Source: p 82 Middle, Ethics: A Very Short Introduction (2001) by Simon Blackburn.

There is something a bit deflating about Bentham’s picture. It suggests a life of monotonous hedonism, fit only for pigs. Yet surely ‘better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’. This criticism can be deflected, however. Bentham’s follower John Stuart Mill (1806– 73) argued that it is the critic who insinuates that human beings are no better than pigs. For it is the critic who claims that our only pleasures are those of animal sensation. A more optimistic picture reminds us of the pleasures of friendship, achievement, art, music, Socratic conversation, and discovery. [1.] Mill had the somewhat Victorian view that people who have sampled these higher pleasures inevitably prefer them. [End of 1.] He ought to have said that this just meant they were more pleasurable, but he muddied the waters by introducing the different dimension of the ‘quality’ of pleasure. This betrays Bentham by introducing some other source of value than pleasure itself, as if having said that price is the only measure of the merit of a painting, you go on to say that some expensive paintings are of less merit than cheaper ones. Bentham himself could only allow a notion of the ‘quality’ of pleasure insofar as some pleasures are midwives to yet further pleasures, whereas others trail miseries in their wake. Mill’s main point remains, though, that anybody concentrating upon happiness or pleasure can remember the indefinite variety of things in which human beings take pleasure, or the indefinite variety of things they enjoy.

I also read this blog post. Why is it reasonable to characterise Mill's view (see 1 above) as Victorian? 1 does not appear Victorian to me, because 1 does dominate and guide the education systems and (academic) parenting of Western society in 2016?

I.e.: Schools today teach, and academic parents today would likely encourage their children to pursue, the higher pleasures instead of the lower pleasures.

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    i hope my comment isn't superfulous, but a) victorian can refer to a "high moral tone", b) there's nothing peventing a victorian quality from being present today, and c) in terms of literature, rather than social values, there is i think greater decadence to it than in mill
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 1, 2017 at 22:08
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    "the somewhat Victorian view" encourages the reading MATHEMATICIAN suggests. I read it in the sentence as synonymous with "moralizing" meaning making choices between things we find noble and ignoble but without any substantial basis. ( a further support is that this is a common critique of the difference between Bentham who doesn't care how you get the pleasure and Mill who tries to avoid the criticisms this raises but doesn't explain in any objective way how we know which ones are better).
    – virmaior
    Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 10:14
  • There is the component of classical education favoured by Victorians, of Plato & Aristotle's conceptions of virtue and essentially cultural elitism
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 3, 2018 at 17:12
  • @Greek - Area 51 Proposal. New answer to your question on Mill, pleasure & Victorianism. I generally like and admire Blackburn's work but I think his passage on Mill is well below his usual standard.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Aug 4, 2018 at 16:12

3 Answers 3


I agree: the adjective Victorian is inappropriate for Mill. And not only for the reason that you pointed out. Mill can, as a matter of fact, be better described as anti Victorian! Consider the given characterization:

Mill had the somewhat Victorian view that people who have sampled these higher pleasures inevitably prefer them.

Is this a description of a Victorian view? I think not. Victorian morality is usually associated with Puritan restrictions, such as separate beaches for men and women. This Puritanism can be expressed as the view that

the lower pleasures need to be restricted, because people who have sampled them will in likelihood prefer them.

which is really the opposite from Mill's liberal, optimistic view, that

people who have sampled the higher pleasures inevitably prefer them.

Therefore, Mill's view was not Victorian, but rather anti-Victorian.

