Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Farewell, Ethical Hedonism

A few readers may recall that I once had a blog entitled “Happiness & Philosophy.” Among other things, I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what is wrong with ethical hedonism. Well, the one publishable result of all that writing and thinking turned out to be my rather short paper, “Against the Intrinsic Value of Pleasure.” (Published version here.) I was pleased to see that Timothy E. Taylor has raised some questions about my arguments in a new paper in the same journal, but as for me, my spade is turned and, to put it plainly, I’m done. No more trying to show hedonists the error of their ways. I mean, Monroe Beardsley made a much more damaging case against the coherence of the whole notion of intrinsic value than I did, and any one who can’t see the blinding obviousness of the fact that “x has intrinsic value” is just a trumped-up way of saying “I think this is super-duper important but I’m not saying why” is simply trapped by a picture. Similarly, anyone who thinks all value can be reduced to pleasure simply values intellectual “simplicity” over confronting the messiness and plurality of the real world.

Personally, I get a bit light-headed when I try to re-read Fred Feldman’s Pleasure and the Good Life. Not because the arguments overwhelm me, but rather because I feel like Feldman is ramming both his head and mine against a wall. And it isn’t the right wall, either. How about not defining an 83rd version of hedonism to solve the problems of the other 82 and considering the possibility that hedonism is hopeless! Prof. Feldman is a sincere, pleasant (not surprising) person, and so I do not mean to denigrate his character or intellectual integrity, or that of other ethical hedonists.

I used to like discussing Nozick’s experience machine in my classes. But now I feel a sense of dread when that topic comes up: not this again. I find it absolutely incredible, and depressing, that it needs saying that plugging into the experience machine would be a bad idea. Indeed, when I see a new paper in print discussing the experience machine, I feel certain that there is absolutely nothing else to be said about ethical hedonism.

At this point in my career, I guess I feel that I shouldn’t get locked into this dead-horse beating cottage industry. The only problem is that the horse isn’t dead. But that’s going to have to be someone else’s problem, because I’d rather continue my work on integrity, read some more J.M. Coetzee novels, and learn more about animal philosophy and issues in animal ethics. I simply no longer take pleasure in combating the follies of ethical hedonism. And although I think they are all grossly confused, I presume that hedonists can at least understand that sort of reason.

(In case you’re wondering what this is all about, read this, in my view, silly post and figure it out. Mike Austin has joined in on the quitters choir, too. So, what are you “done with”?)


  1. Your paper and Beardsley's make me want to ask all sorts of questions about the alleged intrinsic value of pleasure, but I guess that's precisely the kind of question you don't want to answer. Parsons' post seems strange to me because there is so much interesting stuff to talk about in connection with the philosophy of religion: Freud, Chesterton, Dostoevsky, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, etc. etc. The standard arguments for the existence of God, and the standard objections to these, could get boring, but why limit yourself (or your students) to these?

    I think I've given up on trying to make sense of the Tractatus for now, but that doesn't affect my teaching, and it may well not be permanent. I hope I don't have to teach philosophy of mind again soon, but that's more because every theory out there seems wrong rather than because I have discovered the truth about it all.

  2. You should try writing a bombastic and borderline self-important (or self-indulgent) post about one of these. It's very liberating.

    (Of course it makes sense to "move on" in one's intellectual endeavors sometimes, but with you, I find it strange to make a grandiose announcement about it...)