Utility and Preferences

Revised Version

(Paper presented at the symposium on J.S.Mill, October 25, 1998

Japan Association for the History of Economic Thought) 

Soshichi Uchii

Graduate School of Letters, Kyoto University


John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) [Drawing by S. Uchii]

1. Overview

2. Preferences and a Theory of Value

3. Theoretical vs. Practical Problems

4. Preferences and the Justification of a Value-Judgment


1. Overview

When it comes to criticisms of Mill's utilitarianism, the distinction between the quality and the quantity of a pleasure is one of the most popular topics. Mill's statement of the distinction appears in the fifth paragraph of Chapter 2 of Utilitarianism.

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. (ch.2, para.5)

Following this statement, Mill argues as follows: This distinction has a close relationship with the manner of human existence. Men are capable of various pleasures; but those who know well two kinds of pleasures definitely prefer the one which is obtained by employing their higher faculties. Although a being with higher faculties needs more to make him happy, and he may even experience more acute suffering because of these faculties; but despite these liabilities, he can never wish to become a being with lower faculties. What explains this fact is a sense of dignity. All men possess this in some form, and they cannot be happy without satisfying this sense. Mill thus considered the interdpendencies between pleasures, faculties, and the manner of happiness for human beings.

Now, as was pointed out by many people already, there are indeed several problems in this argument of Mill's; and I am not going to defend his distinction between the quality and the quantity of pleasures. However, despite some mistakes and confusions in Mill's argument, his argument also contain several important insights which cannot be ignored if we wish to develop a coherent theory of values on the utilitarian ground. In this paper, I wish to point out what these insights are, and to evaluate positively Mill's contributions to utilitarianism, taking also in view later development of utilitarian theories, such as Sidgwick's or contemporary writers's.

(1) First, we have to notice that Mill introduced the notion of preference into his ethical hedonism.

(2) Second, we have to notice that Mill is calling our attention, not only to the question of the quality of pleasures, but to a more fundamental question of how we do quantitative comparison of pleasures. He is treating, not only the comparison of different kinds of pleasures but also the very question of why pleasure is good and pain is evil; the latter is indeed the most fundamental question for the ethical hedonism. Let me quote Mill's words on this point.

On a question which is the best worth having of two pleasures, or which of two modes of existence is the most grateful to the feelings, apart from its moral attributes and from its consequences, the judgment of those who are qualified by knowledge of both, or if they differ, that the majority among them, must be admitted as final. And there needs be the less hesitation to accept this judgment respecting the quality of pleasures, since there is no other tribunal to be referred to even on the question of quantity. What means are there of determining which is the acutest of two pains, or the intensest of two pleasurable sensations, except the general suffrage of those who are familiar with both? Neither pains nor pleasures are homogeneous, and pain is always heterogeneous with pleasure. What is there to decide whether a particular pleasure is worth purchasing at the cost of a particular pain, except the feelings and judgment of the experienced? When, therefore, those feelings and judment declare the pleasures derived from the higher faculties to be preferable in kind, apart from the question of intensity, to those of which the animal nature, disjoined from the higher faculties, is susceptible, they are entitled on the subject to the same regard. (ch.2, para.8)

(3) However, Mill tends to confound theoretical problems of hedonism with practical problems which may arise when we try to apply hedonism to our actual situations. That's the reason why his argument sometimes becomes hard to follow.

(4) Confining our attention to the theoretical problems, why is it that we can say that the fact that people actually prefer this to that, establishes the value-judgment that this is more desirable than that? Mill's argument is not clear enough to answer this fundamental question; but it is still important in that it draws our attention to this question.

2. Preferences and a Theory of Value

Let us discuss (1) and (2) of section 1 in more detail. What is the significance of Mill's introduction of the notion of preference into the theory of ethical value? It is well known that Bentham treated the question of measurement of pleasure and pain, and he tried to establish a unified quantitative criterion for ethical values (Bentham 1789, ch.4). He tried to show how to evaluate pleasures and pains in terms of such factors as intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, ors the number of people affected. However, Bentham's discussion leaves some fundamental problems untouched.

