John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) is a British philosopher and economist known as one of the founding fathers of utilitarianism. Because of this society-based approach Mill can be considered as the defender of social rights but Mill also is a very liberal political theorist who gives a lot of emphasis on individual rights and liberties including freedom of expression. Mill in his masterpiece “On Liberty”, basically tells us about his ideal state by focusing on his harm principle and utilitarian ideology. Utilitarianism as a dictionary definition means, “the theory that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by its usefulness in bringing about the most happiness of all those affected by it”. In this assignment, I am going to first summarize Mill’s utilitarian principle and then focus on the distinction he made between high and low pleasure.
Utilitarianism is a political-ethical theory that was developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and that claims “all actions should be directed toward achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people”. By utility of actions what meant by Mill, is the satisfaction of actions to produce happiness in the society. By happiness, what he meant is intended pleasure or the prevention of pain. Mill also tries to define the essence of real pleasure. Mill’s pleasure conception is not only about bodily pleasures that are based on instincts, appetites. Mill claims that this kind of pleasures is not satisfactory for humans that are above animals because of their capacity of mind. In Mill’s understanding mental pleasures are superior to bodily pleasures. So, Mill claims that being a fool satisfied is not as valuable as being a wise person who is not satisfied. In addition to the importance of the type (quality) of pleasure, what is most important for Mill is the quantity of this pleasure. Mill thinks that little high quality pleasure is more valuable than a lot of low quality pleasure. Moreover, in his view an action should not be called just when it promotes happiness only for a small group of people or a single individual. From a utilitarian approach, actions are expected to produce pleasure, happiness for maximum amount of people if possible for the whole community. So, Mill believes that real justice can only be derived from people’s intellectual maturity and moral level that will help them to realize that the important is to behave according to the benefits of the society instead of self-profit. Mill calls this intellectual and moral maturity as the biggest virtue in the world. “I fully acknowledge that the readiness to make such a sacrifice is the highest virtue which can be found in man” (Mill, pg 147). However, this sacrifice can be accepted as good and as a virtue only if it produces happiness for the society. Otherwise, it is nothing but a waste. “A sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness, it considers as wasted” (Mill, pg 148).
John Stuart Mill also makes a clear distinction between high and low pleasure, an aspect that his tutor Jeremy Bentham did not deal with. That is why; we can claim that Mill’s unique contribution to Utilitarianism is his view on the separation of pleasures considering their quality. In Mill’s theory, high pleasure refers to intellectual and moral pleasures whereas low pleasure equals with the physical ones. According to Mill, animals could have low pleasure but high pleasure is only for human beings. That is why, he claims “It is better for a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” (pg 102). Mill thinks that simple pleasures are generally for ordinary people but high pleasures could be taken by highly educated people and creative artists.
As far as I am concerned, Mill’s separation between high (intellectual) and low (physical) pleasures is a consistent theory since physical abilities often come from birth but intellectual abilities are attained in time by education and hard working. That is why, equating them might be a wrong idea. However, high-low distinction should not make physical pleasures less important because in my opinion human beings need both high and low pleasures. Mill always believed that mankind is progressive and he could reach a society of freedom and peace if he tries to develop his potential through hardwork and utilitarian thinking.
- Mill, John Stuart, 1991, “On Liberty and Other Essays”, New York: Oxford University Press
- Encyclopedia.com, http://www.encyclopedia.com
- Bioethics Dictionary, http://www.bioscience-bioethics.org/u.htm
 Bioethics Dictionary
 “… as impracticably dry when the word ‘pleasure’, and as too practicably voluptuous when the word ‘pleasure’ precedes the word ‘utility’ (pg 99).
 “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 is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure” (Mill, pg 137).
 “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” (pg 99).
 “The comparison of the Epicurean life to that of beats is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conceptions of happiness” (pg 100).