Chap. 2 of J. S. Mill’s Utilitarianism is widely interpreted as defending qualitative hedonism, as a view about the nature of personal well-being. On views of this sort, your level of well-being is determined by certain facts about your pleasures and pains. However, it is not determined purely by “quantitative” facts about these pleasures’ and pains’ duration and intensity. Instead, it is determined by three dimensions of these pleasures and pains – namely, by their duration, intensity, and quality.
Extant discussions of this view have much to say about the quality of pleasures. But they have virtually nothing to say about the quality of pains. In this post, I shall sketch a version of qualitative hedonism that gives what seems to me a plausible account of the quality of both pleasures and pains.
According to this version of qualitative hedonism, pleasures always add to your personal well-being, and pains always detract from your well-being. But the degree to which a pleasure or pain affects your well-being is not just determined by the intensity and duration of that pleasure or pain. It also matters to what extent the pleasure or pain is appropriate.
Let us suppose, following a broadly Aristotelian view, that whenever you experience pleasure, this pleasure is closely associated with some conscious activity of yours. As I am thinking of them, these conscious activities are always at least partly mental activities, but may often essentially involve the external world as well. So, listening to your friend’s singing, climbing a mountain, or simply perceiving the warmth of the bath water on your skin, would all count as conscious activities of the relevant kind.
Similarly, let us suppose that whenever you suffer a pain – in the sense that concerns us – this pain is closely associated with some conscious activity of yours. For example, your bodily pains are associated with your conscious perception of a process that is occurring within your body. Other pains or experiences of distress may be associated with your consciously thinking about some terrible event or the like.
To keep things simple, in this post, I shall only focus on cases in which the conscious activity associated with the pleasure or pain is either a perceptual activity, or an activity that involves thinking about a state of affairs that one believes to obtain.
Focusing on these cases, I propose that the appropriateness of a pleasure or a pain is determined by the following two features of the associated conscious activity.
- For the pleasure or pain to be appropriate, any perception involved in the associated activity must be veridical, and any belief involved in the activity must be true. (Many of the pleasures and pains in Robert Nozick’s notorious example of the “experience machine” count as inappropriate for this reason.)
- Among these veridical cases, pleasure is appropriate to the extent that either the perception itself, or the object of the perception or belief, is good (or worthy of being enjoyed); and pain is appropriate to the extent that either the perception itself or the object of the perception or belief is bad (or worthy of one’s dislike or loathing).
With pleasures, the role of appropriateness is straightforward. The more appropriate a pleasure is, the more the pleasure contributes to your personal well-being – while conversely, the more inappropriate a pleasure is, the less the pleasure enhances your well-being. (According to this view, then, utterly inappropriate pleasures do enhance your well-being, but only to a vanishingly small degree that is barely distinguishable from their making no contribution at all.)
It seems plausible that there are two factors explaining why the appropriateness of a pleasure increases its contribution to your well-being:
- An appropriate pleasure involves something good’s being (as we might say) “taken up into your life” through your pleasure.
- It also involves your responding in an appropriate way to something that is worthy of this response.
In a parallel way, there are two factors explaining why the inappropriateness of a pleasure reduces the pleasure’s contribution to well-being:
- An inappropriate pleasure does not involve something good’s being “taken up into your life” through your pleasure.
- It also involves your responding in an inappropriate way, to something that is not worthy of this response.
With pains, on the other hand, these two factors pull in opposite directions. This is how it works with appropriate pains:
- An appropriate pain involves something bad’s being taken up into your life through your pain – which in itself seems to intensify the extent to which the pain lowers your well-being.
- But it also involves your responding in an appropriate way to something worthy of this response – which to some degree mitigates the extent to which it lowers your well-being.
These two factors also pull in opposite directions in the case of inappropriate pains:
- An inappropriate pain does not involve anything bad’s being taken up into your life through your pain – which in itself seems to mitigate the extent to which the pain lowers your well-being.
- But it also involves your responding in an inappropriate way towards something that does not merit this response – which seems to intensify the extent to which it lowers your well-being.
With pains, then, these two factors typically cancel each other out. Unlike the appropriateness or inappropriateness of pleasures, the appropriateness or inappropriateness of pains makes on balance little or no difference to the extent to which these pains detract from one’s well-being. Instead, the intensity and the duration of the pains are by far the most important factors.
This version of qualitative hedonism is still a broadly hedonistic view of personal well-being. On this view, something can only be intrinsically good for you only if it consists in your pleasure or enjoyment; and something can only be intrinsically bad for you only if it consists in your pain or distress. It is just the degree to which a pleasure is good for you depends on its degree of appropriateness – and if it is appropriate, it involves something that is “worthy of being enjoyed” being “taken up” into your life through pleasure.
However, this view conflicts with the project of giving a hedonistic theory of value in general. It clearly presupposes certain other values – the values of perceptions, or of the objects of perceptions or beliefs, that make them “worthy of being enjoyed” or “worthy of one’s dislike or loathing”. It seems clear that these other values cannot themselves be explained in purely hedonistic terms. These other values would have to be explained in some other way. In this way, this kind of qualitative hedonism about personal well-being seems incompatible with a hedonistic theory of values in general.