In Utilitarianism, ch. 4, Mill's proof of utilitarianism, happiness is defined as: "Not a continuity of highly pleasurable excitement, but moments of such, in an existence made up of few but transitory pains, many and various pleasures ... and not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing"

This first seemed like an unorthodox stance for a utilitarian to take. Whereas they usually condemn pain in any form, Mill seems to be stating that this is a necessary component to happiness, and understanding that these pains are part of your life is a requirement.

This would seem accurate under the observation that pain is required to see the value in an otherwise endless stream of pleasure, but is this an entirely correct take on Mill?

3 Answers 3


While it's kind of funny to say an unorthodox stance for a utilitarian to take about Mill considering he's the most famous Utilitarian there is, I think your point is something like this:

  1. "Utilitarians" are all about pleasure.
  2. Therefore, it's weird for them to then be obsessed with pain, which is generally taken to be the opposite of pleasure.

There's two ways of explaining why Mill is doing this.

First, there's what I will call the "hedonist ratchet." And that's this pattern:

  1. Pleasure is good.
  2. Therefore drinking is good. (assuming it produces pleasure)
  3. Thus, drinking more = better... (maximal pursuit of pleasure)
  4. But hangovers are very unpleasant = bad.
  5. Drinking + hangover is pretty bad and seems worse than not drinking in the first place.

This functions as a kind of reductio against maximal pursuit. But if we want to maintain that pleasure is good (and we should pursue it), we now need a more complicated plan.

= we need to do a calculus (= calculation) where we wind up with less hangovers and more drinking fun. In effect, we've transformed our position from "pleasure is good" to "the average of pleasure is good." And we can see Mill making this move.

The same ratchet happens in nearly all philosophical forms of hedonism. We can definitely see it Epicureanism which despite the common characterization is all about balancing our lives to experience the most pleasurable kind of life which includes goods like friendship, community, and thought. (Note that most other forms of hedonism appear to be boogeymen imagined by the philosophers rather than well-considered ways of living).

Thus, on a certain level, this is just the recognition that pleasure and pain represent a pair of experiential states that can't be so easily disconnected.

Second, historically, Mill makes this move in response to an objection Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism. Bentham doesn't distinguish between types of pleasures, so it's just as good if you enjoy playing a game of Powergrid or if you enjoy snorting lines of cocaine. But this doesn't really seem right, but if our only parameter is pleasure, then I'd guess (having not experienced it) that a line of coke is more bang for your buck than a game of Powergrid.

Thus Mill was forced to recognize a distinction between kinds of pleasure and with it to recognize that some kinds of pleasure also involve feelings of pain -- or pain along the way to something becoming pleasurable.

As Guambra's answer suggests, we have good reason to think that Mill would be fine with taking pleasures of the best and most noble kinds in unlimited quantities if it were possible to do so sustainably. (But there are good reasons to think this is psychologically infeasible for humans).

  • I like your answer but, fixing on the OP's idea of pain as a 'necessary' component of happiness, which I don't think Mill intended, have taken a different approach. +1
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Sep 6, 2019 at 7:35

It is unorthodox but not, perhaps, inconsistent with Utilitarianism!

Firstly, it might be worth reflecting on Mill's style of philosophy. He was a practical philosopher who often altered his style, the way of delivering his message and contents depending on his audience and his intentions. For that reason, there are sometimes rhetorical motivations behind what he says.

I think it is harder to pin him down on exactly what he means than some other utilitarian philosophers. Henry Sidgwick, for instance, is drier but in his philosophy it is easier to follow a precise chain of argument to reach conclusions. Bentham's conclusions are much plainer too, and easier to translate into a 'rule for action' than Mill's. But that is due, at least in part, to the complexities that Mill grapples with, some of which get left out of the ethical prescriptions of Bentham and Sigdwick.

We could see in Mill's philosophy a precursor to some of the objections levelled against Utilitarianism by Bernard Williams. Like Williams, Mill drew on the work of poets and playwrites to undermine some of the simplifying assumptions of Betham's 'Act Utilitarianism', and the way it responds to the inherently complex nature of the world. Both William's and Mill's critiques of (in Mill's case Benthamite) Utilitarianism involve some concern about the way the doctrine systematises our responses to the world. There is something too mechanical about it.

Mill's political agenda diverges radically from Bentham's. The latter tends on focus on technical means of producing greater welfare for the greatest number whereas Mill's overriding concern is with individual autonomy. For Mill, the good life depends on each of us being able to decide for ourselves on the kind of life we want to live.

It is easy to see how there may be a certain amount of pain in such a life. Breaking free of the values that are given to us by our social environment may be painful. Pursuing our own adopted values against the grain of social norms may also be painful.

So why count Mill a Utilitarian at all? In much of his writing, he seems to be concerned with autonomy rather than happiness. Well, Mill shares with other Utilitarians the (axiological) belief that what matters are pleasures and pains. It's just that, for him, the most important pleasures are to be arrived at through this process of self-creation.

You suggest that pain might be required in order to fully appreciate pleasures. That's plausible. Or it could just be that Mill is describing the fact that (the world being constituted as it is), pains will inevitably arise at some point if you are trying to live a good (autonomous) life.

The alternative is that some pains are intrinsically valuable. It could be that pains, as we commonly see them, aren't really pains at all if they are sufficiently few, and balanced out by pleasures. They serve to enrich our subjectively felt life and, in the broadest sense, make us happier.

In the first two of these cases, pain plays an instrumental role. We can imagine a world in which we don't need to go through pains to enjoy the same pleasures (such a world is not logically inconceivable).

Would Mill prefer such a world to the world we actually live in?

If, by clicking his fingers he could ensure that the greatest pleasures were just as pleasurable without the need for pain, would he refuse to click? It is hard to see why he would. Unless it is with recourse to something like the third possibility I outlined, that he sees some pains as intrinsically valuable.

  • 2
    This seems like it could use some editing down, but it definitely demonstrates a grasp of who Mill is
    – virmaior
    Jun 7, 2016 at 6:59

It doesn't strike me that 'Mill seems to be stating that [pain] is a necessary component to happiness'.

Like many moral philosophers Mill doesn't have in mind an ideal world. As sentient beings, humankind is (on the whole and rare exceptions aside) vulnerable to pain. The human predicament can be improved in several respects but susceptibility to pain appears to be inescapable. Pain is a harm, an evil, a disbenefit, or however we want to describe it, but we do not and are not going to live in a pain-free world.

The most we can reasonably hope for, then, is not the absence of pain but its minimisation, diminution, lessened frequency and duration. This recognition goes into the mix of Mill's account of happiness - of a human life that goes as well as it's sensible for us to expect or hope for:

'Not a continuity of highly pleasurable excitement, but moments of such, in an existence made up of few but transitory pains, many and various pleasures ... and not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing.'

On the other side : A life of totally continuous 'highly pleasurable excitement' is, on any reasonable calculation, not likely to be our lot. But some such excitements will come our way unless we are exceptionally unlucky, as will 'many and various pleasures'. (https://socialsciences.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/mill/utilitarianism.pdf: page 15.)

To fret against these parameters and to expect a pain-free, intensely and continuously pleasurable life, is (given the human predicament) precisely 'to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing.' Not logically capable but practically capable.

In sum: pain is not a necessary component of happiness but an inescapable condition of human life.

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