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Utilitarianism

Chapter 2: What Utilitarianism Is (Part 1)

Summary Chapter 2: What Utilitarianism Is (Part 1)

The most significant aspect of this section, however, is Mill's discussion of the higher and lower pleasures. Over the years, utilitarianism's critics have often objected that it tries to compare things that are fundamentally incommensurable, by artificially computing the amount of utility they bring. For example, by reducing the value of an experience or action to the utility, or pleasure, inherent in them, utilitarianism "cheapens" certain experiences: is it fair to compare eating ice cream to reading War and Peace, based on the pleasure each brings? In this chapter, Mill tries to address this concern. He argues that utility is not simply a measurement of the psychological feeling of pleasure; rather, there are different qualities of pleasure, and only people with a broad range of experiences can dictate which pleasures are of a higher quality. Thus all actions and experiences are not judged by one reductive standard, but rather according to a variety of different qualities of pleasure in correspondence with the type of experience. Higher pleasures would be weighted heavily by utilitarianism, and Mill argues that they are therefore not cheapened by the utility measurement.

It is important, then, to consider whether Mill has adequately responded to criticisms about incommensurable pleasures; is Mill's explanation complete? We still might ask what it is that makes some pleasures "superior" to others. When we say that a pleasure is "higher," what do we really mean? That it is more educational? Appreciated only by those with good taste? Appreciated only by the intelligent? Utility is supposed to be a foundational measurement, but perhaps to acknowledge the existence of higher and lower pleasures is to admit a standard of measurement other than mere pleasure. How might Mill respond to this objection?

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