The Pursuit of Pleasure: A Nietzschean Trope on Benthamist Ideals (Part the Second)

As we have seen, when it comes to examining moral stances, Friedrich Nietzsche and John Stuart Mill held wholly different views. Mill’s basis for morality rests on the idea of Utilitarianism, an epistemological construct at the heart of which is the "Greatest Happiness Principle". Here, actions are right only in the proportion to which they promote happiness, and wrong when they produce pain. Nietzsche would say that this principle fell under what he would call “slave morals”. 

For Mill, certain kinds of pleasure experienced by human beings differ from each other essentially in qualitative ways: only those who have experienced pleasure in both ways are able competently to judge any relative value. Thus is established a higher moral worth that promotes largely intellectual pleasures among sentient beings, even if their momentary intensity may be less than that of alternative lower, i.e. largely bodily, pleasures.

Master morals, argued Nietzsche, are the morality of elite groups, ones which class their actions as either good and bad, i.e., virtuous and not virtuous. This leads to a concrete classification of people and actions that revolving around the objective truth of all actions being either good or bad. In contrast, slave morals are not borne out by logic. Slave Morals are held by the plebes and determine good or bad not based on merit but based on what masters do. Nietzsche pleaded for a resurgence of “noble morals” and was unstinting in his criticism of Utilitarianism as a system. For him, examining morality through a Utilitarian scope means that we have donned moral spectacles. These, moreover, are not interchangeable, leading him to suppose that we can not make decisions of morality for everyone, as Mill had suggested when arguing the case for Utilitarianism. 

Mill admitted that the achievement of happiness by the individual is easy, but its effect on humanity often difficult to ascertain. And if we are justified morally in seeking in our actions primarily to reduce the total amount of pain we experience as sentient beings, then pain, or even the sacrifice of pleasure, is warranted only when it acts directly in achieving the greater good of all.

There are those who argue that this utilitarian theory propounded by Bentham and Mill makes unreasonable demands of individual agents, calling for them to devote any primary energies to a rational and perhaps even cold-hearted calculation of anticipated effects of human actions. Mill counters this by offering a significant qualification: it is exactly because we lack the time accurately to calculate the consequences of our actions that we must allow ourselves to be guided by a strict set of moral rules. He considered these moral principles to be secondary but maintained that they provide ample guidance for every-day moral life. In especially challenging cases, Mill held up as a gold standard the principle of utility itself. 

So what exactly is it that motivates people to do the right thing? Mill claimed there was universal agreement on the role of moral sanctions and how these would elicit correct conduct from human agents. However, his theory of social order moved well beyond that of Bentham’s, as Mill did not restrict himself to any socially-imposed external sanctions of culpability, blame and punishment – these the obviously painful consequences of improper action. For Mill, we are motivated by internal sanctions such as conscience, guilt and self-esteem. And because we have the ability to show empathy, the unselfish wish for the good of all is often enough to move us to act morally. Whether or not an individual suffers for reprehensible actions taken, or is even punished by others, there is likely to be a reaction best described as self-blame. It is this uncomfortable feeling and the fear of consequent pain which help an individual reasonably to consider before deciding how to act.

Whether the “proof” offered by Mill on the principle of utility is of any value is debatable. Nietzsche viewed the Utilitarians with some contempt. For the record, Mill maintains that the best evidence of the desirability of happiness is that we actually desire this – a circular argument at best, and a fallacious one at worst. Since every human being desires this happiness, it follows that we all desire the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This is then morally desirable. But on psychological grounds Mill may well have been correct. In seeking pleasure and avoiding pain we create the touchstones by which most of us typically live.