'The Utilitarian seeks to maximise happiness. Is hedonism an adequate theory of happiness? If not, what alternative would you offer?'
It might seem somewhat peculiar to claim that hedonism is not an adequate theory of happiness, in that hedonism is often referred to as the doctrine which preaches as its end complete and permanent happiness. Obviously if this were the definition I were taking hedonism would serve analytically as a theory of happiness, but, in fact, hedonism is more properly defined as the doctrine which preaches complete and permanent pleasure, and the removal of all pain, and obviously with this as the starting point to claim that it as a doctrine maximises happiness is going to be at least a more complex task, if it succeeds at all.
I would say that straight away it is clear, with even the most cursive view of ethics, that a purely hedonistic position does not appear to be widely held within society (which is, of course, a descriptive rather than normative statement, and is not to say that a hedonistic position should not be held), and that simply enjoying oneself, indulging one's basic desires, and avoiding at all costs any threat of harm, does not appear to be wildly considered virtuous and is not encouraged. We do not encourage people to take mind-altering drugs, for example; we do not think it responsible for people to put their happiness before their responsibilities, spending the mortgage payment on a new car; we expect people to think about others, and not, for example, to destroy the environment in pursuit of pleasure, leaving the planet considerably less habitable for the next generation; we even worry about people's mental health if they appear to be significantly more happy more of the time than the norm. Opposite these strong feelings in much of the population the hedonist might still try to claim that these are false beliefs, and that we should put pleasure first, but it seems unlikely that he will be able to convince people of this fact, and alter the status-quo so significantly. It must be remembered that when trying to establish an ethical theory, whilst it is not absolutely necessary, it would be foolish to neglect to consider moral views that are currently held, and to fail, if these views are in direct opposition to the theory, to attempt to account for them.
Utilitarian theories, in general, split into two group: those based on maximising pleasure, and minimising pain, which can in general be termed hedonistic utilitarian theories; and those based on the fulfilment of desires. I will attempt to show that both these theories fail to address properly the problem above, of how we account for cases where we do not put happiness first, and that they fail in almost exactly the same way. Further, I believe, and will attempt to show, that the reason for the similarity of this failing in both cases is due to the fact that rather than being entirely separate utilitarian theories, desire-fulfilment doctrines are in fact a sub-set of hedonistic doctrines. Before we begin to discuss whether this is the case, however, we must first examine how the two theories are established, and why people suggest them to be correct.
The founding, and probably most important, text of utilitarianism is that by Bentham, which involves quite a bit of definition of terms, but culminates in what is known as the 'Utilitarian Calculus'. The term 'calculus' must not be taken literally, since it could hardly be described as a calculus in the normal sense of the word, since the word lends a sense of being mathematically calculable that is very much lacking in Bentham's outline. This might seem something of a petty quibble but, in fact, this lack of an ability to systematically work out which action is correct since there seems to be no way to add up the relative 'goodness' of various effects on different people produces a very great difficulty for the utilitarian and is one of the major reasons why what is now reasonably widely accepted (though certainly not universally by any means) as a strong contender for a theory that simply answers the most basic ethical question of what 'right' means, has still failed to provide conclusive answers for all but the simplest (and most hypothetical) of moral questions.
Another major problem with Bentham's system for calculating the best action is the recursive nature of the calculus. Bentham requires that one consider what he calls the fecundity and impurity - the propensity for the action to produces further pleasures or pains as a result of the primary pleasures and pains. The unfortunate result of this recursive pattern is that it would strictly rule out as good an action which produced a great amount of pleasure for someone, producing pleasure for someone else, causing someone else pain, producing in a fourth person a small discomfort that enrages a fifth so much that they start a war. If the ultimate result of an action is a war that causes an enormous amount of suffering then regardless of the degree of happiness produced directly the action must be wrong - and clearly many actions change radically in this light, and suddenly even those choices that seemed totally amoral take on a new moral meaning - such a theory would even preach that the butterfly that flaps his wings causing a tidal wave (in a chaos-theory driven world - as ours is currently believed to be), is in fact evil, or at least the agent of some grave wrong.
