Objective lists

20 Oct

listAccording to ‘objective list’  theorists, if we itemise the things which contribute to our well-being, we will often find that not all the entries on the list relate to pleasurable experiences or desire-satisfaction.  So neither hedonism nor desire theories work all that well as an account of  the ingredients of individual well-being.

There are problems with lists, of course – particularly with the stipulation ‘objective’. In the words of the contributor to Stanford’s ‘Plato’ entry, how do we decide what should  go on the list?  “It is important that every good should be included.” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/well-being/#ObjLisThe).  This often seems to come down to a question of who decides what goes on the list.

Most of us can probably come up with some reasonable suggestions. A year ago I heard  Professor Andrew Oswald present a convincing check-list of factors which we need to be aware of in any quest for well-being. These include items such as employment, exercise, and friendship (see this blog, 4 October 2015). Exercise may provide a good example of what objective list theorists are talking about. Some people hate it – they neither enjoy it nor want it. But somebody is telling them that they need it if they’re going to achieve well-being.

Hedonists may protest at this point that objective list theories are elitist. The theories are claiming that certain things are good for people even when those people don’t want them, and don’t derive pleasure from them. We might get round this by arguing that deep down people do enjoy what’s good for them. I don’t really like spinach, for example, but I do enjoy the sensation that I’m eating something that will make me healthy.  So I sort of enjoy eating spinach. In my head I enjoy it.

Another response to the elitist objection is to bite the bullet, and point out that a theory can be both elitist and true.

Even so, objective list theories aren’t necessarily authoritarian. Somebody could have a highly elitist view of what constitutes well-being, while maintaining the liberal view that it’s up to the individual to decide whether he or she wants to engage with it. No nanny state here then, just a set of ideas about what’s good for us, take it or leave it. Nobody’s forcing me to eat spinach, are they? This may be seen as the position adopted by John Stuart Mill.

While desire theories tell us that what we want is what is good for us, objective list theories tell us that what is good for us is what we want. According to Stanford’s ‘Plato’, “what is most at stake (in objective list theories) is the issue of the epistemic adequacy of our beliefs about well-being”. In other words, how do we know what is good for us?  Do we trust others to tell us?


Desire and the grass-counter

12 Oct

Pleasure and pain exist in the minds of the people who experience them, and are hard to measure. So economists interested in social welfare – who in the last ten years or so have been among the most prominent happiness theorists – have begun to link well-being with the satisfaction of desires, rather than sensations of pleasure. And since present desires are often transitory, and may evaporate quite quickly, comprehensive desires are the ones that theorists tend to concentrate on. What’s important for a person’s well-being, they argue, is the overall level of desire-satisfaction achieved in his or her life as a whole.

In thinking about desire and well-being, it’s necessary to circumvent the hypothetical situation where a drug addict can get hold of the substance he or she craves, very easily and at no expense, for a whole lifetime. Drug addicts generally aren’t happy, even when their desires are satisfied. So we probably shouldn’t measure well-being through straightforward desire-satisfaction. Rather, it’s suggested, we need to give desires a ranking, so that the more long-term desires – ones that encompass the shape and content of one’s life as a whole – are given priority.

So what about the people whose desires are very limited, because they have very little knowledge of what’s on offer in the world at large?  Like John Stuart Mill’s pig, they may be satisfied with very little. This prompts an informed desire version of the comprehensive desire theory: the best life is the one which we would desire if we were fully inforgrassmed about all the possibilities.

The American philosopher John Rawls has come up with an objection to this, which we can term the grass-counter example. Imagine that a brilliant Harvard mathematician, fully informed about all the options available to her, develops an overwhelming desire to count the blades of grass on the well-trimmed lawns of Harvard. Is a life of grass-counting really the best thing for her, even though it’s what she wants? (Theory of Justice, p. 432).

