Unhappy Humans and Happy Pigs

Unhappy Humans and Happy Pigs


Unhappy Humans and Happy Pigs

Joshua Seigal

John Stuart Mill is famous for having expanded Bentham’s utilitarianism to incorporate ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the dictum “better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.”[1] In this paper I argue that this dictum is inconsistent with utilitarianism’s own conception of the ‘good’. My argument shall proceed through several stages: In section one I present and defend a form of ‘hedonic calculus’, the use of which will be essential if we are to quantify happiness (as utilitarianism aims to do.) The calculus I suggest will be based on considerations as to how we might compare a human being’s happiness with that of a lower animal. I present some arguments as to why I think a utilitarian should accept this calculus. In section two I examine Mill’s conception of the ‘good’, and analyze his famous quotation in the light of this. I argue that, by this very criterion, it is not necessarily better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. In section three I examine how best to extricate ourselves from this situation, and I put forward the suggestion that if we want to maintain the belief that it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied (a belief which, intuitively, we probably do wish to maintain), it cannot be based on utilitarian considerations.

Mill’s quotation refers to ‘satisfaction’; henceforth I shall follow Bernard Williams[2] in using ‘happiness’ and ‘satisfaction’ interchangeably, so the question of whether or not it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied is equivalent to the question of whether or not it is better to be an unhappy human than it is to be a happy pig. I therefore argue that by the criteria of utilitarianism it is not better to be an unhappy human than it is to be a happy pig. It may be argued that pigs, unlike humans, are not really capable of happiness. However, since the quotation sees fit to use ‘satisfaction’ as applicable to both, and since I am using the terms ‘satisfied’ and ‘happy’ interchangeably, this need not be problematic.

Furthermore, it may be claimed[3] that the reason it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied is that the human has the capacity to contribute to a greater net level of happiness in society. In this essay I propose to isolate an individual human and an individual pig, and compare only the respective happiness of each, independently of the greater good to which they may or may not have the capacity to contribute.


Implicit in Mill’s quotation is the assumption that human and animal happiness is comparable. We therefore need to examine how a comparison could be carried out. I suggest that for a comparison, we need a means of quantification.

Mill was concerned to show the ‘fundamental humanity’ of utilitarianism, and claimed, therefore, that “a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conception of happiness”[4]. As Smart notes[5], the reluctance of a person to sacrifice his humanity for animal happiness indicates that human happiness somehow penetrates deeper, is somehow more profound, than that of a pig. Any calculus that we use to quantify happiness must therefore take into account the fact that human happiness is, prima facie, deeper[6].

I assume that animals have sensory experiences like we do, in the sense that, as with us, there is ‘something it is like’ to be them[7]. The issue of what precisely differentiates us from other animals is not within the scope of this paper, but in terms of comparing our respective happiness it seems reasonable to suppose that the primary differentiating factor is our capacity for reflection, for having a ‘pro-attitude’ towards our own happiness[8].

Consider a maximally happy human (A) and a maximally happy animal (B): for B, we may suppose that the satisfaction of desires constitutes the highest level of happiness. The capacity for reflection in A, however, necessitates that we add another level when examining A’s capacity for happiness. So, a maximally happy person will not only have all his desires satisfied, he will also be able to somehow reflect on his situation, and know that all his desires are satisfied. Animals, it seems, lack this capacity for self-reflection[9].

How, then, are we to incorporate this consideration into a calculus? Taking the person’s capacity for self-reflection into account, we may suppose a two-tier view, whereby a person’s pro-attitude is included in the calculation of his overall happiness: a person is fully happy if he is happy, and he knows/recognizes this to be the case (and is happy about it). Given that an animal is unable to reflect upon its own happiness, a fully happy animal is not able to fulfill this second condition; it is not able to know/recognize that it is happy. A fully happy person is therefore happy on two levels, a fully happy animal merely on one. Thus, if we were to award points for happiness at each of the levels, a fully happy person would be worth two points, a fully happy animal one[10].

It follows of course that a fully happy person is happier than a fully happy animal: level-one happiness for each consists in the mere satisfaction of desires, but a person’s overall capacity for happiness is greater, by dint of the person’s being able to reflect on his level-one happiness. Thus, if happiness is the criterion of the good, it is better to be a satisfied person than a satisfied pig (recall that I am using ‘happiness’ and ‘satisfaction’ interchangeably).

This, however, is not Mill’s claim. He claims that it is better to be a dissatisfied (unhappy) person than it is to be a satisfied pig. How, then, do a dissatisfied person and a satisfied pig compare according to our calculus? It may be recalled that a fully satisfied animal is worth one point (being incapable of self-reflection). How much is a dissatisfied person worth? It is obvious that a dissatisfied person is less happy than a fully happy person, and, given that a fully happy person scores two points (one for happiness on each of the two levels) a dissatisfied (unhappy) person must score less than two points.

