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Prior Knowledge

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Pleasure Machine

A common question in philosophy is "what does welfare constitute of?" It has been argued by hedonists that welfare is simply the amount of pleasure experienced minus the amount of pain experienced.

A common thought experiment used in arguing that the hedonistic account of welfare is insufficient is to ask people whether they would rather be mislead into thinking that their parents had died horribly (even though they were perfectly safe and happy), or be tricked into believing that their parents were safe and happy (even though they had died horribly). Most people seem to say that they would prefer their parents to be safe and happy, even if they had to believe they were dead, and suffer from the anguish resulting from that belief. In short: people care about things other than their own subjective happiness. Perhaps it follows that what a person would most prefer to happen, is for their own informed desires to be fulfilled in fact.

However, does this show that welfare hedonism is mistaken? I'm not so sure. Let me work a little on the thought experiment. Two highly sophisticated helmets are invented. One, the "depression helmet", when worn allows the person wearing it to go about their life as usual. However, it causes them to believe that all of their desires have been thwarted. The second helmet is called the "ecstasy helmet" and evokes in the subject a pathological optimism: they believe that they have everything in the world they could possibly want and more.

Would you rather actively fulfill all the desires you have in life, or at least see others fulfill them for you (but wear the depression helmet, so as to believe that the opposite is happening and hence be in utter anguish), or would you rather live what you would have called a worthless life, lying in bed all day like a heroin addict (but because you are wearing the ecstasy helmet you think you have everything that you desire, and because of this you are in utter bliss)?

I would say the first option. There are things I value more than my happiness. Perhaps, however, it would make sense to say that even though I prefer option one, I would be much better off in option two. This is what my intuition seems to tell me. In option one I feel about as happy as is possible. In option two, I feel so bad that I might as well be in hell. It seems that the live and well parents of the person in the depression helmet would agree - they would think that this person was in a terrible position (and, I hazard to guess, the more altruistic ones would sacrifice their lives to have the helmet replaced with an ecstacy one). Yet this seems to be the opposite conclusion intended by 'pleasure machine' type thought experiments.

Perhaps it is simply the case that there is a wide gap between "good for" somebody and "good to" somebody. This isn't a totally new idea - Richard introduced me to the vocabulary although I can't remember exactly which philosopher it was that he read it from. But there seems to be some merit to the distinction.

What do you think?

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  • Oh yeah. If you believe in heaven, for purposes of this discussion, you have to take the appropriate helmet with you to the afterlife. :)

    3/15/2005 08:12:00 PM  

  • I got it from Stephen Darwall, Philosophical Ethics (in his chapter on J.S. Mill).

    As you know, I'd like to say that hedonism is false and wellbeing consists in desire fulfillment. But the distinction you raise does have some force, so I'll have to think some more about it...

    3/15/2005 10:09:00 PM  

  • It seems to me that the thought experiment only takes into account your state of happiness. If we consider the parent death case: Surely the level of happiness in the world is much less when the parents have been tortured to death than in the world that you merely think they have. Thus, the case in which you only think they have been tortured in the more preferable because the suffering in that world is less than in the world where you have dead parents.
    I know I'm lacking a distinction between suffering and happiness but I think my consideration still holds.

    3/15/2005 10:15:00 PM  

  • The false-belief world is certainly better for the parents, and also in an impartial sense. But the question is, which world is better for you?

    (This way, the answer should reveal our concept of individual wellbeing - in particular, whether or not it is consistent with hedonism.)

    3/15/2005 10:34:00 PM  

  • I don't think the hedonist has to accept that the question raised is a fair one. Many hedonists may have at least some inclination that the world is a better place if their parents are alive, even when it leads to their own personal misery. However, they can account for any such intuitions via the misleading nature of the thought experiment. Say I am a hedonist and that I think that it is good for my parents to be happy merely because it gives me pleasure, say due to some quirk in evolutionary biology. Why would I feel a pull towards the happy parent option? Perhaps because I am used to selecting states of the world which give me please, and this is one of them. Perhaps because as the subject of the thought experiment I simply have too much information, it is too hard not to focus on the pain or pleasure of my parents, which should (and does usually) in turn cause pain or pleasure in me. A hedonist will have to say that it is better to have pleasure and tortured parents than the alternative. However, this is not as dire as it seems. They can provide an explanation as to why the pleasure option should seem wrong, without it actually being wrong.

    3/15/2005 10:46:00 PM  

  • Alex,

    Yeah, I think I would say something like that. I think it is hard for everybody to separate their individual welfare from the goods that they individually would want to pursue. Yet, it seems an important distinction. There seems to be a degree to which I can rationally and informedly want something to happen that is both other-regarding and in all respects bad for me. If I am a preference satisfaction theorist, then it seems that my only recourse is to say that every preference satisfaction is in some way good for me, but can be, on the balance, overall thoroughly bad. But I'm not sure if this is enough.

    I've got the feeling that I digressed but its late and I'm lazy. Interesting topic though; I think I might have to write my essay on it (although that would render me super-lame because I will not only be doing all the same papers as Richard; I will be writing all the same essay topics as him)!

