John Stuart Mill’s Pleasure and HedonismJune 27, 2021
Imagine being separated from other children throughout your childhood.
Instead of spending your time playing games, you learn Greek and algebra with a private tutor or talk to highly intelligent adults. What would you be like? This is more or less what happened to John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). He was treated like a training subject. His father, Jeremy Bentham’s friend James Mill, shared the same opinion with John Locke, who thought that a child’s mind was as blank as a blank slate.
James Mill thought that if a child was raised right, he had a chance to become a genius. So James homeschooled his son John, making sure he didn’t waste time playing with kids his age and picking up bad habits from them. But it wasn’t hard work or forced memorization or anything like that. By using Socrates’ questioning method, James wanted to make his son discover the ideas he learned on his own, instead of having him memorize like a parrot. Surprisingly, John began learning the Ancient Greeks when he was three years old. He wrote a Roman history at the age of six, and at the age of seven he began to understand Plato’s dialogues in their original language.
Mill was a great philosopher; He was perhaps the greatest philosopher of the nineteenth century. Mill was brought up as a utilitarian, and Bentham had a great influence on that. The Mills stayed at Bentham’s home in rural Surrey each summer. Although Mill agreed with Bentham’s idea that right action always produces the most happiness, he believed his teacher’s explanation of happiness as pleasure was too crude. Therefore, the young man developed his own version of the theory and made a distinction between higher and lower pleasures.
Given the choice, would you rather be a contented pig or an unhappy human who rolls around in his muddy pen and devours the food in his bait bowl? Mill thought it was clear that we would choose to be a sad person rather than a happy pig. But this was contrary to what Bentham thought. As we know, Bentham said that all that matters is experiences that can be pleasurable, no matter how they come about. Mill disagreed. He thought we could have different kinds of pleasure and that some were much better than others. So much so that no matter how great the amount of lower pleasure was, it could not compete with the smallest amount of higher pleasure. Lower pleasures, such as the pleasures an animal can experience, could never be compared to higher, mental pleasures, such as reading a book or listening to a concert.
Mill went even further and said that it is better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied fool. This was because the philosopher Socrates was able to achieve more subtle pleasures by thinking than a fool could. Why should we believe Mill? His answer was that someone who has experienced both lower and higher pleasures would prefer the higher ones. The pig cannot read or listen to classical music; therefore his opinion on this matter is not taken into account. If the pig could read, it would rather read than roll in the mud. That’s what Mill was thinking. But some people said that Mill assumed that everyone would rather read like him than roll in the mud. Worse still, because Mill was talking about different qualities of happiness (high and low) and different quantities of them, it became much more difficult to know how to calculate what to do. One of the great virtues of Bentham’s approach was its simplicity, the measurement of all pleasure and pain with the same value. Mill did not introduce a rate of change to calculate the different values of higher and lower pleasures. Mill applied his utilitarian thinking to every aspect of life. He thought humans were a bit like trees. If you don’t give a tree enough room to grow, it will become crooked and weak. But in the right place it can reach its potential, stretch and spread. Similarly, under the right conditions, people thrive, and this results in good outcomes not just for the individual in question but for the whole society – maximizing happiness. In his short but fascinating book published in 1859, he argued that giving each person a place to develop as he saw fit was the best way to organize society. The title of the book is “On Freedom” and is still widely read today.
Paternalism comes from the Latin word pater, which means father; it means to force someone to do something for their own good (although it could also be maternalism, which comes from the Latin mater meaning mother). If you were fed vegetables as a child, you know very well what it is. Eating green vegetables is often unpleasant for a child, but your parents say it’s for your own good. Mill thought that paternalism is good when applied to the child: Children need to be protected and their behavior controlled in various ways. However, civilized society