On Pleasure

At the end of my previous post there's an interesting (to me, anyway) discussion about the value of pleasure. Since that discussion is buried at the end of a fairly long thread, and since Jonathan nicely extended my stay here at Catallarchy, I thought that I'd comment on the discussion out here.

My claim is that utilitarianism is far less spooky than natural rights theory because utilitarianism is rooted in empirically observable evidence, namely, that pleasure is good. Scott promptly accused me of leaping the is/ought divide and importing normativity in a manner that is just as spooky as that employed by the natural rights theorist. I objected, though not very well. Now I'd like to do so more clearly. Or better yet, I'll let a much smarter guy object for me:

The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it: and so of the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it. If the end which the utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself were not, in theory and in practice, acknowledged to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was so. No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness. This, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person's happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons. Happiness has made out its title as one of the ends of conduct, and consequently one of the criteria of morality.

Hang on before you start writing your nasty responses. Yes, I do know that the argument I've just quoted equivocates on "desire." And yes, I also know that there are at least two composition fallacies in Mill's "proof." And yes, I understand that there's something odd about defending oneself with an argument that consists of four steps, three of which are well-known fallacies. But...and here's the important but...Mill isn't offering a formal proof. That's right. If you read just two paragraphs earlier, Mill states quite clearly that

IT HAS already been remarked, that questions of ultimate ends do not admit of proof, in the ordinary acceptation of the term. To be incapable of proof by reasoning is common to all first principles

In other words, Mill admits right off the bat that he can't give a formal proof of the principle of utility. He's not offering a logical deduction. He's offering evidence. The best evidence we have that pleasure is good is the fact that everyone regards pleasure as good. This isn't handwaving, nor is it mere stipulation. What Mill is pointing to is that, as an empirical fact about human beings as we happen to be constituted, pleasure and good are coextensive.

So if the best evidence that pleasure is good is the fact that pretty much everybody says so, then the best evidence that pleasure isn't good (or isn't always good) would be some instance of a bad pleasure. Finding such a critter is what I challenged Scott (or anyone else, for that matter) to do.

Typically there are a lot of people who will jump at the challenge. There are far fewer who are successful. Most end up showing that certain activities that yield pleasure are not good. But that's not really in dispute. Any good hedonist will agree that heroin is bad. But the badness of heroin is not the fact that it yields lots of pleasure (so I'm told, anyway), but rather that it yields a whole lot of pain (again, as I'm told). Because the pain way outweighs the pleasure, we say that heroin is bad. That, however, doesn't show that pleasure is bad, but rather that heroin pain is worse than heroin pleasure. That's very different.

Aha, someone then says. What about rape? Surely that's bad.

But the response here is exactly the same. Yes, rape is bad. But the badness of rape isn't from the pleasure of the rapist. It's from the pain of the person being raped. And that way outweighs the pleasure. So again, all the example shows is that rape is bad. It doesn't show that the pleasure of the rapist is bad. As a thought experiment, imagine a guy who "rapes" a woman who turns out to be a really good automaton, one that is programmed to respond to being raped, but that is completely unconscious. Or better yet, suppose that the guy in question lives on a world in which all the "women" are automatons of this sort. And suppose that he receives all sorts of pleasure from raping them. What's really so bad about that?

That's not necessarily the end of the story, of course. There are those who will argue that pleasure cannot be abstracted from the activity that causes it. Thus, we might say, no pleasure can possibly be good if it's pleasure that's associated with an act that is wrong. And while that particular claim might seem plausible when we talk about rape, I think that it leads to dangerously elitist attitudes when pushed to its logical ends.

Consider, for example, grown mostly-naked men hopped up on steroids pretending to throw each other around a raised platform with some ropes around it. This strikes me as pretty much a complete waste of time. And I'd be willing to bet that I could make a pretty good utilitarian argument against this sort of thing. That argument then allows me to override any objections. After all, whatever pleasure you get from watching WWE can't possibly be real pleasure since the pleasure is associated with an activity that we've deemed to be bad. Right? So the fact that loads of people like the WWE just doesn't matter anymore. Move over wrestling, NASCAR, Pabst Blue Ribbon and cheese fries. Bring on Die Fledermaus, Saint-Emilion, and brie.

So what's all this mean? It means that I think there's a very good case to be made for the claim that, for human beings, given the way we've evolved, pleasure just is good. This isn't a learned behavior or an opinion we happen to have. It's just a fact about the world: for human beings, pleasure is good. It isn't an analytic truth; it's an empirical one. And the only evidence we have for that empirical claim is the fact that, universally, humans always say that pleasure is good. Even the ascetics don't think that pleasure is bad. On the contrary, the reject the goodness of pleasure for a supposed higher good. But that doesn't mean that they don't still think pleasures are good. Indeed, the very fact that ascetics are so damn rare (and that so many of them backslide) should count still further as evidence that pleasure just is good.

Share this