Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: II – Simplicity

II

Simplicity

Perhaps the most overused design principle is simplicity. “Keep it simple”, they say (whoever they are). But what precisely does ‘simple’ mean, and how does such a design principle help with achieving the undergraduate essay-function (UEF)? There are two ways we can cash the simplicity principle with regards to undergraduate philosophy essays.[1] First, we can apply simplicity to the idea attempting to be communicated in the essay. Second, we can apply simplicity to how we present (i.e., write) our idea.

In this entry, I want to focus on the first application of the design principle of simplicity. So what would that look like? What wouldn’t it look like? Let’s reconsider the UEF:

Undergraduate Essay-Function (UEF): Successfully communicate an idea (i.e., your position on the given essay topic) to the reader (i.e., your essay marker), such that the paper satisfies the essay topic criteria.

So, you should try and make the idea trying to be communicated as simple as possible. Simple in this context, would mean that the idea is easy to understand, or put another way, is not difficult for the reader to comprehend. Perhaps the easiest way to make your idea simple is by making it singular; only argue for one point. Nothing more, nothing less.

By making a philosophy paper only have a single purpose, or point, all resources can be dedicated to making the best possible case one can for the given idea. And, by focusing on communicating a single idea, one ensures they do the necessary work while simultaneously doing the least amount of work required. This might seem confusing (even counter-intuitive), but it comes down to basic math.

Student’s (an essay writer, really) has constraints: word-count, energy, and time. For any idea, that idea requires an explication, an objection to the idea, and then a reply to the objection. So if one has two ideas, they’ve doubled their workload. Worse still, the resources one dedicates to the ideas have been halved.

Suppose a student has 1 week to write a 800 word essay. If that student has one idea they have 1 week to think and write about it, and probably 200 words for each respective part of exploring and defending that idea. If they have two ideas, then they have 3.5 days and approximately 100 words to write about each respective part for each respective idea. Clearly, the former will write a more in-depth and interesting essay than the later because they have more space and resources to explore their idea.

Another way the idea itself can be ‘simple’ is by not overcomplicating or picking an idea that is overly problematic. A student could pick to analyse the idea of whether or not…

  • ‘transcendental philosophy can help explicate our moral sentiments with regards to the phenomenological experience of the individual who has the choice to pull the lever in the trolley problem thought experiment’.

OR they could pick to analyse the idea of whether or not,…

  • ‘letting die is morally different from killing’.

Sure, the first sounds more interesting, but imagine the amount of work you would have to do to even given a mediocre job of exploring and communicating that idea.

So, the take away is simple this: to keep the idea simple, choose a single, plain, and understandable idea.

[1] And it seems to me easy enough to reapply these ideas to essays on other subjects. But I’ve never read nor written non-philosophy essays, so I can’t comment on them directly.

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Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: I – The Function of an Essay

I  

The Function of an Essay

Perhaps the most popular question I’m asked by my students is, “how do I write a good philosophy paper?” That’s an excellent question. So, in this series of posts I want to consider how design principles can help answer this question. I think by applying design principles, an undergraduate can improve their philosophical writing. Not though, that I am concerned here primarily with their philosophical writing, and not,

I take it that there is more than one design principle. For that reason, merely enumerating a list of principles will not do. Reason being that such a list will be arbitrary; why these particular principles and not others? So, before I outline each principle in subsequent posts, we need to think carefully about why certain principles should be considered design principles, and which ones should not. In other words, we need a theory of design.

My theory of design (for philosophy essays) is straightforward. Design principles should necessarily serve the function of philosophy essays. By ‘function’, I mean the purpose or goal of a philosophy essay (i.e., any philosophy essay). Any purported value that fulfils the function should be adopted as a design principle, and any purported value that fails to realize the function should be rejected (as a design principle). And, I assert, the function of a philosophy essay is simply this:

Essay-Function: Successfully communicate an idea to the reader.

The essay-function has slightly different applications depending upon the essayist (e.g., undergraduate, PhD candidate, professor, etc.). For the purposes of these entries, I will just consider the essay-function as it applies to undergraduates. The explication of the essay-function for undergraduates is as follows:

Undergraduate Essay-Function: Successfully communicate an idea (i.e., your position on the given essay topic) to the reader (i.e., your essay marker), such that the paper satisfies the essay topic criteria.

