Dale Miller’s recent post on Mill’s theory of value (and subsequent discussion) was quite enlightening. And it set me thinkin’ about qualitative hedonism and perfectionism, and in particular the relationship between them. During our previous discussion, we appeared to be treating “Mill is a hedonist” and “Mill is a perfectionist” as mutually exclusive (or, at least, I was). I wonder if this isn’t a mistake. And I wonder if it isn’t possible to read one of Mill’s sentimentalist forbears, viz., David Hume, as a person who holds both views. (Sorry, this post might be a little long. And sorry also if it reads like a collection of notes scribbled on a napkin; basically, it is.)
I don’t mean to be advancing a particular account per se, of Hume’s theory of well-being. Rather, I’m trying a view on for size. But, it seems to me, this view looks good on the rack, if not on Hume. And I wonder, if it looks good on Hume, if it mightn’t look good on Mill, also. (Upshot: this will be really sketchy and probably the wrong way to read all philosophers concerned. These are all REALLY big “ifs”.)
Qualitative hedonism, roughly speaking, is the view that pleasure is good, pain bad, but that certain pleasures or forms of pleasure are better, perhaps even strongly better, than other forms of pleasure. At first glance, Mill’s higher pleasures doctrine reads like an account of qualitative hedonism: the higher pleasures are valuable. The lower pleasures are valuable, but the higher pleasures take strong priority in value to the lower pleasures (whether or not this is lexical priority).
Perfectionism, very roughly speaking, is the view that x’s life goes better as x lives a life that develops and exercises those properties and capacities that are inherent in the nature of the sort of thing x is. A cat lives a better life as it develops those properties that make a cat a cat. For Hurka, human lives go better as they develop capacities that are essential to the human species (though Hurka doesn’t speak in terms of well-being).
Most have read perfectionism as incompatible with hedonism because most perfectionists make a further claim about what the core properties of humans are. In almost all cases, the core properties do not include the capacity for pleasure. It is not, on Hurka’s view, an essential property of humanity. But it is worth noting that perfectionism and hedonism are only incompatible if we make the FURTHER assumption that “what it means to be human” entails more than pleasure. But one might suggest, for instance, that the important, value-determining parts of the human essence, or of human nature, are to experience certain kinds of pleasure.
And I think this might be something like what Hume says, or at least suggests, in discussing the sensible knave in the second Enquiry. Hume starts out E 9.2.14 by saying this: “Having explained the moral approbation attending merit or virtue, there remains nothing, but briefly to consider our interested obligation to it, and to enquire, whether every man, who has any regard to his own happiness and welfare, will not best find his account in the practice of every moral duty.” Hume’s project in this section appears to be to show that virtue conforms to the welfare of the virtuous. Indeed, at E 9.2.16, he declares that he seeks to show that virtue is in the “true interest” of every individual, and not only this, that “the peculiar advantage” of his system is that it is actually successful in so doing.
In discussing most virtues, appeal to the influences of vice on friendship and society are enough: everyone hates being thought a jerk by others. But the problem is justice, “where a man, taking things in a certain light, may often seem to be a loser by his integrity.” And here is the rub: “a sensible knave, in particular incidents, may think, that an act of iniquity or infidelity will make a considerable addition to his fortune, without causing any considerable breach in the social union and confederacy” (E 9.2.22). In other words, in secret, the SK can be vicious and not thought a jerk (and he can free ride on the benefits of compliance with justice by others). The following reading of the knave is controversial, but I wonder if Hume doesn’t respond by insisting that the SK is making a mistake in understanding what is in his interests. The key is in the final paragraph:
the honest man … will discover that [SKs] themselves are, in the end, the greatest dupes, and have sacrificed the invaluable enjoyment of a character, with themselves at least, for the acquisition of worthless toys and gewgaws. How little is requisite to supply the necessities of nature? and in a view to pleasure, what comparison between the unbought satisfaction of conversation, society, study, even health and the common beauties of nature, but above all the peaceful reflection on one’s own conduct: What comparison, I say, between these, and the feverish, empty amusements of luxury and expense? These natural pleasures, indeed, are really without price; both because they are below all price in their attainment, and above it in their enjoyment.
I think the natural way to read this passage is by insisting on a form of qualitative hedonism as opposed to a more standard hedonism. In introducing the SK, Hume suggests that “taking things in a certain light” the “addition to his fortune” might seem to be in the SK’s well-being. But, he argues here, it is not. Rather, the pleasures granted by an addition to one’s fortune, viz., the acquisition of worthless toys and gewgaws, are not worth the sacrifice of virtue, because the “natural pleasure” of virtue is strongly prior in value to the pleasures of an addition to one’s fortune. Hence, Hume is successful in showing that virtue is in the interest of the SK. (BTW, there are passages that tell against this reading, which are worth serious discussion.)
Where does the perfectionism come in? I think one could make the following claim: that to take pleasure in virtue, for Hume is to develop and exercise one’s natural properties and capacities, and the fact that it is explains why it is more valuable than the pleasure of fortunate vice. Quickly, recall that Hume insists that the person who has at hand a proper “comparison” between virtue and fortunate vice will prefer the first. But “comparison” is a key feature of Hume’s “standard of taste”: “A man, who has had no opportunity of comparing the different kinds of beauty, is indeed totally unqualified to pronounce an opinion with regard to any object presented to him. By comparison alone we can fix the epithets of praise or blame, and learn how to assign the due degree of each,” (“Of the Standard of Taste”, 238). So far, so good. Hume believes that authoritative pronouncements on value, etc., are verdicts of those possessed of the standard of taste, including comparison. But, according to Hume, the standard of taste is a feature of human nature: the standard is “founded only on experience and on the observation of the common sentiments of human nature,” (OST 232; similar passages are found at OST 241). Putting this all together you get the following view: the “taste” for the pleasure of virtue, as opposed to fortunate vice, is an important part of human nature. Thus, one might say that in Hume, developing and exercising one’s natural “tastes” (actually taking pleasure in virtue) is intrinsically better; this explains why the “joy of character” is more beneficial than that of “worthless toys and gewgaws.” Hence the fundamental aspect of the good life is to develop and exercise natural tastes–to take pleasure in, among other things, virtue. (This might not be a “pure” perfectionism; the “lower” pleasures might still have value on Hume’s view.)
This view faces all sorts of problems, no doubt. But looked at in a certain way, Hume could be both a perfectionist and a qualitative hedonist. Though I haven’t looked again at the relevant passages, my unconsidered judgment is that allowing Mill the claim that developing human nature is good for itself (which seems to be supported by OL3), AND the hedonist higher pleasures doctrine (to which many passages in U2&U4 seem to point), might prove fruitful at reconciling these texts. But that’s a topic for another way-too-long post.