Problems with Hedonism: III

 

In this post I want to look at a common reply folk hedonists give to cases of pervasive deception, which turns on a distinction between ‘fake’ (or false) happiness and ‘real’ (or true) happiness. Before getting to that, let me reiterate the problem of pervasive deception. The most noted of such cases is Nozick’s experience machine:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading a book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprograming your life’s experiences? (Nozick 1974, p. 42)

Another is the deceived Husband:

Imagine a man who dies contented, think he has achieved everything he wanted in life: his wife and family love him, he is a respected member of the community, and he has founded a successful business. Or so he thinks. In reality, however, he has been completely deceived: his wife cheated on him, his daughter and son were only nice to him so that they would be able to borrow the car, the other members of the community only pretended to respect him for the sake of charitable contributions he sometimes made, and his business partner has been embezzling funds from the company which will soon go bankrupt. (Kagan 1994, p. 331)[1]

Pervasive deception is often levelled at hedonism because it is commonly thought to demonstrate how counter-intuitive hedonism actually is. We might assemble the point to look something like this:

P1. If hedonism is true, then all that is required to live a good life is happiness/pleasure/enjoyment (Hedonist clause)

P2. But in cases of pervasive deception, a happy life based on lies and deceit is not a good life for the person living it (anti-hedonist intuition)

C. Therefore, hedonism is false.

So, the reply to this objection is that a person in the machine, or the deceived husband, is that they were not really or truly happy. The idea seems to be that happiness necessarily requires that it be about facts to qualify as real. Since this distinction relies on happiness needing to be qualified, I’ll call it qualified hedonism.

While most folk hedonists can’t articulate qualified hedonism much further than that, I think Fred Feldman offers a more substantial version of the idea, with his attitudinal hedonism. In several works, most notably Pleasure and the Good Life, Feldman argues that pleasure (or enjoyment) is not a feeling, but rather an attitude: a propositional attitude.

By this, Feldman means that enjoyment is about something, and can be expressed as sentences involving some propositional fact. For example, we might express ourselves like, ‘I enjoy that I am riding a bike,’ or, ‘I am happy that I am drinking a coffee.’ Since propositional statements have a truth value, it is possible for them to be false. And if a propositional statement is false, then there is nothing to be happy – or enjoy – about them.

Now, Feldman himself noted that we should not assume that “attitudinal pleasure is always directed toward truths. Perhaps the most we can say is that if you take pleasure in some state of affairs, then you must at least think that it’s true,” (Feldman 2002, p. 4) but it seems to me that no other analysis of pleasure will suit the qualified hedonism. With that said, we should understand qualified hedonism as Feldman describes, except that the proposition must not just be believed, but additionally must be true for the person to be happy.

Qualified hedonism, understood this way, captures the reply nice: the deceived husband was not actually, because the propositions he was happy about – a loving marriage, successful business, etc. – were in fact, false. Since the propositions truth value was zero, the deceived husband was, in fact, not happy at all.

So, what are the problems with qualified hedonism? To begin, it does not seem that such a theory properly captures our intuitive notion of pleasure. Pleasure, happiness or enjoyment have a qualitative feeling – there is something ‘it is like’ to be happy, or enjoying something. The idea that such a feeling is ‘false’ or ‘real’ seems mistaken, as phenomenologically there is no difference between the two. And there is no difference between them, then how can they be different?

There are two ways a qualified hedonist might respond. They might say that there is a phenomenological difference between false and real happiness, but this doesn’t seem right. After all, when we are happy about something and then find out that something is not true, we do not say that, before, we were not really happy – we instead just stop being happy. I assume that the saying’ ignorance is bliss’, is partly based upon the folk-observation that ‘false’ and ‘real’ happiness is phenomenological indistinguishable.

Or, they might say that pleasure is not a feeling at all. By abandoning pleasure or enjoyment as a kind of internal felt experience (like an emotion) they avoid this problem. But this does not seem satisfying. After all, it is incredibly counter-intuitive to suggest pleasure or enjoyment is not a felt experience.  To say ‘I am happy that I won the race,’ yet have no emotive or felt content accompanying that statement intuitively contradictory to the very statement itself.

But if the qualified hedonist accepts that false and real have no experiential difference, then it isn’t entirely clear to me what ‘false’ and ‘real’ matter. Isn’t just happiness – actual or no – enough? Even then, qualified hedonists are abandoning hedonism because they are sneaking in an extra necessary condition: which is that the relevant facts must obtain independent of the individual’s beliefs. If that is the case, then qualified hedonism is really a pluralist theory of welfare: (a) happiness, and (b) the relevant facts must obtain – independent of how the person feels. This, as mentioned in a previous post is abandoning the purely subjective notion of welfare, and monist theory of value, which held up hedonism in the first place.

Following on from that, it seems qualified hedonism is just another name for a desire-satisfaction theory of well-being, rather than a hedonist one. After all, the fact that qualified hedonists require that happiness be a pro-attitude towards a true proposition seems to be saying something quite similar to the idea that pleasure is a desire that has been satisfied (see problems with hedonism II).

One final problem I have is the idea that happiness – if understood as an emotion – could be real or false. It seems to me no other emotion can be understood sensibly as real or false, so why happiness can be seems post-hoc and unmotivated. For example, suppose you walk into a room with Jane and John, and Jane is throwing a chair against a wall, yelling at John. When you ask John what is the matter with Jane, he replies, ‘she is angry because she thinks that I was cheating on her with Mary, but I’m not.’ Is Jane angry? I think it pretty obvious she is. If we ask ourselves, is she ‘false’ angry or ‘real/true’ angry, this question makes no sense. Not only does it not make sense, but we would not express the situation with these kinds of terms. Instead, we would say that Jane is angry, but not for the right reasons – her reasons for being angry are unwarranted.

And, when Jane finally realized her beliefs were wrong, she would not say ‘I wasn’t truly angry’, but rather say that she was, but not for any justifiable reason (and she’d feel bad about it, and hopefully apologize). The same I think, can be applied to other emotions that could be understood as propositional attitudes, e.g. ‘I am sad that I drank all my coffee’ (even if the proposition is false), or ‘I am jealous that she has a new car’ (even if the proposition is false).

Why should we think that happiness is an exceptional case amongst these phenomena? I suggest it isn’t, and the only reason ‘real’ happiness is proposed is in ad-hoc reason to save hedonism.


Works Referenced

Kagan, S. 1994. “Me and My Life,” in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series vol. 94, pp. 309-324.

Feldman, F. 2002. “The Good Life: A Defense of Attitudinal Hedonism,” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 65, pp. 604-628.

——— 2004. Pleasure and the Good Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Nozick, R. 1974. Anarchy, State and Utopia, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd).

Nagel, T. 1970. “Death,” in Nous Vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 73-80. 

 


[1] Original example attributed to Nagel (1970, p. 76).

 

 

 

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