The Hedonist Swine Meets Neuroscience

“Hedonists do what they want. Their goal in life is happiness for themselves. Swines.” That is how most critics of the value theory approach hedonism, as the philosophy of swine. Here I argue that this critique can be overcome by appealing to neuroscience. I start with some counterexamples that Freud offered on his deathbed, and then move on to a new neuroscientific account, which it turns out, may be no more promising..

One answer to the question “what makes someone’s life valuable” is Hedonism. It is the view that that value arises from a balance of pleasure over pain. It is therefore an internalist account of value since its measure can be found within a person (Kagan, 1994). This means that if I want to find the value of someone’s life, I must ask her since pleasure and pain are phenomenal, i.e. they do not refer to things in the world, but to mental states of agents. This is opposed to externalist accounts of value, for instance desire-fulfilment theories that measure the state of the world, for instance whether a certain desire has been ascertained (see Crisp, 2004: 23); or the objective list account, according to which “Certain things are good or bad for people” unrelated to their desire to attain them nor their pleasure in them (Parfit, 1984: 498-9). The moral consequence of hedonism is that if only pleasure is valuable and if the valuable should be pursued, then actions are right iff they promote pleasure (Mill, 1895: 285). The question why the valuable should be pursued and other moral concerns must be left for another essay and so shall the nuances within hedonism (see Crisp, 2008 for a complete account). For our purposes let us define Hedonism as the proposition that only pleasure is valuable.

If that is true than it must be the case that there is one common property that connects all the things that are valuable for someone, for instance eating, reading, working, creating and helping (Griffin, 1986: ch.1), or in more extreme terms, the property that makes sex valuable is the same as listening to Bach. This can be a big problem for the hedonist since it entails that there is no way of distinguishing between different sorts of pleasures (Crisp, 2004: 21) even though there seems to be a different “pleasantness running through” different pleasant activities (Crisp, 2008). Mill answered that challenge by stating that if there is only one mental state according to which we measure the value of something then it must be the quantity and quality of pleasure that lets us distinguish between different activities (Mill, 1895: 288). This quality for Mill is a distinction between higher level pleasures (Bach) and lower level pleasures (sex).

This is a problematic account for hedonism, since if it is pleasure alone that makes things valuable, what other variable do we use to figure out what pleasures are of higher quality except for our prejudice against sex, gluttony or drug abuse. There seems to be not obvious reason to make such a distinction.  (For the purpose of this essay however I shall adopt Mill’s terminology.) Furthermore, to speak only in phenomenal terms is “suspicious” (Crisp, 2004: 23) since some felt quality is not a satisfying account for pleasure. Instead, If we alternatively move from quality to intensity as Bentham suggested (1789) then hedonism starts looking like sensualism, the view that what is valuable should be derived from physical pleasure, which is considered a bad value theory. Let me outline how this comes about:

P1: (hedonism) Only pleasure is valuable.

P2: (Mill’s condition) A life filled with the higher level pleasures (listening to Bach) is more valuable than a life filled with lower level pleasures (sex, gluttony or drug abuse).

P3: Sex, gluttony and drug abuse bring a greater intensity of pleasure than listening to Bach.

P4: A life completely filled with what brings a greater intensity of pleasure (Sex, gluttony and drug abuse) must overall be more pleasurable than one filled with what brings a lesser intensity (Bach).

P5: (mental statism) Two lives are the same in value iff they are indistinguishable in terms of mental states (Kagan, 1994).

C1: Therefore a life filled with higher level pleasures (Bach) is less valuable than a life filled with lower level pleasures (sex, gluttony or drug abuse).

C2: Hedonism is false.

According to this formulation, a challenge for hedonism arises out of the inconsistency of these five premises. Many philosophers have concluded, that the only way to make the argument consistent is to reject P2 (Crisp, 2008). This however leads to a theory wherein we are encouraged to seek physical pleasures, a doctrine “worthy only of swine” (Mill, 1859: 285). Instead I propose to reject P4 with reference to neuropsychology by showing that one cannot infer P4 from P3. My project shall be to show a posteriori that lower level pleasures with great intensity cannot be maximised in quantity without diminishing intensity. If that project succeeded, it would mean that a life filled with lower level pleasures is not necessarily more valuable than one filled with higher level pleasures. Therefore P2 can hold and the conclusions are not valid.

