Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Dr. Neil Sinhababu's Epistemic Argument for Hedonism

We are now at 362 days until the start of classes.

As a part of my continuing project to worm my way into the philosophical community, after attending Dr. Neil Sinhababu's presentation, The epistemic argument for hedonism, I sent him an email offering comments on his ideas.

I could reproduce that email here, but I fear that it lacks context that would make my points comprehensible. I assumed in the email that Dr. Sinhababu is familiar enough with his own arguments that I do not need to restate then, but that would not be true of readers here.

So, here, I will embed my comments in some context.

Dr. Sinhababu wanted to argue for hedonistic utilitarianism, the classic view that pleasure is the only good, pain the only bad, and morality requires maximizing the former and minimizing the latter. Of course, there is not enough time to do all of this in one lecture, so the lecture focused primarily on the thesis that that pleasure is an objective moral good.

He admits that this view is counter-intuitive, referencing, for example, Robert Nozick's Experience Machine argument. Nozick argues against the idea that pleasure is the only good by asking if one would choose to enter a Matrix-type experience machine (where all other characters are computer simulations) that will generate illusions that the user would find pleasing. The fact that a person would not choose a life of pleasant illusion implies that that person values something other than pleasure. She values true experiences.

To counter this, Sinhababu develops an argument against moral intuitions that I discussed in previous posts - an argument that I find quite strong, but will not repeat here.

Regardless of the merit of that argument, they do not apply to Nozick's experience machine argument. Nozick is not giving us a test of moral intuitions. Nozick is testing our preferences - giving us options that we can use to decide what people like or dislike. It is like taking a person who claims to only like chocolate, giving her a set of choices where chocolate is available along with other options, and noting that she never actually chooses chocolate. This discredits the thesis that she only likes chocolate - unless we can come up with some other explanation for her choices. Nozick's experience machine argument discredits the idea that we only want pleasure.

In fact, I use Nozick's experience machine to support the hypothesis that an agent with a desire that P has a motivating reason to realize states of affairs in which "P" is true. To the degree that the experience machine can make "P" true (e.g., P = "I am experiencing pleasure") an agent has reason to enter the experience machine. However, if the experience machine cannot make "P" true (e.g., P = "My children are healthy and happy") that person has reason to stay out of the experience machine and find a way to make or keep "P" true.

I - like Dr. Sinhababu - do not trust moral intuitions, but I do take an agent's choices when presented with hypothetical options to be evidence (not proof, but at least evidence) of that agent's interests.

Well, back to Sinhababu's argument or the moral value of pleasure.

Still, pleasure can be (actually, it is) good and it might be an objective good. I wish to look next at Dr. Sinhababu's argument that this is the case.

I am going to accept Sinhababu's argument that phenomenological introspection shows us that pleasure is something we have reason to pursue. In fact, I take this as being true by definition. We do not call a sensation "pleasure" unless it is something that we have a reason to pursue. A sensation that is not good - at least in this immediate sense - is not pleasure.

Whatever theory of other minds one adopts, one can infer that other people also experience pleasure and that it is something that they have a reason to pursue.

Dr. Sinhababu argues that this proves that the goodness of pleasure is an objective, morally relevant goodness. The agent must admit through phenomenological introspection that his own pleasure is good. He infers that the pleasure of others is just as good. He seems to suggest that it follows directly that this goodness is something that we should be maximizing generally.

I think he is drawing far more from the evidence than rationality allows.

In listening to Dr. Sinhababu's lecture, I acquired an impression that these things are easier to understand if it is expressed in terms of reasons.

I can see through phenomenological introspection that I have a reason to pursue my own pleasure. However, nothing in the phenomenological experience tells me that I am experiencing something that anybody else has reason to pursue.

I can also infer that other agents have reasons to pursue their own pleasure. However, I see no reason to infer that their pleasure is something that I or anybody else has a reason to be concerned with.

The attempt to raise pleasure up to the status of an intrinsic moral good is an attempt to go from the fact that I have a reason to pursue my own pleasure, and others have a reason to pursue their own pleasure, to the conclusion that we all have reason to maximize pleasure generally. This leap is entirely without warrant.

It was brought up in discussion - I must learn some names so that I can make proper attributions in reporting on these discussions - that this is a problem only for a moral internalist. A moral internalist is one who links morality to reasons that a person has. An externalist, on the other hand, separates morality from the reasons that an agent has. Something can be morally good, according to the externalist, yet still be something that the agent has no reason to pursue. Consequently, an externalist can say that the pleasure that others pursue is a moral good, but not necessarily something that I or anybody other than agent has a reason to pursue.

I am a moral externalist - but this response still fails.

As an externalist, I hold that there is a distinction between what an agent has a reason to do and what an agent should have a reason to do. Morality is concerned with what an agent should have a reason to do. In other words, the fact that I do not have a reason to consider the pleasure of others does not prove that it lacks moral relevance; it has moral relevance if I should have such a reason.

However, the externalist still needs to make good on the concept of "should have such a reason". Without this, nothing has been proved. I can just as easily say that agents should have a reason to maximize the number of paperclips. If somebody should challenge me that people have no reason to maximize the total number of paper clips, the response that I am an externalist who distinguishes the reasons an agent has from the reasons an agent should have is not sufficient.

Dr. Sinhababu's argument from phenomenological introspection is not sufficient. It shows that I have a reason to pursue my own pleasure, and allows me to infer that others (probably) have reasons to pursue their own pleasure, but it does not prove that I should have a reason to be concerned with the pleasure of others, or that they should have a reason to be concerned with my pleasure.

NOTE: I do have an argument for "should have a reason to" derived from the fact that others have reasons to use reward and punishment to cause people generally to have a reason to. However, that is not relevant at this point.

In conclusion, Dr. Sinhababu had a very good argument from moral disagreement that we should not be too confident in our own moral judgments that I discussed in earlier posts. He does not have a good argument for dismissing arguments such as Nozick's experience machine against the idea that pleasure is the only good. Nor has he proved that agents should have a reason to be concerned with the interests of others.

As a final note, I fear that in writing this I may have improved upon the arguments that I sent to Dr. Sinhababu. I wonder if he will mind getting a follow-up email that uses the improvements that I put into this blog post. Well, what's the worst that can happen? He hits the "Delete" key and makes it his life goal to destroy me and anybody who knows me. Nothing to worry about.

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