If an essay fails to accomplish its function, then it is, by my definition, a bad essay. So, if an undergraduate essay (i) does not engage with the essay topic, (ii) fails to explain and justify your position, and (iii) is not communicated to your marker, then that essay is suboptimal. So, how can an undergrad avoid (i), (ii), and (iii)? I shall address this question – and how design principles fit into this picture – in subsequent posts.

Action Planning and Goal Setting: III

III

 Actions must successfully lead to the goal. Since it is always unknown whether our actions will move us closer our end, we need to continually reassess both the goal and actions. But when should we reassess our aims? It seems utterly foolish to never reassess since our actions could have consistently failed to draw us any closer to our goal. Yet it seems unproductive, if not impossible, to continuously reassess our position after every action.

I think an optimal strategy for reassessment would be at milestones: points in our action plan that we judge (whether rightly or wrongly) to be strategically important for accomplishing our goal. We can call these milestones sub-goals, because they serve as short-term goals and are not ends in themselves. Sub goals contrast with our final end, that which we can call an ultimate goal, as (a) it should be an end in itself, and (b) no goal should succeed it.

Sub-goals are an important part of an action plan. A good sub-goal will have three attributes. First, a sub-goal will give the appearance of being an end in itself. That is, a sub-goal appears meaningful and does not just seem like an unnecessary grind or box to tick. Second, a sub-goal will be a strong motivation for an agent. This second attribute is generally a consequence of the first point. Third, a sub-goal should provide a clear and obvious path to the next goal (whether that goal is the next sub-goal or the ultimate goal itself).

Sub-goals should serve as necessary success points for an action plan. If you succeed on all sub-goals, one will (most likely) reach the ultimate goal. However, upon failing a sub-goal, according to the current action plan, there is no chance of arriving at the ultimate goal whatsoever. Since a sub-goal serves as a pivot point of an action plan, whether one succeeds or fails can change the course of the entire plan, or the abandoning of the ultimate goal itself.

So, the time in which we should assess our position is at the point of a sub-goal, whether we have succeeded or failing in achieving that goal.

As aforementioned, I described a sub-goal as having the appearance of being an end in itself, as opposed to an ultimate goal that actually is an end in itself. In the next post, I’m going to tease apart this difference, and explain how I conceptualize such a distinction and how distinguishing the difference between the two can help the construction of action plans themselves.

Action Planning and Goal Setting: II

II

If a constraint of goal forming is that an aim must be within our power to accomplish, then we should think seriously about what actually is within our power and what is not. Prima facie, the things that constrain what is possible for us to bring about are imagination, luck, and resources.

By imagination, I mean our ability to find action plans that will bring about our goal. Many things have been taken to be out of our grasp. Going to the moon, for example, or the idea of a wireless connection accessible anywhere on the planet might be another. Or a machine that can compute high amounts of data in every home or pocket.

Our imagination limits our ability to see how we can achieve the goal. The inputs of our imagination seem to be knowledge and creativity. Knowledge of how the world is help us figure out how unlikely a goal is to be achieved, while our creativity helps fill in gaps where knowledge ends. For example, while going to the moon might have been thought a pipedream, those with enough knowledge can gauge how difficult achieving a moon landing could be and, given the end of knowledge, creativity picks up to figure out how to bridge the gap.

By luck, I mean those things outside of our constraints. For while creativity can form a plan to chart the unknowable, it is always an uncertain hypothesis until tested. And, that uncertainty is what we intuitively call ‘luck’. Getting a computer into every home was lucky because nothing like it had been done before. We cannot account for certain variables, but only do the best we can and hope our creativity got things right.

By resources, I mean the time, energy, knowledge, creativity, money, and other things required to achieve some goal. Knowledge of our resources allows us to make better, more calculated decisions about how we ought to approach a goal. Suppose you have a goal of producing a piece of software – you have to figure out how to produce it. Do you know how to code? If so, do you have time to do it? And, if ‘no’ to either question, is the goal still achievable given those resource constraints?

