Wednesday, December 26, 2007

An argument against hedonism

Hedonism is the claim that how well off one is is a function of pleasure. Suppose you experienced the greatest pleasure of your life between times t0 and t1. For the ensuing, I will assume that the mental supervenes locally on the physical, but even if that is not true (and I doubt it is true), we can modify the description.
If hedonism is true, then the following life is better than yours. Fred begins his existence a day before a time t0*, in the neural state you were in a day before t0. During this day he has the same experiences as you had over the day before t0. He then undergoes the pleasurable experience you had between t0 and t1. As soon as that is over, his neural state is reset to the state it had at t0*. Then he re-experiences the pleasure you had between t0 and t1. Then his memory is reset again. Then he re-experiences that pleasure. And so on, for two hundred years.
Let's say the most pleasant experience of your life was the first time you managed to ride a bicycle without training wheels. Then Fred has that experience, over and over, each time feeling and thinking it's the first time.
Unless the experience you had between t0 and t1 was some kind of supernatural experience like that of union with God, and it is not that kind of pleasure that typical hedonists are talking about, I think Fred's life is horrible. It is a nightmare, but Fred of course thinks it is just great.
But hedonism claims Fred is better off than you are, which is absurd.
Note: One might have personal identity worries about Fred's persistence. However, a bout of amnesia during which one loses memory of a period of time does not destroy personal identity, as long as there are earlier memories. That was why I posited that Fred spends a day sharing the experiences you had for the day before t0, so that the memory of these experiences will anchor his identity through the two hundred years of recurrence.


Mike Almeida said...


I wonder why it is so bad. Imagine someone that lives a standard life span and has a very good life. We have no trouble saying that his overall welfare was high. Now suppose his memory is "erased" amd he is allowed to live another life, but which life he lives is a matter of chance. He spins the "life wheel" and by chance it selects the life he just lived. He lives that life again. Now imagine a world in which every time he spins the wheel, he by chance selects the same life for 200 yrs., then things change. That doesn't sound as bad to me as the case you describe. It actually does not sound bad at all.

Alexander R Pruss said...


You're right. It's going to depend on what happens after the two hundred years.

I think what I said is going to work if the 200 years is the only life the guy gets.

Matt said...

Hello. I realize this is an extremely late response, so sorry if I bothered you. Anyway, it's clear that if you just described that guy's life, most people are are going to think his life doesn't sound very good. But it's also clear that, subjectively, his is very good. Ultimately, this is very similar to the experience machine objection. Should we prefer reality even at the expense of our subjective well-being (shades of the Matrix)? It's true most people say they wouldn't plug into an experience machine, but it's also true that most people say they wouldn't unplug if they had always been in one. Our attachment to the status quo aside, I don't think we should regard a very happy escapist (or whatever) as having a low quality of life. You may not want that kind of life, but that is not the same thing as it being bad for THEM. If you say someone has a extremely low quality of life when you know they really love it a lot, well... Certainly some peoples lives are subjectively better (from "the inside") than others, and people very often desire to be happier. We can imagine extreme, highly unusual cases that conflict with most people's intuitive feelings/desires, but then again it IS these kind of cases where intuition tends to become unreliable. We certainly WANT a lot more than happiness, so the thought of not getting any of those external things but still being very happy could sound horrible to many. But it's not clear to me how someone not getting things other people want constitutes a poor quality of life. But, you might say, but it is simply objectively BETTER to have X even if does not affect your subjective well-being. Well, where the heck is the proof?? This argument relies entirely on intuitions not everyone shares, a purely gut feelings type argument. Wanting things whether or not they make you happy is often harmless, but hardly a sign that absolutely everyone should have it regardless what they feel. Now, as for this "repeat experience guy", the whole reason it sounds horrible is because it is at extreme odds with our normal situation and desires. Contrary to our intuition, these desires (I believe) don't objectively matter. In fact they are entirely arbitrary. Absolutely nothing is objectively bad about not getting these things, just in itself. It might seem horrible to live very happily but without all these things, but that's just your impression. In fact it's great :-). Hope I made sense here, thanks for making me think. Just realized this was really long :-/.

Alexander R Pruss said...

"But it's not clear to me how someone not getting things other people want constitutes a poor quality of life."

The repeat experience guy doesn't get things that he wants. For he gets your neural state, including your desires. I suppose among your desires there is a desire for pleasurable experiences, and so he'll have that fulfilled pretty well. But if you are a typical person, your desires include much more than that, such as a desire to have a life--to get somewhere, to achieve something. So he actually receives very little of what he desires.