Rawls himself is inclined to conclude that such lives can be good for the people who are living them. But we can see what the problem is. Hence we come to objective list theories. These lists may include stuff that people neither want nor enjoy, but which even so may contribute to their well-being … 

Hedonism part 3: John Stuart Mill. The Opera House wins

6 Oct


Like his teacher Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) believed that happiness is the highest good. Like Bentham, he defines it as the achievement of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. His hedonism differs from Bentham’s, however, when it comes to the issue of quality. According to Mill, happiness must be distinguished from contentment, and is of higher value:

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.” (Utilitarianism, Chapter II)

Mill argued that pleasures can vary in quality – intellectual and moral pleasures (higher pleasures) are superior to more physical forms of pleasure (lower pleasures). The pleasures of listening to opera or of acting virtuously, for example, are superior to the pleasures we get from food or sex. So for Mill the happiness of the thinking human being is definitely preferable to the contentment of the satisfied pig. People who have had the chance  to experience both types of pleasure know this – so we mustn’t allow the population at large to be fobbed off with a diet consisting entirely of inferior pleasures, is the implication. The opera house definitely wins out over sport.

Mill’s  philosophy of pleasure is sometimes referred to as qualitative hedonism, to distinguish it from the quantitative variety propounded by Bentham. ‘Never mind the quality, feel the width’  might well sum up Bentham’s approach to pleasure, but it would never have been adopted as a motto by Mill.

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.

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? 

Hedonism part 1: the oyster question

14 Jul


Hedonism – the idea that pleasure is the highest good – was certainly being discussed in ancient Greece by the end of the fifth century BC. It is outlined in Plato’s Protagoras, a dialogue in which Plato’s old teacher Socrates is debating the question of whether virtue can be taught. He’s talking to Protagoras, a leading Sophist and philosophical relativist.

‘So to live pleasurably is good, to live painfully bad?’ Socrates asks.

‘Yes, if one’s pleasure comes from what’s honourable,’ Protagoras replies.

‘Really? Protagoras, you surely don’t subscribe to the commonplace notion that some pleasures are bad, and some pains good?’

Socrates is being ironic here, because Protagoras was famous in his day for challenging conventional views of morality. Wrong-footed by Socrates (something that happens repeatedly in Plato’s dialogues), he has to admit that there are some pleasures that aren’t good, and some pains that aren’t bad.  (Plato, Protagoras 351c) So a criterion for the good life – ‘what is honourable’ – has already been introduced. Pleasure is not the be-all and end-all of our existence. 

In another of Plato’s dialogues, Philebus, Socrates asks his companion Protarchus whether, if he got the chance, he would choose to spend his whole life in the enjoyment of the greatest pleasures.

‘Of course I would.’

‘Would you want anything else out of life apart from perfect pleasure?’

‘Certainly not.’

‘Think about it for a minute. Wouldn’t you want wisdom and intelligence and foresight?’

‘Why should I? If I have pleasure, I have everything.’

‘But if you didn’t possess mind or memory or knowledge or true opinion, you wouldn’t know whether you were enjoying pleasure or not.’

‘I suppose not.’oyster

‘And if you had no memory you wouldn’t even know that you had ever enjoyed pleasure in the past. … And if you had no foresight, you wouldn’t be able to look forward to enjoying it in the future. Your life wouldn’t be that of a man. It would be the life of an oyster.’
(Philebus 21b-c)

Here Plato assumes – rightly, I’m sure – that without consciousness we have no way of enjoying pleasure. He also seems to assume that consciousness immediately introduces other factors into the good life, factors that will lead us away from relying solely on pleasure. This assumption is more questionable.

So it seems that identifying pleasure as the highest good involved complex questions right from the start. Nearly a century later, when Epicurus appeared on the philosophical scene, he became the Greek world’s most celebrated hedonist. ‘When pleasure is present, as long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either in the body or the mind.’ (Principle Doctrines 3). But Epicurus’s view of pleasure, like most other people’s, is far from straightforward, since he believed that the limit of pleasure is reached in the removal of pain. If we’re hungry, we eat; but if we go on eating after we’ve dealt with our hunger, then we’ll only cause ourselves further pain. The answer for Epicurus lies in managing our desires so as to achieve maximum pleasure; and maximum pleasure means limited pleasure. This is a far cry from the modern use of the term ‘Epicurean’; and indeed in Epicurus’s own day his doctrines were misinterpreted, and seen as offering an ‘eat, drink and be merry’ message. ‘No, I’m not talking about fine food and fornication,’ he kept having to say. And I’m not talking about oysters either, he might have added, though he didn’t. So I would probably put Epicurus in the ‘desire theories’ category when it comes to ideas about well-being. More of this anon.