I imagine the relationship between imagination, luck and resources is recursive, with the action plan needing to be updated incrementally as the plan itself is implemented. Given a stage of an action plan, new information is added, resources are used, and those uncertainties have played themselves out. But a problem remains as to when we are to update an action plan and reassess our goal. In the next entry I want to consider one model of how action plans are updated and how goal assessment fits into that picture.

Action planning and Goal Setting: I

I

Since ending my thesis, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about the decision-making process. Specifically, the condition/s needed for there to be action, and what the relationship is between those conditions. Thus far, it seems to me a necessary conditions required for action are goals. A goal, it seems to me, is a desire to bring about of some state-of-affairs at a later time (that is, a time after the present).

Goal forming has certain constraints. First, it appears that goals need to be achievable by the agent, or agents, who form them. For example, a desire to travel beyond our solar system would be better described as a hope or a dream, rather than a goal. Second, goals are future orientated projects; goals can’t be aimed at a past time or present moment. If I desired that I had eaten a salad instead of a burger, such a desire could not be described as a goal, but rather a regret. With such constraints in mind, it doesn’t even seem we can rationally conceive of forming such goals (or even maintaining them).

If the above is right, then actions require aims that are (a) future orientated and (b) are within the agents own power to bring about (i.e., a goal). And action planning is just forming a series of actions that bring about the aimed for state-of-affairs (i.e., a goal).

This means, according to my view, that actions aren’t possible unless there is some goal in mind. Goals give our actions meaning – they give us a reason to act and justify our actions not just in our own minds, but others too. Goals help us constrain the possibly infinite set of actions we could take. For example, if I form the goal to eat a salad, then (if I am to act rationally, i.e., actions that will achieve the goal) I make all non-salad eating actions non-possible. Only actions that will result in eating a salad will be open to me. And being a creature of finite resources, I’ll form an action plan that results the shortest number of actions to achieve my goal. Goals are a necessary condition for the occurrence of all actions between the present moment and all times prior to the goal.

One interesting observation in all this is the relationship between goals, action, and time. We could summarize such an observation as: to move forward, we need to plan backward. What does this mean? I have already explained how goals help direct our actions in the future (i.e., moving forward). But to know how to act requires forming a goal and then figuring out how to achieve it. To do so, it seems, requiring working out actions in reverse order; the step leading to the goal, the step before that step, etc. (i.e., plan backward).

The past, then, cannot guide our actions but only constrain possibilities. Just because in the past Jane played football does not mean she must continue to do so. However, what Jane is capable of achieving will be limited due to the large quantity of resources (e.g., time, energy, etc.) she dedicated to football. We are limited by our past but not held hostage by it.

Meat Matters

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 40 odd years, you’ll probably be familiar with Peter Singer and his work on animal equality. Roughly, Singer argues animals are, by and large, treated unfairly simply due to the species they belong to. That is, humans give greater weight to humans – and less to animals – because of an unethical (and therefore morally unjustified) bias towards their own species. He believes (whether rightly or wrongly) that our belief humans are more important than other animals is a predjudice we can call speciesism: “[…] a prejudice or attitude of bias in favour of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species,” (Singer 2009, p. 6).

And, Singer suggests, speciesism is not different than any kind of prejudice –ism, such as racism (the bias towards a particular race) or sexism (the bias towards a particular gender). Racism and sexism are, obviously, unjustifiable – morally or otherwise – and so too, Singer contends, is speciesism.

The argument he presents is simple and straightforward.We start with the principle of equal considerations of interests; that interests, preferences, etc. count equally, no matter how those interests (preferences, etc.) were generated. My preferences do not count more than yours – and nor do yours count more than mine. But whose preferences? Here, Singer turns to widely cited passage by Jeremy Bentham (1791): “the question is not, Can they reason? Can they talk? But, can they suffer?”

In other words, the only morally relevant input into whose preferences/interests matter, are those beings that can feel pain (or suffer). But why think this? For Singer (at least at the time of writing, I understand he has changed his mind on this in recent years, but I do not have a reference to support this claim) is that “the capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way,” (Singer 2011, p. 50).

