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Jeremy Bentham's and John Stuart Mill's versions of hedonism. Is either version adequate?

Updated on December 7, 2012

Following certain moral principles and applying them to everyday life is common for all human beings. Because all of us are an integral part of society, we live by unspoken, unofficial principles in order to maintain the social structure. Many philosophers have tried to create some sort of framework for these principles so the questions like “Do I have moral rights to do so?” or “How my actions are going to benefit the society?” can be answered with the help of this theoretical framework. Utilitarianism is one of these theories and its main contributors had been Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism is a mixture of consequentialism and hedonism. Bentham had defined this theory in his book An Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. … The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law.” (Bentham cited in A Fragment on Government and An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1967) So according to Bentham, a man's life is controlled by pleasure and pain – we strive towards pleasure and try to avoid pain. From hedonistic point of view if overall pleasure exceeds overall pain then we have happiness and we have unhappiness if the pain prevails.

Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill had similar views on utilitarianism in general and this standpoint is considered to be classical Utilitarian, but they disagreed on what exactly is hedonism. They both agree that happiness is the ultimate good and happiness is pleasure and the absence of pain. It should be mentioned that Bentham and Mill acknowledged the hedonistic nature of people's behaviour and motivation, but argues that we should all act to increase collective happiness.

Bentham suggested a quantitative approach to hedonism meaning that all experiences can be measured and amount of happiness counted. That is pleasure minus pain. He also believed that the value of pleasure is determined by the following circumstances:

  1. “Its intensity.
  2. Its duration.
  3. Its certainty or uncertainty.
  4. Its propinquity or remoteness. …
  5. Its fecundity, or the chance it has of being followed by sensations of the same kind: that is, pleasures, if it be a pleasure: pains, if it be a pain.
  6. Its purity, or the chance it has of not being followed by sensations of the opposite kind: that is, pains, if it be a pleasure: pleasures, if it be a pain.”

(Bentham cited in A Fragment on Government and An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1967).

Straight away there are a few problems with Bentham's view on hedonism. According to this view, satisfying our natural needs e.g. eating is equivalent in creating happiness like for example realizing our inner talents provided that the quantity of pleasure is equal. So a pig who lives in a warm pig-house with lots of food and etc. would be a happier being than a poor musician who enjoys what he is doing but struggles to make the ends meet. Common sense says that there is a problem somewhere in this idea.

John Stuart Mill tried to defend Bentham's view and came up with some additions to Bentham's ideas on hedonism. He criticized Bentham's quantitative hedonism and suggested another version – so called qualitative hedonism. If amount of pleasure (its intensity and duration etc.) is all that mattered to Bentham, then Mill argues that there are different types of pleasure and some of them are more pleasant, some of them are less pleasant. He classified pleasures into two types: lower pleasures and higher pleasures. Lower pleasures are derived from exercising lower faculties e.g. satisfying natural instincts and higher pleasures come from the higher faculties e.g. the intellect. To measure the quality of different kinds of pleasure, Mill suggests to turn to a competent judge, someone who has tried both. Mill has also noticed that being satisfied and being happy are two different things. It is human nature to appreciate some aspects of life like wisdom or friendships even though in some cases it brings only dissatisfaction.

Critics of Mill's version point out that competent judges can not provide independent opinion because humans are all different. Someone may prefer doing sports to reading poetry, someone may think that sports is the least pleasant thing of all. It really depends on personality. Whether the pleasure is higher or lower depends on other factors rather than just how pleasurable it is. Also does Mill suggest that people who prefer higher pleasures are superior to the rest of us? Mill's point of view is a little bit inappropriate in terms of the theory of utilitarianism, maximization of happiness in the society. This argument favours Bentham's version of hedonism because it seems to be more egalitarian than Mill's one.

The main problem with classical version of hedonism is that we can not say for sure of what pain or pleasure consist therefore we can not define happiness as net total of pleasure minus pain. While hedonism does not give exact answers on ethical questions, it gives a rough idea on such rhetorical questions like “What is right and what is wrong?” where right and wrong are represented by pleasure and pain.


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