Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Regulating Aims

Railton offers some interesting thoughts on the paradox of hedonism (and self-defeating consequentialist aims more generally) in his 'Alienation' paper (Facts, Values, and Norms, p.156):
However, it is important to notice that even though adopting a hedonistic life project may tend to interfere with realizing that very project, there is no such natural exclusion between acting for the sake of another or a cause as such and recognizing how important this is to one's happiness... while the pursuit of happiness may not be the reason he entered or sustains the relationship, he may also recognize that if it had not seemed likely to make him happy he would not have entered it, and that if it proved over time to be inconsistent with his happiness he would consider ending it.

So the sophisticated hedonist (SH) may take the goal of hedonism to regulate his other ends, but nevertheless regards those first-order contingent desires as non-instrumental for as long as he retains them. Railton continues (p.157):

It might be objected that one cannot really regard a person or project as an end as such if one's commitment is in this way contingent or overridable. But were this so, we would be able to have very few commitments to ends as such. For example, one could not be committed to both one's spouse and one's child as ends as such, since at most one of these commitments could be overriding in cases of conflict. It is easy to confuse the commitment to an end as such (or for its own sake) with that of an overriding commitment, but strength is not structure.

I don't think that is an "easy" confusion to make at all. It would be downright silly for someone to think that a desire must be instrumental merely because it was overridable. As I see it, the worry here is not that hedonistic concerns may outweigh SH's other desires; it is that they may extinguish them utterly. (Non-hedonistic ends seem to be treated as in some sense providing merely prima facie rather than pro tanto reasons.) We do not find this in ordinary cases of conflict: a parent will still care about their spouse, even as they favour their child. But SH, on my favoured reading, would cease to recognize an end if it proved clearly detrimental to his long-term happiness. So the structural relations of these desires is unusual, and this should be recognized. 

We do not here have two first-order desires (on a structural par) weighing against each other. Nor - it is argued - do we have derived desires that are merely instrumental to one's hegemonic "true aim" of hedonism. Rather, in the case of SH we have first-order desires that are largely non-hedonistic, yet - despite being non-instrumental - they are contingent on the 'regulating aim' (let us call it) of hedonism. Hedonism is treated as a higher-order desire. It does not guide one's actions directly, but it guides the acquisition and maintenance of one's first-order desires. That's how I would want to explicate the idea, at least.

Railton's most vivid explication comes on p.159:

An individual could realize that his instrumental attitude towards his friends prevents him from achieving the fulles happiness friendship affords. He could then attempt to focus more on his friends as such, doing this somewhat deliberately, perhaps, until it comes more naturally. He might then find his friendships improved and himself happier. If he found instead that his relationships were deteriorating or his happiness declining, he would reconsider the idea. None of this need be hidden from himself: the external goal of happiness reinforces the internal goals of his relationships. The sophisticated hedonist's motivational structure should therefore meet a counterfactual condition: he need not always act for the sake of happiness, since he may do various things for their own sake or for the sake of others, but he would not act as he does if it were not compatible with his leading an objectively hedonistic [i.e. maximally happy] life. Of course, a sophisticated hedonist cannot guarantee that he will meet this counterfactual condition, but only attempt to meet it as fully as possible.

Discussing this in Michael Smith's seminar today, it was initially suggested that this 'counterfactual condition' - by implying that SH would never act on his non-hedonistic desires when doing so would be inoptimal - required a kind of overdetermination: although actually motivated by concern for others, SH's stronger hedonistic desire is waiting there in the background, ready to override the others just in case they fail to fall into line. But this just looks much like the simple hedonist. So I think we do better to interpret the sophisticated hedonistic desire as a purely higher-order one, which does not have any direct motivational force at all. (Note that the counterfactual condition may still be true due to finkish dispositions. Though it probably calls for a slightly looser interpretation in any case, i.e. SH may act inoptimally at times, so long as this doesn't too greatly undermine the happiness of his life as a whole.)

