Friday, September 15, 2017

Hedonist Paradox

There is this thing called the "Hedonist Paradox."

Assume that the only thing you desire is pleasure.

Human psychology seems to be built such that the best way to obtain pleasure is to value things other than pleasure, and to pursue them for their own sake. You may become an actor or some other type of artist and dedicate yourself to the craft, losing yourself in your work, never asking, "What will give me the most pleasure?" In fact, even asking the question is a distraction that takes your mind away from you really love - the craft - and thus reduces your pleasure.

Or, instead of art, you devote yourself to cultivating good quality friendships which, though they involve some pain, more than compensates for thus with the pleasure that good friends can bring. Yet, we hardly count as a good friend somebody who only values you insofar as you are useful to them, and who will abandon you the moment they no longer find you useful.

The hedonistic paradox is that to obtain what you want most you must not seek what you want most but seek something else, in virtue of worth you are no longer a hedonist, since you are no longer somebody that seeks exclusively your own pleasure. Pleasure becomes a valuable side-effect - "the icing on the cake" - that one gets while in the pursuit of some other interest.

The relationship is like that of a person who obtains a career doing what he likes - who also gets paid for it. The money is a welcome side effect, but not his reason for doing the work. Think f the artist examples above.

In desirism terms, hedonism would be understood as having only one desire - a desire the "P" where "P" = "I am experiencing pleasure". Or, two desires: the desire for pleasure and a "desire that Q" where Q = "I not be in pain."

The hedonist paradox says that, as it turns out, the best way to realize a state in which "I am experiencing pleasure" is true is for the agent to cultivate another interest (e.g., "that I am involved in a project to reduce the suffering among those people who are the worst off").

Is this person still a hedonist?

The argument that he is says that since the desire to help the global poor came from the desire for pleasure that he is still a hedonist.

But that seems false? Why should the origin of the desire matter? Let us create a second person - psychologically identical. She is born with a desire that P, a desire that Q, and a separate desire that R where R = "I am involved in a project to reduce the suffering among those people who are the worst off."

This person is not a hedonist.

Why would the person with exactly the same mental states, who is - we shall assume - now psychologically identical to the other person, be called a hedonist?

I would argue that he is not a hedonist. When he acquired the desire that R, he ceased being a hedonist. And one of the facts about hedonism is that the person who has the affliction has a reason to rid himself of it as quickly as possible.

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