    3/15/2005 11:46:00 PM  

  • PS... that wasn't to say that Richard is super lame... its just a bit odd that we are doing the exact same subjects!

    Just thought I'd clear that up... :)

    3/16/2005 02:19:00 PM  

  • For anyone interested, I've written a follow-up post, here. (My central claim is that our best recourse is to identify welfare with the fulfillment of self-regarding desires only.)

    3/22/2005 10:08:00 PM  

  • It's interesting that if you're right it doesn't show hedonism to be correct, because then we'd have one case that moves us that way and the pleasure machine that moves us the other way. I think Richard is right to try to find a view that explains both responses, but what if in the end we can't do that? Which of these examples should take precedence?

    I think I'm going to bite the bullet on this anyway. If I'm trying to devote my life to helping people out, and I do so, then I think it's so good for me to have my life purpose met that it's still better for that to be the case with my being fooled into thinking I've completely failed than it is for me to be all happy and content thinking I'd succeeded when in fact I've completely hurt everyone and everything I've touched. It's terrible for me that I'm misled about this (which is true of both cases), but it's even worse that my life goal is not only failed but that I never know that, whereas it's not so bad that I simply never know that I've succeeded, because I have succeeded.

    3/25/2005 07:10:00 AM  

  • I thought I knew what was going on in this post, then I re-read it, and now I'm not so sure. Do the helmets transform the desires, holding experiences constant, or do they transform the experiences, holding the desires constant? Or are you describing a third option? Perhaps your experiences are normal, and your desires are unchanged, but you merely believe against all your evidence that your desires are unsatisfied?

    3/25/2005 07:50:00 AM  

  • Since I wasn't sure which of my three interpretations was right, I've responded to your argument for each one of them at OrangePhilosophy.

    3/25/2005 09:42:00 AM  

  • hehe. I'm not really sure. I'd probably say that the helmets cut the link between seeing your desires being fulfilled and actually understanding that that is what is happening. For instance, you see your parents every day, and you do in fact desire this, but you fail to appreciate that you are in fact therefore having your desires fulfilled. Probably (3) in your post. I guess its a kind of irrationality.

    Personally, I would agree that in many cases, people would prefer to wear the depression helmet, if it means that every aim they have will be fulfilled (world hunger solved, etc etc etc); people can be quite selfless at times. However, I would say that nevertheless, that person is worse off in that situation. There isn't any need to decide which kind of welfare is more important... only one of the 'goods' constitutes my welfare. Having my goals fulfilled isn't good for me unless it increases my happiness. The fact is, I can rationally and authentically want something that is thoroughly bad for me. (Well, at least I'd like to think this is the case)

    3/25/2005 12:12:00 PM  

  • "Having my goals fulfilled isn't good for me unless it increases my happiness."

    But what reason do you have for believing that? Sure, you can defend it if you make the 'good to'/'good for' distinction, but what positive considerations support the view? (Brute intuition, I suppose, but it seems a bit dubious if others don't share your intuition here!)

    At least with desire-fulfillment theories we can say that something's being good to a person is prima facie evidence of its also being good for them. The fact that everyone wants their desires fulfilled is suggestive that this is what well-being consists in. But what can the hedonist appeal to as evidence for their view?

    3/25/2005 12:23:00 PM  

  • I can rationally and authentically want something that is thoroughly bad for me in every respect. Any other definition of welfare is just conflating a very meaningful distinction between welfare and preference fulfillment.

    The fact that people want their desires to be fulfilled isn't in any way suggestive that that is what well-being consists in. This evidence begs the question against the to-for distinction. Once again, a meaningful distinction.

    On the intuition point - I guess neither of us can claim victory on the basis of intuition.

    With the hedonistic account, we can say that something making somebody happy is prima facie evidence that it is good for that person.

    If somebody rationally determines that the world would be better off if they light themselves on fire as a protest (in fact, it is the best way of maximising their desires), and they rationally decide to, are they themselves better off? The informed preferences theory would have to say yes. It would appear that their preference for utilitarian good was held so close to them that it outweighed their other preferences (otherwise, they weren't being rational).

    What does the hedonistic account say of this? It may be the rational thing to maximise preference satisfaction, but that doesn't necessarily make you happier. This person is worthy of pity, even though they may at the same time be admired for their moral conviction.

    hope this made sense. :)

    3/26/2005 02:12:00 PM  

  • I think the question seems to rely upon SELFISH hedonism.

    This is very odd in terms of a thought experiment regarding hedonism because the "selfish" part dominates in the thought experiment.
    For example a utilitarian hedonist I should support the world in which others are happy because it has a greater quantity of happyness in it at least in regard to a thought experiment that values the moral state of those worlds - indeed it seems outright irrational to say the former is a "better world" even if one would choose the other world if faced with the choice.

    Now maybe someone is going to say hedonism is selfish by definition .. maybe..

    Anyway the trade offs above mean it is a poor thought experiment anyway as I think a good selfish hedonist is likely to say the happy world is better and then act to preserve their own happyness anyway. As would most people I expect after fully comprehending the decision.

    10/20/2005 09:09:00 PM  

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