Somewhere in the deep corners of my psyche there's a naysayer quietly whispering "you're a fucking dumbass...". I suppose when I eventually release my book we'll see if this little voice was right.
Anyway here's an except from one of the chapters in which I defend hedonism as the proper general theory of human welfare. Comments and critiques are welcome. I should also point out that throughout my book I use the terms "ethics" and "morality" interchangeably, as most professional moral philosophers do as well.
§3.7 - What value theory should we accept?
Well-being, or welfare, are terms used by philosophers to designate that which is ultimately good for a person, and is what a rational and well-informed individual would pursue. Whatever makes a person’s life go better or worse is what is seen as intrinsically valuable to this person’s well-being. Generally speaking there are three camps in (welfare) value theory: objective list theories, hedonism, and desire satisfaction theories. Objective list theories tell us that there are some essential features that are required for a life to go “well”, such as knowledge, faith, friendship, money, etc. Hedonism holds that there is in fact only one objective good for a person: this person’s happiness or pleasure, which charitably is defined as any form of enjoyment (happiness is an attitudinal pleasure rather than a physical pleasure). Desire satisfaction theories are self-explanatory: what makes a person’s life go well depends on the satisfaction of desires. It may be tempting to see both hedonism and desire satisfaction theories as objective list theories, as both see one single objective thing to be valuable (pleasure and desire-satisfaction). But one single thing is hardly a “list”. So we’re better off keeping them separate.
To cut to the chase, I believe the most reliable representation of a person’s welfare is the theory of hedonism. The strongest point in favor of hedonism, I believe, is that attitudinal mental states intuitively act as the reason behind seeing many other things as instrumentally valuable. The reason we value friendship is because friends make us happy. The reason we value money is because money allows us to satisfy our desires which causes us pleasure.
Objective list theories struggle with justifying why particular features are important rather than other features - yet hedonism easily deals with this issue by seeing these features as instrumentally good. Whatever feature helps a person be happy is instrumentally valuable, and that is how we choose what to put on the list of objective features. People share common characteristics, so it is not surprising when their lists are similar to those of others - but hedonism also provides a strong foundation for alternate lists by people who are atypical in what makes them happy. Hedonism also explains why it is nonsensical to see objective features as good for a person if they make a person miserable - because the attitudinal experiences of a person are what ultimately constitute their well-being. Objective features may be sufficient but not necessary for well-being. Hedonism also explains why we hate seeing bad people enjoy being immoral; hedonism tells us happiness is good for a person, but not necessarily that it is good that a person is happy. It is a value theory, not an ethics.
Desire satisfaction theories struggle with the obvious problem that desires (or preferences, a term commonly used in economics) by themselves do not elevate a person’s well-being. If two people are equally comfortable, but differ in amount of preferences, the person with more preferences is not “better off” than the other person. Unless desires provided something, there would be no reason to satisfy them. Satisfying desires gives a person pleasure, and this pleasure is what makes the satisfaction of desires valuable to this person. So we can see the satisfaction of desires as generally necessary but not sufficient for well-being. The attraction of desire satisfaction theories - the liberty it gives each individual - is also one of its weaknesses. Its reluctance to criticize the desires of some people leads to it see self-harming desires as good for those who have them. A brainwashed person may strongly desire to stay in an abusive power structure, despite outsiders obviously understanding it to be bad for her well-being. A depressive may consider physically hurting themselves, but any level-headed individual would see this as alarming. An emotionally-abusive husband may manipulate his wife to stay in the relationship, but doing so would not be in the woman’s best-interests regardless of her desires otherwise. Yet desire satisfaction theories cannot see any of these situations as bad for these people. One route desire theorists have gone is to qualify desires as informed and self-regarding - yet this puts it quite close to hedonism, for an informed and self-regarding desire would seem to be just any desire the satisfaction of which makes a person happy. The bottom line is that enjoyment provides the incentive to satisfy desires, and that just is hedonism.
Hedonism has it’s own problems, but I do not think they are fatal to the theory. A classic argument against hedonism is Nozick’s experience machine, which tells us that we would find a life of hardship in the real world to be better for a person than a life of bliss in an experience machine. One problem with this thought experiment is that it seems to fail once we consider a really, really bad life in reality - in this case, our favor of the real world gives in to suffering. Perhaps living in the real world is important, but surely not as important as proliferate suffering. Indeed this is why many people turn to drugs, because the real world is too hard to experience.
Another issue with the thought experiment is that it assumes we already live in the real world. If it were the case that we actually did not live in the real world but failed to realize it, how big of a difference would it really make? It would seem as though what is important is not really the fact of living in the real world but rather the belief that one is living in the real world.
