Hedonism

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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Civilization has…no need of nobility or heroism.  These things are symptoms of political inefficiency.  In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic.  People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get.

—Mustapha Mond (1)

1.

Hedonism is the view that pleasure is the sole intrinsic good and that all other goods are either constitutive of pleasure or servants to it.  A weaker version of the doctrine states that pleasure is the overriding motivation behind our behavior.  Neither should be underestimated.  For one thing, it has an ancient pedigree, tracing its lineage, in the West, at least as far back as the Cyrenaic and Epicurean schools of ancient Greece.  For another, it is a highly intuitive philosophy, one that benefits, in no small measure, from the fact that it puts on a pedestal something that every normal person likes.  But what has made hedonism an especially potent doctrine in modern times is that it has enjoyed the imprimatur of two acclaimed disciplines: (a) modern political science, for which hedonism represents “realism” (read: “lack of naivety”) with respect to human affairs, and (b) modern biology, according to which the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the two most fundamental human imperatives, beyond survival and procreation.  From both perspectives, the hedonic view of human nature represents intellectual progress; a great leap forward from the fiction of human semi-divinity, propagated by classical Greek philosophy and the Abrahamic religions.

Although Thomas Hobbes is probably the most famous representative of the “realist” school of political philosophy (he wrote, in Leviathan, that “Pleasure…or delight is the appearance, or sense, of good” (2) and “of the voluntary acts of every man the object is some good to himself” (3)), Niccolò Machiavelli had already made the point, a century earlier, that if a prince is to govern successfully, he must not be misled by the fantasy that human beings are naturally selfless or otherwise inclined to accommodate the desires of others, but must acknowledge, instead, that avarice is endemic to the human character:

[S]ince my intention is to write something useful…, it seemed more suitable to me to search after the effectual truth of the matter rather than its imagined one, for there is such a gap between how one lives and how one ought to live that anyone who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation… (4)

It is worth noting that both Machiavelli and Hobbes (and to a lesser extent, John Locke) drew egoistic conclusions from the hedonic premise: they reckoned that a creature driven by the desire for pleasure would likely also be selfish and could not be trusted to respect the desires of others, in the absence of external controls.  This inference from hedonism to egoism is not one that the next generation of hedonists, the Utilitarians, would make.  On their view, a person has a duty to promote his neighbor’s happiness as well as his own, and John Stuart Mill, the greatest of the Utilitarian philosophers, believed that this duty has an “inner sanction”; that we are motivated to maximize everyone’s happiness and not just our own, because we feel pleasure when we do so and pain when we do not, an emotional arrangement, which Mill calls “the essence of conscience.” (5) One might question whether this form of non-egoistic hedonism is “realistic,” in the more ordinary sense of the word, but in the sense that we have been discussing, here, it is, because it remains a significant deflation of the pre-modern image of man as a semi-divine being.

With respect to the impact of modern science, the mechanical revolution in physics spawned a generation of thinkers, intent upon accounting for human nature and behavior solely in terms of the principles of material and efficient causality, a legacy that remains today, in the form of what we call the “social sciences.”  This was revolutionary, precisely because it overturned the Aristotelian notions of essence and purpose that provided the framework for scientific explanation, from late antiquity through the Middle Ages, and which had insured that the accounts of human and animal behavior would differ substantially, since human beings and animals were deemed to have fundamentally different essences and therefore, different ends.  The new scientific framework, in contrast, guaranteed that the respective scientific accounts of human beings and animals would be essentially the same, because (i) it was thoroughly reductive in its logic and (ii) it characterized the universe as being governed by general laws.  In this sense, the agents of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment can be fairly described as holding a crude version of the Unity of the Sciences thesis and are thus appropriately characterized (as Alasdair MacIntyre has quipped) as “infant Hempelians.” (6)

It is in the service of these kinds of Unity of the Sciences notions that Hobbes, in the map of the sciences that appears early in Leviathan, classifies the study of human nature as a branch of physics (7), and David Hume, in his Treatise of Human Nature, praises philosophers like John Locke and Francis Hutcheson for putting the “science of man on a new footing”; that is, on the “solid foundation [of] experience and observation.” (8) Like Hobbes before him, Hume believed that human behavior could only be understood as the effect of emotive causes; specifically, feelings of pleasure and pain. “Tis obvious,” Hume wrote, “that when we have the prospect of pain or pleasure from any object, we feel a consequent emotion of aversion or propensity, and are carry’d to avoid or embrace what will give us this uneasiness or satisfaction.” (9) Reason and intelligence, meanwhile, are causally inert; they move nothing.  “Reason is…the slave of the passions,” Hume wrote, “and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (10)

The effect of the subsequent revolution in biology on this new “science of man” was primarily one of refinement.  Already committed to incorporating the study of human beings into the larger scientific study of nature, philosophers and the newly pedigreed social scientists responded to the revolution in biology of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (11) by further dismantling the conceptual barriers that had obtained between man and beast.  After all, when viewed through the lens of biology, a human being just is a beast, and for this reason, it was believed that human behavior must derive from and be explicable in terms of the same fundamental and mutually reinforcing impulses that govern the rest of the animal kingdom and which, at the higher levels of development, take the form of conscious and unconscious desires to survive, pass on one’s genes, and to experience pleasure and avoid pain.

