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.

Grief and its role in the Value of Death

Throughout much of human history across creeds and cultures death has been considered, for lack of a better term, bad. Whether death itself is bad, relationally bad, or extrinsically bad, there nevertheless seems to be something negative or undesirable about it. Intuitively, I take death to be bad in some sense and I presume the majority of people both past and present (and future) to share this intuition. And the aforementioned would explain why so much of human thought has been fascinated with death: what it is, why it is important, and what lies on the other side (if there is one).

misty mort 3Further still, for those that do not believe in an afterlife, an explanation for those that do accept a life after death would be that those people view death as bad and are attempting to mitigate the evil they see in death, or at the very least make death not as scary or not as bad as it otherwise would be. If people did not think death was bad, then it seems hard to explain why one would need to postulate a life-after-death.

But if my tutorial classes are anything to go by, it appears my presumption that people presently take death to be bad is wrong: according to just over half my students death is not ceteris paribus bad, but to ask such an idea is nonsensical. That is, death is not bad (nor good), but simply sits outside the purview of value judgment. For the other half the goodness or badness of death depends on circumstances. Nobody took death to be bad (or good), and nobody was undecided. What perhaps was more interesting was that nobody could understand what the problem exactly is; why ask questions about death? The problem of death for my students was poorly motivated.

I found this to be striking. I hope I am not alone in that. Sure, I might be wrong and my students might be right, but this is hardly obvious and there seems to be good reasons to support the view that death is bad or that we as a majority treat it as a bad thing.

Now, it is important to note the difference between death being bad for the person who has died and death being bad for the people it has left behind. Most, if not all, students believed death is bad for those left behind rather than for the one who had actually died. I am not entirely sure how death can be bad for people who have not died, especially when these same students thought that death was value-neutral, but nevertheless this was their position. Putting that perplexing contradiction aside, students generally thought the evidence of why death is bad for those affected by another dying was grief: we grieve for those who have died because we have lost something. In particular, we grieve because we have lost a relationship with the deceased. Death is bad because it denies the living of something and we grieve for that loss.

Now while I did not agree with my students for the majority of our discussions on the topic of death, I at least understood how they could hold or have come to such positions. But this particular one – that we grieve because we lose a relationship – struck me as incredibly bizarre. I thought we grieved because we feel bad for the person who has died, not that I have lost something. It grieves us that such badness has befallen a person we care about; we take it that something bad – perhaps the greatest of evil – has happened to the person.

In simple terms: when I grieve it is not because I feel for myself, it is because I feel bad for the other.

If we did not think death was bad (or evil) why would we grieve? Grief seems to me to be extremely good evidence to support the widespread intuition that not only is death bad but that death is bad for the individual to whom it befalls (even if such intuitions are mistaken, this is good motivation for the problem of why is death bad in the first place). However, once again, my students did not agree: they thought that when we grieve we grieve over the loss of our relationship with the departed, rather than the departed themselves. I other words, I grieve for what I have lost, rather than what the departed have lost.

the-punished-son-by-greuze
The Punished Son – Jean Baptiste Greuze, 1778

I honestly do not know what to make of such a suggestion, other than it strikes me as supremely selfish. But let me make it clear: I am not doubting that we feel anguish at something we have lost, nor do I doubt that our relationship plays an important part about whom we do, or do not, grieve over. But it is certainly not how I experience grief over a lost one, and I do not think my students suggestion makes sense of much of the linguistic data expressed by those in the throes of grief. For it seems clear to me that our personal loss is not the focal point of our thoughts in grief, nor does it take a primary position in it.

A family who has lost their mother will grieve because the mother has lost something, namely their life, and all the goods that life allows us to experience. I should make it explicitly clear that while I agree with my students that when we grieve to grieve over our loss, ‘I have lost my mother,’ but it seems this does not take precedence over the feeling of anguish over the losses suffered for someone we care about. Death is bad for those left behind, but it is additionally bad for the person who has died.

But in light of this my students deny this: when they grieve, they say, they have grieved over their own personal loss, not thinking (or caring) about the dead themselves.

I still do not know what to make of this. Perhaps I have failed to properly explain the point, or maybe my students are solely concerned about themselves and see others as only having value inasmuch as they add to their own personal enjoyment? Or maybe they are being completely honest. Maybe they simply miss the point? Or maybe I am crazy and have a completely warped sense of grief and its role that it plays in death.