The question of the value of a pleasure should be concerned not with the measurement of the strength of a sensation or feeling as a psychological state, but with the goodness or badness of its state; the question is evaluative, not factual. For instance, between the fatual statement "this pleasure had such and such an intensity and it lasted three minuites" and the evaluative judgment "this pleasure is good to such and such a degree", there is still a gap. You cannot infer the latter from the former by logical inference alone. Mill is certainly referring to this gap in our second quotation in the preceding section. The question of "the quantity" or "the quality" of pleasures belongs to evaluative questions not to factual or descriptive questions; and what connect a description to an evaluation are nothing but each individual's preferences. One's preferences determine an evaluative ordering of pleasures and pains, and this ordering determines their values: to what extent they are worth having. Thus, what is essential in the utilitarian calculation is not such a bunch of factors as was mentioned by Bentham, but people's preferences: what they prefer, what they dislike. This is what counts when we have to consider the utility; and thus we have to know what people's preferences are. As I understand, this is Mill's message when he discussed the quantity and the quality of pleasures.

I wish to add that the theory of value which Henry Sidgwick----by far the most careful utilitarian in the 19th century----reached was a hesonistic theory along this line, which incorporated the notion of preference into the definition of pleasures.

3. Theoretical vs. Practical Problems

Let us proceed to the third point (3) of section 1, namely the distinction between theoretical and practical problems about preferences. In ethics, as well as in science, the confusion of these two kinds of problems produces futile discussions. Mill's arguments about preferences are not entirely free from this sort of confusion, and that may well be the reason why his arguments are sometimes hard to follow. As I have already pointed out, Mill's idea that the notion of preference is indispensable for any ethical theory, whether or not it is hedonistic, is an important theoretical insight which emended the defect of Bentham's original theory; and I think Mill was basically on the right track in this. However, Mill's argument in favor of the distinction of the qualities of pleasures in terms of experts's preferences seems to me to fall largely into the practical problems of how we should apply hedonism to concrete situations. If he wants to defend the distinction between the quantity and the quality of pleasures as a theoretical distinction of hedonism, his theory may produce a contradiction. So I will argue.

Now, at the common sense level, anyone will hardly doubt that we can recognize a "qualitative" difference between one kind of pleasure and another kind. Thus, at this level, we can agree with Mill that "it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied"----a famous dictum of Mill's. And it seems that this judgment may be paraphrased as "a man's pleasure is qualitatively higher than a pig's pleasure". However, as I have already pointed out, this judgment is not a descriptive judgment but a value-judgment, an expression of our preference. Mill is well aware of this, and he presents the condition under which this sort of judgment can claim its validity, i.e. the agreement of all who know both; in Mill's own words, "of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, . . ., that is the more desirable pleasure". However, here, it is of vital importance to distinguish the theoretical criterion from its actual applications. As I see the matter, Mill invited a number of misunderstandings and confusions by neglecting to draw this distinction clearly.

The distinction itself is simple. When Mill said that of two pleasures, "if one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other" that is so far above in its value, he was putting forward the theoretical criterion for the comparison of pleasures; and he in effect adopted the same criterion "the judgment of those who are qualified by knowledge of both" for the quantitative comparison of pleasures (see the second quoation in section 1). However, as regards two aribitrarily chosen pleasures, whether there are any who are competently acquainted with both (qualified by knowledge of both), and even if there are such people, whether their preferences are in agreement, we cannot determine a priori; these are factual problems with respect to practical applications of the preceding criterion. Further, as Mill himself was aware, if the preferences of those qualified with knowledge of both do not agree, what should we do? Whether or not we adopt a simple majority rule or any other, presumably supplemented by a reasonable conjecture, will also belong to the latter problem. And whether or not we can obtain a definite ordering among various kinds of pleasures is also one of the problems of practical application of the criterion, the answer of which can be obtained only after we ascertain many facts. Mill was trying to answer all these different questions almost in one breath, and that caused many difficulties.

