I consider myself a utilitarian and in my conception of it, happiness and suffering are distinct from pleasure and pain. I came to this conclusion by noting that I could be in pain but happy, or experience pleasure while being sad. Is a similar distinction made in mainstream philosophy? If so, how is it usually formulated?

  • The classical authors usually used something like the "common good" ultimately analyzed into "pleasure" and "happiness", but one can, in principle, choose as utility whatever one wishes, including displeasure and unhappiness. It makes no difference to how the rest of the doctrine works. In more general versions one takes multiple utilities instead of a single one, and goes for something like multicriterial optimization, that is substantially different because it allows for clashing priorities. Even broader is plain consequentialism, which dispenses with optimization altogether.
    – Conifold
    Feb 14, 2019 at 23:42

2 Answers 2


Jeremy Bentham, James Mill and the early utilitarians in general took a reductive view of happiness. Happiness 'reduces completely to a subject's balance of pleasure over displeasure: happiness is merely the condition of having a favorable balance of pleasure over displeasure' (Daniel M. Haybron, 'Happiness and Pleasure', Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 62, No. 3 (May, 2001), pp. 501-528: 502).


Some unlucky soul might, over a period of time, be depressed, despondent, beset with anxiety, "stressed out," seething with rage, overwhelmed by fear, worried sick, heartbroken, grief-stricken, lonely, in low spirits, burdened with shame, overcome with boredom, deeply dissatisfied with life, haunted by a sense of dread or by feelings of emptiness, or simply be melancholy. A more fortunate counterpart might be in high spirits, joyful, exhilarated, elated, jubilant, carefree, deeply contented, at peace, delighted with her life, or blessed with a profound sense of fulfillment or well-being. Persons of the former sort we naturally deem unhappy. Those of the latter we call happy. Indeed, these would seem to be prototypical cases of unhappiness and happiness, at least in one important sense of these expressions. Concerned parents probably have circumstances like these in mind when they inquire as to whether their children are happy. Likewise for young job seekers who worry that they may not be happy if they choose the wrong vocation. (Haybron: 501-2.)

The basic idea here is that happiness is an enduring or settled state of the subject or person. It can come to an end or be interrupted but happiness is not episodic. It is a state of significant duration in a subject's life.


The reduction of happiness to pleasure is implausible :

The most obvious problem with existing hedonistic theories is that they are too inclusive: all sorts of shallow, fleeting pleasures are made to count towards happiness. Yet such pleasures manifestly play no constitutive role in determining how happy a person is. One's enjoyment of eating crackers, hear- ing a good song, sexual intercourse, scratching an itch, solving a puzzle, playing football, and so forth need not have the slightest impact on one's level of happiness (though, of course, they may). I enjoy, get pleasure from, a cheeseburger, yet I am patently not happier thereby."' Conversely for superficial displeasures. The problem does not concern the intensity of such pleasures: an orgasm may well be intensely pleasurable, yet still fail to move one, to make one any happier (consider anonymous sex or masturbation)." Might the brief duration of the event be misleading our intuitions here? Not likely: it is not just that any particular superficial pleasure seems irrelevant. Even the whole pattern of such pleasures over time appears to be. We would certainly expect that someone who underwent an unrelenting succession of minor irritations would not be very happy at the end of it all. But this expec- tation is based not on the aggregation of particular pleasures but rather on the likely effect of these pleasures on some deeper aspect of one's psychology: one's mood, perhaps inter alia. Intuitively, the trouble seems to be that such pleasures don't reach "deeply" enough, so to speak. They just don't get to us; they flit through consciousness and that's the end of it.

This consideration alone appears to undermine any hedonistic account of which I am aware. It also demonstrates the error of equating talk of hedonic states with talk of happiness, as many commentators are wont to do. The pleasures of happiness are not the only pleasures to be had, though perhaps they are the most desirable. Perhaps some restricted form of hedonism could suffice: happiness is a matter of pleasure, but only a certain kind of pleasure-"deep" pleasure, maybe, or the Epicurean pleasures of tranquillity. (Haybron: 505-6.)

John Stuart Mill: the distinction emerges

In Utilitarianism (1863) Mill talks readily enough about pleasure and famously or notoriously distinguishes between 'higher' and 'lower' pleasures (ch.2). But he also has the idea of happiness as connected with traits 'deeply rooted in our character' (ch.3). There is the hint of a connection with Aristotle in that Mill supposes there is a kind of life proper to a human being and that this kind of life is intrinsic to happiness : 'better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied' (ch.2). I would not press the point hard but I think Mill has the inkling of happiness as predicable of the subject as having a certain character - of character as a vehicle of happiness - rather than of happiness as reducible to a succession of pleasures or balances of pleasure over pain.

Later developments in utiliarianism have superseded pleasure and happiness

Modern utilitarianism uses different bases of utility from pleasure, pain, happiness, unhappiness. Favoured now are the satisfaction of preferences (the satisfaction of more preferences, taking into account their intensity, than alternative policies - Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously: 233), the maximum prevention of harm, and other criteria of utility.


We are made up of conflicting impulses for example masochists derive pleasure from pain....That doesnt mean they derive pleasure from getting gangrene as a result of self inflicted wounds.

There is a proper balance to be found for getting the maximum pleasure from your pain. For example getting the maximum salary (or other rewards) for doing an annoying task.

Washing the dishes is annoying for me, but I get pleasure in the space gained and overall cleanliness of my kitchen. Some people wash the dishes as soon as they finish eating, some people like me wait for a week of dishes to pile up.

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