Saturday, August 15, 2009

Hedonism Review

Now to summarize my thoughts on hedonistic theories of welfare (understood broadly, to include qualia preferentism and other views on which your welfare depends only on your subjective mental states)...

(1) Some people are drawn to welfare hedonism for largely linguistic reasons: it just sounds wrong to their ears to say that a person is 'harmed' by an event that doesn't impact their experiences. In at least some cases this is the result of demonstrable conceptual and metaphysical confusions -- e.g. conflating different senses in which one might be "affected" by an event. But in any case, there is little point getting hung up on terminology. As I argue in 'The Importance of Implications', we should instead focus on the substantive normative questions in the vicinity, e.g., what we should want for the people we care about.

(2) When we reflect on the things that really matter to us in life, most of us find that we care about much more than just the quality of our subjective experiences. We also want, among other things, to form meaningful connections with other people, and to make actual progress towards accomplishing our goals. A life of pleasant delusion does not seem nearly so appealing. The hedonist may suggest that this is just because we care about more than our own well-being: for example, we want others to be well-off even when this doesn't benefit us personally. But even bracketing such moral concerns, departing your current life for the superficial thrills of Nozick's experience machine doesn't even seem like something worth doing for your own sake. (For another example: nor does plugging Morpheus back into the Matrix against his will seem like a particularly benevolent thing to do.) For many of us, at least, a life of appealing experiences is not sufficient for an appealing life.

(3) Some hedonists try to debunk all such preferences as having been 'corrupted' by our mentally 'perceiving' what were meant to be unperceived events. I address this objection in my recent post, 'Imagining the Unseen'.

(4) Ben Bradley argues for hedonism on the grounds that other views run into problems specifying the 'timing' of certain harms. 'Must harms be temporally located?' explains why this is unconvincing.


As noted in #2 above, hedonism makes some incredibly implausible claims. For any hedonists out there: what do you think should motivate us to accept them nonetheless? (Even if you find that you personally only care about the experiential aspect of your life, what's the motivation for overriding others' self-regarding preferences regarding the sort of life they want - on reflection - to live?)

15 comments:

  1. As I understand it, there's been some X-phi work which has shown that when you ask people whether they'd want to be unplugged if they discovered they were in the experience machine, they say no to that as well. So the intuition that the experience machine is unacceptable may not establish as much as you think; people's conservatism, their bias toward whatever they have at present, may be more of a factor than any desire for "real" accomplishments/connections/etc.

    I certainly can't understand why anybody wanted to leave the Matrix.

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  2. Aaron: De Brigard's work is interesting, but (to keep it short) I'm not sure it speaks to the point Nozick was trying to make. And in his presentation of his work at the Central APA last Feb, he said he was just interested in subject responses, and the question of what explains their responses, not Nozick's point in employing the example. De Brigard claims that conservatism (the "status quo bias")--rather than the "value of reality"--can explain people's responses to the experience machine (and his reversed cases). But that doesn't speak to the question of whether people should value "reality" (or real experiences, etc.) more than (some of) their responses on these cases suggest.

    Now, maybe it's true that if the status quo bias is what leads people to say, "I wouldn't plug in," in response to Nozick's experience machine, then we shouldn't take the case to be decisive in showing that people value "reality". But I take it that Nozick was trying to illustrate the thought that "reality" does have value. I'm not sure how the fact (if it is a fact) that some of the people who say they wouldn't plug in can be explained by the status quo bias cuts against the point about what has value that Nozick was trying to illustrate with the example...

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  3. It's worth noting that the Matrix was a shared and unscripted world, so people still had real connections, accomplishments, etc. So I'm with you in thinking that many people could have good lives in there. (But things seem importantly different for a dedicated freedom-fighter like Morpheus, who has already chosen as his central life project something that requires being outside the Matrix, namely, fighting the machines.)

    The conservatism point is interesting, and I think friendly to the anti-hedonist. After all, insofar as people have a standing preference to "continue with the sort of life they've had so far (whatever that might be)", this is yet another objective, non-hedonistic desire we can add to my list. It of course doesn't show that they don't also desire real connections, etc. (Just as the original thought experiment should not be taken to suggest that people don't also desire pleasant experiences.)

    But to avoid such complications entirely, we can ask, not what modifications you would like to happen to you now that you're already in the midst of living a life; but rather, what sort of life would you pick (e.g. for your children) beforehand? If given the option to have your newborn child raised in a separate solipsistic experience machine, or else in a world where it would interact with real people, which would you prefer for its sake? Seems a no-brainer to me.

