Saturday, October 15, 2011

Competent Judges

I always forget how hard it is to teach J.S. Mill on "quality" until I'm in the middle of class. Hard because it's not clear at all what "quality" is. (That always makes me think about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.)

However, I had a little breakthrough in thinking about who counts as a "competent judge" in questions about which of two pleasures is higher. Mill says, as you will recall:
If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. 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.
Many students take all this to mean that the higher pleasure of any two is the one that most people prefer, but this way of putting is it misleading, I think. What I've probably not ever stressed enough is that Mill's point is that in order to be a competent judge, you have to have experienced the pleasure of both kinds. So, if you never got pleasure from reading Shakespeare, you're not a competent judge of the pleasure of reading Shakespeare. Ditto for NASCAR, Mozart, heroin, and the rest.

Stressing this seems to make Mill's point more interesting, and makes clearer, I think, why it isn't just elitist posturing. (Because someone who has never taken pleasure in a NASCAR event is not a competent judge of the pleasure of watching NASCAR.)

This is perhaps an obvious point about reading Mill, but it's one that I, at least, have found easy to overlook. I think this is because Mill isn't just saying, "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it"--which is something we've all heard before, and close to what Mill is saying--but something quite different. Roughly: "Don't knock it 'til you've cultivated an ability to take pleasure in it and done so"--which is different from "trying it," since you might try something and just take no pleasure in it. And that could just be an odd fact about you.


  1. I wonder what exactly counts as a feeling of moral obligation to prefer something. Take Shakespeare, for instance. Many people surely feel that they ought to like Shakespeare. Does this count as a feeling of moral obligation? I'm sure some people feel a social obligation (peer pressure) to like NASCAR too. Is that the same thing? I doubt that such peer pressure would count as moral in Mill's book, but I'm not sure whether it is really different from the pressure to like Shakespeare (which seems as though it might be considered a kind of moral obligation).

    Other things that bother me about Mill's idea (which I mostly like): is there such a thing as the pleasure of reading Shakespeare or watching NASCAR. Some people enjoy NASCAR because they gamble on the races. Some hope to see a crash. Some like the cars. Some have a favorite driver they root for. Etc. Which, if any, of these, or which combination of these, is the pleasure of watching NASCAR? And how can we be sure that the Shakespeare-loving minority of NASCAR fans (and vice versa) like about NASCAR what the rest of its fans like about it?

    I tend to think that here, as elsewhere, Mill wants to embrace empiricism but can't quite manage to make it fit with his moral and aesthetic judgments.

  2. is there such a thing as the pleasure of reading Shakespeare or watching NASCAR[?]

    Right. Your examples clarify that there are a lot of different possible pleasures up for grabs in going to a NASCAR event.

    In my class, I tried to get students to think about what Mill might mean by having them look at the list of different kinds of pleasures that Bentham enumerates--including things like the pleasure of sense, of a good name, of amity, of benevolence, and of malevolence--and to consider what Mill's ideas about quality might imply in terms of ranking these. To think about it this way is different from thinking about it in terms of Shakespeare vs NASCAR (both of which could possibly supply higher intellectual pleasures). I sometimes suggest--though I don't know how Mill would find this--that perhaps some sensual pleasures can be elevated to a higher quality status when the pleasure taken involves intellect and/or imagination, as when someone uses their skills as a connoisseur to appreciate, say, a fine wine. And there may also be elements having to do with being part of a community--or sharing the experience with others--that tend to make this a complex kind of pleasure.

    I suppose what Mill could mean by the feeling of moral obligation is feeling pressure to say that one prefers A over B although one hasn't ever experienced any pleasure in connection with A. Which is to say that I think what you say is probably about right.

  3. i was exercised by this when i was an undergrad because (if i remember correctly) i was given a more elitist reading of the passage, and at the time i was very bothered by the general dismissiveness in the academy toward anything 'popular' or 'low'. it didn't seem to me like most of the people supposed to be qualified judges (because of their approval of higher pleasures) were actually qualified to make comparisons (because of their utter lack of experience with lower pleasures).

    might have put me off ethics for years!

  4. j.--yeah.

    I was talking to a colleague about Mill today, and it seemed like one problem with reading Mill this way is that there could be all kinds of "evil" pleasures (or just really risky ones, like trying heroin) about which normal people aren't competent judges, and one might argue that anyone who takes pleasures in such things (like kicking a baby) isn't a competent (moral) judge at all.

    But maybe the answer is roughly that even if those pleasures might be exquisite, the consequences of those actions are so terrible as to rule out the permissibility of doing the things to get those pleasures. Or put another way: we only need to make the distinction between higher and lower pleasures when making decisions about what pleasures to pursue amongst the class of pleasures that are already at least morally permissible to pursue (given the actions that must be done to get them).

    Does that sound plausible (even if overwrought...)?