The question of the nature of well-being tends to raise a few standard responses. Among the most prevalent are desire satisfaction theory, pluralism, and hedonism. Each of these presents a unique argument about the foundational basis of what makes a person better or worse off. The necessity of the question, however, is clear and the reward for a correct theory of well-being is nothing less than an understanding about the only things in life that matter. That is, the things in life that have intrinsic value. Each conception of well-being theory has a different theory of the basic intrinsic goods. The pluralists will give you a list of intrinsically good pursuits, the desire satisfactionists will report that it is the fulfillment or frustration of our desires which matter, and the hedonist will extol the necessity of pleasure. While hedonism is a popular theory in the literature, it is commonly accused of having fatal flaws. So, it is prudent to evaluate the divisions among hedonist philosophers and what this pleasure-pain paradigm looks like. In the first part of this paper, I will set out a hedonistic theory of well-being. In the second part, I will present two conceptions of hedonistic pleasure. In the third part I will examine two apparent flaws in attitudinal hedonism. Finally, in the fourth part, in light of Chris Heathwood’s Hedonistic Desire Satisfaction view, I will argue that attitudinal hedonism is a form of hedonism despite Heathwood’s claim.
Hedonism has been largely traced back to the Greek philosopher Epicurus but has been a favored view of a great deal of influential philosophers including Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Zeno of Sidon, Fred Feldman, and Peter Singer. Why have so many philosophers been attracted to Hedonism? At its root, hedonism postulates that the aim of all of our pursuits are motivated by pleasure and the avoidance of pain. For example: why does one attend college? You might answer: to attain knowledge. But why attain knowledge? You might answer: to get hired at a good job. Why get hired at a good job? To earn money. Why earn money? So I can have my basic needs met. Why must you have your basic needs met? To avoid pain. The hedonist says that it is this pleasure/pain paradigm that motivates us and the things in life which contribute to our well-being are the things which provide us with this good. This theory has great explanatory value, and there are few among us who would deny that the avoidance of pain is a great motivator for many people.
Hedonism, if correct, can provide us with the knowledge that correct actions are the ones that maximize pleasure. Hedonism is, therefore, closely associated with philosophical schools of utilitarianism, which instructs us to maximize a certain property (often a ‘utile’ of some good x) and consequentialism, which emphasizes that the outcome of an action will determine its rightness or wrongness. For these reasons, determinists and altruists are likely to take issue with hedonism. But what does the hedonist conception of pleasure actually look like?
2. Two Conceptions of Hedonistic Pleasure
It is common for hedonism to be thought of in one of two ways. The first is what we will call sensory hedonism. According to sensory hedonism it is the actual experience of the feeling of pleasure which is the intrinsic good of hedonism. In this form, the actions which are thought to be good are the ones which, for whatever reason, generate a pleasure episode in a subject: Subject S is well-off at time T iff subject S is experiencing pleasure at time T. Similarly, a subject would be worse off to the extent that they are experiencing pain at that time. This is a direct cause and effect and could be considered to be chemical or biological in origin. The sensation hedonist says that, as humans, we react to stimulus and crave sensations. The end goal of this is to feel pleasure and to avoid plain.
The second version of hedonism is attitudinal hedonism. Attitudinal hedonists think that it is the belief of pleasure that is intrinsically good. For an attitudinal hedonist, Subject S is well off at time T iff Subject S believes that they are experiencing pleasure at time T. In this conception it is the actions which generate beliefs of pleasure events that matter. In this conception these goods are psychological and are reliant on our ability to form propositional attitudes towards certain propositions. There are cases where it seems attractive to desire the separation between the pleasure event and the belief of pleasure and these cases might well lead one to accept attitudinal hedonism. For example, a masochist who experiences a pleasure event from a stimulus of pain might be experiencing the sensation of pain, but this causes them to form the propositional attitude that they are experiencing pleasure.
