Title: Plato and Mill on Being Competent Judges of Pleasure
Speaker: Mehmet Erginel (Psychology, Eastern Mediterranean University)
Date: Tuesday May 23, 2023
Abstract: Mill argues, in chapter 2 of his Utilitarianism, that pleasures may be evaluated in terms of not only quantity as Bentham had supposed, but also quality. According to the ‘qualitative hedonism’ that Mill develops, a pleasure is of higher quality than another if it is preferred by those who are “competently acquainted with both”. It is well-known that a precursor of this famous argument appears in Book IX of Plato’s Republic, in a pivotal role for one of the three proofs for the overarching thesis of the dialogue, that the just man is happier than the unjust. In the second proof (580c-583b), Plato argues that for the purpose of comparing the pleasantness of alternative kinds of life, we may treat the judgment of philosophers as authoritative, since they are, like Mill’s “competent judges”, superior with respect to experience (empeiria) as well as wisdom (phronesis) and reason (logos). (581e) The appeal to the judgment of those with greater experience with a variety of pleasures leads, in both Plato’s and Mill’s versions, to the conclusion that philosophical/intellectual pleasures are superior qua pleasures. While the parallelism between the two arguments is striking, scholars have typically offered no more than a mention in passing, without a detailed examination of the differences between them. In this paper, I argue that on a careful reading of both texts, Plato’s use of the appeal to experience is more compelling for a number of reasons, and less vulnerable to some of the common objections. First, Plato’s argument presupposes his tripartition of the soul and aims to establish the greater pleasantness of a life ruled by the rational as opposed to the spirited or appetitive parts of the soul, enabling him to limit the challenges to the philosopher’s experience. Second, Plato’s appeal to experience in the second proof is linked to, and complemented by, another appeal in the third proof (583b-588a). In the latter appeal those with experience compare the pleasantness not of lives but rather of individual pleasures, concluding that any pleasure of the rational part of the soul is more pleasant than any pleasure of the other two parts. Despite its boldness and prima facie implausibility, this claim rests on the purity criterion and the relatively plausible thesis that only the rational pleasures are pure, all others being mixed with pain.
About the speaker: Mehmet M. Erginel is a Professor of Ancient Greek Philosophy at Eastern Mediterranean University. He works on various topics in Plato and Aristotle, with a focus on ethics and moral psychology. His work has appeared in journals such as British Journal for the History of Philosophy, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, and The Classical Quarterly.