Pleasures of the intellect revisited

I’m puzzled by Mill’s putative arguments that pleasures of the intellect are superior to bodily pleasures. We all remember the swine bit in Mill’s Utilitarianism. But the surrounding passage is puzzling. (For a refresher, How does Mill defend the primacy of pleasures of the intellect with respect to bodily pleasures?

Mill doesn’t – as far as I can tell – explicitly assert that superiority. Instead, he surveys a few sources of evidence and notes that, with respect to each of them, it would seem, at first blush, that pleasures of the intellect are, indeed, superior, to bodily pleasures. But if it turned out otherwise, Mill the empiricist would – and should – defer to the preponderance of evidence.

How could eating an ice-cream be better – or worse – than reading a poem by Shakespeare? By what standards? Off the bat, they seem incommensurable. That, at least, should be common sense. So if these are, indeed, commensurable, we need some story of what makes such comparisons kosher. Clearly cardinal comparisons are off the table. But then so is the classical utilitarian strategy of placing ˝the superiority of mental over bodily pleasures chiefly in the greater permanency, safety, uncostliness, &c., of the former”.

When it comes to the impartial judges who are to do our ordinal comparisons, things get murky. When is one ˝competently acquainted” with both pleasures of the intellect and of the body? If, for instance, I read Mill’s book and am enlightened, that presumably is a lasting benefit. And if I drink a cup of coffee in the morning, that helps me function, that’s less wonderful but gets me something that reading Mill doesn’t: it helps me go through the day.

Now I agree that reading Mill can sometimes be nicer than an extra cup of coffee: but always? and nicer equals more pleasurable, in point of what I’m consciously feeling in the here and now? Surely these things will vary with the circumstances – as Mill the empiricist might agree.

I’m particularly puzzled by this bit: ˝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…”

You thoroughly enjoy your coffee-flavored ice-cream. And all the while (say, the surrounding weeks) you’re reading the Bible, or learning Latin, or going through an algebra textbook. These latter experiences could sometimes be no fun at all – they could be effortful, and it might take a lot of self-convincing to finish them. And yet, when all the work is done, the satisfaction of having gone through them, of now mastering something you knew nothing of before, of having completed an arduous task, of having persevered, or being the kind of person who gets things done and betters oneself – all these you may judge, without prompting, to be worth much more than any coffee-flavored ice-cream. You get a nice tingly feeling of having done something worthwhile.

You’ve made it: you’re one of the impartial judges. You judge your crowning achievement to be better than a delicious coffee-flavored ice-cream. In virtue of what do you make that judgment? What is it, in your lasting achievement, that makes it not just worth more – but actually be more pleasurable for you, in point of your lived conscious experience?

Sources of self-contentment are aplenty in such cases. But their summation presupposes some cardinal measure, which Mill admits isn’t always possible. So we are left relying on your conscious experiences of pleasure – intellectual sometimes, bodily at other times, mixed time and time again. And I see no reason why judgments should be uniform, across time or agents.

Maybe part of the story is that if you disagree with Mill, you’re doing it wrong. If this morning cup of coffee is so crucial and pleasurable for you that you’d prefer it, if queried, to any pre-Raphaelite painting, then your moral, aesthetic and epistemic compass must be all bonkers. I disagree, of course.