Let me start that project by proposing a different definition of pleasure. This shall be in simplistic neuropsychological terms: Pleasure shall mean a release and resulting high level of pleasure chemicals (PC) in the nervous system (for the sake of the argument this essay shall ignore biological nuances and assume serotonin and dopamine as representatives)(Strunz, 2000: 19), while the absence of pleasure shall mean a low level of these, over prolonged periods of time resulting in depression. What this results in is a form of hedonism wherein something is valuable iff it releases high levels of PC, and a life overall is more valuable iff the duration and intensity of the presence of PC is high. This can be applied to all pleasurable activities. Sex and Bach both release a unique mixture of PC varying in intensity. This is insofar a solution for Crisp’s challenge that there does not seem to be a common strand of pleasantness running through different activities in that different activities will bring forth different mixtures of chemicals. Furthermore this pulls the discussion from suspicious phenomenal into physical terms.

How does this proposition help us? After all, swines are still possible: A person may fill her life with lower level pleasures that bring forth more pleasurable mixtures of chemicals than those of a life filled with higher level desires. In effect, turning the argument into physical terms may satisfy Crisp (2008) and Griffin (1986: ch.1) who demand for an explanation of pleasure by the hedonist, but gives no reasons to reject P4 and fails. Let me argue that that is not the case with reference to ecstasy. This drug directly stimulates the release of dopamine and for a short period of time the mixture seems more valuable under our definition. Why could one not stay on ecstasy for all one’s life? The answer is that prolonged and intensive stimulation of “serotonin-release and increase in dopamineric activity” can be held responsible for negative effects on the overall chemical balance of the nervous system (Huether, Zhou, Rüther, 1997; how exactly this occurs is not however undisputed among neuropsychologists, see Liechti, Baumann, Gamma, Vollenweider, 2000). Moreover, the negative effect of drug consumption is cumulative (Pollard, 2003), hence a person who starts taking ecstasy becomes more and more unable to achieve any pleasurable mixture. In essence a person cannot maintain a high mixture by solely relying on drugs, neither could this be the case with sex (leading to a sex addiction) or gluttony (leading to obesity or other diseases). Lower level pleasures bring diminishing returns to their use (Strunz, 2000) and therefore a life filled with lower level pleasures is accompanied by an overall less valuable mixture of PC. Therefore P4 is false.

Let us discuss one possible counterexample: In his deathbed, Freud refused to be drugged to ease suffering in order to stay clear-minded (Griffin, 1986: ch.1). According to Griffin this comes about from Freud seeing greater value in a suffering than pleasure, or in our terms, Freud sought a lesser chemical mixture. If that is so, then value is derived from more than pleasure, P1 is false and hedonism fails. I would like to argue however that this is not necessarily problematic. Freud’s active seeking of clear-mindedness can ease the suffering. As Parfit noted, pain is lesser when wanted (1984: 285). In essence, the active decision to endure pain affects the balance of PC differently than unwanted endurance (Bloom, 2011). The problem in that line of reasoning though is that it is purely speculative and Griffin might point out that although wanted pain is less painful, it is still phenomenally less valuable than being drugged. After all, according to my own argument, the negative effect of drugs is cumulative only in the long run.

Still, despite this counterexample, a neuropsychological account for hedonism has many merits: Certain statistical factors that increase well-being like juggling or exercise (Strunz, 2000), positive functioning and good relationships can be explained as easily as their opposites in loneliness, materialism or drugs (Huppert, Baylis, Keverne, 2005). These terms are more complex and have greater philosophical power than those by Mill and Bentham (see Huppert, 2009) and with the right kind of development could give good reason to revive hedonism. However, that task is left for another post.

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