The Utilitarian Stance
~ Section 1 ~
The Pursuit of “Pleasure”:
What Utilitarianism Could Not Be
There are many things that people strive to obtain: Wealth, power, jobs, friends, material goods, loving relationships... . Is “pleasure” one of them? Well, if by 'pleasure' one simply means pleasant experiences, I think the answer is “yes, of course.” But it has sometimes been thought that there is a thing called 'pleasure' which is a distinguishable but inseparable element in all pleasant experiences, and furthermore, that this element is the sole thing that is desired for its own sake, and that obtaining it is the one true motive that drives all our actions. I will call this belief 'psychological hedonism,' and in the present section my goal is to argue that it is misguided.
It is undeniable that there are pleasurable experiences, but I see no reason to think that the term 'pleasure' denotes a distinguishable element within them. For my part, when I examine what I consider to be a pleasurable experience—the sweet taste and crisp-yet-gooey texture of a caramel apple; the cool, wet feeling of an ocean wave breaking over me on a warm summer day; looking up and seeing the subtle, mesmerizing glow of the Milky Way against a dark, moonless sky—I can observe nothing but the experience itself, and though all of them 'pleasurable', I can find no one thing that is common to them all. When I bite into a caramel apple, I do not experience sweetness and crispness and gooey-ness and pleasure; I experience only the first three, and they are enough to satisfy me. I desire the sweetness, crispness, and gooey-ness themselves, not as a means to something that accompanies them. I may have a feeling of contentment upon this desire's satisfaction, but this does not make that feeling the object of that desire. In any case the feeling is an emotion with a phenomenology of its own, and while its qualities are not as easily describable in words as are those of my experience of the apple, they can still be identified in consciousness. It seems to me that what makes the feeling one of contentment is that I like the qualities themselves, not something else which is conjoined both with them and with the taste and texture of the apple.
If one feels inclined to disagree with me about this sort of case, consider the emotional experience of loving someone or feeling loved by them, of feeling proud of one's accomplishments or one's children's, or of feeling hopeful about the future after one's favored candidate has just won the presidential election. These are all powerful emotions with quite different phenomenologies. One likes all of these experiences and desires to have them, but beyond this liking or this desiring, is there really some one thing which is common to them all in virtue of which one likes or desires them? Others may, after reflecting on their experience, discover some such thing which they choose to call 'pleasure', but I am certain there is no such principle in me. But if experience should turn out to prove that others are like me in this respect, we may say that matters are quite the reverse of what a psychological hedonist imagines: We do not desire something because we find it pleasurable; we rather call something 'pleasurable' because we do in fact desire it.
“All well and good,” one might say, “but what is the significance of this?” Well, for one thing, it shows that human actions are not motivationally unified in the way that psychological hedonists think they are. There is no one, simple, overarching explanation for why people do what they do. One variety of psychological hedonism, which I will call 'psychological egoism', holds that people always desire their own pleasure. If you donate to charity, a psychological egoist would say that either you did it to gain the pleasure resulting from the esteem and good favor of others, or because you get pleasure from the act of giving itself. If you protest that you didn't give in order to obtain any feeling of contentment or self-satisfaction, but simply to help others, they will reply that it is the pleasure you get from the thought of helping others that makes you act as you do. The betterment of others' lives can at the most be desired as a means to your own pleasure, it can never be desired for its own sake.
If I'm right, this kind of simplistic explanation of your behavior is wrong: There is no such thing as “pleasure” pure and simple, so it can never be an object of your desire. The claim that one always desires to help others as a means of producing pleasant experiences in oneself is an empirical one, and one that is almost certainly false. It may be true that some always desire to help others as a means of producing pleasant experiences in themselves, but it is by no means necessary that all should do so, for it is perfectly possible to desire to improve the lives of others for its own sake. One can take pleasure in their welfare as such; not, or not just, in the experiences that their welfare or the thought of it produces in oneself.
For another thing, the truth of my thesis would show that the distinction between “hedonic” or “pleasure” utilitarianism and “desire” or “preference” utilitarianism is not a very sharp one. If we construe hedonic utilitarianism as the idea that we should produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number; 'pleasure' being understood in the way that the psychological hedonist understands it, then it is misguided, for it tells us to produce the greatest amount of something that does not exist. This is what utilitarianism could not be.
If however, we construe it, as the idea that we should produce the greatest amount of pleasant experiences for the greatest number, it might be true; but if so, it would not, I think, be the whole truth. For if one can take pleasure in things besides experiences, and utilitarianism is about maximizing pleasure, shouldn't those things be promoted as well? This is basically what is called “desire” or “preference” utilitarianism, but if the obtainment of what we desire or prefer is just what pleasure is, there are no grounds for distinguishing between it and hedonic utilitarianism, provided that we understand the latter to include the production of the greatest amount of non-experiential as well as experiential pleasures. It is this kind of utilitarianism that I wish to explore in what follows.