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  4. To briefly respond to each point (keeping in mind that I'm not extremely well read on the literature):
    (1) Another way of illustrating the intuitive nature of hedonism in something like this way is to ask if there is any such thing as well-being in the zombie world. I guess I haven't really asked a lot of people their intuitions in that case, but to me it seems pretty obvious that zombies can't have "well-being" in any way I would recognize, though presumably they would be just as successful in fulfilling desires (or whatever your non-qualia-based theory of well-being is).
    This, to me, makes me think that some type of mental state theory must be correct, though I agree that its really hard to flesh it out in a plausible way.
    (2) I think Aaron addressed this well--the folks, at least, are just as reluctant to leave the experience machine as they are to enter it. Now I agree, this doesn't prove anything about what should be valued. But it does make Nozick's intuition pump more doubtful as one against hedonism of some sort.
    (3) I'm not convinced, and I stil think the hedonist response is at least plausible--our introspection in shocking cases, such as imagining our body be defiled by necrophiliacs, is skewed by the offensiveness of the act. You point to some easy cases in which we can draw a distinction, such as a tree falling against a chalkboard, but I don't think your generalization to all cases holds.
    (4) Yeah, I agree with you on this one. I don't think other theories have any issue with 'timing.'

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  5. Hi Preston, your #1 is a non-sequitur. I agree that only sentient beings can have wellbeing (or be entities for whose sakes we have reason to prefer some outcomes over others). But you've changed the subject. The question here is instead: given a person (or possible subject of wellbeing), what it is that we should want for them?

    N.B. It is not true that zombies "would be just as successful" in fulfilling their desires, for they do not have any. Since some first-personal aspect ('qualia') is arguably essential to all mentality -- it is what makes something a fully-fledged mental state, rather than just a brain state -- it would seem that zombies don't have any genuine mental states at all. They don't genuinely value or care about anything -- they're merely "going through the motions", with "no lights on inside" at all. On this understanding, it should come as no surprise that even non-hedonists will think that qualia are necessary for qualifying as a subject of well-being in the first place. But this doesn't make them hedonists, since they may hold that what we want for qualifying entities is more than just pleasant experiences; we may also want them to achieve their goals in actual fact, etc.

    re: #2, I thought my previous comment explained why the possibility that people "are just as reluctant to leave the experience machine as they are to enter it" does nothing to mitigate its anti-hedonist force.

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  6. Richard--As per 1, you are right. My mistake.
    But I do disagree with your second point, that zombies don't have desires. Or at least its not obvious to me that they don't. Desires can plausibly be defined functionally/behaviorally, I think, though I may be biased because I'm reading something that argues for that conception currently (Brandt's "A Theory of the Good and the Right").
    Since I am of the understanding that the two paradigms of well-being are mental-state theories and desire-based theories, I thought my point would stand. But its more complicated than that. So you may be right that a better conception would be a mental state conjoined with some facts about the world that creates well-being.

    And your response to the "anti-Nozick" thought experiment results don't satisfy me. People say they have preferences for a lot of things which cognitive psychotherapy (there's Brandt talking again) can eliminate, so unless your conception is going to be much more well laid out, its not going to fly. We could find a ton of inconsistent preferences within a single person, I'd be willing to bet. But this isn't a criticism toward you necessarily; you might agree with that.
    I'd be interested as to what conception of well-being you have.

    Another (weak) point that could be made in the hedonist's favor is that its simple. So if no completely intuitive theory can be fleshed out, hedonism seems to be the default theory.

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  7. Hi Richard. You write:

    When we reflect on the things that really matter to us in life, most of us find that we care about much more than just the quality of our subjective experiences. We also want, among other things, to form meaningful connections with other people, and to make actual progress towards accomplishing our goals.

    Claims of this sort, often made in the literature (e.g., by Nozick), merely assume, without argument, a connection between what is good for us and what matters to us. Maybe such a connection exists, but if so it has to be made and argued for explicitly. When this is done, the argument often becomes transparently question-begging. Thus, it is sometimes said that what we care about is good for us because we desire the objects of our concern. But without further argument, this is simply a restatement of the desire-fulfilment view. Since that view is a rival of hedonism in the debate about what makes people's lives go best, it clearly cannot be presupposed in the context of that debate. (Your use of the term 'want' in the second sentence quoted above seems to involve a move along these lines.)

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  8. Hi Pablo, I certainly don't mean to suggest that the mere existence of non-hedonic desires suffices to refute normative hedonism. But it can form the basis of a persuasive argument directed at the person who endorses their own desires, as most of us surely do by default.

    Hedonism implies that our ordinary preferences are in an important sense mistaken or unwarranted. It would be inconsistent (or at least in serious rational tension) to hold hedonistic beliefs in conjunction with the ordinary desires I've identified. I doubt most people are inclined to give up the latter (absent some incredibly compelling argument). So it looks like they'll need to reject hedonism.

    I should emphasize that this isn't a refutation of hedonism so much as an invitation to give us some reason to take it seriously.

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  9. [Note that immediately before the quoted passage, I claimed that the crucial question is "what we should want for the people we care about." When we aren't divided against ourselves, our judgment of what we should want will coincide with what we do (on reflection) want. Hence the dialectical relevance of the latter. It serves to bring out one's implicit commitment to the falsity of hedonism.]

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  10. Hi Richard,

    I certainly don't mean to suggest that the mere existence of non-hedonic desires suffices to refute normative hedonism. But it can form the basis of a persuasive argument directed at the person who endorses their own desires, as most of us surely do by default.

