October 11, 2008
By Toby Ord
Psychological hedonism (PH) is the view that each person is motivated so as to maximise his or her pleasure and minimise his or her pain. Thus, according to psychological hedonism, acts which appear to be altruistic are in fact performed for self interested reasons, such as making the agent feel less guilty, or giving the agent a ‘warm glow’. It is important to note that PH is a theory about motivation, rather than about ethics per se, but is of considerable relevance to ethical discussions.
Many people have attacked PH for not fitting the evidence: it seems that there are many situations when the benefits from the relief of guilt do not plausibly outweigh the actor’s sacrifice. For example, an atheist soldier choosing to die a painful death to protect his comrades. However, I wish to point out a different problem with PH which I have not heard before: that it has an incoherent conception of a person’s pleasure.
PH claims that one’s acts are all ultimately chosen to maximise one’s pleasure. However, there is a tension between immediate pleasure and lifetime pleasure. Indeed, it is easy to think of cases where people choose immediate pleasure at the expense of their total lifetime pleasure and to think of cases where people deny themselves immediate pleasure in order to increase lifetime pleasure. It thus seems that we can’t be attempting to maximise either immediate pleasure or lifetime pleasure. PH therefore lacks a coherent maximand and must therefore be false, or at least in need of considerable additional explanation.
I can think of three ways out, none of which seem appealing.
1) We each attempt to maximise some time-discounted sum of pleasure for a particular discounting function.
Response: This seems much less intuitive than the original claim, and I think that current experiments already show that we don’t do consistent discounting of our future rewards.
2) We really try to maximise lifetime pleasure, but sometimes choose immediate pleasure out of akrasia.
Response: In this case, many choices are akratic, and the theory of motivation seems to explain much less. Also, if so many choices are akratic, then perhaps the altruistic choices are also akratic and thus not selfish after all.
3) We really try to maximise immediate pleasure, only choosing lifetime pleasure when this gives us an immediate warm glow about being so long-sighted etc.
Response: This option tries to explain long term choices in the same way as altruistic choices. I find it even less plausible in this case as I don’t experience any such warm glow when doing this.
If you have any further thoughts on this response to PH, or know of a reference to it in the literature, then please leave a comment.