His point here is that, the interests which are to be considered at all are those of sentient creatures – those capable of feeling pain and pleasure, as things like inanimate objects do not have preferences (nor do we feel we owe them morally) because they do not feel pain, such as rocks and stones. This is why, according to Singer, we can draw the line at sentience, as it is “the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others,” (Singer 2011, p. 50).

But if we accept this proposal, it is immediately obvious that there are other beings that are sentient, can experience pain and pleasure and, therefore, have interests and preferences. These beings are, obviously, other animals other than our own species.

And, clearly, animals have an interest in staying alive and not being placed into tight confines, force-fed gruel tortured or slaughtered. And when we measure our interests in consuming meat against those interests of being not killed or being kept in conditions tantamount to torture, it seems our interests are not as important than the animals themselves. Indeed, our preference to eat meat at all, when considering what the animal must go through, seems almost trivial.

Whether we are speciesist or not does not, I think, matter so much as whether we are, at least in some sense, permitted to consume animal flesh. And, if so, how much and how often?

The answer to the first question, I think, is yes; we are permitted to eat animals. But – and this cannot be stressed enough – the amount we consume, how often we consume it and, more importantly, how we source this food are definitely less than what the average layperson might think.

Meat is consumed often and usually for the simple fact that it tastes good. Worse, the quantity of meat consumed in one sitting is often greater than is necessary for the person who is eating. Meat does taste good – I can’t deny that. But there are clearly alternatives, that are just as delicious. I don’t think we need to take the taste good argument particularly seriously.

The problem, really, is consumption. And the reason this consumption is beyond what it ought to be, is simply for the fact that we have forgotten what role meat plays in our lives. Meat has played a significant role in the development of tradition, both social and religious, and often given a kind of reverence, or at least brought out only on the proper occasion.

However, due to the easy accessibility we have (at least in the first world) to meats of all varieties has made us forget the importance it had with the family, with the neighbourhood, and with society. But what has accessibility have to do with the importance, or lack thereof, of meat?

Meat, for much of human history, has been resource intensive: financially, time-wise, effort, etc. Meat was (and still is) expensive because it is both rare and requires significant work to rear the animals. There is the land it requires – the space it needs to graze upon – the food it eats itself – and other things that it requires to live. It therefore is a big deal to kill this animal – to take its life – as the loss of life itself is recognized as a serious moral loss, but additionally it is the final ‘cashing-out’ of resource investment.

Meat is the centre piece of any meal, and it is often hard to conceptualize a meal without it. But due to the mass production of it, the competitiveness of its pricing, and its availability, meat has lost its importance – how it brings people together on special occasions. Roger Scruton makes much the same points I have tried to raise here, and he says the following:

“The lifestyle associated with the Sunday roast involves sacrifices that those brought up on fast food are largely incapable of making – meal times, manners, dinner-table conversation, and the art of cookery itself. But all those things form part of a complex human good, and I cannot help thinking that, when added to the ecological benefits of small-scale livestock farming, they secure for us an honourable place in the scheme of things, and neutralize more effectively than the vegetarian alternative, our inherited burden of guilt,” (Scruton 2004, p. 90).

Of course, this has only made meat eating permissible under certain, particularly niche, circumstances, and Singer (and the like) can easily retort that appeals to how things are in a tradition is certainly not a good moral reason for why we ought to keep a behaviour. After all, can we not just replace meat with some sort of meat-tasting/looking alternative perform the exact same function? Surely it can, but it seems the importance of meat is the fact that it was alive and now it is not.

Indeed, if we grew meat in a laboratory instead of rearing an animal for slaughter, this ‘lab-meat’ still does not perform the function of bringing us together as meat from a once-living animal can. We recognize in the meat of a once-living animal the sacrifice that has been made, the loss of life to continue and celebrate life with friends and family, as being why meat matters.

But the way in which meat is produced on the mass-scale ought to revolt us – for it is not just ‘inhumane’, so to speak, but robs us of the kinds of sacrifices made when the animal is killed for food. We deeply care about where our food came from, how it was raised, what it was fed, because we recognise that these things inherently add value to the meat itself. And – importantly – is that we ought to.