Perhaps a dissatisfied person could score less than two but higher than one (and thus still be less happy than a fully happy person and more happy than a fully happy pig). It has been suggested that a person’s happiness can be viewed on two levels, and on each level a person can either be happy or unhappy. Thus, a fully happy person is happy on both of the two levels. A less than happy person is therefore only happy on one of the two levels, and scores at most one point, whilst a fully unhappy person is happy on neither level, and scores zero.

Some interesting things follow: a totally depressed (i.e. maximally unhappy) person is less happy than a happy pig, so it would, according to the calculus, be better to be a happy pig than a depressed person[11]. However, we need not equate the dissatisfied person with the maximally unhappy person. Since the unhappy person is lacking happiness on either of the two levels (but need not do so on both), he is worth one point. We have seen that a happy pig is also worth one point, so a happy pig is equal in happiness to an unhappy person.

However, why should utilitarians accept this calculus? One of the reasons, I believe, is that utilitarianism requires that happiness be quantifiable. The ‘points’ system I have suggested seems at best ad hoc, but if happiness is to be quantifiable there needs to be some kind of unit of quantification. As Williams says[12], happiness must be ‘calculable’. Another reason why the calculus I have outlined should be accepted by a utilitarian is that it is based on reasonable considerations as to the differences between humans and animals, a comparison that is rendered necessary by Mill’s quotation. If it is the capacity for reflection that differentiates humans from animals, then human happiness would seem to require the extra level that I have suggested. Thus, given that happiness must be quantifiable, we can assign values to the respective happiness of humans and animals that take into account this basic difference between them[13].


Implicit in the claim that one thing is better than another is a conception as to what it is that makes something ‘good’. As Geoffrey Scarre has highlighted, for utilitarianism to be tenable, there needs to be an “organising feature of experience which functions as the common denominator of good.”[14] For utilitarianism, then, ‘happiness’ serves this purpose. Happiness, Mill claims, is the only thing that is intrinsically good, all other things being good inasmuch as they are a means to, or part of, this end.[15]

Now, the calculus in the above section shows that it is not the case that an unhappy person contains more happiness than a happy pig. Of course, we haven’t yet confronted Mill’s claim that the type of happiness is important, but, when we consider happiness purely quantitatively, as I believe utilitarianism must, we can see that, taking into account differences between human and animal natures, an unhappy person does not score more ‘points’ than a happy pig. I have, furthermore, attempted to argue that such a ‘points’ system is really the only viable way of making utilitarianism work: Mill’s quotation requires that happiness be comparable, comparison requires that happiness be calculable, and calculability necessitates units of quantification.

We are now in a position to observe how the claim that it is ‘better’ to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied functions, and how it is incompatible with utilitarianism’s conception of the good. In section one we saw that an unhappy person is not happier than a happy pig. We can also now observe the fact that the phrase ‘better than’ asserts of one thing that it contains more ‘good’ than something else. So, if utilitarianism’s conception of the good is ‘happiness’, then to say of one thing A that it is better than another thing B is to say that A contains more happiness than B. So, when Mill claims that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”, his own criterion of the good renders this equivalent to saying “an unhappy human contains more happiness than a happy pig.” But this is exactly what the calculus in section one has shown to be false.

Thus, if the criterion of the ‘good’ is happiness, it is not better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.


From what has been said thus far, we can observe a certain inconsistency in the following two propositions:

1) Utilitarianism is correct
2) It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.

Where, then, do we go from here? I have interpreted ‘utilitarianism is correct’ as containing ‘happiness is the criterion of the good’ as a necessary condition. Perhaps a way out is to challenge this and argue that utilitarianism does not have to proceed using ‘happiness’ as the criterion of the good.

As Smart has highlighted[16], ‘Ideal’ utilitarianism holds that other things, besides happiness, have intrinsic value. Smart calls Mill a ‘quasi-Ideal utilitarian’. If this is the case then it may be that we can accommodate the view that it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied on grounds other than happiness into a utilitarian framework. This, however, seems an obtuse interpretation of Mill, who explicitly states that whilst “the ingredients of happiness are very various”[17] it is happiness itself that is the only thing possessing intrinsic value.

It could further be argued that Mill’s conception of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures means that human happiness is intrinsically better than that of a pig, since it is of an altogether different, higher type. If this is the case, then we may be able to maintain ‘happiness is the criterion of the good’ as a necessary condition of utilitarianism, whilst adding the qualification that this should be construed as higher happiness.