Because of this argument, however, whilst it might seem to be disastrous for a utilitarian theory (at least for one similar to that which Bentham offers) I believe that we need abandon neither the overall theory, nor even the requirement for consideration of the fecundity and purity of actions. The way around this problem is to point out that this is an ethical system to show you how to live your life, not for retrospectively judging people. This means that people should use the calculus to try to evaluate which is the best course of action - and ultimately if they apply this doctrine rigorously, it would be unfair to claim that they did not do the right thing, regardless of the results. The reason that this is an important distinction to make is that it does not require someone to take into account effects that they would not be able to - namely those effects that could never be predicted.
The example Ayer uses is that of the consequences of Brutus' murder of Julius Caesar. The argument goes that, had not Brutus killed Caesar (which many would strongly argue had primary effects that were good), Shakespeare might never have written Julius Caesar, and the world would have been deprived of a great work of literature. Setting aside the triviality of the example - it seems clearly ridiculous to say that the relatively small indirect effects of being deprived of a play should even begin to affect the moral value of an action that affected many thousands (probably even millions) of lives directly - the refined system would suggest that Brutus need not even have considered such remote effects, since he could never have predicted such a result. Further to this (although this is really the basic argument that is being used) we can never know what would have happened, that didn't because Brutus killed Caesar. It might be the case that Shakespeare would have spent the time he felt he had wasted writing a play about an uninspiring Roman dictator developing his barely expressed love for the medium of song, in Boils and Hexes - a three act musical about witchcraft, that would serve to show the bard in a new light, as well as greatly raising the profile of the musical and ultimately ridding the world of the embarrassment of Cats (and, in fact, all Andrew Lloyd-Webber musicals)! Since we cannot play the 'what-if?' game forever, we cannot be held accountable for effects that could not be predicted.
Mr and Mrs Blair cannot be held accountable for having a baby - which they might have believed was a good thing to do - purely because they didn't predict he would turn out to be the empty New Labour voice that he turned out to be, and certainly not if they had been told by a fortune-teller that the population of Britain would temporarily be given a greater sense of well-being and self-love, with the clairvoyant sadly neglecting to say this merely preceded the realisation that the population had systematically destroyed the foundation of the country in which they lived. Whilst after the act it may be easy to point at the moment when 'It went wrong...' this is not what the utilitarian theory seeks to do - it merely hopes to serve to aid people in their decisions about what to do in the future.
On a slightly different note, Parfit uses the example of the choice between going out to a party or staying in and reading King Lear. He points out that we cannot simply trust to how we feel afterwards - even if we say 'That was a nice evening, spent how I wanted' and have no regrets about the choice we made, it may be that if we'd made the other choice we'd have had more fun. Rather than concluding, as might be wise, that both were good choices, and that each produced a nice result, Parfit requires that we call the one that would have produced the better evening the best choice, regardless of which we actually do choose. I would suggest that, since they appear both to have the potential to result in a nice evening that, since it might not be possible to apply the utilitarian calculus and find one to be better, we should not worry after the event about which would have produced the happier result.
Bentham's hypothesis, therefore, with only minor adjustments, is able to stand up to quite a bit of the abuse that is throw at it, and has withstood in its time some pretty major attacks. It is due to this resilience that utilitarianism remains almost certainly the most important doctrine in all modern ethical theories (as opposed to older systems, particularly religious ones, based on objective ethical facts), and that it has yet to be dealt a death blow. Hedonism, however, does not seem to be totally coherent, since it does not seem to be the case the people really seek an endless succession of intensely pleasurable experiences, and, if anything, seem to waver around a balance of pleasure and pain. It is as a result of these doubts that desire-fulfilment doctrines sprang up, attempting to explain the times when pleasure is avoided.
