John Stuart Mill and "ordinal" utility

By Clay Shentup

We can easily see that Crisp's attempt to save Mill's ideas by demanding "ordinal" utilities, are faulty. Consider a simple "random draw" experiment where we have three options A, B, and C – where your ordered preferences are C > B > A. One hat has A and C, and another has just B. Which hat do you randomly draw from, given the choice? Well, that depends strictly on the difference in utility between A and B, and B and C. If the utility of C-B is less than the utility of B-A, then you should pick the second hat, otherwise the first. This situation "calls Mill's bluff." Ordinal utilities just aren't good enough to allow people to make real decisions like this, and since people can and do make such decisions all the time, ordinal utilities evidently aren't what people use.

We base this claim on the following passage from Wikipedia:

Ordinal utility theory states that while the utility of a particular good and service cannot be measured using an objective scale, a consumer is capable of ranking different alternatives available.

And from the Online Notes on Political Philosophy by Heidi Matisonn at the University of Cape Town, italics added by us:

Mill constantly refers to the higher pleasures as being those which manifest the elevated capacities of human intellect and creativity. Indeed he largely contrasts the higher pleasures with sensual pleasures. Human beings are certainly capable of desiring far more than mere sensual gratification. Even if we exclude the idea that many ascetic religions may have taught us to unduly despise the body and its pleasures, we can still see that throughout history accounts of human flourishing have involved more than sensuality or material gratification. Many human purposes and goals involve considerable hardship and sacrifice yet they remain human goods...

More recently a number of sympathetic philosophers have tried to make sense of Mill's argument in a way that does not do violence to his texts but also does not reduce Mill to making a foolish mistake. In two recent studies Roger Crisp and Jonathan Riley have offered differing interpretations of Mill's argument.

For Crisp, Mill departs from the monistic utilitarianism of Bentham and is genuine in his account of a distinction between classes of pleasure which do not merely result in differences of intensity and duration of pleasureableness. How does the argument work? Crisp suggests that Mill abandons the idea of full cardinality between pleasures, – this is the view that it is not merely possible to say that poetry is better than pub games, but it is also possible to give some measure of how much more valuable poetry is than pub games. Instead, Mill operates merely with an ordinal ranking of pleasures – which is to say that poetry is better than pushpin, but without being able to say by how much. What explains the difference between types of pleasure is not merely the dimensions of intensity and duration – that the intellectual pleasures are more intense and long lasting than the intense but fleeting pleasures of the flesh – but rather the intrinsic character of the pleasures themselves. But this seems to beg the question for what makes the intrinsic character of a higher pleasure superior to that of a lower pleasure. If it is not intensity and duration then it seems that Mill is introducing a standard other than pleasure and as such he is not revising but rather abandoning hedonism. Mill's argument for the reality of the qualitative distinction between higher and lower pleasures proceeds by the introduction of moral experts or those who having experienced both of two pleasures, one higher and one lower, would not give up the higher pleasure for any amount of the lower. Such experts raise a number of questions, not least of which is whether there are such people. What Mill's argument does illustrate is that what distinguishes the higher and lower pleasures is some experiential feature other than intensity and duration. Crisp goes on to suggest that this experienceable intrinsic nature does not need to be cashed out in terms of some quantity of value but can itself be an irreducible dimension of value. He draws a parallel with Bentham's attitude to the value of pleasure itself. For Bentham, pleasure just is the criterion of value, there is nothing further in virtue of which pleasure can be identified as valuable. In a similar way Crisp suggests the intrinsic nature of a pleasure is also a brute fact – it is simply a fact that someone experiencing the intrinsic nature of a certain higher pleasure will value it higher than a lower pleasure. Thus within the individual life of an experienced observer the value of a higher pleasure is just recognised as being more valuable, but that difference in value cannot be reduced to some finite sum of a fungible quality.

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