It is not an accident that Utilitarianism, the most influential of the modern, hedonic philosophies, and the theory of evolution by natural selection, the supreme accomplishment of modern biology, emerged at almost exactly the same time.  The modern taste for a “realistic” human portrait, as opposed to an idealized one, the idea of a science of man, belonging to the larger science of nature, and a somewhat uncritical belief in “progress” had taken hold of the intelligencia, and nowhere do we find a clearer articulation of these priorities than in the writings of the Utilitarians: of Bentham, whom Mill described as “the great questioner of things established,” (12) and who began his utilitarian manifesto, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, with the observation that “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure;” (13) and of Mill, himself, who was impressed by the “compact authority created over the minds of the uninformed” by natural science and who lamented the comparatively impoverished condition of those areas of inquiry “which are conversant with the moral nature and social condition of man,” in which “every dabbler…thinks his position as good as another’s.” (14)  And though Mill’s version of the Utilitarian doctrine differed, significantly, from Bentham’s, it rested on essentially the same ground — on the belief that “human nature is so constituted as to desire nothing which is not either a part of happiness or a means of happiness,” where ‘happiness’ just is “pleasure and the absence of pain” (15) — as well as on a broad appeal to common sense.  “No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable,” Mill wrote, “except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness.  This, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require.” (16)

2.

Though hedonism may have satisfied the modern desire for realism, scientific credibility, and progress, it also has been widely perceived as robbing human beings of their dignity.  In its claim that human and animal behaviors have essentially the same etiology, hedonism has invited the criticism that it provides an unflattering picture of humanity.  Of course, this tension was inherent in the very aims articulated by the doctrine’s promoters: the hedonist’s desire for greater realism with respect to human nature and behavior suggests that he wants to debunk or otherwise deflate what he thinks is an excessive, inflated sense of human dignity.

Now, I can imagine any number of contemporary philosophers dismissing this concern as irrelevant. “Truth and falsity are what count,” I can hear them say, “and the attractiveness or unattractiveness of a theory tells us nothing about whether it is true or false.”  But this simplistic separation of the true and the false, the attractive and the unattractive, and the persuasive and the unpersuasive is childishly Platonic.  If theorizing and argument are not, at some point, about convincing people and affecting their conduct, then they are barren, academic exercises, and for this reason alone, the Platonic conception of inquiry is unconvincing, irrespective of the subject-matter to which it is applied.  It is especially hard to swallow, however, when extended to a moral philosophy, the sole value of which, after all, lies in its adoption and whose guiding impulse is aspirational.  What good is it to demonstrate that one’s values are true, if no one is willing to adopt them?  Presentation counts, here, as much as it does in serving a meal, and one might wonder, analogously, what comfort there is in being convinced that one’s cooking is of four-star quality, when no one is willing to eat it, because it looks so unappealing?  Meals are not merely to be made but eaten, and moral philosophies are to be employed, not merely articulated or for that matter, “proven.”

Notwithstanding the attitudes of contemporary philosophers on the subject of persuasiveness and truth, Mill, who was a practical man, was quite concerned that his theory seemed to “excite in many minds…inveterate dislike” and to lead so many people to conclude that Utilitarianism is “a doctrine worthy only of swine.” (17) His response to this charge relies upon a clever mining of the ancient Epicurean tradition.  Mill acknowledges that both human beings and animals are ultimately motivated by the desire for pleasure, but there are enormous differences in the types of pleasure that they seek.  Indeed, there are varieties of pleasure which are sought by human beings, exclusively, and which are of a higher order than the pleasure that is the product of mere sensation, which constitutes the whole of the happiness of animals.  I am speaking, here, of the pleasures associated with the intellect and with intellectual activity, as well as those belonging to what I will call the “higher sentiments,” those states of mind that are born of the collaboration of the affective sensibility and the contemplative mind. “[T]here is no Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation,” Mill wrote.  “Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites and, when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.” (18) Animals lust, but human beings love; animals satiate their hunger and thirst, but human beings enjoy the delights of gastronomy; animals roll in the grass and mud, but human beings read poetry and listen to violin concertos; and so on and so forth.

So much for realism, you might think, once again.  After all, to say that human beings will always choose the higher pleasures over the lower ones, “once made conscious of them,” doesn’t really ring true, especially when one reflects upon one’s daily intercourse with the common mass of humanity or on contemporary popular culture and entertainment.  But Mill has a response to this  point: every human being has the capacity for enjoying the fruits of intellection and the higher sentiments, but like anything that requires cultivation, intellect, good taste, and the higher sentiments can be neglected or worse, actively undermined, by a debased and debasing culture.  “Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed,” Mill observes, “not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favorable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise.” (19)

So, while Mill admits that as a matter of fact, many if not most people do not prefer higher pleasures over lower ones, he thinks that they would do so, were it not for certain obstacles to the cultivation and pursuit of nobler feelings and good taste.  As with all counterfactuals, this is at best a guess and one that we might legitimately be quite skeptical about.  Nonetheless, Mill’s account provides an important reminder that the quality of our cultural diet is as grave a matter as that of the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe.

3.

Critics are correct in thinking that one of hedonism’s main faults is in the diminished human being that follows from it, but they are wrong as to the nature of that diminishment.  Hedonism does not diminish us, because it promotes pleasure or even because it elevates it to the status of an intrinsic good.  G.K. Chesterton wrote of the materialist account of nature that “if the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos.  The thing has shrunk,” and I would argue, analogously, that if the hedonist’s human being is the real human being, then it is not much of one.  (20) When we embrace hedonism, it is humanity, rather than the cosmos, that shrinks.  More precisely, it recedes, from the world, back into the recesses of the individual mind.

