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I haven't been convinced by anything I've read, but I also haven't read much.

I'm concerned that unless you use preferences, you couldn't justify any kind of tradeoff rate between (and hence the commensurability of) suffering and happiness/pleasure, because they are fundamentally different. Then, by using an exclusively hedonistic view of value, haven't you already rejected the moral relevance of preferences, and, if so, how would you justify referring to them to defend hedonism? Even if you could set a tradeoff rate based on preferences, how would you justify using this rate for everyone, given wide differences in preferences?

If not preferences, what else is there to refer to?

There are also of course thought experiments like wireheading and Nozick's experience machine. Why would I be wrong to not want to subject myself to these, compared to, say, doing anything else I prefer, assuming no effects on others in all cases?

(Note: I shared this post on Facebook, and some discussion is happening there.)




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(Crossposted from FB)

Some initial thoughts: hedonistic utilitarians, ultimately, wish to maximise pleasure. Concurrently, suffering will be eliminated. In the real world, things are a lot fuzzier, and we do have to consider pleasure/suffering tradeoffs. Because it's difficult to measure pleasure/suffering directly, preferences are used as a proxy.

But I aver that we're not very good at considering these tradeoffs. Most are framed as thought-experiments, in which we are asked to imagine two 'real-world' situations. Some people may be willing to take five minutes of having a dust-speck in the eye for ten minutes of eating delicious food, whereas others may only be willing to take 30 seconds of the dust-speck. It's likely that, when we are asked to do this, we aren't considering the pleasure and suffering on their own, but taking other things into consideration too (perhaps thinking about our memories of similar situations in the past). The variance may also arise because a speck of dust in the eye *will* cause some people to suffer more than others.

Ideally, we'd be able to just consider the pleasure and the suffering on their own. That's very difficult to do, though. I think there are right answers to these tradeoff questions, but that our brains aren't able to answer the questions precisely enough. But in extreme cases, the hedonistic utilitarian could argue that anyone who would rather not have a blissful life at all, if it comes at the cost of being pricked by a pin, is simply wrong. It is the pleasure and the suffering that matter, no matter what people *say* they prefer. (See the 'Future Tuesday Indifference' argument promulgated by Parfit and Singer).

Sidgwick's definition of pleasure is after all "a feeling which the sentient individual at the time of feeling it implicitly or explicitly apprehends to be desirable – desirable, that is, when considered merely as feeling." The feeling, as it were, cannot be unfelt, even if an individual makes certain claims about the desirability (or lack thereof) of the feeling later on.

On that note, have you read Derek Parfit's 'On What Matters' (particularly Parts 1 and 6, in Volumes One and Two respectively)? In my view, he makes some convincing arguments against preference-based theories. Singer and de-Lazari Radek, in 'The Point of View of the Universe', build on his arguments to mount a defence of hedonistic utilitarianism against other normative theories, including preference utilitarianism.

Moral realists who endorse hedonistic utilitarianism, such as Singer, posit that the very nature of what Sidgwick describes as pleasure gives us reason to increase it, and that nothing else in the universe gives us similar reasons.

The experience machine is another example of where hedonistic utilitarians would postulate that people's preferences are plagued by bias. Joshua Greene and Peter Singer have both argued that people's objections to entering the experience machine are the result of status quo bias, for instance.

See: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09515089.2012.757889?journalCode=cphp20 and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experience_machine#Counterarguments

So is the idea to ground these tradeoffs in preferences, but consider only conscious preferences about conscious experiences themselves? Furthermore, the degree of pleasantness or suffering would be determined by the strengths of these kinds of preferences (which we might hypothesize to fall on a cardinal scale).

If I had just gotten out of an experience machine, I'd be extremely upset. I don't think I would actually get back into the machine, but even if I did, I think this would only be to relieve my suffering. It seems like this framing introdu... (read more)

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My guess is that ultimately you'll just find yourself in an irresolvable standoff of differing intuitions with people who favor a different view of value. Philosophers have debated this question for millennia to decades (depending on how we count) and haven't reached agreement, so I think in the absence of some methodological revolution settling this question is hopeless. (Though of course, you clarifying your own thinking, or arriving at a view you feel more confident in yourself, seem feasible.)

I've got a very slowly in-progress multipart essay attempting to definitively answer this question without resort to (what we normally mean by) intuition: http://www.valence-utilitarianism.com/posts/choose-your-preference-utilitarianism-carefully-part-1

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I don't have a fully hedonistic view, but I'm sympathetic toward one. I prefer using different words than "hedonism", since hedonism has a bad connotation. I like to say that I care primarily about conscious experiences, where conscious experience refers to the common sense referent of "what it's like to be me" or similar (for intuition pumps, read how Chalmers defines consciousness).

To me it comes down to two related notions:

1. I don't see how non-conscious facts could possibly ever imply a tragedy. It's a tragedy if someone gets hurt, but in what sense is something ever a tragedy if no one's actually experiencing the badness?

2. Likewise, how could something ever be good if no one experiences it. What fact could I learn that would make me leap with joy, assuming the fact had no bearing on whether someone had a positive life or experience?

In practice, arguments against pure hedonism come down to pointing out a few things that are left out in the naive hedonistic view. These include: a lack of diversity of experiences, a lack of concern for truth, a lack of a coherent "adventure" that exists beyond the feeling of adventure. Fair enough, but I feel like these all could be bought at less than 1% of the price of regular hedonism. In other words, I think that I can still reasonably maintain that 99% of value comes from conscious experience and still keep these things.

I am also very sympathetic to an account of value based solely on conscious experiences, and for basically the same reasons, but I don't think this necessarily has to be put in terms of happiness/pleasure and suffering. We can talk about conscious drives, cravings or attitudes to and away from certain states/outcomes. These might be called "active preferences".

Why are pleasure and suffering fundamentally different? I hear this a lot but it's not at all obvious to me why this is the case. They certainly seem to share a great deal in common, for example in terms of their evolutionary origins, functional purpose, and apparently inherent (dis)preferability.

Obviously pleasure and suffering are fundamentally different in that one seems good and the other seems bad, but as I understand it the essential claim here is that they are fundamentally different in other key respects. Which respects are those?

See this comment for one way in which they seem different.

In my writings on tranquilism, I also tried to show that there are important differences in function. This part is a bit complicated to explain because there seem to be (at least) two different systems involved in our decision-making.

1. When I am feeling agenty, the machinery in my brain responsible for rational thought and long-term planning can look at pleasure-pain tradeoffs dispassionately and choose whichever course of action seems most appealing, all-things-considered. (For what it's worth, I think that because people differ with respect to their approach and inhibition tendencies, there's no hope to figure out the "true best way" to make tradeoffs of this sort.)

2. When I'm feeling non-agenty, I'm tempted to go the way of least resistance, impulsively pursuing short-term "pleasures" over long-term goals.

Now, I think when we look mostly at 1. ("agenty mode"), it seems as though pleasure and pain are symmetrical.

However, the roles are very different for 2. ("impulsive mode"). Suffering is the driving force behind 2. When you're in 2., the goal is not pleasure maximization. Instead, you just want the dissatisfaction to stop, somehow. Different ways of accomplishing that count for the same as far as your impulsive mode is concerned.

Maybe fundamentally different is too strong a claim, and it's not really central. The main point is that even if we had absolute cardinal scales for pleasure and pain separately, it wasn't clear to me how you could possibly combine these scales. However, based on the answers, if you start from preferences and assume a single scale for these, and then ignore things that don't matter, you could get a common scale. This makes sense to me.

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