentham taught: Mill writes that:
The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals Utility, or the greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness, it is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure (Mill, 1901).
Plato’s Gorgias, on the other hand, is a thorough study of uprightness based on an inquest into the nature of art, speechifying, supremacy, restraint, and fair dealing. By itself, the dialogue both links up strongly with and upholds self-sufficient significance of Plato’s weighty philosophical undertaking of marking out prim human existence and nobility (Cooper, 1997).
Pleasures, Mill said, differ from each other in kind and quality, not only in quantity. He took his stand with Plato, who was also attacked for their degrading emphasis upon pleasure as the end of all behavior. Plato replied to his accusers that it was in fact they who had a degrading conception of human nature, for they assumed that the only pleasures people are capable of are those of which only swine are capable (Cooper, 1997). But these assumptions are obviously false, said Mill, because “human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification” (Mill, 1901).
Pleasures of the intellect and imagination have a higher value than the pleasures of mere sensation. Though Mill initially developed the notion of higher pleasures as an answer to the critics of utilitarianism, his concern over higher pleasures led to a criticism of the very foundation of Plato’s view of utility (Cooper, 1997). For Mill, the mere quantity of pleasure produced by an act was of secondary importance when have to make a choice between pleasures (Crisp, 1997). For example, a person may be acquainted with a specific intellectual pleasure and a specific pleasure of sensation. If he or she prefers the intellectual pleasure, then this shows it superiority.
The qualitative aspect of pleasure, Mill thought, was a much an empirical fact as was the quantitative element on which Plato placed his entire emphasis. Mill departed even further from Plato by grounding the qualitative difference between pleasures in the structure of human nature, thereby focusing upon certain human faculties whose full use were to be the criterion of true happiness, and therefore of goodness (Parducci, 1995).
Pleasures, according to Mill, have to be assessed not for their quantity but for their quality. However, Mill’s view of qualitative pleasures raises an important problem with the whole notion of the pleasure principle. If we must assess pleasures for their quality, then pleasure itself is no longer the standard of morality. That is, if only the full use of our higher faculties can lead us to true happiness, the standard of goodness in behavior does not have to do with pleasure, but with fulfilling our human faculties (Crisp, 1997).
Mill’s version of utilitarianism can be set apart in three ways. First, by preferring the higher quality of happiness over a mere quantity of pleasure, Mill thereby rejects the view that pleasures and pains can be calculated or measured. Mill argued that there is no way to measure either the quantity or quality of pleasures. Whenever we have to make a choice between two pleasures, we can express a preference wisely only if we have experienced both possibilities. Instead of calculating, people simply express a preference, and apart from this attitude of preference, there is no other tribunal (Crisp, 1997).
A second difference in Mill’s theory involves when we should actually consult the utilitarian guideline. Plato seems to say that for each act we perform, we should consider whether the act produce a greater balance of happiness versus unhappiness. This, though, can become quite tedious, and our lives would grind to a halt when we paused to calculate the outcome of various actions (Cooper, 1997). According to Mill, though, we rarely need to consider the consequences of our specific actions. Instead, we should go about our lives following general moral rules, such as rules against killing, stealing, and lying. We can trust these rules since, throughout human civilization, people have continually tested these rules to determine whether we facilitate general happiness when we follow them. Only occasionally do we run into problems following these tried and true moral rules (Crisp, 1997). For example, if I am poor and my family is starving, I may want to steal a loaf of bread from the local store. Here, I am torn between two possible moral rules: to provide for your family, and to not steal. In this case, we resolve the conflict by determining which course of action would bring about the most happiness.
But because the principle of utilitarianism is founded on the well-being of society, a dilemma arises from considering the direct relation between moral set of laws and happiness (Wilson, 1993). The following instance proves this point: if I found myself in the central square of a South American village, in front of twenty natives that are tied up against a wall, and the captain, who is holding the natives, questioning me, got me establishing that I got there by accident, and explains that the natives are a random group of inhabitants who have been protesting the government. They are about to be killed to set an example for other potential protestors. The captain honors me with the privilege of killing one of the natives myself. If I accept, the other natives will be spared. If I refuse, the captain will kill them all. If I chose to take the gun and kill only one native, I would be making a moral decision. It is moral according to the Principle of Utility which states, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote the reverse of happiness” (Utilitarianism, 589).
Mill explains happiness in terms of receiving pleasure and unhappiness as receiving pain. Pleasure and the absence of pain are, by this account, the only things desirable and therefore the only things good. Actions are good when they lead to a higher level of general happiness, and bad when they decrease that level. By a higher level of general happiness, Mill means pleasure that is both intellectual and sensual (Mill, 1901). Utilitarians believe that what makes an act morally right is the fact that it leads to the best consequences. A moral action, therefore, is one that increases the total amount of higher pleasure in the situation.
To put in philosophical context, this pleasure-pain principle is what makes Mill an act-utilitarian like Plato. They commonly believe that morality is the maximization of pleasure and minimization of pain.
In summary, what Mill wants to points out is that one’s own happiness is the only thing desired by each person. For Plato, the bedlam of contemporaneous Athenian society was founded on the malfunction of nearly all to appreciate this deep-seated difference with a foundation of upright lifestyle in integrity and temperance (Cooper, 1997). Therefore, as I personally agree to John Stuart Mill, the general happiness is the only thing desired for itself by all. The only test of something’s being desirable is its being desired. Therefore, the general happiness is the only thing desired in itself. Therefore, as I both agree to Plato and Mill, the only test of the rightness or wrongness of actions is their tendency to promote general happiness.
Cooper, John M. (1997). Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
Crisp, Roger. (1997). Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism. Routledge.
Mill, John Stuart. (1901). Utilitarianism. Longmans, Green and Co.
Parducci, Allen. (1995). Happiness, Pleasure, and Judgment: The Contextual Theory and Its Applications. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Stephen, Leslie. (1900). The English Utilitarians. Duckworth and Co.
Wilson, James Q. (1993). “What Is Moral, and How Do We Know It?” Commentary.