A Simple Utilitarian Argument for Higher Pleasures

Arch-Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham controversially stated that “quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry”. Thus, if someone found immense intrinsic pleasure in counting blades of grass, we couldn’t hold it against them just because we prefer higher intellectual pleasures like reading or other “pursuits of the mind”. I agree wholeheartedly with J.S. Mill that it is impossible to conclusively establish by reason our “first principles” of valuation. I can no more justify why I seek happiness as an end in itself than  can the person who makes it his ultimate value to count all blades of grass.

What then licenses Mill to claim the higher intellectual pleasures are “more valuable” than mere pleasures of sensation? Isn’t this just elitism? Of course an elite intellectual is going to value reading philosophy and science over watching reality tv, but if someone finds more intrinsic pleasure in salivating in front of a TV over a frozen TV-dinner, who is Mill to judge? By what standard do we judge “ultimate ends”? In the end, we are left promoting values from a purely subjective perspective, for we have no choice except to value what we do in fact value and reason on the basis of those values.

But perhaps Mill was onto something. Take Bentham’s push-pin player. What if everyone in society was a devout push-pin player? From birth all anyone wants to do is play push-pin, much like Bobby Fischer’s famous remark that “All I want to do, ever, is just play chess.” This society would be radically different from ours. After all, if everyone played trivial games all day long and never bothered to learn anything, then no one would go to school to be an engineer or doctor. Without engineers and computer scientists our technological infrastructure would crumble until eventually the push-pin players couldn’t rely on the technological conveniences like supermarkets and computers to feed and entertain themselves with minimal effort. They would eventually be forced to begin hunting and gathering food in between push-pin playing, otherwise they would die of sheer starvation. The push-pin players might eventually realize that perhaps it would be good that at least some of them do things other than play push-pin so that they can have enough technology to keep a minimal segment of the population comfortable enough to devote themselves to playing push-pin all day.

The point of this thought experiment applies to all other “lower” pleasures like reality TV watching. If everyone just watched reality TV all day, no one would be able to maintain the TV-production-broadcast technological infrastructure that provides mindless pleasure to millions. Thus, people who value reality TV watching should actually desire that other people value something besides reality TV watching, otherwise there wouldn’t be technologically minded people producing the technological comforts that allow one to live comfortably watching TV and microwave meals without having to work hard to just stay alive.

Thus, the progressive accumulation of cultural and technological knowledge is predicated on the idea that the higher intellectual virtues are more valuable because the epistemic benefits of these higher intellectual virtues allows us to create a leisurely gulf between the hard facts of biological existence and our culturally acquired desires to engage in trivial but pleasurable pursuits like push-pin or television. Like Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, one could easily imagine that an ideal social utopia would consist in everyone devoted to the continual pursuit of game-playing. But that game-playing utopia would only exist on the basis of a hidden technological infrastructure that was built and maintained by people who valued something besides trivialities and sensation-seeking.



Filed under Moral Philosophy, Philosophy

3 responses to “A Simple Utilitarian Argument for Higher Pleasures

  1. Interesting, I’d never thought before about the likely interrelation between our modes of leisure and more practical concerns. I suppose it makes sense when you think about it though – some leisure activities are more closely aligned with the things we generally value in society than are others. Anyway, I’m off to play some push-pin. Thanks for the good writing!

  2. Pingback: Hidden Beads

  3. I concur that there is a pragmatic value in prioritizing higher pleasures over base pleasures. You argue this perfectly and are most certainly right that the pursuit of higher pleasures has done more to promote social welfare than my base cravings for sodium laden saturated fats, but this notion appears problematic. Seeking higher pleasures is a more efficient method of maximizing social utility than seeking base pleasures. Here, we have differentiated between the two levels, but ultimately we see this breaks down into a statement defined by comparing the quantity of happiness they generate along an extended timeline. If we continue to talk in terms of quantity we must admit Bentham is out fighting Mill.

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