Archive | September, 2016

Hedonism part 2: Jeremy Bentham. Sport or opera houses – which should we be promoting?

15 Sep

The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is associated with the brand of hedonism known as utilitarianism. He argued that happiness was the ultimate good, and that pleasure and the absence of pain were its chief ingredients.

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think. (Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)

But happiness for Bentham was not a purely egotistical exercise. In his view the maximisation of collective happiness was the true basis for moral behaviour.

It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong …the obligation to minister to general happiness was an obligation paramount to and inclusive of every other. (A Fragment on Government)

For Bentham, then, only an action that appears to maximise the happiness of all the people likely to be affected by it is the morally right action. He may have borrowed the phrase ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’  from the Ulster philosopher Francis Hutcheson.

Each person’s happiness depends on the aggregate balance of pleasures over pains, and this balance is the end which individuals, moral leaders, and legislators must have in mind when they establish rules and make judgements about moral conduct. Basically self-interested individuals should be encouraged and directed to perform actions that promote the greatest happiness of both themselves and others. 

To help achieve this, Bentham devised a Hedonic Calculus, a method of measuring the value of the pleasures or pains that would probably be caused by specific actions. In the Calculus he identifies  certainty, propinquity, intensity, duration, fecundity, purity, and extent as factors which determine the value of any anticipated pleasure or pain. Taking these into consideration will help us decide whether we should  perform the action or not.

Looking at each of these factors in turn:


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Certainty  How likely is it that pleasure or pain will  be caused by the action?

Propinquity How long will I have to wait for pleasure or pain to occur?

Intensity How strong will  the pleasure or pain be?

Duration How long will  the pleasure or pain be felt for?

Fecundity  Will this particular pleasure or pain lead to more of the same?

Purity  How likely is it that pleasure or pain will lead to some of the opposite sensation, pain or pleasure?

Extent   How many people will  the pleasure or pain be likely to affect?

Bentham measured all pleasures by the same criteria.  He didn’t  give intellectual or sophisticated pleasures a higher value than basic ones. According to him,  the pleasure gained from the parlour game push-pin is just as valuable as pleasure derived from music or poetry.  If games bring the population in general more pleasure than going to the opera, then it is vital that society devotes more resources to promoting games than to running opera houses.

Some of  Bentham’s ideas were anticipated by Epicurus. He believed that we have to take into account the pains which our pleasures may cause us in the future. He also took duration into account. “Continuous bodily pain does not last long,” he writes. “Pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which slightly exceeds bodily pleasure does not last for many days at once. Diseases of long duration allow an excess of bodily pleasure over pain.” (Principal Doctrines 4)

Bentham saw his Calculus as something that people who were aware of their own interests would be able to use; but others have insisted that it is quite impractical. Bentham, however, did not expect either individuals or legislators to follow the process to the letter. Rather, the Calculus was a model of an ideal calculation, offering a set of guidelines for those attempting to maximise pleasure and promote the greatest happiness. 

Bentham’s influence is still felt in the field of economics, where the Calculus provided the basis for the development of policies based on cost-benefit analysis. And his collectivist conclusions, though modest, influenced later reformist thinkers who paved the way for modern welfare economics.

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The Danes, again …

10 Sep

Consistent frontrunners in the happiness league tables, the Danes are happy-danish-personensuring that their state of mind stays in the news. Personally, I think I’ve heard quite enough already about ‘hygge’, but it seems that five books on the subject are to be published in English in the next few weeks (The Observer, Sept 4). ‘Hygge’ means something like ‘doing inexpensive and pleasurable things with nice people in snug surroundings,’ and you can’t really knock it. We all like a bit of that from time to time. But is it what we should be striving to achieve?

When reading about ‘hygge’ I immediately think of Chekvov, who would have found all this bourgeois contentment disturbing. “These days,” one of his characters tells us, “I am afraid to look into windows, because there is now no sadder spectacle for me than a happy family seated round a tea-table.” (Gooseberries)  ‘Hygge’ is not for Chekhov, then. The narrator in his story fears that he is lapsing into contentment himself, but he also believes that those who are happy are only in a position to enjoy their mental state because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence. (See this blog, 28 july 2013)

My sense that ‘hygge’ is not the solution is confirmed when I read in The Observer article that “it is rarely hygge to talk about politics, or indeed anything controversial.” So how on earth is anything ever going to change, then?  Or is the world of hygge so perfect that it doesn’t need to change? Perfect, that is, for those who belong to it. 

 

Happy only before you’re happy?

8 Sep

A great paradox concerning happiness, expressed by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his novel Julie or The New Heloise: once we feel we’ve achieved happiness, we stop being happy. 

“As long as we desire, we can do without happiness: we expect to achieve it. If happiness fails to come, hope persists, and the charm of illusion lasts as long as the passion isabelle-huppertthat causes it. So this condition is sufficient in itself, and the anxiety it inflicts is a sort of enjoyment that compensates for reality …Woe to him who has nothing left to desire… We enjoy less what we obtain than what we hope for, and we are happy only before being happy.”  (Part 6, Letter VII)

Tant qu’on désire on peut se passer d’être heureux; on s’attend à le devenir: si le bonheur ne vient point, l’espoir se prolonge, et le charme de l’illusion dure autant que la passion qui le cause. Ainsi cet état se suffit à lui-même, et l’inquiétude qu’il la-nouvelle-heloisedonne est une sorte de jouissance qui supplée à la réalité …Malheur à qui n’a plus rien à désirer!  On jouit moins de ce qu’on obtient que de ce qu’on espère et l’on n’est heureux qu’avant d’être heureux. 

Nathalie, played by Isabelle Huppert, reads out this passage to her students in the film L’Avenir, by Mia Hansen-Løve, which opened last week in London. A philosophy teacher in her fifties, Nathalie sees her life slipping away from her. Her husband leaves her for a younger woman, she crosses a picket line because her former communism apparently means nothing to her, her publisher decides not to reissue her books, she hates the idea of retiring, her mum dies, her former student and protégé Fabien tells her she’s bourgeois, and she eventually gives away the cat which she reluctantly inherited  and seemed to be growing to love. 

Though the film is very good, it’s also fairly bleak. But perhaps we can take something positive away from it. Hansen-Løve may be suggesting that there’s a new beginning for Nathalie in all of this. Is the Rousseau quote making the point that in losing the whole world Nathalie can regain her soul? – or in Rousseau’s terms, she can regain her desire, her hope, her anxiety, and her happiness?  In other words,  can Nathalie only be happy if she stops being happy?