Friday, January 04, 2008

E2.0: Discussion 2: Happiness and Absence of Suffering

This is the sixth in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

The second discussion in the Enlightenment 2.0 series elicited a number of opinions on the importance of happiness to a secular ethics.

In the discussion that followed Dan Rutherford’s talk, we had a couple of people in the audience speak in favor of happiness (and the absence of suffering) being core moral values.

Sam Harris, the author of “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation”, said

The only thing you need to be a moral realist without having to appeal to transcendental values and other postulates is to: (1) believe that morality is about questions of suffering and happiness and the difference there in conscious systems not just humans, and (2) to believe that there are right and wrong answers to those questions.

Greg Epstein, from Harvard University, agrees.

I would not have predicted that Sam would take the words right out of my mouth but I think that the question of suffering and happiness is really important because I think that it’s the sort of simple beginning that we humanists, non-theists, whatever you want to call us, that we are coming from, this question that our ethics start with a real simple proposition, that we are against human suffering and we are for human happiness.

Unfortunately, Harris’ item (1) is false. Since (1) is false, then the fact that there are right and wrong answers to questions of how to maximize human happiness is irrelevant to questions of morality, since morality is not founded on human happiness (and suffering).

There is solid evidence against this proposal. Give a person an option of living inside of an experience machine which will feed her false information about her life. In the machine, she will be made to believe that she is loved by everybody, accomplishes great things in science or art or whatever field interests her, has a perfect spouse and perfect children with a perfect house. She is, in short, as happy as a clam.

However, her happiness is all fake.

Give a person a choice between this happiness and absence of suffering, and a less pleasant life having real-world experiences (even though some of them cause suffering and unhappiness), and a great many people will gladly trade happiness for truth. Truth matters.

In other words, Greg is simply mistaken. We may, in a sense, be against suffering and in favor of happiness when all else is equal, but we will seek suffering and sacrifice happiness if, in doing so, we can buy a little bit of truth.

How is it the case that truth matters?

Desire fulfillment theory answers this question. A desire is a propositional attitude that can be expressed in the form “desires that P”, and agents act so as to realize states of affairs in which P is true.

The problem with the experience machine – the reason why people do not value its illusions, is that it does not realize a state of affairs in which P is true. It realizes a state of affairs in which the agent believes that P is true (which generates happiness), but not one in which P is true in fact.

Now, there are people who do, in fact, value happiness and the absence of suffering above all other things. Somebody like this can value life inside of the experience machine. However, he has a desire that P, where P = “That I am happy,” and P is, in fact, true in a state of affairs where the agent is inside of an experience machine.

However, for people such as myself who have different desires, the experience machine is not even a temptation. Give me a choice between an experience machine with its perfect happiness and freedom from suffering and death, and I would choose death. It is better to not live at all than to live a lie.

Desire utilitarianism allows us to salvage much of what Harris says. The relationships between states of affairs and desires are real-world relationships that we can investigate scientifically. Whether an agent has a desire that P, and whether P is true in state of affairs S, are factual statements subject to empirical investigation. So, we still have moral realism. However, moral realism is grounded on relationships between states of affairs and desires (and between desires and other desires), not happiness and suffering.

One critic at the conference, Deirdre McCloskey, recognized that there was something wrong with the happiness and suffering thesis.

We are meaning-seeking animals. I don’t think that we can get away from that. We’re not cats. Cats avoid pain and sit on the sill in the sunlight and enjoy themselves. As a famous theologian said, man does seek a triple perfection, and its that third thing that science can’t provide us.

There are things that we value other than an absence of pain and the presence of happiness – that these are not enough.

However, McCloskey was wrong (or, at least, her statement is without foundation) to say that this is not something that science can talk about. Far too many people make an unwarranted leap of faith from the fact that some thesis of human value is incomplete to the conclusion that the rest will not be found inside the realms of science. This is, in fact, a “god of the gaps” argument where what we do not know is not “that which science has not yet revealed” but “that which science cannot reveal.”

