Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hedonism vs. Qualia Preferentism

It's worth distinguishing 'happiness' (positively valenced experience) from preferred experience. For example, an ascetic monk may wish to avoid strongly valenced experiences, or a self-loathing individual might even want to feel miserable (i.e. have negatively valenced experiences). More interestingly, we might feel attached to our current tastes (hedonic likings), and so be averse to the idea of inducing satisfactions of other tastes.

Imagine, for example, an aesthete who loves opera and fine wine, and utterly detests Britney Spears and cheap bubbly. Suppose a mad scientist offered to rewire their tastes and have them enjoy listening to Britney for hours on end. It's entirely conceivable that the aesthete would find this prospect abhorrent. While acknowledging that he would - in the proposed scenario - be deluded into experiencing great happiness, from his actual perspective the aesthete strongly prefers not to undergo this experience. He prefers not to enjoy the experience of listening to crap.

Is this preference unreasonable? I think that Derek Parfit may be committed to saying so. Parfit holds that hedonic likings and dislikings (unlike desires) are not responsive to reasons. They are simply brute psychological facts. We can have reason to want to like fine wine, if it has a greater potential for intense liking/enjoyment than does cheap bubbly. But there is no reason to like fine wine (any more than there are reasons to bleed), if 'liking' is a brute, reasons-insensitive state: something that happens to us, rather than something we do.

Anyway, if Parfit is right that there are no reasons for liking aesthetically superior objects more, then it's hard to see why we should care about the objects, as opposed to the intensities, of our likings. That is, it looks like the only reason to want to like fine wine more is insofar as it would yield a more intense liking. This might seem to devalue aesthetic evaluation. Beethoven's symphonies no longer merit appreciation. They're just cheesecake. Really, really enjoyable cheesecake. And if you could find Britney just as enjoyable, then that would be just as good.

I wonder about applying this to the moral case. It seems intrinsically bad to derive pleasure from others' suffering (even if you reflectively prefer that others not suffer, and would never act to cause suffering, or anything like that). If a mad scientist offered to rewire your tastes to make you enjoy child porn, say, that would seem very undesirable indeed (and again, I think, not just on instrumental grounds -- though that would surely be part of it). Are these intuitions mistaken?


  1. I can't recall exactly what Parfit says, but I imagine that he'd say - and he anyway ought to say - that the aesthete doesn't merely like the finer things. They believe that the finer things are somehow genuinely reason providing: they provide aesthetic reasons. The class of likings should refer only to some narrower class of attitudes where it is true that we don't care what we like (e.g. in the way that many people like warm baths).

  2. Reasons to what? Not reasons to like (or find pleasure in) the objects, since Parfit thinks there are no such reasons. They must instead be a kind of practical reason, say to desire certain outcomes. But what outcomes, exactly? That you experience the object (regardless of whether you enjoy this)? Or should we understand aesthetic reasons as reasons to desire that you like the experience?

    The latter seems most plausible. But what feature of this state of affairs makes it desirable? Again, on Parfit's view we can't appeal to the intuitive claim that certain objects warrant positive affect or liking. Yet despite this, we want to be able to claim that the state of affairs of having a liking for certain objects is something that warrants pursuit. Doesn't this seem like an odd combination of views? (Maybe it isn't. I really don't know what to think here.)

  3. You write:
    "on Parfit's view we can't appeal to the intuitive claim that certain objects warrant positive affect or liking"

    "Positive affect" is ambiguous. It might mean "like", or it might mean "pro-attitude". In the former case, he'll agree that no object warrants positive affect. But in the latter case, he'll want to say that some objects *do* warrant positive affect. Aesthetically valuable objects provide reasons for us to admire them, cherish them, hold them in high esteem, respect them, praise them, prize them, revere them, and so on.

    That is, I think Parfit's claims about likings are meant to apply only to a very narrow range of attitudes. It's perfectly compatible with that to say that we have other attitudes which are reason-responsive.

    (I repeat that I can't recall exactly what Parfit says. Perhaps this is me talking and not him.)

  4. Surely Parfit is committed to thinking you have reason to like [in the sense of 'take pleasure in'], that is if 'what's best for us' is reason-giving?

    I'm thinking of the end of 'What makes some-one's life go best' and the notion that what is good for some-one is being engaged in valuable activities (rational activity, mutual love, awareness of beauty etc). Presumably then mutual love doesn't warrant liking, but as we're warranted in wanting our good so we're warranted in wanting both to experience mutual love and to take pleasure in it. And obviously for Parfit "take pleasure in" just means "want," so it just boils down to us having reason to want to want mutual love, and all those other things that will be good for us if we want and get them.

    So to me there doesn't seem to be anything odd about the above structure of reasons to want, (just seems very akin to the heroin addict wanting to not want). What's odd to me is the notion that there are some things 'which wouldn't be for our good' even if we got them and took pleasure in them (hence why I'm an unreconstructed hedonist I guess). But then I'm perfectly happy admitting that it could be for our good if we take pleasure in torture/child porn, it's just a (very reliable) contingent norm that taking pleasure in such things isn't for our good.

    The only other reason to my mind for objecting to the liking of child porn/torture, would be if you think that such things (or the liking of such things) is intrinsically bad such that the very world is made a worse place by there being more of them in it. Which perhaps isn't implausible, but then I don't think we're talking about 'our good' any more, it's just the case that our good and the good diverge.

