On Hedonism

This post is a brief excursion into more straightforward analytic philosophy. It was prompted by discussion with my colleagues at Wayne State, particularly Dr. Wilburn. We were in turn prompted by Plato.

We are often taught that hedonism is the view that the pleasant and the good are identical. I will argue that this must be an incomplete characterization of hedonism, and that a second condition (at least) needs to be added.

This general statement that the pleasant and the good are identical can be glossed in terms of a variety of principles of action. The simplest one would be something like: given a choice of actions, you should choose the one that will give you the most pleasure unless there’s a likely expectation of greater pain as a result from it down the road. (So, no heroin unless you’re diagnosed with a terminal disease; no sleeping with the boss’ wife unless you don’t need the job and he’s not prone to violent revenge.) This is a practicable principle and more or less what, I think, most self-described hedonists in the real world practice, or think they rationally ought to practice, etc.

In philosophy though we mess things up. If the pleasant is identical with the good, after all, we should be focused on what is really pleasant, that is, what maximizes pleasures over a lifetime, or over the lifetime of a population, or over the entire spatio-temporal-causal history of the actual world, etc. The Epicurean version of this, already quite difficult to practice given our extreme ignorance of the long-term consequences of our actions even for ourselves, concerns itself with maximizing pleasure over our entire lives; the utilitarian version, an epistemic absurdity, wants I suppose to maximize it over the future history of the universe, either for human beings alone or, as the revolutionary vanguard argue, for animals and other beings with the capacity to feel pain and pleasure as well.

So that would lead us to something like: for all actions A, A is the morally best thing you can do iff (i) the total pleasure over the spatio-temporal-causal history of the actual world resulting from A’s commission is greater than the total pain resulting from A’s commission over same and (ii) there was no set of actions over the spatiotemporal entirety of any possible world proceeding according to the laws of nature from the commission of an action other than A at the time A was committed in the actual world which would have led to a greater net of pleasure over pain than was realized in the actual world by the commission of A.

It is interesting that pleasure-consequentialism of this sort is so utterly useless as a guide to action, since one would have thought that one of the points of moving to pleasure as a criterion of the good was that we had better epistemic access to pleasure than to goodness. This may or may not be; what I am arguing, however, that something like this principle needs to be an explicit premise of any hedonistic philosophy worthy of the name.

All these views as stated are insufficient to capture what I think the hedonist wants to say. So too is the following definition on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “the simplest form of ethical hedonism is the claim that all and only pleasure is good non-instrumentally and all and only pain or displeasure is bad non-instrumentally.” And the deficiency they all share is this: if the pleasant and the good are identical, then one can qualify as a hedonist by specifying various goods and inferring from their goodness that they are also pleasant. The following patterns of reasoning are characteristic:

“It is good to exhibit bravery in battle and march to my death with these other soldiers. Therefore, it must be pleasant to bravely march to my death with these other soldiers.”

“I shouldn’t sleep with the boss’ wife. Therefore, it won’t really be pleasant to sleep with the boss’ wife, even if it seems to be pleasant at the time.”

“It is right to devote as much of my income as I can to feeding the hungry, even if I live in penury as a result. Therefore I will get more pleasure out of life if I do so.”

The point is that if we are dealing with an identity-claim between the good and the pleasant, then if we have any independent access to the good, we can reason from the good to the pleasant across that identity-claim just as surely as we can reason from the pleasant to the good. What the hedonist actually wants, though, is only to reason from the pleasant to the good, and never to reason from the good to the pleasant. The view that we ordinarily call hedonism is therefore really a combination of two sorts of principle:

(a) the identity of the pleasant with the good, and

(b) some principle which says that we have independent epistemic access to the pleasant but not to the good, or at least that our epistemic access to the pleasant is in practice so much stronger than our epistemic access to the good that in practice it utterly swamps out whatever considerations might be had from the latter; or, perhaps, some metaphysical principle which says that pleasures are part of the fundamental ontology of the universe, but goods are not, that goods only supervene on the right sorts of combinations of pleasures, or something to that effect.

It does no good here to stamp your feet here and say something like: “But what I mean is that the good is nothing but the pleasant; there is nothing more to goodness but some net sum of human pleasures and pains.” Even on this view, it is still the case that if I know that it is good to get up from my cappuccino, which I will not enjoy even slightly if it falls below a certain critical temperature that it is about to fall below, and rush out to the front of the coffee shop, scuffing my new shoes, to help an old woman who has dropped her shopping bag, then it must be pleasant to do so as well. That is how identity works.

Nor does it seem to me that weakening the logical connection so that pleasure was merely sufficient for the good, or merely necessary, would get us want we want here. If the pleasant is sufficient but not necessary for the good, then there are other things which can make something good as well, and then we will no longer be hedonists in any interesting sense, just people who think that pleasure is sometimes relevant to assessments of what is good and/or right. If we make it necessary but not sufficient, we might or might not still be hedonists, but we will still, if we have independent criteria of the good, be able to reason backwards from those criteria to the pleasantness of this or that course of action, and then we will be forced to conclude that marching bravely to your death for a good cause, sacrificing your own quality of life to improve that of others, etc. are pleasant things to do, simply because they are good. Such might well be an ideal state of character: but my point is that no-one would ordinarily call such a view of things hedonism – only someone trying to defend a philosophical theory would say that it was.

The conjuring trick that the hedonistic philosopher (as I imagine her) seems to be performing is to argue for the identity of the pleasant and the good directly while leaving the assumption that we only have (or have far better) epistemic access to what is pleasurable than to what is good tacit. In fact, though, there is no particular reason to think that that is right, prior to argument at least. We are trained in the use of the words “pleasant” and “good” from when we are very young and both have a variety of associations and criteria of application. Different people and activities are put forward as exemplars of the pursuit of goodness and pleasure, different actions are praised, and so on. In terms of our ordinary lives, irrespective of philosophical or religious considerations, there is a substantial amount of information associated with both our pleasure-terms and with our terms of moral approbation (good, just, merciful, etc.).

