John Stuart Mill: Qualitative Hedonism

Pleasure is an essential factor for our well-being. However, are all pleasures the same? Do they all contribute in the same way to making us feel good? John Stuart Mills proposed a theory to guide us in the search for happiness.
John Stuart Mill: Qualitative Hedonism
Matias Rizzuto

Written and verified by the philosopher Matias Rizzuto.

Last update: 14 March, 2023

John Stuart Mill maintained that happiness and well-being are possible through the maximization of pleasure. His thoughts were a direct continuation of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism. However, Mill proposed a new approach, one in which quality matters more than quantity.

Mill sought to overcome the prejudices of utilitarianism. By adopting a  more sophisticated approach to human psychology, he tried to establish the foundations of true happiness.

Woman experiencing pleasure, representing the ideas of John Stuart Mill
Pleasure is a means of achieving happiness.

Pleasure and happiness

Questions about happiness practically force us to establish criteria to define elements that we consider to be valuable. In moral philosophy, this is called value theory. The theory of value in utilitarianism is hedonism. Hedonism maintains that happiness is attainable through the addition of pleasure and the reduction of pain.

The word, hedonism, derives from the ancient Greek hedoné. Indeed, the first person to develop a hedonistic theory was Epicurus, around the year 300 BC. At the beginning of the 19th century, Jeremy Bentham returned to this concept and renewed its theoretical force.

Bentham argued that “Nature has placed mankind under the rule of two sovereign masters: pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do”. From this viewpoint, all our decisions are based on the search for pleasant experiences and the escape from painful ones.

Different characteristics of pleasure

Bentham established a series of criteria to measure the amount of pleasure or pain that actions may generate. They’re as follows:

  • Intensity- strong or weak.
  • Duration -long or short.
  • Certainty or uncertainty.
  • Propinquity or remoteness.
  • Fecundity (fruitfulness).
  • Purity
  • Extent.

All these characteristics respond to the pleasure and pain experienced by individuals, except extent. This implies the number of people affected by an action. From Bentham’s perspective, the value of pleasure is determined by its intensity, duration, or ability to be followed by other pleasures or displeasures.

The sum of pleasure and its reduction

For Bentham, the sum of pleasure was important. For instance, he believed the more pleasure we get, the happier we are. However, if we get a great deal of the same kind of pleasure, its intensity will tend to decrease.

For example, if you love chocolate, you’ll enjoy savoring a small piece. However, if you continue to eat it, the happiness you obtain will decrease. In fact, if you consume a kilo, you’ll start to feel uncomfortable.

Therefore, pleasure tends to decrease as it accumulates, eventually generating a negative feeling. This phenomenon is known as diminishing marginal utility. It’s a term that’s widely used in the field of economics to explain the diminishing benefit of accumulated goods.

Quality is more important than quantity

Many have criticized the search for happiness through pleasure because they believe it suggests a surrender to vice and debauchery. John Stuart Mill proposed a new approach known as qualitative hedonism. It claims that the quantity of pleasure doesn’t matter, but the quality does. In fact, Mill distinguished two classes of pleasure, those of the body and those of the mind.

He claimed that the pleasures of the mind are associated with the enjoyment of intellectual activities. For example, reading, music, and poetry. Also included was the satisfaction produced by friendship and virtuous actions. For Mill, the pleasures of the mind were superior to those of the body. Faced with criticism from those who said that hedonists proposed to behave like pigs, Mill responded:

“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. The other party to the comparison knows both sides”. In other words, there’s no amount of bodily pleasure that can equal intellectual pleasure. There’s no amount of chocolate that can match the pleasure generated by a good work of art, or by having a good time with friends.

The pleasure generated by the cultivation of art and aesthetic contemplation increases our happiness and well-being.

Education in pleasure is essential

John Stuart Mill proposed the necessity for an individual to experience the most varied range of pleasures in order to be able to properly judge which ones are the highest. However, he claimed that many lose their intellectual aspirations and tastes because they don’t have the time or opportunity to cultivate and dedicate themselves to them.

As a result, Mill saw education as a fundamental engine for the development of humanity as a whole. He believed that, only through the cultivation of mental faculties, can human beings aspire to the realization of the highest pleasures. For this reason, Mill was a fervent advocate of free education. In fact, it could be said that his attempts to democratize the Enlightenment made this kind of learning available to everyone.

Woman with light in her mind
Stuart Mill recognized a spiritual dimension in the human being.

The spiritual dimension of the human being

In effect, Mill recognized a broader and more influential moral dimension than Bentham. According to his vision, we have the capacity to pursue spiritual perfection as a goal and it can bring us more happiness than any bodily pleasure. Mill believed that we have the ability to rise above the animal condition and the reactive conditioning of our common desires. This means we can orient ourselves toward the products of the intellect and the arts, and the cultivation of virtue.

Therefore, John Stuart Mill believed that virtuous ways of acting, friendship, and the cultivation of art give us greater peace and tranquility and lead us to greater personal well-being. What do you think? Do you think it’s better to be a satisfied pig or a dissatisfied Socrates?

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Bentham, J. (2008). Los principios de la moral y la legislación. Editorial Claridad.
  • Mill, J. S. (2019). El utilitarismo. Alianza Editorial.
  • Trujano Ruiz, M. M. (2013). Del hedonismo y las felicidades efímeras. Sociológica (México)28(79), 79-109.

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