It’s fairly common to talk about welfare in three categories: hedonism, desire satisfaction, and objectivism (where this includes views like perfectionism and the objective list view). But this always seemed a little strange to me–there’s loads of logical space missing here. So I prefer the following categorization: hedonism, subjectivism, and objectivism. Define “subjectivism” as the view that that a necessary condition of the welfare value of x is agential ratification. I leave “agential ratification” purposefully vague; I mean desires, evaluative beliefs, etc., whether actual, idealized, or dispositional. Define “objectivism” as the view that denies subjectivism: there can be xs that enhance welfare independent of desires, preferences, or agential ratification whether actual or idealized. But this is puzzling as well: the distinction between subjectivism and objectivism appears to capture the whole of logical space! So where does hedonism fall?
Different hedonists have gone different ways on this matter. If I may be so bold, the “classical” approach to hedonism has been to situate hedonism within subjectivism. This gambit attempts to show that an independently motivated subjectivist view yields that all and only pleasure is valuable. For instance, Epicurus suggests that a certain class of our desires, i.e., “necessary” desires, determine our well-being, and our necessary desires point to pleasure and the absence of pain only. Sidgwick appears to support hedonism on the basis of an informed desire account of well-being. Depending on how you read the first paragraph of the Introduction, Bentham adopts a subjectivist strategy (maybe). Elements of this sort of view are found in Hume and Hutcheson. (For simplicity I’ll just assume that subjectivist views are–roughly–desire views; I don’t think this alters any of the points I want to make.)
The problem with this view is that in order for hedonism to be compatible with subjectivism, the relevant subjectivist view must be narrowed to such a degree that it appears to lack any independent motivation. A simple desire satisfaction view won’t do, because psychological hedonism is false; we all recall Nozick’s experience machine. But then we must narrow the range of the relevant preferences or desires to, say, desires for pleasure. I’m skeptical, however, that such a view could be defended without an antecedent commitment to hedonism. Let’s say I desire achievement, knowledge, and pleasure, all for their own sake (after undergoing whatever idealized process is involved). Why suggest that only my desire for pleasure is relevant to my well-being? One could, of course, be convinced that hedonism is true, and be adopting a subjectivist view that yields the conclusion one wants–that pleasure and only pleasure is good for people. But this move appears to wreck the subjectivism of the view in question. In particular, the explanatory relationship is reversed. Rather than accepting the value of pleasure on the basis of the evaluative credentials of the subjective view in question, we impart evaluative credentials on a particular subjective view given a prior commitment to the exclusive value of pleasure. In other words, it’s the commitment to hedonism doing the evaluative work here, not the subjective view in question. And if the commitment to hedonism isn’t coming from the independently motivated subjective view, hedonism can’t be subjective.
Others suggest that hedonism is objective–that all and only pleasure is good no matter what a given agent prefers or desires. On this proposal, hedonism would be a subset of objective list views: an objective list view with only one element. Hedonism is thus an extremely strong objective list view: pleasure and only pleasure is good. Many objective list views accept that pleasure is good (cf. Richard Arneson on “cheap thrills”). The question now before us is why can’t other things go on the objective list, too? Why not include, for instance, the value of genuine achievement for its own sake?
Presumably the response would be that, consulting our considered judgments, pleasure and only pleasure belongs on the objective list. Genuine achievements can only be instrumental for pleasure. However, if hedonism is objective, I wonder if a lynchpin in this sort of argument goes down the tubes. To see what I mean, consider the following from Feldman:
Suppose some pluralist tells me that knowledge and virtue will make my life better. Suppose I dutifully go on about gaining knowledge and virtue. After a tedious and exhausting period of training, I become knowledgeable. I behave virtuously. I find the whole thing utterly unsatisfying. The pluralist tells me that my life is going well for me. I dispute it. I think I might be better off intellectually or morally, but my welfare is, if anything, going downhill. Surely a man might have lots of knowledge and virtue and yet have a life that is not good in itself for him.
Here Feldman appears to be making a plausible appeal: welfare should resonate with the agent whose welfare it is. But if hedonism is objective, I wonder if it is any better shape vis-a-vis resonance than a wider objective list view. Imagine that I desire to gain knowledge and virtue, I desire these things for their own sake, and I’m willing to give up substantial pleasure to gain them because I find pleasure base and unworthy (imagine that I also find attitudinal pleasure base and unworthy; I’m not Stoicus). Now I have lots of pleasure but no knowledge or virtue; I’ve taken lots of pleasure in things, but haven’t achieved what I want. The hedonist tells me my life is going well for me. I dispute it. Hedonism appears as though it can’t guarantee resonance unless it’s interpreted subjectively. The hedonist might just say that she wins the reflective equilibrium sweepstakes even without resonance. But if we give up the resonance constraint, this seems to open the door to a number of objective views including–gasp!–perfectionism.
I’m sure I’ve gone wrong somewhere. Help me, hedonists; you’re my only hope!