The solution, to me at least, seems something like this. We must severely reduce the quantity of meat we consume, both in terms how often we eat it, and portion sizes when we do, as well as how the livestock was raised. Meat ought to be preserved for special occasions, for family and friends, so that we may appreciate what we have and who we have it with.

 

References

 Bentham, J. (1781). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

Scruton, R. (2004). “The Conscientious Carnivore,” in Steve Sapontzis (ed.) Food For Thought, pp. 81-91.

Singer, P. (2009). Animal Liberation.

Singer, P. (2011). Practical Ethics, 3rd edition.

 

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).

 

 

 

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.

 

Problems with Hedonism: I

In the previous entry I detailed the idea that happiness is what makes for a good life and gave various reasons to support such a view. In this entry were going to question whether happiness really is the necessary and sufficient condition of a good life.

Most (but certainly not all) people accept happiness as being necessary for well-being; however many question whether it is solely sufficient. There appear to be many counter-examples in the literature that are considered defeaters of Hedonism (at least in its simplest form).

Probably the most famous of these counter-examples is Nozick’s experience machine, as found in Anarchy, State and Utopia. Here, Nozick describes the following scenario:

“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 an interesting 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, preprogramming your life’s experiences?”

– Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), p.42.

Nozick draws the conclusion that we do not just want experiences, but also want to do certain things and be a certain kind of person. In other words, we do not just care about our internal experiences; we care about how the world actually is and what we actually do in it.

But perhaps you are comfortable with getting in the machine. You might reason that some people do value things simply for the experience of them, and if you can cut out the middle-man, then why not simply jump to the experiences? If a person chooses of his or her own volition to get into the machine because doing so will result in happiness, then what exactly is the problem?[1]

A similar counter-example can be found in Nagel and Kagan’s work:

“Imagine a man who dies contented, thinking 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. I 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 the charitable contributions he sometimes made, and his business partner has been embezzling funds from the company which will soon go bankrupt.”

– Kagan, Me and My Life (1994), p. 311.

(Original example from Nagel, Death (1970), p. 76.

It is hard to imagine why we would think the life of the deceived husband was a good life merely because he was happy. It appears as though it is not just a matter of being happy, but also that certain relevant states-of-affairs must obtain. We might however ask why states-of-affairs matter. The natural answer for most people is that the deceived husband wasn’t experiencing true happiness but, rather, false happiness. We’re happy for reasons and if those reasons are true then our happiness is real, and if those reasons turn out to be false then our happiness is fake.[2]

But even if we granted such an argument, it isn’t clear it helps Hedonism avoid these issues. For example, we tend to be happy because of reasons such as satisfying goals or preferences. If we don’t satisfy these preferences or achieve these goals we generally aren’t happy. So, a general lesson we might draw is to not have preferences or goals that are difficult to achieve or satisfy. If that is the case, perhaps we should aim low:

Giving up on your dreams and settling does not seem like a good life, even though your adjusted preferences might result in happiness. In fact, giving up the life you want to settle for what you have seems somewhat tragic.

slaves2
If happiness is all that matters, then what’s the problem?

But adjusting the bar does not have to be a conscious effort, for some of us might have the bar placed considerably low already. We can imagine a slave who is told that he is nothing but dirt and lives only to serve his master. Serving the master is the sole function of a slave. What if this slave accepts this, and working hard for his master results in his happiness? It seems that, if happiness is all that matters, and if one is happy about things as they are then this is true happiness. Surely the life of a slave is not a good life.

Or suppose women in a particular society are second-class citizens told only to be subservient to their husbands; if a woman is happy with such a life; is her life a good one?

The natural response is to suggest that these people do not have full information or that somehow the lack of autonomy results in ‘false’ happiness (whatever that means). But what if someone is fully autonomous and free?

