John Stuart Mill famously said:

It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognise the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.

Similarly Aristotle, the Epicureans, and Nietzsche, among others considered some pursuits to be better or nobler than other.

But then how does one determine this value? Consider a recent argument between two of my acquaintances over their respective occupations: The first was very proud of his high paying job as a software developer at Amazon, until the other, who was an academic sociologist making a modest salary, criticized him for doing nothing other than working for a "glorified Walmart".

Similarly, we might think that our discussions here on the Philosophy SE are of more interest or value than the discussions on the SiFi and Fantasy SE, but seen from the outside (by an intelligent but otherwise uninformed observer) a lot of the posts seems very similar: complicated discussions of the ideas and plots of the work of a certain set of authors.

If Mill and the other above mentioned authors are right, than how can one determine which pursuits are better than others? How is the value of a pursuit determined other than by one's own personal preferences and cultural background? Why is running the SEP website a more noble pursuit than running a porn website or 4chan? Have Mill or the others addressed this?

  • "The value gained from different pleasures is impossible to compare. Not being able to compare different types of pleasure results in being unable to say if a life is better than another in most even vaguely realistic cases... not being able to compare lives means that Quantitative Hedonism could not be usefully used to guide behavior..." iep.utm.edu/hedonism/#SH5c I wouldn't worry about Mill on ethics, his problem is not even with not being right, but with not making sense.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jul 23, 2016 at 1:50
  • @Conifold Are you endorsing the quoted passage and saying Mill makes no sense when he wants to compare different pleasures? I really don't know if there is a good way to do it, but I don't think it is absurd for him to say you can. Commented Jul 23, 2016 at 9:23
  • @Colin I think Mill's problems in ethics mirror problems in his epistemology. To assess "pleasure" adequately you need to assess its implications and consequences, but no single action has implications and consequences all to itself. What about other things that shape them, how far out do we go, etc.? So the pleasure criterion of hedonistic utilitarianism suffers from the same fatal flaw as atomistic empiricism, it attempts to assign a measure to actions individually, whereas they only acquire it holistically. In epistemology this was largely abandoned since 1950s.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 21:02
  • Does this question not come down to ethics and the problem of good and evil?
    – nir
    Commented Jul 26, 2016 at 7:25
  • @Conifold We agree about the epistemology but I don't see that it ruins his ethics. Mill said the principle of utility is the definition of good, but is not meant as a practical test in most cases. Today atomic number defines elements, but most people don't even know that, and those who do know it rarely apply it directly to tell what something is made of. Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 3:09

3 Answers 3


First off, why does Mill make this claim? Historically, Mill makes this claim to avoid an objection to Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism. Bentham views all pleasures as equal so if you get more pleasure from drinking yourself silly and passing out on the street than from reading philosophy, then on Bentham's view, the former action adds more pleasure and winds up being superior. That's a problematic outcome. The same problem repeats itself in modern discussions of Utilitarianism with Robert Nozick's Utility Monster.

Second, does Mill make a good argument for this claim? I don't find a convincing one in Mill's Utilitarianism even though I'm pretty convinced that pleasures differ not just in degree but also in kind and whether or not we should pursue them. Mill's claim that if you tried both you'd clearly pick the more noble is dubious on some many levels. First, there seem to be plenty of counterexamples where people who have tasted supposedly finer pleasures ruin their lives with baser ones. Second, as Aristotle suggests in NE Book II, it may be that case that some peoples attunement with reference to pleasure and pain is off and they take delight in things that are wrong.

One way to get objective accounts of the nobility of pleasures (or at least ostensibly objective ones) is to move to an Aristotelian picture where pleasures that best express the excellence of that kind of being are more noble than those that degrade it. For instance, humans as rational animals on this picture are at their best when using their reason either to contemplate things or to manage their more primal drives; they are at their worst when controlled by say a desire for food or sex. But this moves comes at the price of accepting an account of essences many find distasteful (and/or accepting an account of natural law).


First, keep in mind that the question of whether life as a professor affords a higher kind of pleasure than life as a programmer or a pornographer is one question. A different one is to ask which is better for the world at large -- and thus which you ought to do as a utilitarian. The more I read your question the less sure I am which you are asking about.

As Luis Henrique says in a comment, Mill believed that over time people tend to prefer for their own lives to also benefit others. But Mill was very clear that people very often gain their own pleasure at other's expense (hideously often in his estimate, see Mill and Taylor On the Subjection of Women, and Mill's essay on ex-slaves cited below).

They might do this inadvertently, of course, for the very reason that several people are stressing on this page: it is hard enough to guess which of your acts would make you happiest, and judging how each act would affect everyone in the word is far harder. They are different questions to say the least.

Further Mill was entirely clear that many people quite deliberately gain from the suffering of others. See his https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044092641992;view=1up;seq=33 on slavery and official British policy on ex-slaves in the West Indies. He says:

The history of human improvement is the record of a struggle by which inch after inch of ground has been wrung from these maleficent powers.

I cannot call that essay naive.

So, as to your question, it could well be that one job is more pleasant for the person living it, and the other produces more pleasure for people at large. But, yes, for utilitarians pleasure for people as a whole does come down to the pleasures of the many individual people, so the utilitarian also has to deal with the question of how to compare each individual's pleasures.

Mill discussed the principles of this in his fine essay Utilitarianism. To judge which of two pursuits is better, ask the people who know both. He was entirely sure that refined pleasures will win:

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.