3. Objections to Attitudinal Hedonism
We will now examine two concerns which can be raised against attitudinal hedonism from the literature. The first comes from “Freedom, Hedonism, and the Intrinsic Value of Lives” by Ishtiyaque Haji (Haji, 2004). Attitudinal hedonism naturally raises a concern about agency. For example, perhaps the agent forming the belief that ‘Subject S is experiencing pleasure’ is not Subject S, but some other entity. This would be of great concern to us since this lack of agency should be accounted for in our well-being theory. After all, how good is one’s life going for them if they do not have the agency to generate their own pleasure beliefs? This appears to be a significant objection to the belief. Philosopher Fred Feldman proposed a theory of attitudinal hedonism designed to mitigate this problem. Haji presents “Neo’s Case” which is based on the character of Neo from The Matrix (1999) and The Matrix Reloaded (2003). Neo’s Case presents us with the question of whether Neo’s life is intrinsically good for him. To be good for something is to have value that is relevant to that thing. So, if Neo’s life is intrinsically good for Neo, he should be at least mildly well-off. If it turns out that Neo’s life is not intrinsically good for himself, then we should examine why. Haji tells us that as viewers, we are inclined to think that despite leaving the matrix (which can be thought to be a version on the Brain In a Vat argument, or a modern version of Descartes’ ‘Evil Demon’ argument) Neo’s life is not intrinsically better for him. This seems problematic.
If it is the case that the things in life which matter are beliefs of the experience of pleasure events, then we will seek out those beliefs of pleasure events. If a Subject S is not able to formulate their own beliefs of pleasure events, this lack of agency will result in and should
reflect a decrease in overall well-being. Neo begins with a lack of agency, and at some point gains his agency from his manipulators. However, it does not seem to be true that Neo is intrinsically better off from The Matrix to The Matrix Reloaded. The attitudinal hedonist is put in a position where they must accept either a) the origin of the pleasure beliefs (the agency) plays no part in a subject’s well-being, in which case Neo while inside the matrix will be seen to have a high well-being (which seems intuitively wrong), or b) that freedom does matter even though attaining it does not make Neo better off. Is it the case, by nature of the narrative that Neo swaps out one set of manipulators for another, and is instead at the whims of people in a position to make him worse off? Perhaps, and this may be why we feel compelled to identify with him, but either way, the necessity of agency which arises solely due to the separation of the belief of the sensation and the sensation itself is not, by my estimation, adequately justified. Any proponent of attitudinal hedonism needs to properly address this concern.
In another paper, Happiness and Pleasure, Daniel Haybron raises another concern for attitudinal hedonism (Haybron, 2001). One of the virtues of theories of hedonism, generally, is that they can provide a base unit of an intrinsic good. If one could synthesize a formula to measure this unit, they could directly compare from one event to another to determine the better outcome. For example, if we had a device that could tell us on any particular day that wearing a red shirt would generate 14 units of pleasure while wearing a blue shirt would generate only 10, then we can be sure that we should wear the blue shirt. Things are complicated by the addition of pain units which must have some relationship to pleasure, but the exact amount is not clear. In these cases, it can be thought of that everything (or perhaps
every action that has intrinsic value) can be synthesized down to a unitized amount of pleasure. Thanks to this principle we can reduce larger concepts which provide us with well-being instrumentally into their relevant intrinsic pleasure-part. Haybron, however, tells us that this becomes a problem for attitudinal hedonism when examining the reducibility of affective states. By this view, things such as dispositional attitudes, which act as a filter on the way you experience intrinsic goods (such as pleasure) pose a concern. Consider someone who has a dispositional attitude towards depression. This attitude reduces the amount of pleasure or happiness (he equivocates between these) they can experience. Or a dispositional attitude toward irritability may increase the amount of pain a subject feels due to a lower threshold or higher awareness of that pain. The problem this view poses to the attitudinal hedonist, says Haybron, is that it is not at all clear that these dispositional attitudes have reducible qualities in pleasure units. On this understanding someone might be disposed to reject the belief that they are pleased even when they are experiencing pleasure due to these attitudes. It seems wrong to say that a person who wins the lottery but is nevertheless depressed and, due to their depression are psychologically unable to form the belief that they are pleased, doesn’t experience an increase in well-being. The sensory hedonist escapes this by asking what pleasure-pain episode is happening in the moment. If someone wins the lottery, they are experiencing pleasure to that extent. If they also suffer from depression, they experience pain to that extent. It is possible that the pain outweighs the pleasure, but attitudes toward the event are not subject to these psychological dispositional attitudes.