As H.B Acton notes[18] Mill was perhaps influenced by Whewell’s observation that if only quantity (and not quality) is taken into account, the Greatest Happiness Principle becomes the ‘Greatest Animal Happiness Principle’. However, given that utilitarianism is based on a conception of the good as comparable, calculable and additive, it seems as though happiness, as the criterion of the good, can differ only in degree, and not in kind, for how can two kinds of things be comparable? John Grote, in a very early commentary on utilitarianism, claimed that “a consistent utilitarian can scarcely hold the difference of quality in pleasures in any sense”[19]. Things admit of comparison only in the degree to which they fulfill a certain end, so for human beings’ and pigs’ happiness to be comparable they must not differ in kind, otherwise the very notion of comparison wouldn’t make sense. In bringing in ‘higher’ happiness as a different kind of happiness altogether, Mill is destroying the very commensurability that is required to affect a comparison. ‘Higher’ pleasures thus seem to possess a non-utilitarian value, and therefore seem inappropriate in a utilitarian system.

Given that utilitarianism does indeed seem to claim happiness as the sole criterion of the good, and given that the quantification and comparison of happiness is more easily made sense of when we consider degree rather than kind, it does indeed seem as though we need to do away with either 1 or 2.

Which one should it be? In presenting the calculus in section one I attempted to adumbrate how a utilitarian should deal with the problem of whether or not it is better to be a happy pig or an unhappy human. We could therefore see that the way utilitarianism must treat the problem cannot yield a verification of Mill’s dictum. However, the calculus seemed somehow inappropriate. Since I presented some reasons as to why I think such a calculus is indispensable for a utilitarian (inasmuch as he wishes to compare human and animal happiness), any lingering feelings of inappropriateness may be due to the inherent implausibility of utilitarianism. As Williams says, “utilitarianism cannot hope to make sense, at any serious level…of human desire and action at all, and hence only very poor sense of what was supposed to be its own specialty, happiness.”[20] Given this consideration, I suggest that the most likely candidate for abandonment is 1.

At any rate, if we hold that 1 and 2 are inconsistent (as I have claimed that we should), and we believe that it is somehow better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, we should hold this belief independently of utilitarian considerations. Unfortunately however, it is not within the scope of this paper to inquire further into what our considerations should in fact be.


University College London

London, UK

About the Author

Works Cited

Allen, Colin. ‘Animal Consciousness’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Leahy, Michael P T. ‘Against Animal Liberation: Putting Animals in Perspective’, Routledge, 1994.

Locke, John. ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’, Everyman, 1947

Mill, John Stuart. ‘Utilitarianism’, JM Dent and sons, 1972.

Moore, Andrew. ‘Hedonism’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004.

Nagel, Thomas ‘What is it Like to be a Bat?’ in Metaphysics: a Guide and Anthology (eds. Crane and Farkas), Oxford, 2004.

Scarre, Geoffrey. ‘Utilitarianism’, Routledge, 1996.

Shaw, William H. ‘Contemporary Ethics: Taking Account of Utilitarianism’, Blackwell, 1999.

Smart, JJC, and Bernard Williams, ‘Utilitarianism: For and Against’, Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Williams, Bernard. ‘Morality’, Cambridge University Press, 1972.

[1] JS Mill, ‘Utilitarianism’, JM Dent and Sons (1972), p. 9.

[2] Smart and Williams, ‘Utilitarianism: For and Against’, Cambridge University Press (1973).

[3] For example by JJC Smart (Smart and Williams).

[4] Mill, p. 7.

[5] Smart and Williams, p. 21.

[6] William Shaw says of animals that “their lives lack the complexity and psychological richness of ours.”  (William H Shaw, ‘Contemporary Ethics: Taking Account of Utilitarianism’, Blackwell (1999), p. 41).

[7] Thomas Nagel, ‘What is it Like to be a Bat?’.

[8] See, for example, Andrew Moore, ‘Hedonism’ (2004), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[9] See Colin Allen, ‘Animal Consciousness’, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

[10] Empiricists, such as John Locke, seem to endorse such a two-tier view. Locke claims that human ideas are derived from sensation or reflection, and that the “understanding seems…not to have the least glimmering of any ideas which it doth not receive from one of these two.”

[11] Mill considers higher pleasures but he seems to neglect higher pains. If it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied by dint of the human’s capacity for higher pleasures, then why not say that it could equally be worse by dint of our capacity for higher pains? Presumably we are capable of experiencing more profound varieties of pain than are animals.  This, and similar points, are interestingly highlighted in Michael Leahy’s repudiation of the animal rights movement.

[12] Bernard Williams, ‘Morality’, Cambridge (1972), p. 87.

[13] In assigning these values, we may be, as Smart says, “assuming what is perhaps a fiction” (p. 60).

[14]Geoffrey Scarre, ‘Utilitarianism’, Routledge (1996), p. 139.

[15] Mill, p. 6.

[16] Smart and Williams, p. 12-27.

[17] Mill, p. 33.

[18] Mill, p. xiii.

[19] Cited by Acton in Mill, p. xiii.

[20] Smart and Williams, p. 82.