Pleasure and pain

Hedonic calculus? Can you quantify pleasure and pain? J. S. Mill took Bentham’s original proposition to task over its indiscriminate register. Surely some pleasures are more significant than others, in themselves. The complexity is compounded further by his assertion that  the experiencing of that particular pleasure or pain is also relevant to the placing of it on some kind of spectrum. The spectrum of comparative beings experiencing it. “It is better to be a human dissatisfied that a pig satisfied”  he wrote confidently in his ‘Utilitarianism‘; “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” And, he argues as if we truly know the extent of an animal’s self-knowledge, “…if the fool, or the pig,are of different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” Actually very many times we don’t really comprehend too well what actually makes us happy, let alone another species. My contention, as I have been presenting in my philosophy posts is that it is meaning that we, as questioning beings crave, not happiness. I wonder what your thoughts are. Certainly Peter Singer would have opposed as too simplistic this comparative measurement of pleasure and pain for he argues that a pig’s life is as valuable to a pig as a human’s is to a human. As a questioning being I have to wonder how he knew. Pull up a chair and join in the debate…

The Happiness Gauge featured in the Nonsense Filter

The Happiness Gauge featured in the Nonsense Filter

In the NONSENSE FILTER, Vernon brings these complex ideas to his class. Here is a whole Section Post for your delight. See if the rest of the Novel so far measures up by going to.

Section 34 The Nonsense Filter

Later that day saw Vernon in a decisive mood. Although it was one of his busiest, in terms of teaching, he was determined to catch up with some research, check out some of the ideas that events of the last few weeks had provoked and move them forward.

First of all he had to settle his sixth formers.

“What do you think Tom?” Vernon optimistically quizzed one of England’s finest, thumping a textbook on the desk for effect. “Happiness is the greatest good. Happiness is the criterion, the gauge of goodness.”

“I don’t mind” said Tom shrugging his shoulders generously.

“Tom don’t be a jelly.” Drew groaned. “You mean Bentham don’t you Sir?

“Yes in the first instance. He formed the Utilitarian assumption that the basic human need was for happiness in the form of calculable pleasures. On the basis of this you could gauge the extent of an action’s goodness.”

“In that case I don’t mind either.” said Drew smugly.

Tom showed signs of stirring his mighty brain. “The problem, it seems to me, is how you can calculate a pleasure… when do you start, when do you stop? Also, does everyone stub their toe to the same extent or enjoy Led Zeppelin equally.”

“Nobody enjoys Led Zeppelin. Anyway how can they” Lizzie chimed in, “when most people are too young to have heard them and those who heard them once are now deaf?”

No stupid, LED Zeppilin

No stupid, LED Zeppilin

“I think this is a digression” Vernon volunteered stroking his beard, nevertheless Tom had a point, what is happiness anyway?  Doritos, tantric-sex, liberty?  Can one have surgically embedded, a sensitive gauge that measures pleasure objectively?

Vernon jumped as Lizzie turned and said, “Sure Sir, but I’m sceptical about Bentham’s efforts to provide a methodology to underpin his assertions of measurability.”

Vernon’s faith in the class’s ineptitude was restored when he saw that Lizzie was merely reading from the textbook. “Go on” he intoned, “don’t stop.”

“Okay then.” Lizzie said shutting the book to unnerve him. “Bentham claimed it was possible to decide scientifically, with his principle of utility, that actions were right if they tended to produce ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people’. But when is an action complete and when can assessment begin? Aren’t his measurements, something about propinquity or such like, oh and intensity, aren’t they subjective in the extreme?”

She was right and Vernon beamed. When did you decide an action was sufficiently measured; when the taste was gone, the orgasm subsided, hindrance to freedom withdrawn? Pleasure and pain said Bentham were the only real motivators in human life; anything that increased pleasure was morally acceptable, anything that increased pain was not. In Bentham’s words, ‘…nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone… to determine what we shall do.’ Sure thought Vernon, two masters, the deputy head is the former, and the other?

The time had clearly come.

Vernon gifted his sixth formers with a surprise timed-essay, ‘Utilitarianism: unlikely philosophical foundation for building ethical social happiness’ Discuss. There that ought to do it.

“But Sir…”


3 thoughts on “Pleasure and pain

  1. I have heard it said that vision (meaning pursued) gives purpose to our pain, which gives us courage to face it head on. If so, could pain and pleasure be deemed immature motivators? Can we choose to brace different motivators?


    • I would say yes if you mean immature in the sense of derivative rather than primitive. Pain is ultimately a meaning we don’t like, but it can become something we embrace as a tutor, something we recognise as a safety warning system, indeed pleasure can be discovered to be a distraction or a reflex. Sure we can embrace different motivators.


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