The idea that there are “higher” and ‘lower” pleasures is one that stems from the very beginning of philosophy, although in the hands of John Stuart Mill within his famous Utilitarianism it becomes a central focus. Mill convincingly argues that if a person has experienced both the higher and the lower pleasures, then he/she will naturally tend to prefer the higher. But if someone has only been subjected to lower pleasures he is somehow a less fulfilled human being.
The distinctively human pleasures that Mill identified tended to be those that would only appeal to a few people, normally the elite of society who had the time and money to indulge in them. For example, high art as is found with opera houses or within expensive paintings in luxurious art galleries is often only enjoyed by a few. But this few is the most exemplary example of the most “human” of pleasures. Conversely, the lower pleasures tend to be those that appeal just to the senses: often in a purely physical sense.
These kinds of pleasures are to be found within the lower classes and are characterized by instant and easily understood appeals to pleasure. In many ways this argument makes sense, even thought it does not fit within the egalitarian ideals of today. In many ways it also sits uneasily with the whole focus of utilitarianism which may be essentially summed u[ as the “greatest happiness for the greatest number of people”. The valorization of high (human) pleasures over low (more animalistic) ones essentially suggests that the quality of happiness rather than the quality, at least as far as pleasures are concerned is of the most importance.
Mill used his division between high and low pleasures to suggest that certain individuals who owned more property, and thus who were more likely to indulge in the higher pleasures, should have greater voting power than the masses. This is an essentially elitest system, but one which makes sense within the premises that Mill sets forward. If the higher pleasures are of greater “human” character than the lower ones, then the people who enjoy them would be more worthy of control within society. They would be more likely to exhibit the kind of self-control needed to preserve the happiness of the masses. The hedonistic tendencies of those masses imply that they cannot be trusted with full power over their destinies.
To conclude, the idea that some pleasures are “superior” to others is something that most people accept in theory, but would not readily admit in public. Mill however belonged to a perhaps more honest age than ours, and is convincing in his arguments for the superiority of certain pleasures over others. The conclusions that he draws from those arguments are more problematic however: the fact that a person enjoys opera does not necessarily mean that he understands the good of the country better.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. University of Toronto Press, Toronto: 1985.