[…] Porky is a bestialist’s beastialist. He uses his inherited wealth to construct a stately porcine pleasure dome, including heated mud rooms and cool misting stations. He spends the bulk of his life engaging in hideous acts of bestiality with his collection of prize hogs. He has them oiled and waxed daily by a retinue of expert servants. To increase his pleasure he spares no expense and overlooks no details. He had the front teeth removed from all of his pigs to enhance the tenderness of their warm mouths. His days are spent getting what he wants and liking what he gets from his harem of sows.

– Smuts, A Life Worth Living (2013), p. 15

(Feldman, Confrontations with the Reaper (2004), p. 40; original example Moore Principia Ethica, p.95)

This particular entry has focused on counter-examples believed to undermine Hedonism. In the next entry, we’ll look at some more technical philosophical arguments that seem to undermine Hedonism.

——

[1] This suggestion however trades on the requirement that choices be of a person’s own volition. This means that a good life actually has two necessary requirements: A) that a person is happy, and B) that their happiness results from choices they have made free from influence. Hedonism does not accept B), as for Hedonists happiness is the only thing that matters, and the suggestion made here is that two things matter, namely happiness and freedom. I will discuss this finer point in another entry.

[2] But even then it is hard to understand what is meant by ‘real/true’ or ‘fake/false’ happiness. We shall explore this issue in a future entry.

Hedonism: A Happy life is a good life

What do you think makes for a good life? An intuitive answer to this question is happiness: a happier life is a better one. In philosophy we call this theory Hedonism and a person who holds this view a Hedonist. Hedonism comes in many forms and varieties so it’s not just a single theory, but a family of theories that share the following claim: what is ultimately good for an individual is happiness and what is ultimately bad for an individual is unhappiness.

2016-03-04-1457104413-8985709-Happiness
One of the many pics you can find in google images simply by typing ‘happiness’

I wouldn’t be surprised if you agreed. If the internet and social media are anything to go by, many MANY people agree with happiness being the only thing that truly makes life better. Just think of all those motivational posters and pictures with inspiring quotes that people like, upload or comment on; all to do with happiness and being happier. And in discussions I’ve had with others about well-being many have taken Hedonism as the obvious answer. So obvious, in fact, they take it as a truism and it’s not hard to see why.

It certainly explains a lot of our behaviour and life choices as happiness seems to serve as a fundamental part in practical reasoning. Happiness is a reason giver; we do things that make us happy and don’t do things that make us unhappy. If something makes us happy we take that a reason to continue, and conversely if something makes us unhappy we take that a reason to stop. If someone makes us happy we take that as reason to keep them in our lives, and if someone makes us unhappy we take that as reason to terminate the relationship.

Hedonism also explains intuitions we have about good lives. Think about differing lives, HappyLife_seriessuch as a person who surfs and lives on the beach living a quiet life, and another who lives the high-life and pressure as a wall-street stockbroker. Which life is better? Well, it depends, doesn’t it? What we really need to know is, ‘how happy are they?’ Suppose that both are happy and content with how their life is. It seems then most people would be ready to say that both of these lives are good for the person whose life it is. In other words, Hedonism seems to explain the plurality of lives we deem good. Further, Hedonism can explain why identical kinds of lives can be good for one person and bad for another.

Take the Stockbroker’s life. Suppose Jane and John live identical stockbroker lives, the only difference is Jane enjoys her life while John is incredibly unhappy and wishes he were surfing and living on a quiet beach. I think most people would have the intuition that Jane is better off than John, and it seems that the deciding factor of such an intuition is how happy, or unhappy, each are with their state-of-affairs.

 Finally, it seems Hedonism lies behind the old expression, ‘I just want you to be happy.’ We want a lot of different things for the people we care about but ultimately we want them to live happy lives. Imagine two parents wanting a particular kind of life for their child. To be educated, married with children and have a good respectable job with a high salary. But suppose this child does not want these things because they do not result in happiness; instead as they grow up they choose to pursue less lucrative work and pursue their passions and live a bachelor/bachelorette. Now, the parents may frown upon these choices but, ultimately, they will, hopefully, come to the conclusion that their child knows what is in their own best interests and explain to their child, ‘We just want you to be happy; that’s all that matters to us.’

happiness wordle

Unsurprisingly, Hedonism is controversial in philosophy and there appears to be many reasons for rejecting it.