Problems with Hedonism: II

In the previous post I suggested that Hedonism, as a theory of welfare, was not a sure thing as it fails to predict our intuitions on a number of thought-experiment cases. Most notably, Hedonism appeared to fail because it was overly narrow in scope as to what constitutes what is ‘good for’ an individual. Due to happiness being the sole constituent of well-being, it appeared Hedonists are forced to admit that a life in a matrix-like machine, or that of a slave or obedient housewife, or degrading/deplorable life is a good life, so long as that person is ‘happy’. But saying such lives are good lives to live seems wrong, and Hedonism is (arguably) not equipped to agree.

Before getting into proposals as to why Hedonism fails, and the defences Hedonists hoist up against such attacks, I want to sketch out a more technical reason we might reject Hedonism as a theory of well-being.

Hedonism is often conceived as being a subjective mental-state theory of welfare. That is, ‘happiness’ or ‘pleasure’ or ‘enjoyment’ or whatever we wish to call it, is something (a) only the individual themselves can decide they have, or experience, it (hence, subjective), and (b) that it happens exclusively ‘in the head’ (hence, mental-state).

The problem starts with a perennial problem since Hedonism’s inception: what is pleasure? After all, pleasure is caused by numerous things and activities, and the pleasure experienced during these events is substantively different from others. For example, the pleasure of exercise, and the pleasure of eating, the pleasure of making love, or the pleasure of writing about philosophy, are obviously different in their content and the experience that accompanies it. Nor does it appear that there is any identifiable, essential condition that all these (and more) experiences share. But if pleasure is neither a single identifiable kind or single constituent, of mental-state, then what is it for a mental-state to be pleasurable?

A common reply is that a mental-state is pleasurable if it is desired. That is, to say a mental-state is pleasurable is to say it is preferred over other possible mental-states. While this is not the only analysis of pleasure/happiness/enjoyment, it is certainly common particularly amongst folk persons. After all, there are a collection of folk wisdom that we generally agree to be true that seem to point in this direction: ‘different strokes for different folks,’ ‘one person’s trash is another’s treasure,’ etc. People often chalk up differences in pleasure as differences in preferences: whatever works for you, as long as you prefer it (i.e., makes you happy) is all that matters.

So we might summarize the folk hypothesis of pleasure as a kind of preference mental-statism: an individual is well-off insofar as they have the various mental states that they desire.

But here in lies the problem, as happiness/pleasure is no longer doing the theoretical work. Rather, it is desires and preferences – and the satisfaction of those – that is doing all the theoretical work required of a theory. What is the point of even invoking the concept of pleasure at all, when we could just talk about people’s preference and desires? The answer, it seems, is no point at all!

But further problems arise for endorsing pleasure as a kind of mental-state preference. First off, if preferences are doing all the work, then it is not entirely clear why these preferences have to be about just mental-states; people have preferences that sit outside of just their mental-states – they prefer certain states-of-affairs to obtain in world. Such a position would be rejecting the ‘subjectivism’ that hedonists so heavily cling to.

However let us put that issue aside for another post, and just consider what happens if we can pull apart pleasure and preference, and if we can, what results.

While the hypothesis is that pleasure just is a kind of a preference for a particular mental-state, it seems conceptually possible that people prefer things other than pleasure, including the lack thereof, or even the mitigation of pleasure. Here, I am not talking about masochism – deriving (sexual) pleasure from physical or emotional pain (e.g., humiliation etc.) – as those who are masochists do so because they derive pleasure from their pain. I am talking about a person who forgoes pleasure because they prefer something else, e.g., the ascetic. Those who choose or prefer to live to a ‘higher calling’ that immediately goes against their pleasure is not only a conceptual possibility, but a reality.

How are preference mental-statists to understand this? If preference is doing the work, then we must be forced to admit that pleasure is not a part of the good life. But, if we resist this path, then our only option is to say that preferences do not matter. At least, preferences unrestricted. We might say that happiness is good for a person regardless of whether they desire it or not, or that pleasure is something you ought to prefer/desire.

But this is not a good place for a Hedonist to be. If they choose the former route, then not only does preference mental-statism fail as a theory of pleasure, but the hedonist has all but abandoned pleasure as the sole prudential good. However, if they choose the later they abandon preference mental-statism, which was their theory of pleasure in the first place. Further still, both later positions result in a rejection of subjectivism, as they seem to suggest that pleasure/happiness is objectively good for a person whether they want it or not.

None of these positions should look appealing to a Hedonist, as each of them will cause her to reject her conception of Hedonism.

In the next post, I’ll consider a common reply folk Hedonists have to the thought experiments from ‘Problems with Hedonism I’, which is that those people (e.g., the slave, housewife etc.) are not really or truly happy.



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