4. Is Attitudinal Hedonism Really Just A Disguised Desire Satisfaction Theory?
Finally, we will consider whether attitudinal hedonism is in fact a theory of hedonism at all in light of Chris Heathwood’s Hedonistic Desire Satisfaction Theory (DST) (Heathwood, 2006). Heathwood presents yet another conception of attitudinal hedonism which focuses on the definition of pleasure as something attained from desire fulfillment. In this way Heathwood unifies his preferred desire satisfactionism and hedonism. To accomplish his goal of unifying hedonism and DST Heathwood begins by rejecting sensory hedonism. Heathwood rests his argument that the theories are unified on the Motivational Theory of Pleasure argument (MTP) which states “S is intrinsically pleased at T that P iff S intrinsically desires at T that P and S believes at T that P.” It is therefore the desires which generate the pleasure. If this is the case, it is merely the belief that one’s desire has been fulfilled that generates the belief that one is pleased, which is the intrinsic source of well-being. The concern here is where instrumental relevance ends and intrinsic relevance begins.
Heathwood tells us that it is both the desire and the belief of pleasure which are intrinsic, and moreover, that they are really one in the same. This is plainly not the case as one can have a desire that P and a belief that P without generating pleasure. When I go for a walk through the park, I form the belief that as I take the next step the ground will not give way and the earth swallow me up. So far this has been the case, yet it is hard for me to say that this desire satisfaction has led to an increase in pleasure. My life is not any better for having that desire met. Similarly, I can be pleased that P without having a desire that P. Imagine and election in which nobody likes either of the candidates for office. Since you are known and respected in the community unbeknownst to you a write-in campaign is created to elect you.
Despite having no desire to run you are elected. At the time when the results are announced, you have no existing desire to hold the office, it just has never occurred to you. It is announced that you won, and you are immediately pleased. It seems wrong to say that some desire was necessarily fulfilled in order for you to be pleased. So, one might ask whether this is indeed the case. The MTPist might push back and argue that at exactly the time you are pleased by the outcome you unconsciously formed the desire which was immediately satisfied.
Because MTP seems to fail, Heathwood must do more to unify DST and hedonism. It seems unlikely to me that these theories are as closely related as they might seem. Attitudinal hedonism is a more attractive theory than desire satisfaction theory, since the result of a desire being satisfied is likely going to be pleasure, but pleasure does not always come from a satisfied desire. Since the claim that desire satisfaction is the cause of pleasure, but it seems that we can have pleasure without desire satisfaction, we should be skeptical that these theories provide identical results and are therefore philosophically the same.
We have examined two objections to attitudinal hedonism both of which show flaws in its usefulness. Further, these objections serve to undercut some of the primary benefits provided by a hedonistic theory such as reducibility and agency. We then evaluated attitudinal hedonism and whether it is indeed a theory of hedonism or perhaps a guised DST. Despite Heathwood’s claims that DST and Hedonism are actually the same theory we found that they do seem to be distinct entities and, when it comes to “desire that” and “pleased that”, one does
not necessitate the other. It seems that attitudinal hedonism, a favorite of hedonistic philosophers, may have less going for it than literature might suggest. Whether another form of hedonism, such as sensory hedonism, may provide better answers to the problems discussed in this essay is a question that should be taken up at another time.
Haji, I. (2004). Freedom, Hedonism, and the Intrinsic Value of Lives. Philosophical Topics,
32(1/2), 131–151. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43154432
Haybron, D. M. (2001). Happiness and Pleasure. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research,
62(3), 501–528. https://doi.org/10.2307/2653534
Heathwood, C. (2006). Desire Satisfactionism and Hedonism. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, 128(3), 539–563. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4321735