  • As an answer to this question, this equivocates. Blackburn's associations with "Victorian" are not necessarily the same as yours. Commented Jan 5, 2017 at 2:35
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    @ChristopherE My associations are irrelevant. What is relevant is the common reader's associations. And here the dictionary is instructive: "Relating to the attitudes and values of society during Queen Victoria's reign, regarded as characterized especially by prudishness and a high moral tone". Commented Jan 5, 2017 at 21:29
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    Clearly not what Blackburn means, for reasons you demonstrate! Commented Jan 5, 2017 at 22:14
  • @ChristopherE Thanks, but your comment confuses me. Do you mean that 'Ram Tobolski''s reasons and answer refute Blackburn's meaning, or that Blackburn's meaning opposes 'Ram Tobolski' 's answer above?
    – user8572
    Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 5:12
  • @Canada-Area51Proposal I mean that RT provides a common meaning for the word "Victorian," but it is clearly not Blackburn's intended meaning. You asked how Blackburn's comment could make sense. I suggest that it makes sense if you read the word Victorian in the way I described. Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 13:24

Mill's view reflects common Victorian English attitudes about the naturalness of English manners, morality, and pleasures. The world, to the Victorian mind, was full of people who had sadly never had the privilege of exposure to things that stimulate English tastes and what the English admired. Victorians were sure, however, that members of other cultures who had the natural capacity to appreciate English pleasures would immediately come to appreciate them once exposed. The reason they did things differently was a function of lack of exposure to English ways and in some cases incapacity to appreciate higher things.

A good example of this is the Fuegians who were brought back to England from South America by the Beagle voyage. They were taught to wear English clothes and eat English food in an English way and exposed to every aspect of English arts and culture and manners. The English were then shocked when the Fuegians turned out not to prefer the English customs and values to their own. It violated their strong, Empire-justifying belief that their ways were not only the best, but a further stage in the course of human progress towards perfection.

Mill, like Darwin, thought (nearly) everyone capable of higher English pleasures, and this was one reason they opposed slavery. This set them apart from some other Victorians who pointed to the apparent incapacity of members of some to appreciate English things as an important part of making their enslavement morally permissible.


So much is wrong in this quotation.

No inevitable preference

Mill nowhere says or implies that those who have experienced both kind of pleasure 'inevitably' or even invariably prefer the higher pleasures. What he actually says is this :

Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.

If only 'almost all' who have experienced both kinds of pleasure prefer [regard as more desirable] the higher, it clearly does not follow that 'people who have sampled these higher pleasures inevitably prefer them' - all people as the quote strongly implies.

Mill makes a further concesssion :

It may be objected, that many who are capable of the higher pleasures, occasionally, under the influence of temptation, postpone them to the lower. But this is quite compatible with a full appreciation of the intrinsic superiority of the higher. Men often, from infirmity of character, make their election for the nearer good, though they know it to be the less valuable; and this no less when the choice is between two bodily pleasures, than when it is between bodily and mental. They pursue sensual indulgences to the injury of health, though perfectly aware that health is the greater good. It may be further objected, that many who begin with youthful enthusiasm for everything noble, as they advance in years sink into indolence and selfishness. But I do not believe that those who undergo this very common change, voluntarily choose the lower description of pleasures in preference to the higher. I believe that before they devote themselves exclusively to the one, they have already become incapable of the other. Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favourable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access, or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying. It may be questioned whether any one who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures, ever knowingly and calmly preferred the lower; though many, in all ages, have broken down in an ineffectual attempt to combine both.

This passage explicitly recognises that persons who have experienced both kinds of pleasure can go on to prefer the lower.

Bentham and Mill

To say that Mill 'betrays Bentham' is to assume that Mill was a disciple of Bentham who was unfaithful to him in Utilitarianism (1863). As far back as 1838 Mill had put a critical distance between himself and 'the master' in his essay on Bentham, a distance increased by his highly sympathetic essay on Coleridge, a figure antipathetic to Bentham, in 1840. From the late 1830s onwards, Mill was an independent thinker and discriminator : no disciple of anybody but a robust thinker with a philosophy of his own. He did not repudiate Bentham and all his works, very far from it, but in Utilitarianism he attempted to correct Bentham's 'errors' as well as to develop his own understanding of utilitarianism .

I may be taking 'betray' too literally; Blackburn's point might be that Mill's distinction introduced an inconsistency into utiltarian hedonism. Let's follow this up in the next two sections.