Desire-fulfilment theories claim that, rather than simply aiming at pleasure, people spend time and effort trying to fulfil desires - and it is through fulfilling desires that happiness is achieved. Nozick points out in his discussion of the 'Experience Machine' that we do not simply go for pleasure - that if we were able to plug ourselves into a machine that would give us pleasurable experiences, permanently (ignoring, for simplicity's sake, worries that we might have limited abilities to experience pleasure, and that once we got used to the machine it might not seem anything other than the norm), most would probably choose not to enter such a machine . The use of desire-fulfilment theories in escaping this problem is that they say we are not simply going for a state-of-mind, but instead are working to have some sort of tangible, real effect, achieving things that we desire.
Ayer, who does not like utilitarianism (and, in fact, does not seem to like the study of ethics in the normal sense at all), points out one major problem for all forms of utilitarianism, though one that I think is especially difficult for desire-fulfilment theories. Ayer states that Bentham's psychology is mistaken - that people don't in fact only go for pleasurable things - but more importantly he points out that many forms of utilitarianism run the risk of saying very little indeed. To say that someone likes something because they like it is a tautology, and it is hardly a helpful one to point out, yet this is what many theories, and especially the desire-fulfilment ones, seem to be saying. To say that what one should go for to achieve happiness is what one desires seems to be as much as to say that achieving happiness is as simple for some particular person as getting those things that if he gets them he is happy. This isn't a useful or instructive thing to be told. In fact, Ayer brings the question one layer deeper - asking rather than what people want, what people should be made to want. Clearly if there are things which, though not wanted, people should want, then such simplistic theories would have to break down. Ayer is right, in my opinion, to suggest that this is in fact the case - there are often times when people, moralising, point at others and say 'They shouldn't want that, they should desire this...'. If not all desires are equal - and from observable psychology I'd certainly suggest they tend not to be thought of as equal - then clearly fulfilment of desires without qualification of those desires cannot be a sustainable ethical theory. Griffin, too, argues that desire-fulfilment theories fail due to emptiness. He points out that telling someone to 'Maximise fulfilment of your desires' is circular, and isn't going to be good advice, or a useful doctrine by which to live one's life.
Brandt points out that desire-fulfilment theories are rarely left so broad, and usually are in fact refined in such a way that might save them after all. He points out that the desires that are seen to be good and are ones that it is considered morally right to aim to fulfil do not include those formed in the wrong sort of circumstances, such as those formed in moments of anger or through ignorance - yet he himself leaves out the important qualification that persistence of desires are necessary to render them important for happiness - so that a brief and passing desire does not hold the same weight as a more long term, sustained one. Brandt uses the example of a six-year-old who wants to celebrate his 50th birthday on a roller-coaster. Obviously it is not necessarily the case that when he gets to 50 he will still want to be on a roller-coaster for his birthday (the likelihood is in fact that the desire will pass) and thus fulfilment of this desire will not necessarily achieve happiness - in fact being forced to ride the roller-coaster at such an age (by someone who knew his childhood wishes) might actually produce completely the opposite result . This, however, I would class as a non-persistent desire, which is why, once it has lapsed, its fulfilment will not necessarily lead to happiness, and therefore I cannot see how Brandt's objection in the form it is presented is fair. There is, however, a very interesting question when one realises that it is not easy to deny that, though this desire is passing, and disappears before it can be fulfilled, its existence may have some impact on the happiness of the individual that holds it, and thus it should not be totally ignored. I shall return to this problem in just a moment, taking that time to look at Parfit's suggested improvement to desire-fulfilment theories - which he calls the Success Theory.
The Success Theory has the extra condition that any effects that we talk about when considering pleasures and pains must affect the agent's own life. Success, therefore, being used in a pretty normal usage, occurs when a desire is fulfilled that is good for the agent, and makes her happier. This need not be too restrictive - effects upon the agent's children, for example, easily fit into this theory, in that they can almost directly affect the happiness of the agent himself. Problems arise, however, from the fact that the cases where a distinction from other theories is important are exactly those where the Success Theory appears to produce the wrong result. Parfit uses the example of a bad parent, who despite all evidence to the contrary, has imbued in his children certain ideas and values that will turn out to be their downfall. He claims that since the father would not want the children to have bad lives, even if he wasn't aware that he had set them on the path to ruin this would be bad, despite even the fact that he might not know it. This seems very strange, considering how he came to propose the Success Theory.