This is vital for seeing the difference between Railton's characters of John and Juan. Both feel great affection for their respective wives, and recognize the impersonal demands of utilitarianism as having ultimate moral weight in some sense. But John justifies his good treatment of his wife in directly utilitarian terms: "I've always thought that people should help each other when they're in a specially good position to do so. I know Anne better than anyone else does, so I know better what she wants and needs." (p.152) He thus seems troublingly 'alienated' from his personal concerns and relationships. Juan, on the other hand, responds simply: "I love Linda... So it means a lot to me to do things for her." (p.163) He adds the utilitarian justification only when further asked how in principle his marriage fits into the greater scheme of things.

Due to the assumption of structural parity, and thus motivational overdetermination, many in our class concluded that John and Juan were much the same, differing only in which of their two aligned desires were causally operative. But I don't think that's the right way to look at it. Juan isn't directly motivated by impersonal utilitarian considerations at all (we may say) -- not even waiting inoperative in the background. He has a quite different motivational structure, full of deeply personal and non-alienated concerns; it is just that these concerns are regulated by (or contingent on) a higher-order requirement that they align with the impersonal goals of morality.

Sound plausible?


  1. Hi Richard,

    I agree with you that there need not be overdetermination here. I also agree that there is a difference between John and Juan. It is not easy to say what this is since they both endorse hedonism. But we know at which point the difference is manifest: John but not Juan offers hedonism as his reason immediately; Juan but not John offers his love for his wife. So Juan's motivational structure must be different from John's, it must somehow be more complex.

    However I'm not sure whether the first-order second-order desire distinction quite captures what is going on here. The distinction is Frankfurt's, and he refers to second-order desires as what we want to want, as opposed to those first-order desires we merely 'have'. This has the advantage of allowing Juan to say honestly that he was motivated by his love for his wife, and to explain the guiding/counterfactual role that his hedonism plays.

    My worry is that in spite of these explanatory virtues the straight distribution of the love for the wife and the concern for the good respectively into first and second order desires leads to deeper unclarities. As an initial intuition pump, it seems to follow that Juan is being a little disingenous when he cites his wife as his primary motivation. For there is an important sense in which our first order desires are unevaluative, and that conversely our second order desires concern the things we 'really' want. His concern for his wife is importantly contigent: it vitally depends on the further explanation - his hedonism. This isnt quite how he puts things.

    Michael Smith mentioned as a problem in interpreting the paper the fact that there seemed to be 'too many norms'. In addition to the concerns of morality there were concerns 'from the personal point of view' and concerns about how to integrate the two. Railton formulates the worry early on in his paper as follows:

    "We must recognize that loving relationships, friendships, group loyalties, and spontaneous actions are among the most important contributors to whatever it is that makes life worthwhile; any moral theory deserving serious consideration must itself give them serious consideration. As William K. Frankena has written, ‘Morality is made for man, not man for morality’."

    Although he aims at a moral theory with the power to be revisionary, I think it is clear that Railton considers it an important criterion on the construction of a successful moral theory that it coheres at least with some of those moral platitudes we take to be most vital to successful human life. Loss of these would result in alienation, and it is a concern to avoid this result, in a sense, which drives his paper.

    If that is right then there is an important sense in which personal concerns and moral concerns are equal partners. Rightly Tristram noted that a good moral theory will extend fully to incorporate these personal concerns. My claim is that it doesnt follow that moral theory will thereafter be logically/motivationally prior to these personal concerns. If that's right then we oversimplify to call personal concerns first-order and moral concerns second order; and we can deny that Juan was at all disingenuous.

  2. Hi Barry, thanks for commenting! Your objection is potentially very pressing, but I'd need to hear a bit more about how you are understanding "primary motivations", and how they relate to properly candid self-reports. For it seems that Juan can say with complete honesty that love for his wife is his immediate motivation. It is the salient consideration that guided his action. That this desire is contingent on the requirements of moral duty does not mean that it is merely instrumental, i.e. that it is not actually an ultimate end in its own right. (It just means that in other circumstances it would not have been!) At least, that's the suggestion I take from Railton: we can make sense of a higher goal that 'regulates' our immediate desires without making them merely derivative. (We still act simply to fulfill the desire, rather than to fulfill the higher goal via the desire.) This is a controversial suggestion, so I'd definitely be interested to hear further objections to it. But since I take Juan's first-order desires to be perfectly real in their own right (despite their contingency), I don't have the intuition that there's necessarily anything disingenuous in his report.


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