I ended my last post (Is push-pin as good as poetry?) wondering whether John Stuart Mill would have had a different view of the pleasures offered by sensual and aesthetic pursuits if he had viewed the matter in terms of ongoing choices about the allocation of his time, rather than as a single decision to be made for all time. I had in mind that he might have been able to decide, for example, that this evening he will play push-pin, but tomorrow evening he will go and visit Harriet Taylor and read some poetry by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. (I am assuming that Harriet would have preferred poetry to push-pin.)
Having now thought further about this, I don’t think J.S. would have changed his view if he had framed the issue in terms of a time allocation problem. I think he saw the choice between sensual and aesthetic pleasures as path dependent. In other words, J.S. thought that if he went too frequently down the path to the push-pin parlour (or wherever they played that game) rather than up the path that leads to Harriet’s place of poetry, he would eventually forget how to find Harriet’s place.
Mill saw intellectual tastes as being closely linked to high aspirations and noble feelings. In “Utilitarianism” he wrote:
“Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favourable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise” (here).
He went on to argue that people who do not exercise that higher capacity “addict themselves to inferior pleasures”. According to Mill, this means that they do not “deliberately prefer” these “inferior pleasures”.
As I wrote earlier I know very little about push-pin, but I am prepared to accept that it could be slightly addictive. Similarly, poetry could also be slightly addictive. It is difficult for me to accept, however, that anyone could become addicted to either push-pin or poetry to the extent that they would lose their capacity for rational choice. (Interestingly, but beside the point, the poet Coleridge - whom J.S. admired - claimed that his famous poem ‘Kubla Khan’ was inspired by a dream that was induced by use of opium, a highly addictive activity).
Would J.S. still have argued that those “addicted” to inferior pleasures do not deliberately prefer them had he had the opportunity to read what Gary Becker wrote much later about rational addiction? In brief, Becker argues that people choose to consume addictive products because they believe that the pleasure will outweigh the pain. They then choose to continue consuming these products because they believe that the pain of giving up will be greater than the pain of continuing with the habit.
I suspect J.S. would have a problem, as I do, in accepting that this kind of behaviour is rational. He might have been more impressed, however, by Thomas Schelling’s view that addiction is neither purely rational or irrational – it is about self-control. The dopamine system in our brains wants pleasure and wants it now. The cognitive system is better able to make longer term choices, but it can be slow to operate. That means that if we cultivate the habit of thinking strategically we can make better decisions. For example, if we are worried about becoming addicted to push-pin it is possible to make a commitment to read poetry at a particular time when we think we might otherwise make a spur of the moment decision to play push-pin. (Tim Harford writes beautifully about this kind of thing –although not explicitly about push-pin and poetry - in chapter two of his recent book, ‘The Logic of Life’).
Where this leaves me is with the thought that J.S. Mill was slightly off the mark in identifying the capacity to enjoy aesthetic pleasure as a tender plant that can speedily die away through want of sustenance. Rather, it is the capacity to make strategic decisions affecting our own well-being that is the tender plant that requires constant nourishment. It seems to me that humans could not flourish in an environment where aesthetic pleasures were the only pleasures they were permitted to seek. In order to flourish we need the freedom to make strategic decisions affecting our own well-being.