And finally, we can question whether people really would prefer to stay in the real world if they were well-informed, in the sense that they understood what the experience machine felt like and were not simply told it would be blissful. Once you know what the experience machine feels like, would you want to go back? There are, of course, extraneous reasons that prevent a person from plugging in, such as ethical or religious reasons. But these are not directly relevant to the question as hand, which is whether or not hedonism is an accurate portrayal of human welfare. In fact, if hedonism is correct, than people who prefer to stay in the real world are irrational and/or ill-informed. To maintain that people prefer to stay in the real world, and therefore reality is a non-hedonic good, is to assume the preferences of people dictate what is good for them. There may be other reasons for refusing to enter the experience machine, but taken as an isolated case with no strings attached, it would seem to be the case that a person with greater enjoyment is better off than a person with less enjoyment. That just is hedonism.
In my opinion, a bigger threat to hedonism is that unhappiness seems to be commonly a reaction to a loss of some other feature which constitutes a harm. I may become sad because I lost a friend - I am not simply sad because I no longer feel pleasure from their companionship but also believe that it just was good to have this person as a friend. But this perhaps is not as threatening as it initially seemed, for in this case it is seen as good that I have a friend and not necessarily that it was good for me that I have a friend. It may be the surrounding social environment that made me believe that it was good that I have a friend, and not my intrinsic enjoyment of having a friend.
However, there is something to be said about certain objective list features that may be relevant. Certainly J.S. Mill thought the "higher pleasures" made people better off than the "lower" ones, which his predecessor Jeremy Bentham denied. Here we have a sort of elitism - if we have two people with identical levels of enjoyment but with differing kinds of content, the one which a higher pleasure might be seen to be better off than the other. For example, enjoyment due to consuming alcohol may seem to be less good than enjoyment caused by reading Shakespeare, even if they are of the same level of enjoyment. Perhaps living in the "real" world is better than living in a simulated reality if both levels of enjoyment are equivalent. My intuition here is that this may be crossing over into the realm of ethics - that it's not good for a person to be in the real world or read Shakespeare but that it is good that a person gets the same level of enjoyment through these elite activities as they would through lesser ones.
What is especially important to point out is how not just the overall balance but the trajectory of a person’s life affects how this person’s life goes. Trajectory is, however, not entirely hedonistic: for it establishes that the shape of a person’s life is an important variable independent of how much pleasure and pain are in the life. A downhill-shaped life is not very good compared to an uphill-shaped life, even if they both have the same “amount” of enjoyment. It seems as though at least some basic consideration of the shape of a life that makes it better or worse - that ending a life on a positive note is better than ending a life on a negative note. Perhaps pure hedonism can still be saved by questioning whether it is actually possible for a downhill-shaped life to have the same amount of pleasure and pain as an uphill-shaped life - for perhaps pain after the fact is intrinsically worse felt simply from the knowledge of it being the after instead of before pleasure. If this route is persuasive, then what can be said is that downhill-shaped lives are worse than uphill-shaped lives because their structure prevents a person from enjoying the pleasures an uphill-shaped life might contain.
In summary, hedonism as a theory of human welfare straddles the line between respecting human differences and understanding fallibility. It is able to recognize that what a person prefers may not be what is best for them, but also that something that makes a person miserable cannot possibly be good for them. Therefore it is somewhat removed from a person's own awareness - how well-off a person is stands somewhat independently of their own mental states (this is ethically relevant). We may be tempted to believe certain objective features make a life better, but in many cases this seems to be confusing welfare with ethics. However, the trajectory of a person's life may make it the case that at least some objective features are important for welfare, as we would typically see a downwards-sloping life as worse than an upwards-sloping life, all things considered and irrespective of the persons' opinions. As it stands, it seems as though that objective features might act as a tie-breaker of well-being: enjoyment based on some specific feature may be better than enjoyment based on something else, even if they are equivalent levels of enjoyment.
Within the context of the negative perspective, trajectory-hedonism is a powerful model for well-being. The negative perspective sees basically all human lives to be downward-shaped. Most of the genuinely positive experiences happen in the beginning of life, when one is youthful and lithe. As we age, we lose our capacity to do things we used to like, we contract diseases, and we all eventually die. The inclusion of a life’s trajectory as essential to the value of a person’s life fits perfectly into the temporally-holistic model of the human condition established by the negative perspective. It may not be a complete model of human welfare, but it certainly seems to serve most situations well.
One quick note: the position of welfarism claims that the the ultimate justification for moral reasoning is rooted in the welfare of people. For a long while I was keenly attracted to welfarism, especially since I found hedonism to be the most reliable theory of welfare. What could be more important than the experiences of conscious agents? Trouble began to arise when I started to formulate the negative perspective. Some of the issues that arose will be explored in the next two chapters, but suffice to say I found hedonistic ethics to be problematic, even if I found a hedonistic value theory to be coherent. For that reason I cannot say I am am welfarist - I find a preference-based ethics to be the best candidate for a second-order ethics, but I am not willing to see preferentism as a theory of welfare itself. Since I do not accept preferentism as the best theory of welfare, I cannot call myself a welfarist, for my approval of preference-based ethics is not based on my conception of welfare. What this means is that the greatest good for a person is not necessarily what is ethically important. There are some qualifications, of course, and these will be explored in due course.
Anyway that's it, folks.