Chapter 6. Teleological Theories : Utilitarianism
Section 7. Insufficiencies: Problems

Bentham and Mill

Are all pleasures morally equivalent?
Jeremy Bentham established utilitarianism as a dominant ethical theory, and John Stuart Mill developed it during the middle and late 19th-century. Though there are numerous ways in which Mill's version departs from Bentham's, there is one difference that is most important for you to keep in mind.

Recall that for Bentham, all pleasures are of a single kind -- the only way in which one is more important than another is that it is either more intense, longer, more immediate, etc. (review earlier document on the criteria by which to measure pleasure and pain).

According to Bentham, there is no pleasure that, morally speaking, is any better than another. Enjoying a Baskin and Robbins ice cream is no worse or better than enjoying a Shakespearean sonnet. Buying a bunch of tickets for neighborhood kids go to a WWF smackdown is no worse or better than bringing a priest to a hospital emergency room to bring relief to the dying.

Nor would there be any difference in the enjoyment of a meal than a pig's enjoyment of its meal. The enjoyment is the thing. To the degree that a thing is pleasurable, to that degree it's good.

Mill, however, disagrees. Mill believes that there are some human faculties, some human powers and capacities that are somehow "higher", or more noble, or dignified than others. He cannot accept the position that intellectual, rational pleasures are no better than the base pleasures we share with other animals. Don't get me wrong -- he's NOT saying that the enjoyment of rational things is more intense, enduring, etc. than those other things, for then he'd be no different than Bentham. He's saying that there is a difference in kind, not just a difference in degree, and that however difficult it might be to articulate and conceptualize and express the difference between such pleasures and capacities, the difference makes a moral difference.

The distinction Mill wants to make between different types of pleasures -- those which, in virtue of being more deeply human, are more noble -- puts him in good company. This distinction is shared by many, many philosophers since the beginning of Western philosophical thought. This intuition is held both by religiously minded thinkers, as well as secular thinkers -- the Stoics, for instance. For Plato, pleasure arising from living a virtuous life is better than pleasure arising from a scurrilous life.

But this distinction provides some difficulties for Mill's own position -- it's a problem for any utilitarian. Why?  What more is needed?

The Insufficiency of Utility

For Mill, as we've just seen, it is ultimately unsatisfying to think that all pleasures are, morally speaking, equal. He is persuaded that some pleasures are better than others. This raises a difficult issue for any utilitarian:

By what criteria do you measure the relative goodness of different pleasures?

Do you see the problem? One virtue of utilitarianism is that it provides a criterion, a way of measuring the goodness and badness of actions. Pleasure becomes the measure. Pleasure simply IS the way in which we can discern the difference between actions that are merely permissible and actions that are obligatory, and actions that are forbidden. Pleasure becomes the final yardstick. It has the final say. It is that by which to evaluate other things. But if Mill is right, then pleasure is no longer sufficient for this task; there has to be something else -- something by which to evaluate the pleasures themselves. In other words, Mill's distinction between the elevated and the base pleasures requires us (or him) to figure out some moral principle, or value that cannot be reduced to pleasure.

This criticism points to a particular weakness in utilitarianism. It doesn't kill it -- it doesn't necessarily mean that utility is morally irrelevant, or unhelpful, or is entirely without merit. It does, however, point out that it may not be sufficient. It leads us (though Mill didn't see this clearly) to seek some non-utilitarian property of pleasures by which to decide among the various pleasures that can accompany the enormous variety of human pleasures.

PROBLEMS with the Theory:   

1. It is difficult if not impossible to do the calculations required. How do you measure the happiness (pleasure) produced?

a. Not everyone will be able to measure their happiness.

b. One personsí maximum happiness may not be the equal of another personís maximum.

c. Do the calculations range over 1 year, ten years, century, etc..? How long?

d. Do the calculations measure the happiness for a small group, entire country, the whole world?

e. Do they consider only humans or non-humans who are sentient beings (have awareness and feelings). Peter Singer is a world renown philosopher and Utilitarian who includes all sentient beings. Non-Humans as well as humans can feel pleasure and pain and so to avoid speciesism includes them in the calculations.

2. The theory can support opposing actions on different occasions as the correct or the good thing to do.

3. The theory canít really resolve conflicts in views, e.g.. Sometimes it supports lying, cheating, killing, stealing, etc... and sometimes not.

4. The theory can support doing horrible, heinous acts, as long as they produce the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people. There is no act that is wrong in and of itself! Murder, lies, rape, child molestation, ..whatever can be the GOOD thing to do!

5. The theory treats all people as being equal. It does not take into consideration special relationships that exist between people, for example the relationships of family members.

So what principles are to guide individual and collective action? What might fit the bill? What might provide this? What other moral concept can we use that can help us to distinguish among the more or less valuable pleasures? We shall examine the theory of Immanuel Kant and some others as well.  Now after a few examples of utilitarian thinking we will examine approaches to determining right from wrong that does not consider the consequences of the acts but the acts themselves and the intentions of the actors.

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© Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

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