Modern hedonism is only secondarily about pleasure.  At its core, it is an experientialist philosophy, by which I mean that it treats the value of any thing or activity as lying solely in the experience that is engendered by it.  What is valuable about playing tennis is not the playing itself, but the experience one has in doing so.  What is valuable about charitable activity is not the activity itself, but the experience that one has in engaging in it and that others have in being the object of it.  What is valuable about rising to the top of one’s profession is not that one has done so, but the experience that having done so effects in oneself and others.  It so happens that the hedonist believes that it is pleasurable experience that makes these things valuable, but this characteristic of the doctrine is at least, conceptually, separable from the experientialism itself.

As Robert Nozick observed in his famous “experience machine” thought-experiment, such a view renders it impossible to explain why actually doing a thing is preferable to simulating doing it.  If simulating playing tennis, in a Star Trek style holodeck, gives rise to as pleasurable an experience as really playing tennis, in what sense can the hedonist claim that the latter is a more valuable activity than the former? (21)

Imagine a machine that could give you any experience… When connected to this experience machine, you can have the experience of writing a great poem or bringing about world peace or loving someone and being loved in return. You can experience the felt pleasures of these things, how they feel “from the inside.” You can program your experiences for tomorrow, or this week, or this year, or even for the rest of your life. If your imagination is impoverished, you can use the library of suggestions extracted from biographies and enhanced by novelists and psychologists. You can live your fondest dreams “from the inside.”

The question of whether to plug in to this experience machine is a question of value… The question is not whether plugging in is preferable to extremely dire alternatives — lives of torture, for instance — but whether plugging in would constitute the very best life, or tie for being best, because all that matters about a life is how it feels from the inside. (22)

I think that most of us believe that it matters that we actually do things, not just have the experience of doing them, pleasurable as the experience might be. We care about whether we actually are good tennis players, charitable givers, and successful professionals, and that’s because we think that virtue and flourishing, in the classical Greek senses of the words, are valuable.  To flourish is actually to succeed in one’s endeavors, not simply to feel that one has done so, and in the experience machine – in any simulation – one can only feel that one has succeeded, as one is not actually engaged in the activity in question.

The point is not that hedonism renders virtue and flourishing impossible, but that it cannot explain why they matter.  To embrace Hedonism, then, is to adopt an attitude that is, at the least, ambivalent about real activity and real success and which, when held consistently and taken to its logical conclusion, pines for the day in which we can replace more and more of our real lives with simulated ones, in which pleasurable experience can be better insured.  It is a view that takes the endpoint of all activity as lying in our own heads.  If philosophers in the past were unconcerned about this logical consequence of the theory, it could only have been because they couldn’t have imagined that one eventually would be able to live entirely in one’s own head, by way of virtual and holographic technologies.  That or they really don’t think that there is anything deplorable about a person who cares not about actual accomplishments, but only their pleasurable effects.

Notes 

(1) Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932) (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), pp. 220 & 237. [Emphasis in the original]

(2) Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994), p. 29 (vi.11). [Emphasis in the original.]

(3) Ibid., p. 82 (xiv.8). [Emphasis in the original.]

(4) Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1532), reprinted in Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa, eds. and trans., The Portable Machiavelli (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 127 (Ch. XV).

(5) John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1861), ed. George Sher (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.,1979)  pp. 27-29.

(6) Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Second Edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), p. 92.

(7) Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 48 (ix.3).

(8) David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, P.H. Nidditch and L.A. Selby-Bigge, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. xvi & xvii (Introduction).

(9) Ibid., p. 414 (Book II, part 3, section iii).

(10) Ibid., p. 415 (Book II, part 3, section iii).

(11) Charles Darwin maintained that the basic tenets of the theory of evolution could be traced as far back as 1795 and the work of Geoffrey Saint-Hillaire, if not farther.  See his The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, 6th Edition (London: John Murray, 1872), p. xiv.

(12) John Stuart Mill, On Bentham and Coleridge (1833/1840).

http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/mill-the-collected-works-of-john-stuart-mill-volume-x-essays-on-ethics-religion-and-society

(13) Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), J.H. Burns and H.L.A. Hart, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 11.

(14) John Stuart Mill, “The Spirit of the Age” (1831), reprinted in Alan Ryan, ed., Mill: Texts and Commentaries (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997), pp. 10-11.

(15) Mill, Utilitarianism, pp. 7; 37-38.

(16) Ibid., p. 34.

(17) Ibid., p. 7.

(18) Ibid., p. 8.

(19) Ibid., p. 10.

(20) G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908) (Ignatius Press, 1995), p. 28.

(21) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodeck

(22) Robert Nozick, “The Experience Machine,” from Anarchy, State and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974), p. 4.

http://rintintin.colorado.edu/~vancecd/phil3160/Nozick1.pdf

55 Comments »

  1. The point is not that hedonism renders virtue and flourishing impossible, but that it cannot explain why they matter.

    I am guessing that the hedonist would reply that they matter because we find real accomplishments more pleasurable than counterfeit ones.

    Then they might add that if this is unsatisfactory then it is the best we can do because no-one can explain why virtue and flourishing matter.

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    • The first reply won’t fly, as it is stipulated in Nozick’s thought experiment. The two experiences are identical.

