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.

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.

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.