Thursday, October 7, 2010

Make it real

David Sosa does a nice job of explaining at least one reason why happiness is not pleasure (involving Nozick's experience machine, etc.). But what exactly is the difference between merely feeling that you are having desirable experiences and actually having them? The unreal experience is not really bad. It's just not very significant, as Sosa points out. Happiness, he seems to think, has a significance that comes from reality. So dreams and drug-induced feelings might be pleasant, but they don't make someone happy. And that sounds about right.

It would be nice to be able to give an account, though, of why this is so. What exactly is significance? What exactly is its connection with reality? And how much, or what kind of, difference does it make if we manipulate reality to make it provide the kind of experiences we want to have?

Examples might help make clearer what I have in mind. The pleasure of winning a race seems real, and better (not necessarily more pleasurable) than the pleasure of 'winning' a virtual race on a computer. The same would go for winning fairly rather than winning by bribing a referee to disqualify a rival. But what about winning because of steroid (ab)use? Shooting fish in a barrel has go to be less of an accomplishment than catching a fish the normal way, even if the shooter is unconcerned and gets great pleasure from shooting fish. A friendship with a real person seems much more valuable than a 'friendship' with a robot companion that has been trained to be friendly.

But a) is what seems to be better really better in all these cases, b) how can we know (Mill's test of asking those who appreciate both pleasures?), c) why is the better one better? I don't think the answer to that is only that the inferior pleasure is gained immorally or by cheating. Reality is at stake as well as ethics.

Somehow it seems to me that reality itself has a kind of value, and this relates to what I was trying to get at here. It also relates (if only in my imagination) to something wrong with McMahan's expressed desire to radically re-design reality.

Slightly relevant but ridiculous video:


  1. I'm all on board with Nozick. I found Sosa's essay frustrating just because I'm frustrated by verbal disputes over what "happy" "really" means. I tried that game for awhile, but it can't be won. So you're right to shift it instead to a question about what has value, or what makes life go well, or even what counts as "living a life."

    When I started at EKU, I had a nearly completed paper about the experience machine, Epicurus, and recent hedonists that I just let fester, and if people don't stop talking about this, I'm going to have to re-open that file...

  2. Oh, I think you should. Maybe you could go to that conference in Miami (this one). I think one can't really say what 'happy' really means, because it comes down to an ethical judgment about what counts as true happiness. But it is possible to say something about ethical judgments and why one might be better than another. I'm thinking at the moment that it has something to do with the will; that the will of some other(s) must be involved in one's life, or at least that forces beyond the control of one's own will (e.g. nature) must be involved. The experience machine and drug highs are too accommodating to the will. But I need a better way to put all this, because, after all, someone else programmed the machine, and drugs can go in unexpected directions (double rainbow!).

  3. I looked over it last night. It's not in terrible shape, needs a conclusion. (The project was to trace the difficulty with hedonism back to a mistake in Epicurus.) I'd have to celebrate my daughter's birthday in Miami (though I'm tempted to try to work that out). What's interesting is that some recent hedonists like Roger Crisp and Fred Feldman have tried to accommodate the intuition that plugging in is bad (or worse), but they can't--in my view--do this without violating the constraints of a hedonist axiology. (Feldman says that truth figures into the value of a pleasure in "something like the way" that intensity and duration do. But that can't be right. Whether my pleasure is in a true or a false state of affairs isn't an intrinsic property of the felt pleasure--maybe he thinks it is since he has a propositional theory of pleasure (to be pleased is to "take pleasure in"), but "something like the way" isn't clear enough, and I don't think the proposal works.)

    In short, I think Epicurus' mistake (when he says that if you struggle against all sensations then you lose any basis for judging all other sensations) is to think that sensations themselves are the standard of value, rather than that they can point to, or bring attention to, things that have value. (Some sensations can be, in a way, good or pleasant in themselves, but other things we take pleasure in because they are good. That goodness can be pleasing is not the same thing as goodness being (reducible to) pleasure.)

  4. Sounds like a good paper! I don't know Crisp's or Feldman's work on this, but what you say about Feldman (so far as I'm in a position to judge it) and Epicurus sounds right.

  5. Yeah, I'm just lacking the requisite passion for the topic to finish it. Maybe that's not a good enough reason.

    The real puzzle the experience machine presents for the hedonist is that under normal conditions, taking pleasure in falsehoods can have "impure" consequences, which lessens the value (hedonic potential) of the actions through which pleasure in falsehoods occurs. But the experience machine eliminates that impurity, if we stipulate its reliability and the phenomenological indiscernibility of machine pleasure and "real" pleasure. I suppose what Feldman wants to do is to be a hedonist within the restricted domain of "real life," and that's ok (or better)--but it also shows, I think, that you need more than pleasure at the foundation of your axiology.

  6. Not really feeling like doing it, when there's other work you do feel like doing, probably is a good reason for not finishing the paper now. But it's a shame if it's close to being done.

    Yes, I'm sure you need more than pleasure. I'm less sure what it is that you need though.