More specifically, when he argued that "it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied" , this is really a conditional judgement which can only be justified after we ascertain a number of facts with respect to the application of the criterion (Mill just took it for granted that we know both sides and have unanimous preferences). And what is crucial for my argument is that Mill's criterion does not contain in itself anything for distinguishing the quantity and the quality of pleasures or pains. After all, he stated merely that the qualitative superiority of pleasures depends on the preferences of those who are competently acquainted with both, and he repeated the same criterion for quantitiative comparison too. Thus he didn't state anything about how we should distinguish qualitative comparison from quantitative comparison. Then, in order to make sense of Mill's criterion and argument, the only consistent interpretation seems to me to be this: the criterion for qualitative comparison is the same as that for quantitative comparison, but for the case in which, either because of a great quantitative difference, or because of an obvious and definite agreement among people, one kind of pleasure is obviously superior to another, we may conveniently and practically distinguish the two kinds as "qualitatively different". This is in fact my own interpretation. In short, qualitative superiority of one kind of pleasure over another is a distinction at the level of practical problems, not a theoretical distinction.

4. Preferences and the Justification of Value-Judgments

Finally, let us turn to the fourth and last point ((4) of section 1). Confining our attention to the theoretical problems, how can we justify the value-judgment that pleasure A is more desirable than B, by referring to the fact that those who know both A and B prefer A to B? Unless we understand this point well, it is quite doubtful why we should appreciate Mill's insight. Let me explain how I see the matter in the following.

First of all, we have to spell out in more detail Mill's criterion of unanimous preference of those who know both sides. If one does not know well the objects of comparison or preferences, we cannot say that his preference is rational. Further, although we can hardly expect that people's preferences are unanimous on many things, it would not be so rare that different people agree in their preferences where they know quite well about the objects of preferences or expected results; on such an ideal condition, their preferences may well agree (because uncertainties, prejudices, and personal bias are excluded). In fact, on "the ideal observer" theory which has appeared occasionally in the history of ethics, this ideal observer's preferences and value-judgments are supposed to be objective.

Although the assumption of the ideal observer may be too strong as it stands, we may be able to adapt this theory to Mill's context, and we can adopt a far weaker condition. Suppose "competent acquaintance" means that one is under no illusion, has enough information about the objects of preferences, and has actually experienced them and one's preference is rather stable; preferences under this condition may sometimes attain "objectivity", i.e. an agreement of all those with competent acqaintance. For the sake of simplicity, let us call a preference rational if it satisfies this condition (this notion of rationality is close to that of Brandt 1979, 10).

And this gives a clue for answering to our question of justification. People's preferences or value-judgments may well be justified if they attain this sort of agreement among those with competent acquintance; i.e. if their preferences are rational. If their preferences agree to this extent, they will also agree in their value-judgments, which means they in fact accept these judgments. This provides a theoretical condition for justifying a value-judgment. The point is that preferences satisfying certain conditions (i.e. rational preferences), not mere preferences, are the basis of justification. However, as a practical question, we are in many cases uncertain whether such conditions of preference are satisfied, and therefore we are not sure whether our value-judgment can be justified. I have no doubt that Mill was convinced that such justification of a value-judgment was possible; what he said in his discussion of the quality of pleasures confirms this. However, as I have already pointed out, Mill was not clear about the distinction between the theoretical crterion and its practical applications, and that's why his arguments are sometimes confusing and even unintelligible.

Since the problem of the justification of a value-judgment is very frequently misunderstood, I wish to add the following comments. A very popular objection based on a misunderstanding is this: "Granted that people's preferences somehow satisfy the condition of rationality, this is a mere fact about their preferences; and how could we infer a value-judgment from this fact?" Against this objection, we have to first point out that one's value-judgment of goodness or desirability is an expression of one's preferences, not a mere description of a fact. Mill, as well as myself, would admit that there is indeed a gap between an expression of preferences and a description of facts. However, if we could ascertain the fact that people rationally prefer a certain thing and therefore they agree in their value-judgment (knowing the relevant facts), this fact is a fact about their preferences, which does not hold unless they have those preferences (thus preferences are prior). And the fact that their preferences are rational means that these preferences agree and their value-judgment also agree; thus no more can be expected for the justification. We do not infer a value-judgment from a fact; rather the fact that those preferences hold establishes the value-judgment in the sense that people in fact accept the judgment. The point of my interpretation of Mill is that his condition of "competent acquaintance" implies not merely an agreement of preferences (which may be a collective prejudice) but the rationality of preferences.

