Objections to Hedonism

From Walter Sinnott-Armstrong's excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “consequentialism“:

Some critics argue that not all pleasures are valuable, since, for example, there is no value in the pleasures of a sadist while whipping a victim. Other opponents object that not only pleasures are intrinsically valuable, because other things are valuable independently of whether they lead to pleasure or avoid pain. For example, my love for my wife does not seem to become less valuable when I get less pleasure from her because she gets some horrible disease. Similarly, freedom seems valuable even when it creates anxiety, and even when it is freedom to do something (such as leave one's country) that one does not want to do. Again, many people value knowledge of other galaxies regardless of whether this knowledge will create pleasure or avoid pain.

I find all of these objections totally persuasive. Is there any reason for resisting them other than a prior commitment to hedonism?

  • LarryM

    Couple of points. Firstly, “That’s for historians to ponder and decide.” is a cop out of major proportions, and frankly by itself entirely undermines a significant proportion of the critique. I raise it because it mirrors what I see as a rather scattershot critique coming from this blog, a gathering of disparate and sometimes contradictory critiques of the administratins performance, without a coherent set of alternatives.

    Now, I realize that one coherent alternative, given the libertarian outlook of this blog, would be the “do nothing” approach – let the market sort it out. There are times when I indeed think that this might be the best approach. But what’s lacking here is any real examination and defense of this approach.

    Set aside the stimulus for a moment (and the auto industry bailout, which is IMO particularly indefensible but ultimately small potatoes). What about the financial crisis? As much as I distrust the government to solve the problem, there seems to be a consensus that without such intervention there is a substantial chance of a complete collapse of the banking and financial sector that will lead to catastophic consequences. Now, I for one don’t simply accept this consensus as a given. But entirely absent from the discussions on this blog, it seems to me, are answers to these & other fundemental questions:

    (1) Is the consensus right?
    (2) If not, why not?
    (3) If so, are the governmental interventions to date reducing the risk of a catastrophic collapse?
    (4) If not, are there alternative government interventions which would reduce that risk? If so, what are they?
    (5) How do you weigh the risk of a deep depression versus some long term reduction in the growth rate?

    I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. But it would be nice to see a coherent presentation and defense of an alternative approach to the financial cris specificaly – even if that alternative is the “do nothing” approach which may, in fact, be the best approach.

  • LarryM

    To kind of elaborate upon one particular point in my last post. (Note that I am assuming arguendo our host’s underlying philosophical justification for libertarianism; a more “property rights” approach would consider the following questions irrelevant):

    Let’s assume that a governmental intervention during a recession can cushion the recession – prevent a lot of suffering during the recession, maybe even prevent it from becoming a depression – but at a small cost in long term economic growth. How do we weigh that? Does it make any sense to say that maximization of long term economic growth is our only priority?

  • lyca

    Well, it depends how heavily you weight the importance of the present welfare over future welfare. If you have a zero pure rate of time preference then (I think) you would always prefer to focus on long term growth because it’s exponential & will eventually outweigh any present suffering, even if it’s very great. If the importance you attach to future welfare decays faster than the “small cost in long term economic growth,” then you’d be willing to take the dip in growth to prevent a depression now.

    I know that doesn’t answer your question, but it seems to be a useful way to think about this.

    Funny thing is, if you wanted to be consistent, you ought to prefer both aggressively limiting climate change AND pro-growth policies if you have a low rate of time preference, or prefer both cushioning recessions AND not spending too much on climate change if you have a high rate of time preference. Of course, that’s not how the usual left-right divisions work out.

    • LarryM

      I think that is a helpful, though somewhat flawed way to look at it (for reasons I’ll get to in a minute). I would say that I personally don’t have a zero pure rate of time preference, which is one reason why I would favor some level of amelioration of current suffering over long term growth. The flaw, though: basically the assumption that increased economic growth maps onto increased welfare on a one to one basis. I think it doesn’t (though obviously there is some correlation), though the reasons for my conclusion (most of which I am sure you have heard before) won’t really fit into a blog comment.

      As for your final paragraph, I think the reason that you don’t see those preferences correlated to a greater extent is that “aggressively limiting climate change” and “pro-growth policies” are not independent variables – that is, they are to a large extent not compatible. I would certainly agree that, in choosing policies that “aggressively limit climate change” one should choose those policies which tend to have the least impact on growth, but that’s easier said than done and not, I think, terribly controversial.

      • lyca

        Me too — I think we should ameliorate recessions, if we can, and if it’s worth it. Florida’s point is that we shouldn’t be indifferent to the effect on growth, but yes, I’d be willing to sacrifice a sufficiently small amount of growth to prevent a painful recession today.

        Not sure which reasons you have in mind for growth = welfare. Do you mean the “money can’t buy happiness” sort of arguments or the “high growth can still leave people in poverty” arguments? Or something else I haven’t thought of?

        And, yes, you’re right about climate mitigation and growth going in opposite directions, at least for a while.

        • LarryM

          Re Florida, my beef with him is not that his observation is wrong, but that it is banal, and that he punts the hard questions. I mean, not to beat a dead horse, but saying that history will determine “[w]hat better and more effective things might have been done with these trillions” is a cop out of major proportions.

          Re growth and welfare, it’s a little of both, though I’d frame the issues differently. For the former, I’d say “while money and happiness are highly corrolated, they aren’t corrolated on a one to one basis,” for the second, I’d say that “economic growth tends, all else being equal, to benefit some people disproportionately; whatever one thinks about the justice of this, it is a reason why maximizing economic growth does not maximize welfare.” Of course, that leads to a whole host of additional questions and issues, but as I said, serious engagment of them is beyond the scope of a blog comment.

          • LarryM

            Regarding growth and welfare, there is an additional argument. Even without adopting the more extreme doom and gloom predictions of environmental catastrophe, there is, at least, an open question as to whether high high rates of growth are sustainable indefinitely. It’s certainly possible that there will be technological fixes to various environmental/resource issues, but it seems somewhat dangerous to just assume such fixes. That’s part of what I meant in a previous comment when I mentioned the magical thinking that soem libertarians seem to have regarding the benefits of the free market. One can have a healthy respect for the power of free markets (especially relative to governmental solutions) without fetishizing the free market.

            Or, to put it another way, assuming that enviromental and resource problems will have a technological fix is as big an error (and the same kind of error) as ignoring the possibility of such fixes.

        • LarryM

          And to further elaborate upon the banality of the Florida quote, while many blog commenters may not understand the concept of opportunity costs, I would suspect that our policy makers do. Now, they may not be properly weighing such costs, but if one wants to make the argument that they aren’t … one should make the argument, rather than just asserting it (or, in Florida’s case, implying it).

          (And did I say England rather than Florida in my prior comment? Ugh, I need to do a better job of editing my comments.)

          • uknowbetter

            Most politicians have never taken an economics course in their lives.

            It would be a good question to ask them if they could define ‘opportunity cost’. I doubt many members of Congress could and I doubt Obama could.