PHIL 240A:  HANDOUT #4

VARIETIES OF EGOISM AND HEDONISM

 

I. (Purely) Descriptive

 

DESCRIPTIVE EGOISM ("PSYCHOLOGICAL EGOISM") = the purely descriptive claim that all human motivation is ultimately self-interested--that is, aimed at benefiting oneself.  [Distinguish self-motivation from selfish motivation (Beauchamp, p. 46).]  Descriptive Egoism implies that whenever an agent has a choice between two acts A and B, if she believes that act A will benefit her personally more than act B, then she will always do act A, and never do act B.

 

                Some useful terms:

                (1) Pleasures = intrinsically desirable conscious states

                (2) Pains = intrinsically undesirable conscious states

                (3) Net Hedonic Value of a Life = the sum of pleasures (positive) and pains (negative) contained in the life  [we assume that they can be summed].

 

DESCRIPTIVE HEDONISM (which is one type of Descriptive Egoism) = the purely descriptive claim that all human motivation is ultimately aimed at maximizing the net hedonic value one's own life.  Descriptive Hedonism implies that given a choice between two acts A and B, whenever a subject believes that choosing A will generate more hedonic value than choosing B, then s/he will always choose A, and never choose B.

 

II. Normative

 

NORMATIVE EGOISM ("ETHICAL EGOISM") = the normative claim that one OUGHT to act only on self-interested motives--that is, that one ought to aim only at benefiting oneself. 

 

NORMATIVE HEDONISM = the normative claim that one OUGHT to act to maximize the net hedonic value of one's life. 

 

 

AN ARGUMENT AGAINST DESCRIPTIVE HEDONISM (DH) AND DESCRIPTIVE EGOISM (DE)

 

I.  There are lots of examples of apparent non-egoistic behavior

                Examples:  Mike Mann (Beauchamp p. 45), heroic rescues, apparent self-sacrifice, etc.

 

II.  The only plausible DE explanation of these examples is a DH explanation, according to which apparently non-egoistic behavior is really done in order to maximize the net hedonic value of one's life.  This is Lincoln's Defense of DE.

 

III.  Bishop Butler's distinction:  We must be careful to distinguish between the motive or goal of an action and the byproducts of an action that are not a motive or a goal.

 

IV.  Even if it is true that believing that one has achieved what one desires produces a feeling of satisfaction (pleasure) and even if believing that one has failed to achieve what one desires produces a feeling of dissatisfaction (pain), this does not imply that the feelings of satisfaction (or avoiding the feelings of dissatisfaction) are the goal of all our actions.  They could simply be byproducts of believing that we have achieved our goals. 

 

V.  There is a thought experiment that provides evidence against DH (including the DH explanation of apparently non-egoistic behavior):  The Experience Machine Thought Experiment.

 

VI.  The Experience Machine Thought Experiment provides direct evidence against DH, and indirect evidence against DE, because Lincoln's Defense of DE depends on DH for its explanation of examples of apparently non-egoistic behavior.

 

AN EXAMPLE OF EQUILIBRIUM REASONING:  HOW THE EXPERIENCE MACHINE THOUGHT EXPERIMENT UNDERMINES DESCRIPTIVE HEDONISM

 

Consider the following valid deduction: 

 

Premise (1)  Descriptive Hedonism

Premise (2):  In situation EM (the Experience Machine Example), there is a human subject S and there are acts A (pushing the button that will hook S up to the Experience Machine for life) and B (not pushing that button) such that the subject S believes that choosing A will generate more hedonic value than choosing B.

 

Conclusion:  The subject S will choose A.

 

The premises deductively imply the conclusion.  Therefore, if there is even a single case in which Premise (2) is true but the human subject S does not choose A, then Premise (1), Descriptive Hedonism must be given up.  Why?  [Hint:  Apply the definition of "deductively imply".]  But there is strong evidence that many people would refuse to hook up for life. 

 

Why does this reasoning also indirectly undermine DE?  Recall that Lincoln's Defense of DE makes the truth of DE depend on the truth of DH.  Lincoln's Defense of DE fails if DH is false.  But Lincoln's Defense of DE is the only plausible defense of DE in light of the variety of examples of apparently non-egoistic behavior.  So if Lincoln's Defense of DE fails, there is no plausible defense of DE.

This is not to say that the Experience Machine thought experiment shows that DH or DE could not possibly be true.  It only provides evidence that makes DH and DE seem implausible, and makes it seem much more plausible that at least SOME people have SOME motivation that is not purely hedonistic and not purely egoistic.

 

 

PARADOX OF HEDONISM:  For human beings, attempting to maximize the sum of one's pleasures over pains (i.e., attempting to produce hedonic maximization) may not be hedonically maximal (i.e., may not maximize the sum of one's pleasures over pains).  (There may be other goals and desires which, if pursued, would produce more total pleasure over pain than would be produced by someone attempting to maximize the sum of pleasure over pain.)

 

PARADOX OF EGOISM:  For human beings, attempting to maximize the satisfaction of one's self-interested goals and desires may not maximize one's happiness.  (There may be some mixture of egoistic and non-egoistic goals and desires which, if pursued, would produce more happiness for the individual than pursuing only self-interested goals and desires.)