Quantity of pleasure

Bentham's hedonism assumes that pleasures can be measured. This is the basis of his quantitative view of pleasure and of his project for a felicific calculus. He believes that pleasures - and pains - come in units to which a numerical value, or something approximating to it, can be assigned : pleasures and pains can be given weights, and the value of different actions and their consequences measured in terms of such weights. The weight or quantity of a pleasure or pain is determined by two factors : intensity and duration. (Other factors such as certainty, fecundity, propinquity and 'purity' are also relevant in decision-making but the quantity of pleasure is a matter only of intensity and duration.)

How realistic the prospect of Benthamite calculations of units of pleasure actually is, I leave you to decide.

Quality of pleasure

One of Mill's central points is that :

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.

Mill does not reject the idea of quantity of pleasure; nor does he hold that quality of pleasure always trumps quantity. He says merely that quality is to be taken into account as well as quantity; and that a pleasure of higher quality will generally be preferred to one of lower quality by those who have experienced both. He sees himself as remedying a deficiency in how pleasure is conceived and how hedonism is to be understood.

That quality does not always trump quantity the following situation makes clear:

Suppose you wanted to derive a conclusion about the relative quality of two wines from the choice (rather than, say, the proclamations) of experts. The experts prefer high quality wine to low quality wine, and more of either to less, other things being equal. It can further be assumed that in the right conditions the experts' choices will reflect these preferences. So if between two bottles of wines X and Y that do not differ in volume the experts choose wine X, we have reason to believe that it is of higher quality. To appeal to wine X's higher quality is the most natural way of explaining the choice, as by assumption all other things are equal. However, if there is more of the low quality wine Y the experts might also choose that - provided they believe the gain in overall quantity to offset the lower quality of the wine. Thus if there is more of some wine than of the other, and an expert chooses the wine available in larger quantity, not much definite information as to the wines' relative quality is conveyed. (Christoph Schmidt-Petri, 'Mill on Quality and Quantity', The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), Vol. 53, No. 210 (Jan., 2003), pp. 102-104 : 103.)

This situation is not one that Mill himself describes but it is fully in line with the text of Utilitarianism.

Higher pleasures

The terminology here is 'Victorian', reminiscent of Matthew Arnold's normative stress on culture as the 'best knowledge and thought of the time' which has seemed to many a model of elitism. But Mill's concept of higher pleasures can be expressed without Victorian priggishness. He is thinking, for instance, of the lifetime of undiminished pleasure that one can derive from reading, or seeing, Shakespeare's plays as against the pleasure of drinking a bottle of fine wine every night. He is not saying that you should not drink the wine; he is simply pointing out that reading Shakespeare will produce pleasures of imagination, reflection, a sense of the expressive power of language and so forth with which a bottle of wine, drunk and forgotten, cannot compete. Nor need we appeal to Shakespeare; in our own day Mill could offer any number of films, street theatres, performance poetry events, novels, and adventure holidays, that permanently stimulate the mind long after we have seen or read them.


J.S, Mill, Utilitarianism, 1863 : http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11224/11224-h/11224-h.htm.

Christoph Schmidt-Petri, 'Mill on Quality and Quantity', The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), Vol. 53, No. 210 (Jan., 2003), pp. 102-104 : 103.

Roger Crisp, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism (Routledge Philosophy Guidebooks). ISBN 10: 0415109787 / ISBN 13: 9780415109789 Published by Routledge, 1997 : 28-42.

Wendy Donner, 'Mill's Utiltarianism', The Cambridge Companion to Mill, ed. John Skorupski, ISBN 10: 0521422116 / ISBN 13: 9780521422116 Published by Cambridge University Press 1998-01-13, Cambridge, 1998 : 255-92.

Geoffrey Thomas, An Introduction to Ethics: Five Central Problems of Moral Judgement, ISBN 10: 0715624318 / ISBN 13: 9780715624319 Published by Duckworth, London, UK, 1993 : 67-8.

Warnock, Mary (ed), UTILITARIANISM AND ON LIBERTY Including Mill's 'Essay on Bentham' and Selections from the Writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin, ISBN 10: 0631233520 / ISBN 13: 9780631233527 Published by Blackwell, 2003.

Matthew Arnold, 'Culture and Anarchy' and Other Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought), ISBN 10: 052137796X / ISBN 13: 9780521377966 Published by Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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