The same is true of most of the choices in the experience machine. Say, you want the life of a great scientist, with exhilaration in the lab and adulation outside of it, plus with really wonderful interpersonal relationships. So you dial that up with the experience machine. Well, in the experience machine, you are going to have a desire to make great scientific discoveries, to be recognized for these discoveries, and to have wonderful interpersonal relationships. But these desires will all be unfulfilled. You will only think they are fulfilled. But a desire for x is not a desire for apparently having x.

So the repeat experience guy and the person in the experience machine are not doing well, by their own lights.

Now, you could imagine dialing in a life in the experience machine where all you want is experiences. In that case, the above argument won't work. But it only needs one case of someone who has really great experiences but isn't doing well to refute hedonism. And the great scientist experience and the repeat experience guy do that.

I also deny that the repeat experience guy is happy. He only feels happy.

Matt said...

Thanks for responding :-). But I feel you did not address much of what I said. A big thrust of my argument was fulfill of desires does not really matter in certain sense. We certainly WANT them to be fulfilled (by definition), if however them not being fulfilled has absolutely no impact, positive or negative, on our subjective well-being, then it hard to see how your quality of life could be any lower because of it (and of course YOU would not think so). As for "I also deny that the repeat experience guy is happy. He only feels happy." I say happiness is a subjective feeling, a personal judgment, not an (unprovable) external manifestation of what we want. This is how happiness is usually defined, if you want to change it go ahead. I just don't see how something not happening when you want it to can possibly affect your quality of life when aren't even aware of it. If they actually report being happy and really mean it, how are they NOT happy? You might believe that if X desire is not "truly" being satisfied (even if you are not aware of it), then you can't possibly be having a good life. I find this highly suspect. It makes absolutely no difference that you can tell. You could have lives that are subjectively identical to each, yet according to this criterion of "welfare", one could supposedly have a vastly inferior live simply because of some obscure event on the other side of the universe, a billion years ago. that absolutely no one is aware of (or whatever). If someone's desires are fulfilled and they don't even know it, I just can't see as improving their quality of life. When "quality of life" is used in this way, it is always, forever, absolutely and totally indeterminate. There's just no way to know. For all we know, the happiest person on Earth could "really" have a "hellish" quality of life. Needless to say, this is completely useless. As for the scientist, yes, his desires are not "truly" being satisfied. But I don't see that as impacting his quality of life. By his own judgment, it IS going great. Certainly, his perceived reality is produced differently than he usually assumes(???). But unlike you, apparently, I do not see deception as inherently bad. Anyway, to reiterate, I cannot see getting what you want whether you know about it or not as being crucial to anyone's quality of life.

Alexander R Pruss said...

"I just don't see how something not happening when you want it to can possibly affect your quality of life when aren't even aware of it. "

So does this mean that most of our desires are prudentially irrational, in that they are not desires for anything good for us?

Matt said...

"So does this mean that most of our desires are prudentially irrational, in that they are not desires for anything good for us?" Sort of , I think :-/. Now they might be good for us for us in terms of making us feel good, or having them may be required for our given psychological or biological make-up (in terms of health, although I don't think that is an objective good either). But other than that, I don't think that art or friendship or whatever is good for us objectively apart from this. It doesn't necessarily affect your quality of life. And we all know desire satisfying behavior can negatively impact your well-being. Now, I'm certainly not saying everyone should abandon all other desires and pursue only pleasure (interestingly, in Buddhism, desire is the root of suffering). Obviously that wouldn't work. But it is clear to me that most people aren't living as best as they can.

Ben said...

I am also on board with the counter argument that one's positive feelings are one's happiness. A poverty-stricken family living out in the middle of nowhere can feel significantly happier than a middle-class family living in an upper-class neighborhood, simply because they don't know that things could be better.
On the other hand, there are other elements we have neglected in this argument. First of all, even if freedom from the truth is the ultimate form of happiness, the truth has a way of catching up to us, and those who have not neglected it tend to be ready for it when it comes. For example, if the dream machine were to suddenly break down, its user would be sorely unprepared for the cold existence of reality.
The other thing is, maintaining such a blissful existence often comes at a cost to others. People often must face unpleasantness just to stay alive. The only alternative is to be taken care of, and live at another's expense. If this conversation is still going, I'd love to hear your thought on these topics.