      As for the second, that is somewhat in the nature of intrinsic goods.

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      • I don’t see now Nozick’s thought experiment refutes the hedonist’s first point. If the hedonist is saying that they matter because we find real accomplishments more pleasurable than counterfeit ones then it would be expected as a consequence that if we have an experience that we know is counterfeit then we would derive less pleasure from it.

        So Nozick’s thought experiment demonstrates just the outcome that the hedonist would have expected.

        If we had a counterfeit experience that we have been fooled into believing was real then it would matter just as much to us as a real experience.

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        • Robin, it’s not at issue whether “we find real accomplishments more pleasurable than real ones”. We may not. (Game addiction happens.) What is at issue it is that we (mostly) believe them to be significant and valuable in a way than counterfeit ones are not. Hence, we (mostly) would not choose to enter such a machine. It’s a normative point that Nozick is making. Your reply on behalf of the hedonist misses that point. Of course, we can happily play with non-real experiences, but we do so knowing we are playing with them, and we know that at some point we can exit the game.

          Alan

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          • Alan,

            What is at issue it is that we (mostly) believe them to be significant and valuable in a way than counterfeit ones are not. Hence, we (mostly) would not choose to enter such a machine

            But the hedonists point is to ask what is behind this belief, apart from feeling.

            Why would we (mostly) choose not to enter the machine? Do we have any reason to believe that the real experiences really *are* significant and valuable, or just that we feel them to be significant and valuable?

            What does it mean to say “X is valuable” other than “I value X”? And what does “I value X” mean beyond that I associate certain positive feelings with X and negative feelings with the absence of X?

            The hedonist would then say that our only reason for not entering the machine would be to avoid some short term emotional pain which really has no rational basis.

            Rationally (the hedonist would say) we should simply put up with the short term negative emotions and get plugged in knowing that soon we will feel fulfillment, flourishing and virtue, because really there is no difference between being fulfilled, really flourishing, being virtuous than feeling fulfilled, experiencing flourishing and experiencing virtue.

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        • I wonder if one reason the experience machine seems unsatisfying is that when we are in it we are no longer interfacing with other consciousnesses. Part of the value in the above things mentioned is their effects on other conscious beings. If everyone was placed into an experience machine together, in such a way that our actions mattered for other people in significant ways, then the intuitions about this machine might be different.

          A hedonist might be able to argue in this way because what is of value is not the individual experience, but rather the collective experiences of all beings together (so even the illusion of being connected to other people is not satisfactory because that lacks the experiences of other beings).

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  2. And let me stress that I am only trying to imagine the responses of the hedonist.

    For my own part I might in certain circumstances be tempted to plug into the experience machine, but only if I could know that the people I interacted with in there were going to be real, conscious individuals, and not mere cyphers, like figures in a dream.

    If I was purely a hedonist then that would make no difference at all as long as they would appear to be real conscious individuals and I would not know that they were not once I was in.

    I wouldn’t care that it wasn’t a real mountain that I climbed or a real lake that I sailed on or the real countryside that I strolled in.

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    • Robin, what you say in reply to me above seems fine. The hedonist can say these quite logical things. But, for whatever reason, they do not persuade us. The Experience Machine story has the curious ability to expose something about how we are. It shows we are not rational hedonists. The story tells us nothing about why this is so, just that it is so.

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  3. I’ve seen you refer before to the concept of humans having a disposition to the accomplishment of a goal over a period of time and the achievement as being constitutive of value. You draw the distinction between the trappings or state of a thing and the process of achieving a thing that produces that state. Thanks to this particular essay this might be the first time I have fully grasped the difference you have in mind and why it matters.

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  4. Benthamite pleasures and pains are of (1) senses (2) wealth – acquisition and possession (3) skill (4) amity (5) good reputation (6) power (7) piety (8) sympathy/benevolence (9) malevolence (10) memory (11) imagination (12) expectation (13) association. “The estimate of pain and pleasure, then, must be made by him who suffers or enjoys the one or the other.” I don’t think the ordering is a ranking, given he thinks the only real virtues are (generalized) prudence and (effective) benevolence. Sex, for example, is 1 and 4.

    As to what Bentham would think of the experience machine, his only mentions of opium smoking are disparaging, and about that other opium of the people, he wrote a lot against religion because it, in his opinion, caused more harm than good, but also because it was untrue, and what good it did required one to believe the false as true.

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  5. Thanks for the essay,

    It seems to me that Mill’s definition of higher pleasure is so broad ( including I think an enlightened self-interest that depends on our capacity to connect to the suffering of others) that becomes strange to consider it an aspect of hedonism.

    It may be naive to think we can be truly/purely benevolent without any self interest, but it seems at least equally naive to me to believe that normal human beings can achieve any kind of lasting self-enclosed pleasure creating capacity that doesn’t concern itself with an empathic connection with others.

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  6. If I were a convinced Materialist or Naturalist then I would enter the experience machine with no qualms.

    Suppose that in the machine I could have secure, fulfilling jobs, sufficient talent so that I might, with hard work and application, become a reasonably good guitar player, lots of friends to have dinner parties with, lots of leisure which I can fill with fulfilling activities, the world would be mostly at peace and there would be general respect among people, I would be guaranteed to die peacefully in my sleep in old age but that it would all be counterfeit, including the people (but I would never suspect this once plugged in), then if I were a convinced Materialist or Naturalist there would be no reason not to choose that over ‘real’ life.

