Sunday, May 22, 2005

Pleasurable Relations

No, that's not a euphemism for sex. Sorry. Think instead about the different ways that a person might respond in relation to the feelings of others. There are three basic options: you might empathize, feeling pleasure at others' pleasure, and pain at their pain; you might have the very opposite reaction, getting sadistic pleasure from others' pain; or you might be entirely indifferent to the well-being of others. Let's label these three types of character as V-beings, E-beings, and I-beings, respectively (standing for virtuous, evil, or indifferent character).

These are the characters we've been looking at in class, inspired by Colin McGinn's Ethics, Evil and Fiction. But as it stands, these feelings might not have any necessary impact on one's actions. An E-being might behave morally and help others, making himself miserable in the process. So we're not yet really talking about 'virtue' or 'evil' at all. A more interesting cast of characters might result from considering analogous desires instead. Let us say that an altruist desires that others are happy; an amoralist is purely egoistic and does not care what happens to others either way; and a wicked person has an intrinsic desire that others suffer.

These new characters could incorporate the pleasure felt in sympathy (since we feel pleased when we know that our desires have been fulfilled), but it becomes a side-effect rather than an aim of action. They thus allows us to see virtue and evil in non-egoistic terms. The wicked person might be selflessly evil - even willing to promote evil at cost to himself!

Would it matter to any of these characters who caused the pleasure or pain to others? Consider the sadistic E-being: would he still get pleasure from watching strangers harm each other, or is he only happy when he himself inflicts the pain? The answer to this will determine whether it is really the pain of others that he enjoys, or if it is rather something about himself having power over them, or some such. Of course, the genuinely wicked person would not care whether he was the cause of the evil or not. Compare the genuine altruist to the self-gratifying moralist: the latter wants to be the person who helps others, whereas the former has a more pure other-regarding desire, that others be helped (whether by himself or others).

We can also separate out egoism by asking what state of affairs each character would prefer despite remaining ignorant of its realization. The egoist V-being wants to know others are happy in order to be happy himself. The altruist just wants others to be happy - whether he learns about it is less important. Similarly, mutatis mutandis, for the egoist vs. wicked E-being.

One interesting question raised in class was how these characters ought to relate to each other. Suppose that an E-being is enjoying much sadistic glee: should a V-being be sympathetically happy about this? Of course she will have an extrinsic reason to be sad, i.e. for the sake of the harmed person who is pleasuring the sadist so. But quite apart from that, should the V-being regard the E-being's glee as intrinsically good (though possibly outweighed by the greater harm of the victim)?

This can pose a problem for utilitarianism, as the common intuition here is that there is nothing good about sadistic pleasure. But this then denies the utilitarian claim that happiness is an intrinsic good. It seems we must restrict this claim to merely 'deserved happiness' or 'non-sadistic happiness', or some such. That would complicate our theory. Is it a complication worth adding? I'm not sure about it. I think we can say that the even the sadist's pleasure is good-in-itself. But of course it is all-things-considered bad, because it is outweighed by the greater harm done to the victim. (Do you think this response is plausible?)

There's also the opposite problem of revenge. We can get a wicked glee from seeing bad people suffer (our lecturer mentioned a disturbingly enjoyable story about a rapist being tracked down by the victim's mother and sodomized with a cucumber). But, on reflection, it is probably bad of us to react in such a way. This harks back to the old idea that revenge makes us "no better than they". By enjoying the suffering of another, we ourselves become E-beings. This might be seen as the greatest threat of evil: not just the harm it does to others, but the risk of contagion. As Hilzoy wrote in a stunningly insightful post:
I think the effects of hatred are like (what I've seen of) cocaine. At first, it's exhilarating. It's fun to see other people being vile and to set yourself in opposition to them... But if you don't keep hatred in check, you come to rely on it more and more, the fun fades, and it corrodes you from within.

To change tacks somewhat, it's also worth considering which of these characters it makes most egoistic sense to be. Suppose you want only to maximize your future happiness, and you have the choice of becoming either a V-, I-, or E-being. Which should you choose? I'm inclined to think the V-being has a rather large advantage, in that they would find it much easier to get others to go along with their ends. (Just imagine: "Hi, I want you to be happy!" "Okay, sounds good to me!") Their goals would be generally supported by the rest of society, and thus they'd have a better chance of succeeding at them and attaining happiness themselves. By contrast, it must really suck to be evil.

One last issue worth considering is the apparent "double standard": we assume that altruism needs no justification, but wickedness seems bizarre and in need of explanation. What's the basis for this difference? Aren't they logically analogous? Of course, we'd all want to encourage altruism, for our own sakes and others', but that's no principled reason to see one character as more understandable than the other. Perhaps it's a similarity thing: based on our own (roughly altruistic) values, we can more easily understand those with similar values. Or it could be natural/statistical: it just so happens that most humans are naturally sympathetic, so we think nothing of it, whereas genuine wickedness is exceedingly rare, so we think it odd.

But are either of those reasons deeply principled? It seems that what we really want to say is that pleasure is the sort of thing that all rational agents are able to recognize as an objective good, whereas pain is objectively bad, and that accounts for the asymmetry. (Why would a rational agent pursue something he sees as bad?) Alternatively, we might appeal to consistency. The E-being wants himself to be happy, so why doesn't this value-judgment "carry over" into his hopes for other people? It seems inconsistent to say that oneself ought to be happy whereas everyone else ought to be sad. Thus such a view might stand in greater need of justification than the more consistent position of altruism. Any other ideas?

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