Is poetry better than pushpin?

Mill, in Utilitarianism Chapter 2, or 3, talks about a division between higher and lower pleasures.

While pleasure, for the standard act utilitarian is the highest good; a the justification of pretty much anything; Mill’s utilitarianism (which, I admit, I don’t care or know much about it as I should), tries to be a bit more refined than the brutish model that Bentham puts forward. Bentham has this phrase attributed to him; “poetry is no better than pushpin”, pushpin is this thing were kids are making a circular wheel move by means of pushing it with a stick…or something; the point he was making (I think) was that ceteris paribus there are no real reasons to favour one preference over another insofar as within our subjective preference set. There is nothing about poetry that makes it inherently more valuable than pushpin; all pleasures are of the same kind, and all pleasures are a good.

I’ve defined this Bentham construal very unfairly, because I have defined it such that it is almost certainly opposed. Mill, does not accept this intuition that poetry and pushpin are the same; in fact, there are higher and lower pleasures. A higher pleasure is an intellectually titillating act, such as reading philosophy, doing science, and all those other things that kids find boring and elitist, a lower pleasure, by contrast, is those things that make immediate appeal to our sensory faculty, such as lovely food and drink (particularly the latter), sex, and…that’s pretty much it.

I have to say that invoking this kind of distinction to make utilitarianism less crude is a good move. I haven’t read much utilitarian and consequentialist literature; but of the things I do know, some of the later theories like welfarism seem very much to be more deontological than one would like to accept. My intuition basically goes; the more Kantian, the better. Some consequentialist theories put in restraints like rights and, in Mill’s case, higher pleasures. Master Destre and Michael are not as charitable as they would admit they secretly are towards the later consequentialist theories; but there is something to be said about Mill.

We at Areopagus have always had a bit of respect for John Stuart Mill; firstly, in terms of his personal life; and his A System of Logic which has quite a (infamous) reputation. What, however, justifies this value judgment to say that poetry is, infact, better than pushpin. What is it to say that reading Kant exegetically is more pleasurable than listening to Alice in Chains? What makes this anything more than a social prejudice?



One thought on “Is poetry better than pushpin?

  1. I just wanted to thank you for the simple and comprehensive explanation. I had a hard time finding a definition of Bentham’s analogy of poetry and pushpin. thanks

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