Student Blogger - Push-pin, anyone?
You haven't lived until you've won a few of your friends' hard-earned quarters in a heated round of push-pin. Push-pin–"hattie" as I prefer to call it–is a high-stakes game of skill and cunning where two pins are placed on the brim of a hat, the players gently tapping the brim in turn hoping the pins come to rest across one another. (Who doesn't travel with a brimmed hat and spare tailor's pins? I know I do.) This game of chance (or innocent children's pastime) was immortalized by the founder of Utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, when he claimed that, in calculating the sum total of pleasures, "the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry." In this year's first meeting of the Law and Philosophy Workshop, Professor Elizabeth Anderson examined J.S. Mill's innovative response to Bentham's claim.
In her paper, Anderson focuses our attention on the lively debate among Mill's contemporaries over democracy and elitism, as reflected in the proper goals of education. The conservative curriculum of Mill's day lauded theology, the classics, and the other humanities as the highest accomplishments of civilized society. In the mean time, the arts and humanities were viewed by Utilitarians as luxuries at best, and vestiges of a pernicious elitism at worst.
Fundamental to the Utilitarians was the concept of equality of taste, which dismissed claims to give some pleasures more weight than others. For Bentham, if a game of push-pin supplied more pleasure, it was more valuable than music or poetry. Attempts to refine or uplift the sensibilities of the masses were misguided. Understandably, the Utilitarian was an advocate of the sciences and mathematics for their empirical success and useful application to technological progress, a progress that was rapidly expanding utility-enhancing advances in medicine, manufacturing, and economics.
Into this debate, Mill interposed his unique solution. Mill rejected the flat democracy of tastes reflected in Bentham's celebration of push-pin. Instead, he suggested adding a qualitative dimension to the purely quantitative Utilitarian calculus. Humans can experience both higher and lower pleasures. Mill's account was that pleasures arise from gratification of human faculties, the ability to taste with enjoyment of a delicious meal, the ability to vocalize with the pleasure of singing. The higher pleasures arise from exercising the higher faculties and sentiments. As these faculties were developed, the capacity for human happiness was progressing. "Progress" and "capacity" are somewhat tricky terms in this context, because Anderson does not mean to suggest that development could lead to a larger sum of pleasure. Anderson's use of "capacity" should not bring to mind the progress from a one-gallon jug to a 50-gallon barrel. The higher pleasures marked a move toward the ability to experience higher quality pleasures, as opposed to an ability to produce a greater quantity of the universally fungible pleasure favored by the orthodox Utilitarians.But Mill's rejection did not amount to a simple elitist retort that poetry is, in fact, better than push-pin. Anderson highlights that Mill's favored examples of higher pleasures centered not on the pleasures of the aesthete, but instead on the pleasure taken in exercising two uniquely human capacities: the capacity for self-governance (autonomy) and the capacity for sympathy. Mill felt that these capacities could be developed, and that individuals and societies reflected a vast heterogeneity in the development of these capacities. Education, a liberal education in particular, stood as an effective means to expanding these capacities.
Anderson suggests that Mill did not fully justify this move to the Utilitarians on their own terms. However, Mill's response to the conservatives (those who claimed that Utilitarianism was a philosophy fit only for beasts) is innovative and compelling. Humans cannot be satisfied with pleasures suited to a farm animal. This is because human happiness is governed by the concepts of dignity and degradation. It would be degrading to solely experience the pleasures of a beast, while pursuit of the higher pleasures of autonomy and sympathy provide a sense of dignity. This is reflected in Mill's claim that it is better to be a human being dissatisfied, than a pig satisfied; better Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. Socrates is secure in his attainment of the higher pleasures reflected in the dignity of a well-pursued human life, while the satisfied pig, wallowing in pig-pleasures, lacks the capacity to attain and experience the higher pleasures. The person living only for pig-pleasure is degraded by failing to exercise a capacity for the higher pleasures reflective of her humanity. These notions of dignity, degradation, and capacity expansion fall well outside of an orthodox Utilitarian framework. (Anderson identifies the project of distinguishing higher pleasures like sympathy, autonomy, and dignity as strikingly similar to the ideals of respect and duty voiced by Kant, a far cry from leading Utilitarian thought.)
Mill's development of the concept of sympathy reveals how radical this departure was. Anderson notes that sympathy, as Mill understood it, was an attitude taken toward an individual person as opposed to an aggregation of people. It is an acknowledgment of a sense of membership in a society of equals, where each individual's interests count equally. In this way, sympathy is a personal reaction to another person identified in some fundamental sense as an equal. And this helps to further explain Mill's view that sympathy, properly conceived, often focuses our attention on those that are the worst off in society. Thus, sympathy can lead to distributive goals (concern for the way the pie is divided), as opposed to the purely aggregative goal underlying orthodox Utilitarianism (concern only for the size of the pie).