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    • Thank you Dan for another terrific essay. Your writing has become one of the strongest impetuses to thinking I’ve encountered over the past few years (as are your Sophia dialogues).

      Now, I’ve never had an experience that makes me think that I’m “more” (whatever that might mean) than a biological organism, a primate, Homo sapiens, or that there is more to the world I experience around me than physics can describe, so I definitely qualify as a Materialist/Naturalist (though I certainly remain open to evidence that I’m wrong).

      So, I don’t see anything wrong in principle with the Experience Machine. In fact, ever since I was introduced to the idea during my undergrad years, I’ve wished that the EM was real! Granted, I’ve spent most of the years from 2000 (when I graduated high school) to the present moderately to severely depressed, so I might not be the most objective judge.

      Still, if not for my (relatively few) family and friends, I would plug into the EM in a heartbeat. (Also, I’ve long felt that, whatever one’s intuitions or theoretical beliefs about it, if the Experience Machine actually existed, and a “nonbeliever” got a “taste” of it, they would pretty much instantly become a believer and would want to stay plugged in.)

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  7. The bottom line is, what is the difference between the real experience and the counterfeit, apart from knowing that one is counterfeit?

    The Universe makes no such distinction. Only beings with minds make such distinctions. And if they don’t know that it is counterfeit and the experience itself is identical to the real one, then what is the difference?

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  8. Morse Peckham wrote a number of studies on Romantic literature, in which he argued, convincingly to my mind, that the Romantics, far from being the flighty Idealists that they are often painted as, were in fact the most rigorous of empiricists, because of their demand to experience reality for themselves, rather than second hand. They were aware that the danger of deriving knowledge by report, scientific or by hearsay, is that the second hand is always pre-filtered, and skewed by perspective or by theory. Reading about opium’s physiological effects is not the same as smoking opium. I choose that as oblique reference to Thomas De Quincey, through whom we must acknowledge both the hedonistic element of Romantic experientialism, and the necessary risks (for De Quincey, addiction) that might be involved. The question is, had De Quincey known of the pains of addiction beforehand, would he still have wished for the experience of opium use? And I think he would have. The Romantic hunger for experience may have involved hedonistic impulses and assumptions, but tended to impel the Romantics well beyond hedonism, and most of them were well aware of this; which is why the real philosophic inheritance of the Romantic movement, I would argue, is found in the various forms of Existentialism, rather than in the inwardly focused egoism that has grown increasingly popular since the ’60s.

    So my problem with your essay has to do with the seeming implication that hedonism and experientialism *necessarily* dovetail into that inwardly focused egoism. I think this can happen; but I think the ‘will to experience,’ so to speak, can be a desire to experience life to the fullest – *come what may* – and that this would seem to include experience of common goods, such as family life, with all the risks and inevitable disappointments this entails.

    As side-bar personal note, I have a friend whose 12 year old daughter was recently suspended from school for purchasing ‘vaping’ supplies illegally. This, as you may guess, has caused consternation in the family. Would my friend have decided not to help bring this child into the world had he known in advance such problems might arise? I seriously doubt that.

    So I defend experientialism while admitting it can be misinterpreted of misused or can lead to risky behavior, Because it is not simply about achieving pleasure, and in some variants can actually be anti-hedonistic to the core. Because the difference between the real experience and the counterfeit is that the real experience assures us of the possible for failure, and the wisdom to be learned in loss. And this is actually a good thing.

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  9. What about instead of a machine that creates any experience imaginable (but somehow these experiences would not change what you find enjoyable), we have a machine that makes you feel ecstatic about whatever you happen to be experiencing anyway? Seems it would be easier to implement.

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  10. My dogs are hedonists. They are brash, unashamed hedonists who pursue pleasure at what seems like any cost. And yet, overlying this unashamed hedonism is something else, a fierce devoted loyalty to their master, compounded by total, unconditional love. They unhesitatingly defended me to what seemed like the last gasp, while I was being stoned. I ended up in hospital critically injured but it might have been a morgue if it had not been for the unconditional love of my dogs. They too were injured but fortunately, were made of tougher stuff than I.

    We survived and I am much wiser but my dogs are no wiser. We share this dual nature, hedonism and deep, abiding concern for the other. And yet, lacking any concept of the future(their minds are not time travellers), they cannot become wiser. This is the critical dimension that raises us above hedonism and love. We can conceive of a life with richer and deeper dimensions, and having conceived it, we are drawn to it, finding in it the kind of fulfilment that results in a flourishing life. Hedonism is merely a part of our lives.

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  11. But, you might ask, what is a flourishing life? The philosophy literature is disappointingly thin on the subject. Fortunately it has received a lot of attention in other quarters. Here are the main contributions.

    1) HA Murray:
    1. The need for prestige and self- enhancement, superiority, achievement, recognition, respect, and self- exhibition.
    2. The need for status-defense and avoiding humiliation, defensiveness, averting defeat.
    3. The need to exercise power and dealing with the power of others, independence, aggression, avoiding blame, dominance and submissiveness, submission and resignation.
    4. The need for affection, affiliation, friendliness, cooperation, support, nurture, and dealing with rejection.
    5. The need to acquire, conserve, order, retain, and construct with inanimate, material objects.
    6. The need for cognition, to explore, inquire, know, and satisfy curiosity.

