Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Hedonism, Egoism, and Implausible Restrictions

Rational Egoism claims that self-interest is uniquely rational; concern for anything besides your own wellbeing is (on this view) strictly irrational or unwarranted.  Value hedonists claim that pleasure is the only thing that has value: it follows that caring about anything besides pleasure is strictly irrational and unwarranted. (Though, due to the paradox of hedonism, it may be rational to try to acquire such irrational concerns, if this would actually serve to better promote your happiness.)  Both views are, I think, deeply implausible, in a distinctive kind of way.

Compare subjectivist (preferentist) views, which place no substantive restrictions on the content of what we may rationally prefer and pursue.  While these, too, strike me as implausible -- for broadly Parfitian reasons -- I can at least get myself into the mindset of appreciating their liberality.  "Who's to say what's really worth pursuing?"

But Hedonism and Egoism are different. These views purport to offer objective normative constraints on what really matters, but their substantive content just seems ludicrously unmotivated.  I mean, one's own wellbeing is indeed something that matters.  And pleasure is certainly of value.  So that much is right. But why on Earth would anyone think that either of these was the only thing that matters? (What could be more obvious than that love also matters?  That we shouldn't -- or at least needn't -- be indifferent to the possibility of our loved ones being secretly replaced by robots?) 

Sometimes I get the sense that defenders of these views regard alternatives (recognizing either other-regarding reasons, or non-hedonic reasons) as somehow more mysterious or "spooky".  So the restrictions, despite being normatively implausible-seeming, might nonetheless be warranted on broader theoretical -- even metaphysical -- grounds.  But this makes no sense.  Any "spookiness" entered the picture with objective normative reasons.  The content of the reasons doesn't affect their spooky normative "glow".  Egoists and altruists, hedonists and objective list theorists are all equally committed to normative reasons.  So if we're going to posit normative reasons at all, we might as well try to secure contents for them that are as plausible as they can possibly be.

Might a similar objection extend to impartialism?  I wonder.  On the one hand, it's true that strict impartiality is contrary to our ordinary ways of thinking and living our lives, and so is "counter-intuitive" in that sense.  But on the other hand, there are clearly normative principles (e.g. moral equality) that seem at least as intuitively compelling, and that provide a substantive motivation for impartiality.

Much here depends, I think, on how we interpret impartialism -- in particular, on whether it is incompatible (as hedonism and egoism seem to be) with reasons of love.  Of course, as limited beings we may be psychologically incapable of loving everyone, so love will tend to generate partiality in practice. But the flaw here more plausibly lies in our psychological limitations than with love itself, or so I think any sensible impartialist should insist.  Many theists believe in God's universal love, after all, and even atheists could appreciate the possibility as a kind of moral ideal.  So I don't think there's anything in the idea of everyone's interests mattering equally that rules out reasons of love.

I'd be curious to hear others' thoughts.  In particular:
(1) Do you think there's more to be said for either egoism or hedonism?
(2) Do you think impartialism faces greater difficulties here than I appreciate?


  1. Here's one reason why hedonism seems less spooky to me. On hedonism, my wellbeing supervenes on my mental states. On preference-satisfaction and objective list theories, that is not the case. I can live two possible lives with all the same mental states and yet one of them can be better for me than the other, because - unbeknownst to me - some preference of mine was satisfied in one life but not the other, or I achieved something in one life but not the other.

    Here's another way of bringing out the weirdness. Suppose I have a perfect memory and I also know everything there is to know about how different dimensions of wellbeing trade off against each other. On my deathbed, my grandson asks me if my life was good for me. On hedonism, I will be able to give him an answer. On preference-satisfaction and objective list theories, I might have to reply 'I have no idea. It might have been wonderful; it might have been awful. I just can't know.'

    1. Interesting! But isn't it pretty ordinary to think that we don't have infallible access to important facts about our lives? Consider: "How good is your marriage?" We'd ordinarily expect people to have a pretty good idea, just based on their subjective experience, but surely not infallible. (Someone might mistakenly think their marriage is great when actually their spouse secretly despises them and has been cheating on them with their best friend for years. Or, more outlandishly, they might have hallucinated their entire life and they don't really have a partner at all.)

      So, I agree it'd be weird to think that you have "no idea" about the quality of your life, but non-hedonist views don't entail any such thing. You generally have plenty of evidence about how well your life has gone. It might even be largely (just not entirely) determined by subjective factors (e.g. if most of your preferences are about your own experiences, or if the correct objective list gives more weight to happiness than to other goods).

  2. Can you disentangle love and well-being? For me the value of love lies in how I feel when loving someone or feeling loved. So it’s covered by hedonism in this sense, right? Also, wouldn‘t a hedonist grant that her own hedons are most likely not different and so not more important than the hedons of everyone else? So replacing them with unconscious robots would also be considered a catastrophic loss for the world from their perspective.

    1. Check out my 'Mark of the Instrumental' post for full detail. But in brief, the thought experiment involves secretly separating you and your partner so that each continues to exist just as happily as before, only now interacting with a robot replica of the other (like being in separate experience machines). Hedons are thus unaffected. So if you agree with me that this would be a worse outcome, you must see the value of love as involving more than just hedons.


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