In his article (Well-being) on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Crisp provides the following defence of hedonism from the “philosophy of swine” objection (basically the same argument can be found in his most recent book “Reasons and the Good”:
Bentham tended to think of pleasure and pain as a kind of sensation, as the notion of intensity might suggest. [...] Thomas Carlyle, for example, described the hedonistic component of utilitarianism as the ‘philosophy of swine’, the point being that simple hedonism places all pleasures on a par, whether they be the lowest animal pleasures of sex or the highest of aesthetic appreciation. [...]
Now this is not a knockdown argument against simple hedonism. [...] But there is an alternative to simple hedonism, outlined famously by J.S. Mill, using his distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures (1998 , ch. 2). Mill added a third property to the two determinants of value identified by Bentham, duration and intensity. To distinguish it from these two ‘quantitative’ properties, Mill called his third property ‘quality’. The claim is that some pleasures, by their very nature, are more valuable than others. For example, the pleasure of reading Shakespeare, by its very nature, is more valuable than any amount of basic animal pleasure. And we can see this, Mill suggests, if we note that those who have experienced both types, and are ‘competent judges’, will make their choices on this basis.
A long-standing objection to Mill's move here has been to claim that his position can no longer be described as formally hedonist. If higher pleasures are higher because of their nature, that aspect of their nature cannot be pleasantness, since that could be determined by duration and intensity alone. And Mill anyway speaks of properties such as ‘nobility’ as adding to the value of a pleasure. Now it has to be admitted that Mill is sailing close to the wind here. But there is logical space for a hedonist position which allows properties such as nobility to determine pleasantness, and insists that only pleasantness determines value. But one might well wonder how nobility could affect pleasantness, and why Mill did not just come out with the idea that nobility is itself a good-making property.”
What could be a Stoic reply to this contemporary revival of the “Epicurean” position? Let us imagine a dialog between a stoic and a hepicurean, respectively S. and H.
S: you insist that nobility can determine pleasantness, but only pleasantness can determine value. However this cannot be a defense of hedonism, since admitting that nobility can determine pleasantness leads to think that the goodness of the lives of different people depends from their nobility. This leads some support to the stoic position according to which nobility or honesty is the only authentic good.
H. But this position is indefensible since a honest or noble life is not good when it does not contain also pleasure.
S. An authentically noble person would always gain pleasure from acting virtuously. If she does not, she is not authentically virtuous.
H. But this is obviously false! Consider the honest judge's lack of pleasure in applying certain laws to certain cases, for example when he has to expropriate the poverty of a poor and honest man to give it to a rich and evil man.
S. Well, the judge is not authentically honest, or he lacks pleasure when he does what is just. The judge you are imagining is not doing something just, because he is applying unjust laws. This is not to say that he should bend the laws. Rather a honest person would not occupy such a role as the judge in a country which has unjust laws. Summing up, a law is either a good law or a bad law; and that if it is a good law, the judge should be pleased to apply it, while if it the law is a bad one, an honest judge should not apply and should resign office.
H. This view of the law is totally unplausible. A good or just law is a law whose consistent application fosters human happiness. But we can have no guarantee that a just law will do always more good in every particular case. As Hume clearly saw, even the best law can produce more harm than good in some particular case of its application. Therefore it is perfectly natural for a judge - who, being human, possesses sympathy - to lack pleasure in applying some just laws, in particular circumstances.1
S. A good law must be such that its application produces most of the time more good than harm, and hence a honest judge will find pleasure in his exercise of honesty more often than not. So the honest will be happy in a country that has good laws.
H. But then a judge cannot be both happy and honest in country whose laws are imperfect or unfair, say because they produce harm rather than good in most cases!
H. But is that a paradox? My view leads to thinking that no judge can be perfectly honest (and therefore happy) in a society like ours, society which has some laws which can only be applied reluctantly. It leads to thinking that people who cover a certain social position cannot be perfectly happy and honest but in a society with just laws. Is that such a paradoxical result?
1As Hume puts it:
"A single act of justice is frequently contrary to public interest; and were it to stand alone, without being follow'd by other acts, may, in itself, be very prejudicial to society. When a man of merit, of a beneficent disposition, restores a great fortune to a miser, or a seditious bigot, he has acted justly and laudably, but the public is a real sufferer. Nor is every single act of justice, consider'd apart, more conducive to private interest, than to public; and 'tis easily conceiv'd how a man may impoverish himself by a signal instance of integrity, and have reason to wish, that with regard to that single acct, the laws of justice were for a moment suspended in the universe" (Treatise on Human Nature, 3.2.2, 497)