Friday, August 10, 2018

RoME 2018 02: Hedonism and Monism

Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress Session 02: Adam Shriver (Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics)
“Is Hedonism a Version of Axiological Monism?”

This presentation concerned the issue of whether hedonism is a monistic theory of value. More specifically, it asked whether pleasure and pain were tow versions of the same overall value, or two different types of value. It asked whether hedonism was a monistic or dualistic theory of value.

Just for contrast, desirism is a pluralistic theory. It holds that each desire identifies its object as an end. This is why a person can feel regret if they find themselves in a situation where fulfilling one desire results in the thwarting of another. That other desire still identifies a separate end, which has its own value, and a reason to regret being unable to realize that value. If the choice between realizing different desires were realizing different intensities of the same value then, like having to choose between $10 or $5, one does not regret the choice of $10 because one lost out on the ability to obtain $5.

Be that as it may, Shriver argued against hedonistic monism, arguing that pleasure and pain are two different things. Desirism, of course, holds that the desire for pleasure and the aversion to pain are two different mental states.

More specifically, Shriver argues that we need positive and negative value.

An objection to hedonistic monism is that there appears to be an asymmetry regarding pleasure and pain. It is more important to avoid intense pain than to obtain intense pleasure. People are more strongly motivated to avid pain than to obtain pleasure.

As an example of our different regard for pleasure and pain, Shriver brings up an example that we consider it a particularly bad thing to bring a child into the world that will suffer extreme pain, but not to fail to bring a child into the world that will experience great pleasure. This particular example does not work, I think, because it seems to assume that the pleasure or pain of another person has an intrinsic value property. It assumes pleasure and pain to be intrinsic values to be maximized or minimized, rather than agent-centered reasons for action. I wish to dismiss these types of concerns because of a false assumption of intrinsic merit. Still, the first accounts are applicable to pleasure and pain as agent-centered reasons. However, the agent-centered reasons still show that we do not adopt parallel attitudes towards pleasure and pain, suggesting that they are two different kinds of values.

Furthermore, an examination of the scientific findings of pleasure and pain show that they are processed in different ways in different parts of the brain. The idea that there are higher and lower pleasures has run into the problem of discoveries showing that what are considered higher pleasures and lower pleasures are processed in the brain the same way. The idea that they are distinct types of pleasure seems not to hold up. Yet, pleasures and pains show up as having different processes, which at least refutes one possible argument that they could be the same.

Shriver also mentioned the distinction between wanting and liking - the distinction between motivational force and affective response. In the realm of pleasure, we can motivated by things we do not like, and like things we are not motivated to bring about. Shriver argues that this does not seem to be the case with respect to pain. We hate pain, AND we are motivated to avoid it. These two seem to be linked. (NOTE: I am not entirely sure that this is the case. As somebody who has experienced pain that I did not mind - that I had no aversion to - as a result of being given certain drugs for pain when I was a child, I think it is quite possible to separate pain from motivation.)

This still leaves the problem of how to combine pleasure and pain to get a single overall result - to motivate a single action when one facts options of acquiring pleasure and avoiding pain.

Desirism already has an answer for this. It uses the analogy of forces. We know how to add together different forces - electromagnetic, gravitational, etc. - without being a force monist. We can still allow that these are different forces. Each desire and aversion has a direction (the realization of that which is desired) and a magnitude (motivational force). We can combine these force values as we combine the values of physical forces to get an overall motivational vector. This no more requires monism in desires/aversions than it does in physics.

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