A different (unidentified) commenter said,

I would like to suggest that the jury is still out there, or maybe we have indications that we don’t need these metaphysical entities, that they will get pushed back also with increasing understanding.

Where I would like to further add that this improved account that drives back the need to postulate these strange entities describes value, not in terms of happiness and absence of suffering, but in terms of relationships between states of affairs and desires.

And that if this proves also be lacking, before we start postulating strange metaphysical entities that we make up to justify doing harm to people, that perhaps a few more refinements will get us closer without those entities.

Let us not be so quick to summon the secular version of the value ‘god of the gaps’ type entities to explain that which we do not yet know how to explain.


Anonymous said...

You say you have solid evidence against the proposal that morality is about questions of happiness and suffering. In reality this is not at all the case.
You have exactly the same evidence for how people would respond to a perfect pleasure machine that you have for God – absolutely none. There never has been such a thing and in all likelihood never will be.
Evidence based on things that don’t exist falls into the same category as future desires: no impact on behavior now.
You assert some people value truth over happiness. It is an entirely false dichotomy. All humans live in a real world where they constantly experience an association between deception and unhappiness. They almost certainly value truth BECAUSE it ultimately has the best chance to lead to happiness or to avoiding suffering.
Your experience machine is really a paradox proposition: Do you choose an option of happiness that involves rejecting everything that has brought you happiness in life and depend on deception that has almost always led you to unhappiness? You say a no answer proves values beyond happiness. I say it shows nothing more than common sense. People rarely chose that which they have never known and which contradicts their entire body of experience.
One can always define happiness in some narrow “are you grinning right now?” fashion that fails to explain long-term behavior. I’m sure when Harris uses the term happiness he includes those feelings of worth and satisfaction that one may get from finding truth, or helping others, or simply feeling one is living a good life.
You posit things like valuing truth, giving to your children, and sacrificing for others as contradicting happiness theory, as though these play no part in happiness. You have provided no real evidence that these don’t ultimately lead to more happiness than the alternatives, or conversely that not choosing them would not lead to more unhappiness. Feeling that one is doing the “right thing” can easily lead to more long term happiness than a short term pleasurable experience that leaves a nagging sense of failure.
You say that you do not have the desire “That I am happy” but have other desires. What you don’t have is a shred of evidence that you did not acquire these desires because fulfilling them makes you happy at some level, or that not fulfilling them will not lead to some level of unhappiness or dissatisfaction with yourself.
You may be right that there are elements of the human motivational system that cannot be explained through a broadly defined happiness-satisfaction-inner peace approach, but you certainly have not presented a compelling case that this is true.

Anonymous said...

(Just playing devil's advocate here.)

One problem with the "experience machine" argument against hedonistic utilitarianism is that people seek happiness for others as well as for themselves; putting oneself in an experience machine makes it impossible for one to increase the happiness of others, so it could be both rational and moral to decline the experience machine.

Another problem is that real-world approximations of the "experience machine" exist and are popular. People read fiction, watch television, and play video games - all artificial experiences intended to induce happiness. Also, pleasure-inducing drugs, such as cocaine, alcohol, and opiate derivatives, have demonstrated popularity.

Finally, is it possible to make a variant of an experience machine in which the experiences created are "real" in all ways that matter? See also:

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Doug S.

Doug S.

I do not see how your first 'problem' is a problem. People seek the happiness of others. This can be expressed in terms of a "desire that others are happy". In the experience machine does not allow one to act so so as to realize (make real or make true) the proposition "others are happy." So, what the experience machine produces lacks value.

Unless you are saying that people can value the happiness of others directly - that through some mechanism not yet discovered the mere fact that B is made happy motivates A to act - that B's happiness provides a 'reason for action' that motivates A to act in a certain way independent of A's mental states. And that would be a tough claim to defend.

Your 'other problem,' that people find value in books, movies, and computer games, is not a problem either.