Of course Mill did not mean just go ask one person who knows both, and believe their answer. The essay offers this as the principle of how to decide, but the particulars will be different in different cases, and the essay is not meant to be exhaustive of utilitarian thinking.

Has your programmer friend spent a lot of time among professors, or your professor friend among programmers? I can say that one group of high paid consultants I met, who had been professors, was entirely unwilling to believe anyone would consider leaving the professoriat for any reason other than being denied tenure. That told me, what they did not explicitly say, that they considered teaching a better pleasure than their salaries. In Mill's terms: they seemed to feel it is better to be a professor dissatisfied than a consultant satisfied.

I would bet that some utilitarian philosophers, and some psychologists and sociologists, have pursued the question making use of empirical data. But I do not know about that and I hope someone here does know.

Self-reports of happiness in different countries, or professions, or social groups are not much to the point of this question. That standard is designed so that if the population has two pigs for each Socrates, pig pleasures will dominate the results.

  • "That told me, what they did not explicitly say, that they considered teaching a better pleasure than their salaries." However, while the pleasure we get in and of our labour is an important thing, labour isn't the only pleasure source in our lives. One might consider teaching a higher pleasure than doing whatever consultants do, but also consider that the difference in pay allows for a plethora of other pleasures that must be taken into account. Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 12:23
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    "First, keep in mind that the question of whether life as a professor affords a higher kind of pleasure than life as a programmer or a pornographer is one question. A different one is to ask which is better for the world at large -- and thus which you ought to do as a utilitarian." But the core problem of utilitarianism - at least in Mills' version - is that it identifies both questions. Supposedly, everyone, or at least the vast majority of human beings, will "naturally" have more pleasure doing what is better for the world at large. This is, I fear, a hopelessly naïve position. Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 12:28
  • @LuísHenrique No, Mill is very clear that you could be selfish and please yourself at other's expense. It is morally wrong according to him, but he saw that moral wrong exists in the world. He believed it was terribly common in real life. Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 22:15
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    @LuísHenrique You are agreeing with my point about the plethora of pleasures. Those consultants, who had left teaching themselves and now made lots of money, believed no one would voluntarily do that. They believed only a professor denied tenure would even consider going into their line of work. They spoke as if their plethora of pleasures is less attractive than the often frustrating world of professors. Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 2:16

I suppose that not only Aristotle, the Epicureans, and Nietzsche, considered some "pursuits to be better or nobler than other" pursuits - but that most people in full hold of their senses (read: everybody except Bentham) can see that there is more merit in winning a game of chess, or soccer, than in winning a spitting championship or a drinking contest - even if no one can "objectively" explain what this difference is.

As virmaior says, Mills tries to compatibilise Bentham's utilitarianism with common sense (if we can call "common sense" a very 18 century-ish belief in human natural goodness), and he fails.

To my opinion, Mills failure is due to the fact that utilitarianism is utterly incompatible with common sense: we do not live counting unities of "utility", and we could not live doing it: at the time that we would be able to compute the incommensurable possible outcomes of our actions in terms of "utility", the time for our effective action would have passed. For a few eons, I would say. The impossibility of "objectively" measuring something that is "subjective" almost by definition, such as "utility", thence, is a relatively small part of the problems of a philosophical "tendency" that is far more problematic than that.

From a different perspective, I fear that the utilitarian problems with objectivity/subjectivity cannot be addressed without cutting the Gordian knot of utilitarian philosophy with Marx's razor as posited in the Eight Thesis on Feuerbach:

All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.

Utilitarianism relies on the belief that not only social life is not essentially practical, but that human life is not essentially social. Thence intellectual exercises in foolishness such as

In a hospital there are four dying men. Each could be saved by a transplant of a different organ, but no donors are available. In the hospital waiting room is a healthy man who, if we killed him, could provide the requisite organ to each dying patient, thereby saving four lives for the price of one. Is it morally right to kill the healthy man and harvest his organs? - Richard Dawkins

Of course, one would answer, if we want people to go to hospitals when they feel sick, Dr. Dawkins' idea is a very bad one. But then we would have to realise how a hospital works in social practice, which is difficult when we do not want to recognise the existence of a social practice that isn't the mere sum of individual, egotistic decisions - or, on the opposite side of error, that isn't a totalising abstraction that negates the individual necessities and contributions that compose the fabric of social reality (everybody should lose their jobs for the greater good of the "economy", people are suffering horribly but this is no problem because the country is on the right track, etc).

To that extent, I fear that the disjunction between "objective" and "subjective" is part of the problem. Most social interactions do not belong to either category; they are firmly "intersubjective" and cannot be understood under the usual binary. Similarly, the discussion on the nobility or "value" of individual behaviour cannot be framed under the category of "objectivity" without resource to some hypostasised "common good", or left on the grounds of "subjective" individualism without negating the very ground on which ethics stands, which is social life. The "objective" reality of social practice only exists as it is daily and mundanely built by our social relations, and the question isn't how to get rid of those social relations, nor how to satisfy those social relations at the expense of our individual sacrifices, but how to build social relations that enhance the life of individuals.

That would, in a simplistic reduction, be the distinction between higher and lower "pursuits": those that help building social relations conducive to happy individual lives are superior to those that help destroying social relations, or help building oppressive social relations.

  • It going to take me a while to unpack "All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice." Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 18:08

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