Parfit rejected what he called 'The Unrestricted Desire-Fulfilment Theory' on the basis of the example that if we bump into a stranger on the train, who moans at us about how he has a disease that is thought to be incurable, we may naturally find ourselves developing a strong desire that he does not have such a disease, and that he will be cured. If we never see this stranger again, Parfit continues, we will not know if he is cured, and thus the curing cannot have any effect on us. Such 'Cambridge-changes', marked by the fact that a sort of 'pseudo-state' changes - such as the 'state' of having a unfulfilled desire that a stranger be cured, and the desire being fulfilled - are said not to be able to have an effect on happiness. If your state changes merely because of a distant event of which you have no knowledge, this cannot be said to have an impact on your life in any major way. This seems to make a lot of sense, if you are none the wiser about the stranger's recovery. Yet this seems to be exactly the sort of case that Parfit reintroduces with Success Theory. He tries to claim that even without knowing about one's children's downfall, such an event will have an effect on your happiness, even after death, and thus will be bad. A rope can be thrown to try to save this theory by suggesting that what he means is that, since the parent has already done the actions, they have already had the effect that is bad. This does not seem entirely coherent, and I don't think Success Theory can survive.
What Parfit's problem with the stranger on the train shows, is the same as the problem raised by our six-year-old who wants to ride a roller-coaster when he's fifty. Parfit explains that it does not make much sense to say that a fulfilled desire much removed from the person with the desire, about which fulfilment the person with the desire will never know, can affect their happiness. This certainly makes sense, and seems to be the case, but the conclusion that should be drawn from this is somewhat startling, and not what Parfit does come to in suggesting the Success Theory. I would suggest that what is in fact shown is that the fulfilment of a desire matters only when it is known by the person with the desire, and whereby it can alter their mental state.
This conclusion, unfortunately (unfortunate in the sense that a theory that was supposed to solve problems for another has turned out not to be distinct from it), seems to me to be the correct one - that desire-fulfilment theories work only when they are in fact masked hedonistic theories. It only makes sense to say that fulfilment of a desire will lead to happiness if there is some way of knowing about the fulfilment, and this suggests that what in fact is occurring when a desire is fulfilled is that the holder of that desire is being placed in a certain state-of-mind - one which feels fulfilled. Further to this, desires which are not fulfilled before loses the desire can have an effect, in the sense that a state-of-mind about the desire can still exist. If the six-year-old believes that his desire will be fulfilled when he becomes fifty, then indeed he will be happy about it; if he doesn't believe it will be so, then this will cause sadness. The stranger who is cured does not make the person who met him on the train happier, because they never believe that the person is or will be cured.
A second example that Brandt brings up as a potential dilemma is that of a man that despises religion. This man spends his entire life telling his friends and family that he does not want a priest to visit him on his death-bed, and is quite serious in this conviction, and yet when he comes to be dying, he has a change of faith, and asks for a priest to be called. The question is obviously that of whether a priest should be called or not - whether his earlier (and longer-held) wish should be upheld, or whether (as would surely seem more humane for a dying man) they should accept that he wants a priest now, ignore his former wishes, and call for one. The theory which reduces desire-fulfilment merely to states-of-mind can easily answer this debate. As long as it has always seemed that his wish not to have a priest called will be respected - that is, that he has always believed when he was hating religion (for most of his life) that when he is on his death-bed no priest will be there - this desire has already produced happiness. He has now changed his desire and a priest can be called. The only case for not calling a priest would be if it might damage the credibility of further appeals by other people, but luckily humans seem to have an near-endless ability to believe that their case is special, so that if someone later demands that no priest be called, stating that they know what happened the last time someone asked for such protection, they will usually believe assurances that that was a previous example, and would not happen again.
