Sunday, April 21, 2013

Hedonism and the Experience Machine

**This is from guest blogger, Eric B.**

Hello all,

I wrote this blog post as a preliminary sketch of an argument I may use within my second paper. I am focusing on Mill, Hedonism and possibly how the doctrine of Hedonism may influence any decisions we may make regarding Robert Nozik’s Experience Machine. I would love any comments about the effectiveness of this argument, and especially how it may interact with the Experience Machine.

Hedonism, as defined by Mill, follows the principle that happiness is the only intrinsically good value (unhappiness as the only intrinsically bad value). Hedonism helps us decide what we ought to do, and what we ought not to do, based on creating the greatest possible aggregate happiness. Thus, it seems like a very practical theory in individual or group decision making scenarios. Mill address the question regarding the need to choose between different types of happiness:
“On a question, which is the best worth having of two pleasures, or which of two modes of existence is the most grateful to the feelings, apart from its moral attributes and its consequences, the judgment of those who are qualified by knowledge of both, or, if they differ, that of the majority among them, must be admitted as final”. (287)
Mill argues that based on experience and knowledge of happiness outcome, we make certain decisions. If we are unable to use experience, then we accept the majority opinion in cases of moral conflict. To illustrate this, lets take a basic example of ditching class. Let’s say I have an experience of what it is like to skip class and drink beer all day. I also have an experience of the pain I get from failing my exam. I choose to study and not drink beer due to the experiences I have had, and my knowledge of the pleasure outcomes.

This is all good and fun, but what can we say about actions that we have no previous experience of? Lets use another well studied thought experiment: we must choose between saving 4 children who are going to get hit by a train, or to kill the conductor and save the children. Surely very few people can draw on previous experiences in order to make a decision that would maximize happiness. How can we determine what is most pleasurable when we have no experience of the other side? In addition, Mill states that we would follow majority opinion to know the right decision. This suggestion fails because it would be incredibly difficult to know the stance of the majority population, and the decision that the hypothetical majority may come to may not in fact maximize aggregate happiness. Thus, I am arguing that Mill’s notion of how we (the methods we use) to make these difficult decisions is unpersuasive. 


T. Stoehr said...

I think this is a really great paper topic. The fact that we can't always rely on the majority opinion, especially in rare cases, is an effective critique of Mill's argument. Moreover, there are surely cases in which, if we imagine the majority opinion, more than one course of action seems plausible. Do you have any additional suggestions as to how we should handle these cases? Maybe suggesting another option for judging relevant actions in relation to aggregate happiness would be a nice addition to your paper. This seems really well thought out and a great start!

Danny Witt said...

I want to echo what Talia said: cool paper topic! I completely agree that the lack of experience of the outcomes of certain moral decisions is a big obstacle for the Hedonist. Essentially you seem to be questioning the practicality of this moral theory—where I think it perhaps is most vulnerable.

How are you going to target the epistemological concerns of hedonism? That seems to be where you are headed. Is it our inability to know the outcomes of our decisions which limits the feasibility of Hedonism as a practical ethical doctrine? What would the Hedonist say—can any other theory actually get around this hurdle? Might the hedonist say that having experience of making a decision A and bringing about result B is very often impossible, for the reasons that you listed in your post, and humans do not have that type of epistemic access? This (the limited epistemic access to the effects of our decisions during a moral decision) certainly affects those theories that we have discussed such as Ethical Egoism and Utilitarianism—to name a few— in the same respect. At least that’s how it seems to me.

If it doesn’t take you into too great of a tangent, perhaps it would be interesting to examine why Mill’s Hedonism cannot provide a good protocol for making moral decisions about, say, the 4 kids versus the conductor. You speak about the moral agent lacking experience in many such situations (and not having epistemic access to the “happiness” yields of certain decisions compared to others), which I think is a good pitfall of Hedonism for you to probe in your paper. However, it might be interesting to investigate how these difficulties might also hinge on there being only a single objective, intrinsically good value—namely, happiness. Perhaps this would include a discussion of what other intrinsically good values could be at play, making the Hedonist methodology only part of a well-informed ethical decision. I’m sure you’re thinking of all of these things, and this is just an idea if you are racking your brain for more things to discuss.

Overall, I think this is a really cool aim for your next paper tough—good luck!

Eric Bumbaca said...

Thanks Talia and Danny, you comments were more than helpful.

I want to provide an update on some more situations that I have been mulling with this paper topic. Danny's comment on the epistemic nature of Hedonism seems really important to my paper. How can we truly understand the happiness outcomes of certain actions before they are performed? In addition, doesnt the quanitity and quality of the happiness obtained from a certain action depend entierly on the agent performing it?

For example, lets use the train example with four children and this time naming the other man: Barack Obama. Although this situation is a little harsh, its important to see that the background we all have shapes the decisions we make. If I am a left leaning progressive, I might say that saving Barack's life warrants the (unfortunate) death of four children. However, if I am a staunch conservative and Obama-hater, I may say "Let the train hit him!". The attitudes we possess shape our decision making progress, when we attempt to determine happiness outcomes.

This is another situation in which Mill's conception of "the majority" may be confused about the correct action of the agent. Hedonism seems to fail on many different grounds, and I hope that I can show this through my paper.