Saturday, August 21, 2010

Two Forms of Lexical Priority

J.S. Mill famously held that 'higher pleasures' are lexically prior to 'lower pleasures' in the utilitarian calculus. ("Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures...") But distinguish two versions of this view:*

(1) Weak (global) lexical priority: No amount of lower pleasures can compensate for the total lack of higher pleasures. (Better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, and all that.)

(2) Strong (local) lexical priority: Whenever one has a choice between additional higher or lower pleasures, one should always prefer the higher pleasure, no matter the relative quantities on offer. (That is: choose quality over quantity, without exception.)

The weaker version of the view seems much more plausible. (After all, isn't Mill right that few of us would look kindly on the prospect of being turned into a pig, no matter how blissful the pig might feel?) The stronger version is less so: as pointed out in lectures, it seems absurd to think that an extra moment of philosophizing would always outweigh the pleasure of relaxing on a lazy Sunday morning. But then, is there actually anything in Mill to suggest that he held the stronger view?
* Thanks to Helen for this idea.


  1. I think we'd not look kindly on the prospect of being turned in to a pig because it would involve being turned in to a pig. On the other hand I think quite a lot of people would look favourably on the idea of sacrificing all higher pleasure for lots of lower pleasure.

    This suspicion is even more forceful if we factor in pain. Is it really true to say that someone in extreme pain would not trade their place with a blissful moron just to retain the capacity for higher pleasure?

  2. Note that, as stated, the lexical view merely gives priority to higher pleasures over lower pleasures. It does not imply that they also have lexical priority over the relief of ('lower'?) pain. So that objection seems mis-targeted.

    I'm puzzled by your first paragraph. It's not as though anyone rational would just have a brute, inexplicable aversion to being a pig. We instead respond to the features in virtue of which a pig-life is undesirable -- the lack of rationality, love, etc. (Or do you really think that people would be just as happy to have a pig-quality mind in their human body, so long as they weren't literally a pig? I'm reminded of this old post on the irrational essentializing of ordinary preferences.)

  3. I've never understood why there are people who read Mill as taking something like the stronger view; true, Mill does say,

    "If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account."

    But he doesn't say that this is true of every higher pleasure; it's entirely plausible to read this as an extreme case, or even an idealized limit case, used to make the immediate point (which is simply that it makes sense to distinguish higher and lower pleasures on the basis of something other than quantity).

    And it seems more in keeping with Mill's account generally to allow that there is a spectrum from lower to higher anyway, rather than a radical dichotomy into two groups, lower and higher. To put it another way, I think there's good reason to argue that the suffix in 'higher' and 'lower' is deliberate, and that the terms are used purely as a relative comparison, rather than as a distinction between clear-cut kinds of pleasure.

    So Mill seems to me to make claims weaker than (2). But he also seems to me to make claims stronger than (1), i.e., you don't even have to go as far as a total lack of higher pleasures in order to find that lower pleasures can't compensate for the lack of higher pleasures.

  4. The weak view has weird features as well. There still needs to be a minimum (greatest lower bound) on the number of hours of philosophizing that would outweigh any amount of lazy sunday morning. Say it is n.

    1. n-x hours of philosophizing beats up to a certain maximum number k of lazy sunday mornings.
    2. But n + x hours of philosophizing beats any finite amount of lazy sunday mornings, including k^250 lazy sunday mornings.

    And this is true for any x > 0. This is very strange, silly even. (Provided you assume that more lazy sunday mornings do genuinely make your life better. Notice I say "strange" and not "inconsistent".) Intuitively, vastly more lazy sunday mornings is significantly better than a petty 2 extra seconds of philosophizing. You could reasonably pay thousands, if not millions, of dollars to get all of those extra lazy sunday mornings. But no one could reasonably pay thousands or millions of dollars to get those extra 2x hours of philosophizing (no matter how small x is!).

  5. Thanks for responding and apologies if I'm heading off the topic this was meant to be about.

    I think the problem with the pig example is precisely that identified in the older post. We have an innate and irrational attachment to the idea of being human and a conditioned aversion to being a pig. Being a happy pig seems unattractive even though I can't personally identify a rational reason not to prefer it. I suspect this is why Mill used the pig example in the first place. If you ask people to choose between being a dissatisfied Socrates or a satisfied lion, you don't get quite the same reliability of response.

    The pain thing was mis-targeted, although presumably the avoidance of pain must fit somewhere in to these priorities even if Mill doesn't say where? Perhaps what I was really after was a more realistic example to tease out our intuitions. Some situation where we have to decide between the lot of two otherwise identical humans, one of whom has great lower but no higher pleasure and the other who has no lower but some higher pleasure. I'm not sure the choice is as clear cut as Mill makes it.

  6. PleasureAndFreedom - maybe an extreme case of Down Syndrome? (Though actual cases may not involve a total lack of 'higher pleasures' -- I don't know much about the condition -- we can at least imagine a case of such severe cognitive retardation that would fit the description.) But I take your point that 'pig' has negative connotations that may unfairly bias responses.

    Nick - fair point. Still, I can't shake the sense that there's something right about Mill's view here -- maybe something more along the lines of Brandon's suggestion of understanding strict lexical priority as a mere "idealized limit case". (Though admittedly, the vaguer we get about this, the harder it is to pin down just what claims are being made by the Millian...)

    Then again, it would seem most natural to take the minimum n to just be zero. So the thing we so value is not an "extra" two seconds of philosophizing (if "extra" is taken to imply that we've already gotten some). It is instead precisely the living of a life that contains any philosophy (love, etc.) at all. And it doesn't seem quite so crazy (to me, at least) when we put it like that.

  7. I don't think one can say that the weak view would require a greater lowest bound on the number of hours of the higher pleasure that would outweigh any (feasible) number of hours of the lower pleasure, if this is taken without qualification; when Mill is talking about quantity of pleasure, he has Bentham in mind, and Bentham includes not just duration but intensity, fecundity, certainty, propinquity, purity, and extent of people affected as factors that need to be assessed when determining quantity. So each infimum is always relative to everything else that has to be held constant for it to obtain; but change any other factor and there's a good chance that the bound would shift. 2 seconds of extra philosophizing, however high the pleasure, would tend to have a very low fecundity and extent, for instance, because it would do very little to guarantee much in the way of further pleasures beyond itself, and it would affect very few people. It's actually one of the key features of the 19th century utilitarians that they don't think you can easily disconnect pleasures from each other: pleasures lead in various ways to other pleasures, and a utilitarian has to consider not only each pleasure individually but how easily each pleasure leads to other pleasures in oneself and others.

  8. Richard: I find it absurd that for any x > 0, x seconds of philosophy is better than any finite number of lazy sunday mornings. (Saying that you have to be sitting at your desk and thinking for at least 5 minutes to count as having done philosophy does not fix this.)


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