Next, one may raise the following question: "You may be able to define the condition of rational preference as you like; but the real question is whether people can satisfy the defined condition." This is a quite reasonable question. However, recall Mill argued that in several cases at least, such a condition is in fact satisfied, or at least approximately satisfied. And aside from Mill's examples, we can ourselves point out many examples of rational preferences (in our sense), if we consider calmly. For example, in any society where private property is endorsed, no one wants to be robbed of a thing dear to him. And people with sound common sense know quite well what is "being robbed of a thing" and what it is like to them or to others; and they unanimously dislike such a situation. Thus their preferences satisfy the condition of rationality as defined above. In addition, we can enumerate many examples where the condition of rationality is at least approximately satisfied: why murder is generally wrong (imagine the underlying preferences), why a nuclear war is wrong, etc., etc. Thus, if the preceding question is meant to assert that our definition of rational preference is unrealistic, this may not apply.

Finally, someone may raise this objection (which was in fact raised by an eminent commentator against me, when I presented the original Japanese version of this paper): To try to solve the problem of justification (or any other problems for utilitarianism) by assuming an "ideal observer" just begs the question; for, even though the problem may be solved if we assume an "ideal observer", no "ideal observer" may exist, and then everything collapses and you are simply begging the question in terms of "ideal observer"!

However, this objection is another example of the confusion of a theoretical criterion and its practical application. First of all, we did not assume the full power of an "ideal observer" (maybe I should not have used this expression, since it invited this grave misunderstanding); we merely assumed rationality of preferences, in view of Mill's assertion. And even if we assume a stronger version of "ideal observer", this does not beg the question, because whether or not there exist someone who satisfy the condition of rational preference, or the condition of an "ideal observer", remains as an empirical question, and this is one of the essential parts of the application of a theoretical criterion. An ethical problem is solved if a theoretical criterion for the solution is set, and we obtain a solution which in fact satisfies this criterion. Setting a criterion in terms of an "ideal observer" does not beg the question, since the latter condition is still open.

As I see it, the approach to the justification of value-judgments in terms of rational preference or rational choice is one of the major trends in the contemporary ethics (e.g., Brandt 1979, Hare 1981, Harsanyi 1977), via Henry Sidgwick's older attempt. Mill's utilitarianism, although it may have been insufficient in many respects, was a starting point of this trend, and it contained all major issues of this trend. Whether this trend is promising is still under discussion; in particular, the notion of rationality with "full information" (i.e., with some element of an "ideal observer") is sometimes questioned, and people like H.A.Simon proposed the notion of "bounded rationality" (Simon 1997) as an alternative. I should like to add that this important issue has a close bearing on the problem of justification, but that is a subject for another paper.


Brandt, R.B. (1979) A Theory of the Good and the Right, Oxford University Press, 1979.

Bentham, J. (1789) The Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789.

Hare, R.M. (1981) Moral Thinking, Clarendon Press, 1981.

Harsanyi, J.C. (1977) Rationl Behavior and Bargaining Equilibrium in Games and Social Sciences, Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Mill, J.S. (1863) Utilitarianism, 1863.

Sidgwick, H. (1874) The Methods of Ethics, Macmillan, 1st ed.1874; 7th ed., 1907.

Simon, H.A. (1997) Administrative Behavior, 4th ed., Free Press, 1997 (1st ed., 1947)

Uchii, S. (1998) "Sidgwick's Three Principles and Hare's Universalizability",


[Literature in Japanese]

Okuno, M. (1998a) "The Rationality of Action and Desire", Annals of Ethical Studies 28, 1998.

Okuno, M.(1998b)Sidgwick and the Contemporary Utlitarianism, Ph.D. thesis, Gradate School of Letters, Kyoto University, 1998.

Shionoya, Y.(1984)The Structure of the Idea of Value, Toyo-keizai- shinpo-sha,1984.

Uchii, S.(1988)The Law of Freedom, the Logic o Preference, Minerva, 1988.

Uchii, S.(1996)Ethics and Evolutionary Theories, Sekaishiso-sha, 1996.

September 29, 1998; Revised, October 29; last modified June 14, 2006. (c) Soshichi Uchii