Joshua Seigal: Unhappy Humans and Happy Pigs

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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.

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