    2) Jacob Alsted:
    1. The anxiety of isolation, overcome by integrative social relationships and the joy of belonging.
    2. The anxiety of dependence and absorption, overcome by self- assertion in social relationships, the joy of recognition.
    3. The anxiety of insecurity regarding relational change, fragility, and loss, overcome by strong affective relations, the joy of comfort, safety, warmth, care.
    4. The anxiety of stagnation or stasis, overcome by the joys of life competence, understanding, agency, mastery, risk for gain.

    3) Erich Fromm:
    1. The anxiety of isolation, overcome by integrative social relationships and the joy of belonging.
    2. The anxiety of dependence and absorption, overcome by self- assertion in social relationships, the joy of recognition.
    3. The anxiety of insecurity regarding relational change, fragility, and loss, overcome by strong affective relations, the joy of comfort, safety, warmth, care.
    4. The anxiety of stagnation or stasis, overcome by the joys of life competence, understanding, agency, mastery, risk for gain.

    4) Jonathon Turner:
    1. Group inclusion
    2. Trust (in the social and material environment)
    3. Ontological security
    4. Material /symbolic gratification
    5. Avoidance of anxiety
    6. Confirmation of self (identity)
    7.The sense of facticity (of surrounding world)

    5) Maslow:
    1. Physiological: air, water, food, clothing, shelter, sex, sleep, excretion, andsuch.
    2. Safety: physical security, resource security, health, wellbeing, avoidance of illness and accidents.
    3. Love and Belongingness: family, friendship, intimacy, group participation.
    4. Esteem: self- respect, being valued, status, recognition, attention, confidence.
    5. Self-Actualization: realizing full personal potential, fulfilling promise and capabilities.

    6) Edward Deci and Richard Ryan
    1. Competence: feeling effective in ongoing interactions with the social environment and experiencing opportunities to exercise and express one’s capacities.
    2. Relatedness: feeling connected to others, caring for and being cared for by others, having a sense of belonging with other individuals and one’s community.
    3. Autonomy: perceiving oneself as the origin or source of one’s own behavior, acting from interests and integrated values (not to be confused with
    the “negative freedom” of liberalism’s self to do what it wishes without obstruction by others).

    7) Maureen Ramsay:
    1. Physical survival
    2. Sexual needs
    3. Security
    4. Love and relatedness
    5. Esteem and identity
    6. Self-realization

    8) Manfred Max-Neef
    1. Subsistence
    2. Protection
    3. Affection
    4. Understanding
    5. Participation
    6. Leisure
    7. Creation
    8. Identity
    9. Freedom

    9) Kai Nielson
    1. Love
    2. Companionship
    3. Security
    4. Protection
    5. Sense of community
    6. Meaningful work
    7. Adequate sustenance
    8. Shelter
    9. Sexual gratification
    10. Amusement
    11. Rest
    12. Recreation
    13. Recognition
    14. Respect of person

    10) Michael Argyle:
    1. Biological Needs: eating, drinking, and bodily comfort.
    2. Dependency: help, support, protection, and guidance from parents and people in authority.
    3. Affiliation: warm and friendly responses from and acceptance by peers.
    4. Dominance: leading in group tasks, dominating talk, making decisions, enjoying deference.
    5. Sex: physical proximity and bodily and eye contact, attractions to and intimate interactions with (normally) the opposite sex.
    6. Aggression: harming other people physically, verbally, emotionally, and so on.
    7. Self- Esteem and Ego- Identity: receiving approval from and acceptance by other people.

    11) Stephen Reiss:
    1. Power: the desire to influence others.
    2. Independence: the desire for self- reliance.
    3. Curiosity: the desire for knowledge.
    4. Acceptance: the desire for inclusion.
    5. Order: the desire for organization.
    6. Saving: the desire to collect things.
    7. Honor: the desire for loyalty to parents and heritage.
    8. Idealism: the desire for social justice.
    9. Social Contact: the desire for companionship.
    10. Family: the desire to raise one’s own children.
    11. Status: the desire for social standing.
    12. Vengeance: the desire to get even.
    13. Romance: the desire for sex and beauty.
    14. Eating: the desire to consume food.
    15. Physical Exercise: the desire to exercise muscles.
    16. Tranquility: the desire for emotional calm.

    12) Roy Baumeister:
    Animal Desires:-
    1. Food
    2. Pleasure (avoid pain)
    3. Self- preservation (avoid injury/death)
    4. Curiosity and Understanding
    5. Control
    6. Money
    7. Power
    8. Possessions and Territory
    Social Desires:-
    9. Belonging
    10. Sex
    11. Aggression
    12. Nurturance, Generativity, Helping
    Cultural Created Desires:-
    1. Language use
    2. Self- esteem
    3. Guilt, Morality, Virtue
    4. Success, Wealth, Fame
    5. A Meaningful Life

    And so on, and so on. Martin Ford, Martha Nussbaum, Carol Ryff, Mozaffar Qizilbash, James Griffin, and John Finnis have made similar contributions, differing more in detail than substance.

    Which viewpoint would you choose? That depends on who you are.