The argument says that if the happiness theory were true, no person would have a reason to object to a life inside the happiness machine. Some people do object to life inside the happiness machine. Therefore, the happiness theory fails. It does not accurately explain or predict people's choices.

Desire fulfillment theory still allows that people have a desire for happiness and for pleasure. It allows that people can have desires that are fulfilled by watching a movie or playing a video game. In fact, it would clearly fail if it predicted that no person could every enjoy a movie or a book.

However, it explains the value of watching a movie or reading a book in terms of realizing states of affairs that the agent desires. There are desires to be entertained and to engage in vicarious experiences. That there are some desires that can be fulfilled in this way does not prove that it is not the case that there are other desires that cannot.

Any more than the existence of some blue marbles proves that no marbles are red.

Desire fulfillment theory even allows that some people would voluntarily choose to enter a happiness machine. The person with an overwhelming desire "that I be happy" will enter the happiness machine, even in a desire-utilitarian account, because the happiness machine realizes the proposition, 'I am happy'.

As for your third point, it represents an interesting philosophical puzzle, but not provide information that can be used to defend happiness theory over desire-fulfillment theory. It does not change the fact that, if given a choice between a happy fiction and unhappy truth, many people choose the unhappy truth. This is a fact that happiness theory cannot explain, but desire fulfillment theory can.

Even if I am a brain in a vat, I am a desire-fulfilling brain in a vat, not a happiness-seeking brain in a vat.

Anonymous said...


You keep arguing that happiness theory and desire utilitarianism conflict. From your description of it in your books and posts, I fail to anywhere that this is the case. DU says we act to fulfill desires (or cause states of affairs to be true, if you think the distinction worthwhile). Happiness theory could easily be read to say we fulfill desires because that contributes to our happiness, satisfaction, or well-being. As far as I can tell DU in and of itself never gives any explanation for why we seek to fulfill desires.
Personally, for some reason you have not made clear, you object to the idea of desire fulfillment for a specific purpose. Whether we fulfill desires for a single underlying purpose, or two, or many does not contradict DU until DU includes some integral hypothesis that is invalidated by a particular underlying reward mechanism driving it.
As long as happiness theory talks about an underlying theory of motivation, and DU fails to address one, anything one says about one theory has virtually no bearing upon the other.

Uber Miguel said...

Atheist Observer,

Fyfe himself clarified that there is not a huge conflict between happiness theory and desire-fulfillment theory (in the form of a desire for happiness), but that desire-fulfillment generally leads to much more consistent solutions in terms of satisfaction across both emotion and non-emotion based desires.

I might even go so far as to suggest that the sense of satisfaction is rarely actually achieved in happiness theory. Using Fyfe's example of the experience machine, such a proposition is likely most typically rejected since happiness is less satisfying than desire-fulfillment perhaps due to the intangible, fleeting nature of happiness. One piece of cake might make you happy, but one may be happier still to endulge in two.

Your request for an explanation on "why we seek to fulfill desires" seems a little obtuse. The roots of happiness and desires are very similar: our brain. Emotions, impulses, intuitions, and beliefs are the pool of resources by which our desires are formed. Evolutionary Psychology is a field that is coming out all the time explaning the attraction to pleasure. Additionally, cognitive dissonance and the sense of fairness also play substantial roles.

Some desires may be more emotion than belief driven or vice-versa. Desire utilitarianism simply helps explain why we choose some desires over others in our day-to-day activities. Why focus on desires over emotion? The fact that the collective nature of our desires is much more receptive to malleability than emotions. Additionally, the step from desire to action is much more direct and discernable than guessing one's emotional state from their actions.

If desire-fulfillment can so easily explain happiness theory (as you yourself admit) in addition to best address instances where happiness theory falls short, I seriously do not understand how you can turn around and say that the two approaches to our actions have no bearing on each other.

They both work, it would just seem that desire-fulfillment works more consistently. And you're going to need much more than a god-of-the-gaps rationale to honestly dismiss it.