  5. Is your thought that it would be bad for you if you enjoyed various evil things to occur? It may be clear that it would probably lead to bad effects if you enjoyed these things. But it is less clear that it is bad for a person to enjoy bad things.

    Here's a point I heard Railton make at a talk. Pre-theoretically at least, people want bad things to happen to bad people, and people especially hate it if good things happen to someone because of their bad actions. Now consider a guy who takes pleasure in torturing people. We want this guy not to take pleasure in torturing people. But if it was bad for him to take pleasure in torturing people, we should think that that it was in one way good for him to take pleasure in it--since it's bad for him, he's automatically being punished for his evil ways. On the other hand, if it were good for him to take pleasure in torturing, we'd be even more upset. So it looks like even pre-theoretically there is some pressure to say that taking pleasure in evil isn't _bad for_ a person.

    For my part, call me crazy but I just don't share many of these pre-theoretic judgments anymore, so I wouldn't find it problematic if Parfit said there was no reason to want to enjoy Beethoven over Britney.

  6. Alex - I'm not sure what you mean by 'likings' only applying narrowly. This is Parfit's analysis of pleasure and pain, two states which arguably pop up (at least as components of more complex states) all over the place.

    Those other 'pro-attitudes' you mention are arguably examples of this. Insofar as they include pleasure (positive affect) as a component, Parfit will analyze this component as the two-part complex of an experience and an attitude of hedonic liking directed towards the experience. This might then be combined with reasons-responsive components such as desires or judgments. But, unless I've misunderstood, I don't think Parfit would allow the 'affect' component to be subject to reasons.

    (But perhaps you deny that the complex states can be broken down into components like this?)

    Dave - 'obviously for Parfit "take pleasure in" just means "want,"'

    No, very much not! Hedonic likings are sui generis. Two features that distinguish them from 'wants' are that: (i) likings are essentially local, able only to take co-present experiences as their objects, whereas 'wants' can be directed at future or possible states of affairs, and (ii) wants, but not likings, are reasons-responsive.

    The key difference: liking an experience makes that experience a pleasure. Wanting an experience has no such implications.

    Nick - the Railton point is clever. But I wonder whether it just goes to show that not everything bad for you is apt to serve as punishment. We need to distinguish the harms of suffering from the harms of character corruption. The pre-theoretic intuitions have thus been under-described. What we want is more specifically for bad people to suffer, not for them to be further corrupted.

  7. Sorry I should have been clearer, I just meant "want" in the sense used in 'What Makes a Person's Life Go Best,' as in "On the use of 'pain' which has rational and moral significance, all pains are when experienced unwanted, and a pain is worse or greater the more it is unwanted..."

    Ditto at the end where he speculates that: "What is of value, or is good for someone, is to have both; to be engaged in these activities, and to be strongly wanting< to be so engaged." I took him to mean that the good for some-one is having "awareness of beauty" or whatever and wanting to have it in the sense he identifies with "taking pleasure in."

    Anyway maybe I'm confused, but don't feel under any compulsion to devote time to correcing my undergraduately misreadings!

  8. Ah, sorry, I missed the fact that you were referencing Parfit's earlier work. I think it is only more recently that he has come to distinguish 'liking' from 'wanting'. So I am talking about his current view.

  9. "(But perhaps you deny that the complex states can be broken down into components like this?)"

    This is indeed the sort of thing I had in mind. Mere likings are fairly rare states - they characterise our attitudes to cold showers, hot baths, basking in the sun, and other fairly simple positive attitudes that we have. But they shouldn't be seen as even part of more complex states of approval of music, humour, or food, for example. Those more complex states involve positive attitudes which are responsive to reasons, and for that very reason do not count as likings.

    (You might then ask: what *can* we say about the positive affect component of these more complex states? I don't know what a defender of this view might say to that. Perhaps that these states are so different that there can be no unified answer to that question.)

    Yet again, I repeat that this may not, in fact, be Parfit's actual view. But it seems like a sensible view to me.

  10. I don't think it's possible for preferences about one's own life to be arbitrary or unreasonable. We can criticize someone morally for failing to assign moral value to other people for arbitrary reasons like race and gender. But it seems absurd to criticize any preference they have that is purely about their own lives as unreasonable or arbitrary. Nowadays not valuing the preferences someone has about their own life is rightly considered to be intolerant (provided, of course that they are not mistaken about what their true preferences are, which is occasionally the case).

    In the case of the aesthete with the opportunity to change his tastes, I think Parfit answered this fairly definitively with his discussion of "Global Preferences." If creating a desire in a person is in line with their global preferences, it is good. If it is not in line with their global preferences (for instance, the addictive drug Parfit posits) then creating that desire is bad.

    But what about changing one's global preferences? It seems to me that one's global preferences are one of the core parts of who one is. So changing your global preferences would be the same as murdering you and replacing you with a new person.

    1. That last claim seems difficult to sustain, insofar as our global preferences may not be entirely stable -- they may (at least to some degree) drift or vacillate naturally over time, but we don't generally take this to mean that people are constantly dying & being replaced. Personal identity is thus compatible with at least some alterations to one's global preferences. And this then raises the question of whether artificially altering one's global preferences (to a similar degree) might actually be good for them.

      "I don't think it's possible for preferences about one's own life to be arbitrary or unreasonable."

      What about Future Tuesday Indifference?


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