    The Notre Dame sociologist, Christian Smith constructed a synthesis of these viewpoints. He concluded that the basic needs, desires and aspirations that defined human flourishing were the following:

    1. Bodily Survival, Security, and Pleasure:
    avoiding bodily death, injury, sickness, disease, and sustained vulnerability to harm; maintaining physical and bodily health and safety; sensual enjoyment, satisfaction, delight, or gratification of appetitive and perceptual desires of the body; and the absence of physical pain and suffering.
    2. Knowledge of Reality:
    learning about the world and one’s place and potential in it; increasing awareness and understanding of material and social realities; developing or embracing believed- in truths about what exists and how it works that provide order, continuity, and practical know-how to life experience.
    3. Identity Coherence and Affirmation:
    developing and maintaining continuity and positive self- regard in one’s sense of personal selfhood over time and in different contexts and situations.
    4. Exercising Purposive Agency:
    exerting influence or power (broadly understood as transformative capacity) in the social and material worlds, through the application of personal capabilities for perception, reflection, care, evaluation, self- direction, decision, and action, which causes desired (and unanticipated) effects in one’s environment.
    5. Moral Affirmation:
    believing that one is in the right or is living a morally commendable life, by being, doing, serving, thinking, and feeling what is good, correct, just, and admirable; avoiding moral fault, blame, guilt, or culpability.
    6. Social Belonging and Love:
    enjoying recognition by, inclusion and membership in, and identification with significant social groups; loving and being loved by others in significant relationships.

    From the above it can be seen how thin, how shallow are the hedonistic understandings of ourselves.

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  12. Labnut,

    But my imaginary Hedonist friend is going to pick up a lot of words there, like “anxiety”, “joy”, “enjoying”, “feeling”and say that these are all just a listing of sources of different kinds of pleasure and pain.

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  13. Hi labnut:

    Don’t you find it curious that in these carefully thought out lists having and raising children gets so little mention? (Stephen Reiss is the exception that proves the rule.) Why would that be? After all, none of us would be here were it not for people before us choosing to have and raise children.

    The difficulties of parenting are another good reason why it’s a bad idea to be a rational hedonist. You would not stay the course on that basis.

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  14. “why a rational hedonist would even start on the course of parenthood”, let alone supporting a football team like St Kilda? I think once you sufficiently generalize pleasure or extend it to higher levels over time, then hedonism becomes increasingly indistinguishable from other secular philosophies eg the pleasure of contemplating one’s family line extending successfully and indefinitely into the future.

    Feldman “The Good Life: A Defense of Attitudinal Hedonism”

    I want to show that while some of these objections might be effective against some naive forms of hedonism, they are irrelevant to other forms. I will be suggesting that one particular form of hedonism survives all the main objections..My sorts
    of hedonism are based on the different idea that it is the presence of ‘enjoyment’ ­not a feeling ­that makes a life better…[but rather] an attitude [or] a mode of consciousness…

    [S]uppose I mistakenly think that I will be meeting G. E. Moore soon. Suppose I am delighted about this. Clearly, I am pleased about something. It seems wrong to say that what I am pleased about is the fact that I think I will meet Moore. It seems better to say that I am pleased that I am going to meet him (even though I am not going to meet him).

    ie it is more pleasurable to travel hopefully than to arrive 😉

    Like

  15. Robin,

    But my imaginary Hedonist friend is going to pick up a lot of words there, like “anxiety”, “joy”, “enjoying”, “feeling”and say that these are all just a listing of sources of different kinds of pleasure and pain.

    Yes, but look through Christian Smith’s synthesis and you will see hedonistic experiences are part of flourishing but they are not the whole story, not by a long shot.

    Like

    • Aristotle included pleasure as part of his account. That doesn’t make it a “synthesis” of Eudaimonism and hedonsim.

      One can argue that Mill is in fact a Eudaimonist, not a hedonist — Martha Nussbaum has made that case — but I’ve never bought it.

      Like

  16. Alan,

    Don’t you find it curious that in these carefully thought out lists having and raising children gets so little mention?

    That’s a good observation.
    I see that being subsumed under Smith’s headings:
    1. Bodily Survival, Security, and Pleasure
    and
    6. Social Belonging and Love:

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  17. Robin,

    It is hard to see why a rational hedonist would even start on the course of parenthood, except due to lack of prior research into the subject.

    Which only goes to show that we are not rational hedonists. While we may only be partly rational we are also only partly hedonist.

    Speak to someone whose child has died, and see the devastating, undying grief, and you will begin to understand something of why we have children.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I think that parenthood, *when viewed purely as a method for achieving a pleasurable life*, stacks up rather poorly against alternative ways of spending your life.

    And that is not to say that there is not a good deal of pleasure associated with being a family.

    Like

      • Yes, but viewed *purely as a way of achieving a pleasurable life* it stacks up poorly.

        Most of the pleasures of parenthood would not be pleasurable at all if they were simply done for the purpose of deriving pleasure.

        And I don’t know about anybody else, but the greatest suffering and anguish I have had in my life is due to being a parent. I have forgone much in life because I was a parent and I don’t regret it, but I would if hedonism was the point of the exercise.

        If I were to imagine the life I might have had if I had decided not to become a parent then, viewed as a hedonistic exercise, the childless life wins hands down.

        Liked by 1 person

  19. Labnut,

    Yes, but look through Christian Smith’s synthesis and you will see hedonistic experiences are part of flourishing but they are not the whole story, not by a long shot.

    I agree that hedonistic experiences are not the whole story, but I will also concede to my imaginary hedonist that you can look through that whole list and not find a single one which cannot be accounted for as either the pursuit of feeling certain ways and the avoidance of feeling certain other ways.

