I'm trying to grasp how Mill's claim that the only good is happiness/pleasure is able to respond to Nozick's though experiment.

Humans strive for virtue and other goods only if they are associated with the natural and original tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

Most people seem to prefer not being plugged into the machine, this shows that there is something else other then pleasure that we desire.

According to Mill's it seems as though we are saying:

  1. I only seek whatever will bring me pleasure (either on it's own or
    via association)
  2. I don't want to be plugged into the machine
  3. Therefore, plugging into the machine will not bring me maximum pleasure.
  4. (By definition) A pleasure machine, maximises my amount of pleasure
  5. Therefore, plugging into the machine will bring me pleasure.

We seem to arrive at a logical contradiction at (3) and (5)

Now, the way I see it we can claim that truth is a good other than pleasure, defeating Mill's proof.

On the other hand, if we take truth to be a component of pleasure, Mill's deduction is able to stand insomuch as us being plugged into the machine would be lacking truth, therefore lacking pleasure.

However, isn't to claim that "being plugged into a pleasure maximising machine does not maximise pleasure" a paradox?

Even allowing for people to know that they are inside a machine, and also allowing them to design their own experiences seems not to be sufficient for people to plug in. Does this mean that truth is indeed not a component of pleasure/happiness, but a thing in itself that we don't see as a means to an end, but as and end in itself?

  • 2
    I am having hard time following the question. Nozick used his pleasure machine to argue that pleasure is not the only good. If you add to his premises Mill's thesis that pleasure is the only good then why are you surprised at getting a contradiction? The argument you ascribe to Mill in the OP (where does it come from?) makes the pleasure machine itself incoherent in the same way as the ordinal of all ordinals (Burali-Forti paradox): we are assuming both that it maximizes pleasure, and that we can still increase it after that by "wanting" it. Remove that and 3 does not follow.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 19:17

2 Answers 2


Excellent question. J.S. Mill regarded the Greatest Happiness Principle as the moral truth. The principle states that "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness." Mill then equated happiness with pleasure, following Benthamite tradition. After all, both Bentham and Mill are called utilitarians. This equation however causes a lot of confusion to many readers thereafter.

Mill uses 'pleasure' differently from Bentham. To Bentham, 'pleasure' refers to sense-perceptional, mental states. For example, a beer lover can obtain such a mental state when he tastes Stone Ruination. Bentham's idea of pleasure then is similar to Nozick's pleasure of the Pleasure Machine. To Mill, this idea of pleasure is swine's pleasure since animals can equally have sensation-related pleasures. Mill maintained that human pleasures obtain when human beings exercise human specific faculties (e.g., reasoning ability). Mill uses writing a poem, acting virtuously and justly, or philosophiizing as an example for the human (higher) pleasure. According to him, this human pleasure is absolutely better than the animal pleasure. This is why Mill said that he would rather be an idiot than a pig, and an unhappy Socrates than a happy idiot.

The distinction of higher pleasures and lower pleasures by Mill is the key to refute your proposed claim that Mill arrived at a contradiction or a paradox. Mill will not accept the line 4 of your 'proof,'

  1. (By definition) A pleasure machine, maximises my amount of pleasure.

To Mill, the pleasure machine cannot maximize pleasures since they are made out of lower (swine) pleasures.

  • 1
    Thanks for your answer. But, for the sake of argument, say this machine can run a pleasure maximisation program that accounts for both higher and lower pleasures. Optimal Net Pleasure will be a necessary condition for a being inside it. What I'm trying to understand is how Mill is able to claim that happiness is the only think we strive for in his famous 3 step 'proof'. Would people knowingly prefer the machine's optimal life(without the objective reality factor) to a less pleasurable live within reality?
    – Scb
    Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 2:40
  • Excellent rejoinder! I took a seminar course on Mill with Professors Brink and Arneson. The two professors disagree on their interpretations of Mill's view of pleasure. Professor Arneson espouses a hybrid view that both writing a poem and eating a scrumptious burger must be worthy pleasures to Mill. Not to Professor Brink. To him, Mill valued only the higher pleasures, which the Professor identified as activities (never mental states), which cannot be simulated by the Machine. Check out his SEP piece on Mill. Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 16:41

What is happiness or pleasure???

Depending on the answer, you question can be either meaningful or meaningless. Philosophers have offered at least four different answers.

  1. happiness = hedonistic pleasures

Problem: Those who seek these pleasures eventually became unhappy. too much gluttony leads to health problems.

  1. happiness = desire satisfaction

Problem: The Midas got unhappy despite the realization of his wish.

  1. happiness = (intellectual, virtuous, high brow) activities (e.g., Aristotle, Brink)

Problem: "Rick and Morty" is more fun than an opera.

  1. happiness = the possession of objectively valuable things like love, knowledge, health, wealth and beauty (e.g., Arneson)

Problem: a spoiled brat who has everything still is unhappy

Philosophers are still in debate. Until we know what happiness is constitutive of, we cannot build a pleasure machine.

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