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.

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[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.

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