Most people’s ordinary concept of happiness is something like: good and pleasant. A happy life, many people think, is a life in which one does both good and well. Asserting the identity of the pleasant and the good is thus in a way an affirmation of this ordinary concept of happiness – that since both matter both must ultimately be reconcilable – but by itself, as argued, commitment to this does not commit you what ordinary people would call hedonism. Thus we see that, as often happens in philosophy, there is the potential to advance one’s cause by way of rhetorical sleight of hand. Arguments for a deep and at least minimally plausible principle are used to set up the mark, who is then easily duped by subsequent arguments assuming unargued that she ought to be guided in action by her judgments of what will be pleasant – never noticing that her ‘moralistic’ cousin, who strives her hardest to conform her judgments of pleasure to her judgments of what is good and right, accepts exactly the same principle.

Among non-philosophers, hedonists are the ones who are skeptical of the things they have learned about goodness, but not skeptical of the things they have learned about pleasure. So they focus more on the enjoyment of pleasures than on the enjoyment of goods.

“What is good?” Well, what is pleasant? Sometimes people don’t enjoy eating or sex. Sometimes people focus on the task at hand without the level of pleasure or pain it inflicts on them being particularly relevant to their determination to continue with it. Sometimes people do things to find out if they enjoy them, and aren’t sure whether they actually do or not until after several attempts, or substantial time to reflect after the fact. As with goodness, we have a lot of exemplars and associations and criteria of application, but it can be difficult to figure out how to apply those in our own lives – and different people come to different sorts of answer.

Likewise, a lot of people think that it’s always good to treat others lovingly. I have some inclination to think that’s true whether or not it always increases the net pleasure in the universe to treat people lovingly. Imagine how rotten you’d feel if you were crucifying someone and he was all, “Father, forgive him.” Now he’s dead and you feel terrible for nailing him up. You were just doing your job. It’s nothing personal, man. Why did you forgive me?

Was the net pleasure in the universe increased by this interaction? I’m not sure how I want to answer that question. But I guess I think the guy on the cross did something good there either way.

I think that philosophical hedonists are also in effect starting out from a viewpoint of skepticism about our ordinary mastery of words like “good,” “just,” “merciful,” “right,” “fair,” and so on, preferring instead to base their moral philosophy on our mastery of words such as “pleasant” and “enjoyable.” (That same SEP article has a nice long list of related words at the beginning.) So this view needs some motivation.

At the metaphysical level the hedonist can try address the challenge through some sort of argument that pleasures but not goods are part of the fundamental ontology of the universe. Even if such an argument was accepted, though, it is not clear that this view by itself can overcome the objection raised here to standard articulations of the hedonist philosophy. Even if metaphysical hedonism were true, it could still be the case that our language of goodness did a better job of tracking supervenient goods and thus the overall flow of our pleasures than our language of pleasures does. We could still have a superior practical form of inference from the good to the pleasant even on the view that the good supervenes on the pleasant, in other words, and it could likewise still be the case that we have superior epistemic access to pleasure by way of our epistemic access to supervenient goodness than we do by way of our direct epistemic access to pleasure, just as our epistemic access to temperature is better than our epistemic access to mean molecular kinetic energy, even though the former supervenes on the latter.

So it seems that regardless of the metaphysics of goodness, in addition to the thesis that the pleasant is the good, the philosophical hedonist will also need to defend either the view that we have no epistemic access to the good independent of our epistemic access to the pleasant, or the view that our epistemic access to the pleasant is vastly superior to and ought to be privileged over our epistemic access to the good, or the view that one ought (presumably, because it is more pleasant to do so) to privilege judgments of the pleasant over judgments of the good, when assessing what the pleasant/good is.

I am sure that such arguments have been given. I am sure too that this is all ground that has been trod many times before. But I do know that nothing I have read has particularly convinced me to give up the conviction that an ability, deeply flawed and easily corrupted but genuine, to assess what is good and right is part of our cognitive endowment, and so, while I am quite open to the idea that there is some fairly strong connection between the pleasant and the good, I have no inclination whatever towards hedonism. Pushed into a corner I would much sooner defend the view that the woman who goes willingly to a hopeless and gruesome death which inspires no-one and leads to no future improvements in our condition because she believes it to be good to do so also, if her belief is true, gains pleasure thereby, then the view that because of the pain and misery she will surely suffer her belief that it is good to die in this way must be false.

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2 comments on “On Hedonism

  1. If we take the word “pleasant” out the equation and simply say that doing “good” benefits ourselves, for whatever reason, is this still hedonism? After all, “pleasant” may not be the right word since it has connotations of ephemerality which may not be meant since practicing hedonism entails negotiating one’s own happiness throughout life. Leaving behind that cappuccino may not be pleasant, but doing right (in this case, picking up the grocery bag) may be its own reward.

  2. seancstidd says:

    I think that if we think A’s being pleasant is irrelevant to A’s being good we are not hedonists. The idea that doing the right thing is its own reward is an important one, but there are different ways of glossing it. On at least some of them we draw the conclusion that the one who does the right thing is the one who is actually happy, that goodness is conducive to or identical with happiness, and then if we also have some kind of connection between happiness and pleasure we can wind up with a view where goodness and pleasantness are connected. (“The truly enjoyable deed is the one which is right.”) I don’t think the bare fact that we draw such a connection makes us hedonists; but we’re almost certainly not hedonists if we don’t draw such a connection.

    Thanks for reading!

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