How does this discussion tie into education? Mill's own education was thoroughly (indeed harshly) Utilitarian, and Mill believed that its focus on the power of external motivation neglected the critical importance of the development of internal motivations: the higher pleasures of sympathy and autonomy. As mentioned earlier, Mill thought that these motivations could be developed and expanded. The path to this development was through cultivation, which-as Anderson helpfully describes it-is much more like the way we exercise in order to develop physical fitness than the way we compete over scarce resources. Mill felt that an education in the arts and humanities could stimulate these sentiments, providing a powerful argument against the atrophy of this curriculum. However, Mill also claimed that "[t]he only school of genuine moral sentiment is a society between equals." Anderson focuses on three such "practical schools," where participants interact as equals, thereby cultivating their capacities for the higher pleasures: worker-managed firms, companionate marriage, and democracy itself.
For Anderson, Mill is best understood not as finding some middle path between the Utilitarian and conservative ideals of his day, but instead as changing the terms of the debate altogether. Mill's higher pleasures were not opposed to democratic ideals; they were best cultivated within the context of democratic relationships.
Helpfully orienting the discussion in her paper, Anderson presented an overview of her project to prime discussion at the workshop. Anderson is working on an upcoming book on the history of Egalitarianism, and is particularly interested in Mill's use of Utilitarian themes to support equality. To begin, Anderson identified three types of relationships that Egalitarians tend to oppose: (1) unequal standing; (2) domination; and (3) stigmatization. Orthodox Utilitarianism successfully combats unequal standing by placing the pleasure of all on equal footing (recall Bentham's penchant for push-pin). But orthodox Utilitarianism does not address either of the latter situations, and Anderson finds that Mill's unique modifications to the orthodox Utilitarian project offer interesting solutions to these perceived inadequacies.
For instance, Utilitarians of the time had no problem with relationships of domination as such. James Mill, John Stuart's father, believed that the political domination of women was justified since male heads of household could more effectively represent the interests of the women under their charge. This would ultimately increase overall utility. Similarly, stigmatization did not trouble traditional Utilitarians. One prominent Utilitarian argument suggested that the disutility of redistribution caused by early social welfare laws could be mitigated by making the recipients of welfare benefits feel shame for accepting the public dole. This would deter opportunistic pursuit of benefits (only those in truly dire need would be willing to sacrifice their dignity to receive assistance). Mill's distinction of higher and lower pleasures with an emphasis on the pleasures of sympathy and autonomy suggested a way to reach these further moral concerns.
Questioning from the workshop participants kicked off with the thought that it seems very right that sympathy is an attitude directed toward an individual as opposed to a group, but that this is not always beneficial, as where sympathy is reserved to those in one's immediate social circle or family. Furthermore, even where sympathy is exercised between equals, the tendency to favor one's close associates is empirically substantiated. Anderson's first response was to emphasize Mill's view that sympathy, properly exercised, requires a relationship of equality. A benefactor cannot feel Millian sympathy for the beggar unless she identifies the fundamental equality each shares. This differentiates sympathy from pity, for example, which places the pitied in a debased position. The problem of the natural flow of sympathy to one's close associates is more challenging. Anderson's view is that Mill acknowledges that sentiments could be cramped and narrow, but they could also be developed into more expansive, universal capacities through exercise and education.
Another question from the workshop suggested that Mill's three "practical schools" presented a chicken and egg problem, since each of the institutions pre-dated Mill's description of their salutary effects on education. In fact, these institutions seemed quite compatible with the types of domination and stigmatization that Mill was ostensibly out to combat. Can we get to the development of good sentiments through institutions based historically in such nasty ones? Anderson's answer to this question was that Mill believed that society was in a process of development, and that civilizations could make progress through education. But Mill was also an apologist for imperialism. This fit into his theory of political development, where initially social order must be grounded in mutual fear, later the strong can show forbearance and generosity toward the weak, but ultimately, with the proper cultivation, civilization could tend toward sympathy among equals. In imperfect conditions, the practical schools might misfire, but Mill believed that society could work toward a situation where these institutions could provide the sentimental education he envisioned.
This answer tied into a further question about how Mill envisioned his theory as a guide to actual moral decision-making. In response, Anderson posited that Mill was an experimentalist, and that while his brand of Utilitarianism provided a metric for evaluating outcomes, the strategy for implementation came through "experiments in living." People could try a given arrangement, evaluate the results by way of its satisfaction of his Utilitarian concerns, and then press on or abandon the experiment in light of the results. With this pragmatic view of social development, Mill thought individuals and societies could continue to progress toward his society of equals.
So ultimately, Mill probably would not condemn my dalliances with the occasional game of push-pin. Lucky for me. However, all should plan to experience the higher pleasure of attending the next Law and Philosophy Workshop on November 9th, with a paper by Stanford's Barbara Fried.