The same applies to the highly contentious issue of rights of the dead. Many ethical systems find it very difficult to justify the dead having any rights whatsoever, and, indeed, our new desire / state-of-mind theory does not justify anything in terms of the effect it will have on someone who is not capable of having states-of-mind. It will, however, require that when people are living they are in the state-of-mind whereby if they have desires about the future, and desires about what might happen to them when they die, they believe that these will be fulfilled. If someone specifies that they do not want their body to be cut up after death, our system states that actions should be such as to convince her that her body will not be cut up. Whilst the actual case of this person herself is largely irrelevant (and we can, in fact, do what we like with the body), previous examples must show that her wishes will be upheld, since having one's wishes about what will happen after death upheld will surely be important for happiness - and likewise her case will be an example to others.
We have seen, therefore, that desire-fulfilment theories can be merely a specific case of state-of-mind theories, which hold that what we are aiming at is a pleasurable or happy state-of-mind, but problems, therefore, levelled at hedonistic theories cannot be ignored when considering the case of our hybrid desire / state-of-mind theory. One of the major problems for both such theories is that of whether such a theory would be called 'good' in a normal sense. If people are just trying to reach a particular state-of-mind which they enjoy in all their actions, aren't they simply being driven by selfishness? Would we call this 'good'? Surely at best we can call this an amoral system, by trying to claim that people are simply following a form of conditioning which they cannot avoid; at worst we would call this selfish and wrong. I will not get into this meta-ethical debate in this paper, since to do so would involve far bigger and more wide-ranging issues than there is space for now, but clearly whilst it will not be exclusively a problem for our theory, it is particularly difficult to overcome if we are trying to claim that all actions are the results of people trying to get into a certain state-of-mind.
We have still not answered the pleasure, such as giving to others, rather than hoarding amongst ourselves, and it seems difficult (at best) to explain these all in terms of emotional reactions - such as to claim that we get a good buzz from giving to the less fortunate. Attempts to respond to this problem include Preference Theories, which try to avoid the problem by effectively redefining what we want as what we prefer, so as to say that if we choose B rather than A we must want B more than A. This seems somewhat contrived, and fails to justify why we prefer things, especially since it fails to relate feeling glad at having one thing rather than another to a state-of-mind.
Another attempt to solve this problem is made by Mill, who claims that we should not talk solely of quantity of pleasure, but also of quality. He then, however, rather bizarrely goes on, much like the Preference Theory to claim that if C produces more pleasure than D and yet we choose D, this is due to seeing that D is of a better quality of pleasure. But this seems to be as much as to say that if something is of a better quality we want it more, and will be in a more pleasant state-of-mind if we get it - which is surely the same as saying you get more pleasure from it. He brings in the question of whether inferior beings are happier. He states that whilst they are more content, more satisfied, and have had more desires fulfilled (simply by virtue of having lower pleasure thresholds), they aren't happier. Surely a better conclusion for Mill to reach would be that inferior beings are indeed happier, but that it is not happiness which is being sought. Mill even chooses to introduce words like 'Noble' - which are surely incompatible with notions of pleasure being the ultimate good. If an action is noble, surely it has some intrinsic value, quite apart from any pleasure it might bring? question of how to explain cases where we seem to value things that will not necessarily give us
Overall, therefore, utilitarianism is by no means out of the woods yet. There are a large number of problems that must be resolved before any reduction to simple values, such as that all actions should aim at the greatest happiness for the largest number, can occur. It can be seen that desire-fulfilment theories are simply disguised hedonistic theories, and cannot coherently exist without being so, since they cannot properly explain how and when desires affect us, let alone why they should. Utilitarianism is certainly an interesting theory, and one that may turn out to be very successful, but when, as now more than ever, it is possible to reject all notions of morality whatsoever, pressure is on moralists to show that any system should be used, and it isn't clear that the proponents of utilitarianism have proved this in its case.