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Hedonism as a theory of values


To: Richard G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hedonism as a theory of values
Date: 2 August 2007 10:15

Dear Rick,

Thank you for your email of 22 July, with your third essay for the Pathways Moral Philosophy program, entitled, 'On Values'.

The original question was, 'What are values? Where do they come from? How are values integrated to form a 'unique valuational perspective'?'

This is a tightly-constructed essay which gives a persuasive account of a hedonist theory of values. According to this theory, everything that we value, or disvalue, is based ultimately on perceptions, or situations that directly cause us pleasure, or pain (displeasure) as the case may be.

Along the way, you raise the question whether any system which may be described in intentional terms (in Daniel Dennett's sense) may be said to have values. For example, does a thermostat 'value' the temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, or is it merely set to keep the room at that temperature? I think that you have in fact provided the materials for an answer to this question (which is 'no'). Thermostats don't have feelings. This is not because are made of metal and plastic, but simply because the way they work does not require a nervous system.

Whatever material a thing is made of, it can only 'feel' if it has a nervous system. The difference, ultimately, is just a matter of the order of complexity. Even the simplest biological organism is vastly more complex in the way it works than the most complex thermostat.

To start with, is it true that 'We are programmed with a behaviour for every sensory input we have'? There is some essential missing detail here. A jellyfish is 'programmed' in a different way from a human being. The behaviour of a jellyfish can be explained purely in terms of stimulus and response. If it detects your presence (through its nervous system) it will sting. Stinging any living thing that comes too close is what is required for survival - the jellyfishes evolutionary inheritance.

Human beings, by contrast, have the capacity to form beliefs and make decisions on the basis of their desires and beliefs. For human beings, many of our sensory inputs are neutral. We take in information which we put together and act on the basis of that information. This a different kind of explanation from the stimulus-response model.

However, for the purposes of your argument you can modify the claim to state that a subset of human sensory inputs possess an intrinsic quality which makes them desirable or not desirable. The hedonist claims that all human behaviour, all deciding and deliberating, is ultimately aimed at acquiring desirable inputs and avoiding undesirable inputs.

Here is a model for the logical structure of decision making:

It is a priori true (i.e. true as a matter of necessity and not merely an empirical generalization) that - other things being equal - if a human being P desires X, and P believes that X if and only if P does Y, then P does Y.

This is a 'regulative principle' which accounts for the necessary connection between belief and desire. It corresponds to your notion of 'causal chains'. For example, I desire to lick an ice lolly, and believe that I will (get to) lick an ice lolly if and only if I go into the store to buy one.

The 'other things being equal' (or 'ceteris paribus') is needed to allow for the complexity of human decision making. I may want the ice lolly and have the money to pay for it, but I may also want to take a bus home and I only have enough money either for the lolly or the bus ride.

The important point to make about this regulative principle, however, is that it does not assume any particular theory of desire. It works with the hedonist theory of desire, as you show, but it works equally well with theories which do not accept the hedonist premiss.

The virtue of hedonism is that it offers a complete explanation of 'where desires come from'. Nothing is left out. All human behaviour is ultimately the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Simple.

The question asked, 'how are values integrated to form a unique valuational perspective'. You haven't really answered this. You state that every agent will have a set of likes/ dislikes which is unique to that agent, and in this connection refer to language which makes us aware, through communication, that our values are different from the values of another person. But what the question is really asking is how we solve the complex problem of integrating our values, illustrated in the simple example of the ice lolly and the bus ride.

It is true that a hedonist doesn't have a lot to say about this. You simply go through every possible scenario (like calculating variations in chess) and choose the course of action which leads to the greatest amount of pleasure, or the least amount of pain. Again, simple.

I don't believe this simple theory, but this isn't the place to try to persuade you to give the theory up. In fact (I admit) it is a very difficult theory to refute.

The alternative? I don't think that it is, ultimately, possible to give a complete explanation of where all values come from. A starting point would be to establish that some things are, or have the capacity to be, intrinsically valuable. For example, the Mona Lisa. We may gain pleasure by looking at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, but the value of the Mona Lisa does not reduce - by any number of causal chains - to its capacity to produce pleasure or reduce pain. In other words, aesthetic value is objective, and not reducible to subjective feeling.

All the best,