In order to answer this question it is necessary to know what push-pin is. From what I have been able to discover it is a game played with pins on the brim of a hat. Armed with that knowledge, however, I still don’t know enough about push-pin to judge whether it might sometimes give me more pleasure than reading poetry. The answer could also depend on the quality of the poetry and my mood at the time.
In The Rationale of Reward, published in 1830, Jeremy Bentham wrote :
“Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either” (here).
Anyone who has studied a small amount of economics would know what Bentham was talking about. Whether pushpin is as good as poetry depends on an individual’s tastes.
John Stuart Mill noted that Bentham could not bear to hear anyone speak in his presence of good and bad taste: “He thought it an insolent piece of dogmatism in one person to praise or condemn another in a matter of taste”. With obvious relish, Mill contradicts this view of his god-father by asserting that people’s likings and dislikings are “full of the most important inferences as to every point of their character”. A person’s tastes “show him to be wise or a fool, cultivated or ignorant, gentle or rough, sensitive or callous ...” and so on (see here).
Picking up a similar theme in “Utilitarianism”, Mill writes:
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool or the pig are of a different opinion, it only because they only know their side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides” (here).
When I first read that about 40 years ago, I wrote in the margin: “interpersonal comparisons of utility?” What I meant was: ‘How could Mill know what pleasure a satisfied pig or fool might feel?’
However, I now think Mill had a point. You have to experience pleasures before you can compare them. You have to read enough poetry to gain an understanding of the pleasure that other people obtain from reading poetry before you can judge whether this pleasure exceeds the pleasure you could obtain from alternative activities. The same is true of all cultural pursuits. The implications for education of children should be obvious.
I like to think of J.S. Mill as the great defender of individual liberty who asserted that:
“Such are the differences among human beings in their sources of pleasure ... that unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow to the mental, moral and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable”.
That was what Mill wrote in “On Liberty” (here). In writing Utilitarianism, however, he had other things on his mind. In that context he was not willing to consider the possibility that anyone who had knowledge of both bodily pleasures, which he describes as “the lower pleasures”, and mental pleasures, which he describes as “the higher pleasures”, could ever view the former as superior to the latter. The most he was prepared to concede was that people who appreciated the “intrinsic superiority” of the higher pleasures could occasionally be tempted to “postpone them to the lower”.
I wonder whether Mill would have reached a different conclusion if he had framed the question as being about the allocation of time to different activities. Within that context he might have been able to appreciate that it is not necessary to decide whether the pleasure to be gained from poetry always exceeds the pleasure that can be obtained from a good meal or playing sport. The issue is not about being tempted to pursue lower pleasures. It is about obtaining balance in one’s life.
Since writing this I have read what Henry Hazlitt had to say on the subject ("The Foundations of Morality", 1998). Hazlitt suggests that the discovery of marginal-utility economics supplies the solution: "Bentham's dictum becomes defensible if amended to read: Marginal satisfaction being equal, a unit of pushpin is as good as a unit of poetry". However, I doubt whether that explanation would have satisfied Mill. See my next post: Is push-pin addictive.
Postscript 2: May 2010
I have now written a related post on the potential contribution of happiness research to the question of whether push-pin is as good as poetry.