    I agree, but am skeptical about the value of arguments of this kind. I conceive philosophical discussion as an attempt to discover the truth about questions worth asking, not as an exercise in rational persuasion. (I grant that this conception is not widely shared, though.)

    Hedonism implies that our ordinary preferences are in an important sense mistaken or unwarranted. It would be inconsistent (or at least in serious rational tension) to hold hedonistic beliefs in conjunction with the ordinary desires I've identified. I doubt most people are inclined to give up the latter (absent some incredibly compelling argument). So it looks like they'll need to reject hedonism.

    Again, the fact that most people are inclined to give up hedonism does not have in itself philosophical interest. It is the reasons that these people could give in support of their inclination that I regard as philosophically significant.

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  11. Other people's beliefs may not seem relevant to the truth, but of course things look rather different when the beliefs in question are one's own. It's not as though there's any other method for getting at the truth besides being rationally persuaded from the beliefs that you start with.

    Back to the main topic: do you think there are any positive reasons to favour hedonism?

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  12. Interesting blog.
    "what we should want for the people we care about."

    I'd want them to be happy. Even if that means that they are deluded.

    For example, I fake enjoying my father's (somewhat awful) cooking because it pleases him for me to do so.

    Hedonism implies that our ordinary preferences are in an important sense mistaken or unwarranted.

    I agree. Although my personal temperament is more in line with Cypher than Morpheus.

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    1. I don't want the people I care about to be happy unless they want to be. This is because I don't care about happiness, I care about them. I assign happiness a value of zero. What's valuable is what people want, not happiness. If someone wants happiness it's valuable, but if they don't, it's worthless.

      If someone asks me to be honest with them for something really important to them, I always am, even if it makes them unhappy. My girlfriend keeps kosher (for cultural reasons, not religious ones) and sometimes she is worried that some food she ordered mistakenly has meat in it and has me taste it for her. I know that she'd be happier if she got to eat the food and didn't have to make a fuss about it to the restaurant (she's very shy). But I know that getting what she wants is more important than happiness. I would never delude her because I actually care about her.

      For tiny and unimportant matters a little white lie might be acceptable, like in the case with your father. There are some tiny, unimportant truths that happiness and getting along are more important than (although you should probably ask if your father wants to know the truth, maybe he doesn't and you're actually giving him what he wants). But for really important things happiness is less valuable than the truth.

      As I said in another comment, I consider hedonism to be monstrously evil, one of the worst ideologies ever conceived by the human race. It goes completely against the concepts of empathy, fairness, and mutual respect that morality is based on and instead unjustly privileges a mere feeling as the be-all and end-all of morality.

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  13. In a universe without sentient beings, nothing would matter since nobody who could be emotionally affected by anything would exist. Value is subjective, so the idea of non-experiential value is contradictory and implausible from a materialist point of view (non-experiential value is objective value). People only desire/prefer what they do because the satisfaction of desire causes pleasure (even if it's attitudinal pleasure). Nobody would desire anything if it weren't for the expectation that it would cause some kind of pleasure.

    Nozick's experience machine is a laughably poor argument against hedonism. First of all, what we do desire and what's rational for us to desire are two separate things. Secondly, I can easily counter that the *idea* of living a lie, even a pleasurable lie, is *distressing* to most people. People would avoid spending the rest of their lives hooked up into that machine because the prospect of doing is distressing. Just like people fear death (fear being an expectation of stress) even though it isn't rational, even when they themselves don't believe that there's any suffering in death.

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    1. You are mistaken. Science has proven that it is possible to want things even if there is no expectation that that thing would cause pleasure. The idea that pleasure alone is valuable is an illusion created by the fact that the signal for pleasure and the signal for wanting things are carried by the same neurons. See here for a quick summary: http://lesswrong.com/lw/65w/not_for_the_sake_of_pleasure_alone/

      You argument that it is not logical or coherent to have non-experiential desires, but this is also false. It is possible to desire anything. You are confusing the idea that there is no reason to take an action unless you want to take it with the idea that only pleasure is valuable. It is perfectly logical and coherent to want something that you don't directly experience. It is possible to desire anything. Absolutely anything. It is possible for a creature to have any utility function. And it happens that humans have a utility function that place only a limited value on happiness.

      To give a personal example, I value knowing things. There have been instances in my life where I have had a justified belief that pursuing the truth about something would upset me greatly. I pursued it anyway, because I value knowing the truth as an end in itself.

      The experience machine is a valid argument. People have goals that can only be achieved if they are achieved for real. If a person want to make a difference in the lives of others then they have only achieved this goal if they actually do. If they are tricked by an illusion into thinking they have made a difference their life has failed.

      Hedonism is one of the most evil ideologies ever conceived. It is totally devoid of empathy, it values a pathetic, unimportant feeling instead of people. Instead of empathizing with a person and understanding how their desires are like your own, it says to make someone feel a sensation, whether they want to or not. It is the enemy of all that is good in the world.

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