    What actual value is or what it means, is monstrously difficult to put your finger on and it may be that we just have to settle for the idea that we just *know* what value is.

    Like

  20. Dan,

    Aristotle included pleasure as part of his account. That doesn’t make it a “synthesis” of Eudaimonism and hedonsim.

    I used the word ‘synthesis’ to describe the result of Christian Smith’s analysis of the main sociological schools of thought about flourishing. We have a unified nature with many facets and Christian Smith’s analysis is a good attempt at understanding these facets, which he arrived at by synthesising many points of view.

    What is interesting is that it is a rejection of the standard virtue ethics and Stoic belief that flourishing is only to be found in the practice of the virtues.

    I support Smith’s point of view but also think Erich Fromm comes close

    3) Erich Fromm:
    1. The anxiety of isolation, overcome by integrative social relationships and the joy of belonging.
    2. The anxiety of dependence and absorption, overcome by self- assertion in social relationships, the joy of recognition.
    3. The anxiety of insecurity regarding relational change, fragility, and loss, overcome by strong affective relations, the joy of comfort, safety, warmth, care.
    4. The anxiety of stagnation or stasis, overcome by the joys of life competence, understanding, agency, mastery, risk for gain.

    Like

  21. Parenting is the greatest thing I’ve done, both eudaimonistically and pleasure-wise.

    That is true without any doubt. And then bring grandchildren into the picture and the joy is multiplied. My favourite party line is to state loudly that you only really understand why you got married when you have grandchildren. My wife will playfully dig me in the ribs and there will be all round laughter. But some of those who laugh will be nodding in agreement. They are the ones with grandchildren.

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  22. I am, and have been, probably as strict a (philosophical) Materialist as is possible (but I think Kant is perhaps the greatest philosopher), but in this year of my life I am also something of a strict Minimalist. I have few material possessions – I have decided to not have car and have no reason to have one – live in a 1 room efficiency/studio, run Ubunto/Linix on a cheap ASUS notebook PC, don’t travel many miles away, etc. But I feel Hedonistic in a way: I find pleasure in having as few things as possible.

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  23. Dan

    We’ll just have to disagree on this.

    As usual I am not sure what you are disagreeing about. Do you think it would be reasonable to become a parent for no other reason than to derive pleasure for yourself?

    Well maybe it is just me. If pleasure was all I was after then I could think of much better life choices than parenthood.

    Like

    • In the Millian sense, parenthood has given me more pleasure than I would otherwise expect. That’s why I said the problem is not the hedonism per se but the experientialism. I certainly don’t see any point in arguing g about what is the surest route to plleasure.

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  24. Those long nights where the baby wouldn’t sleep and my brain craved nothing else, my empathy draining away quickly or carrying my child into emergency with a mystery ailment not knowing if he was going to live or die, the work opportunities foregone because I didn’t have the flexibility or didn’t have the sheer time to develop myself technically – I didn’t get through all that thinking that the good feelings later were going to make this worthwhile, and neither does any parent.

    We do that for something deeper than mere pleasure. If pleasure was all we were after it would make no sense to go through that.

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  25. Dan

    Again, my experience is very different from yours and I disagree.

    But if you are saying that parenthood might be a worthwhile endeavour *from a purely hedonistic point if view* then there would be no difference at all between a hedonist really becoming a parent in real life and the hedonist plugging into Nozick’s experience machine and experiencing spurious parenthood.

    To me the whole endeavour of parenthood would be fultile if the children in question were not living, conscious feeling beings.

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  26. Dan

    I certainly don’t see any point in arguing g about what is the surest route to plleasure.

    Let me remind you that we are not arguing that. We are arguing what would be the surest route to pleasure *if pleasure was all that you were seeking*

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  27. Dan

    I am not sure what that last comment meant.

    I was pretty clear that I was saying that *if hedonism was your only purpose* then there would be better lifestyles than parenthood.

    You disagreed which implies that you are saying that even if hedonism was your only purpose then parenthood might be the best way of achieving this.

    OK?

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      • And presumably you would also agree that, for the person for whom hedonism was their only purpose then it would be just as good to experience parenthood via Nozick’s experience machine as it would to experience in real life?

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        • Don’t know. Depends on whether hedonists must necessarily be experientialists. Part of the point of the essay was to pry these two things apart. My argument was that what really is wrong with hedonism is its experientialism. I’m not decided on whether the two are necessarily linked.

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  28. The issue is not about whether being a parent is enjoyable or not. The issue is whether you would carry on trying to be a good parent even if it wasn’t enjoyable. Imagine you have a child whose demands require the sacrifice of your enjoyments. Most parents would accept that challenge.

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  29. “The hedonistic conception of man is that of a lightning calculator of pleasures and pains, who oscillates like a homogeneous globule of desire of happiness under the impulse of stimuli that shift him about the area, but leave him intact. He has neither antecedent nor consequent. He is an isolated, definitive human datum, in stable equilibrium except for the buffets of the impinging forces that displace him in one direction or another. Self-poised in elemental space, he spins symmetrically about his own spiritual axis until the parallelogram of forces bears down upon him, where-upon he follows the line of the resultant. When the force of the impact is spent, he comes to rest, a self-contained globule of desire as before. Spiritually, the hedonistic man is not a prime mover. He is not the seat of a process of living, except in the sense that he is subject to a series of permutations enforced upon him by circumstances external and alien to him” –Thorstein Veblen

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