Thursday, November 14, 2019

Who Cares about Happiness?

[talk to be given at UC Riverside's Homecoming celebration, November 16, on the theme of happiness]

There are several different ways of thinking about happiness. I want to focus on just one of those ways. This way of thinking about happiness is sometimes called “hedonic”. That label can be misleading if you’re not used to it because it kind of sounds like hedonism, which kind of sounds like wild sex parties. The hedonic account of happiness, though, is probably closest to most people’s ordinary understanding of happiness. On this account, to be happy is to have lots of positive emotions and not too many negative emotions. To be happy is to regularly feel joy, delight, and pleasure, to feel sometimes maybe a pleasant tranquility and sometimes maybe outright exuberance, to have lots of good feelings about your life and your situation and what’s going on around you – and at the same time not to have too many emotions like sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, disgust, displeasure, annoyance, and frustration, what we think of as “negative emotions”. To be happy, on this “hedonic” account, is to be in an overall positive emotional state of mind.

I wouldn’t want to deny that it’s a good thing to be happy in this sense. It is, for the most part, a good thing. But sometimes people say extreme things about happiness – like that happiness is the most important thing, or that all people really want is to be happy, or as a parent that the main thing you want for your children is that they be happy, or that everything everyone does is motivated by some deep-down desire to maximize their happiness. And that’s not right at all. We actually don’t care about our hedonic happiness very much. Not really. Not when you think about it. It’s kind of important, but not really that big in the scheme of things.

Consider an extreme thought experiment of the sort that philosophers like me enjoy bothering people with. Suppose we somehow found a way to turn the entire Solar System into one absolutely enormous machine or organism that experienced nothing but outrageous amounts of pleasure all the time. Every particle of matter that we have, we feed into this giant thing – let’s call it the orgasmatron. We create the most extreme, most consistent, most intense conglomeration of pure ecstatic joyfulness as it is possible to construct. Wow! Now that would be pretty amazing. One huge, pulsing Solar-System-sized orgasm.

Will this thing need to remember the existence of humanity? Will it need to have any appreciation of art or beauty? Will it have to have any ethics, or any love, or any sociality, or knowledge of history or science – will it need any higher cognition at all? Maybe not. I mean higher cognition is not what orgasm is mostly about. If you think that the thing that matters most in the universe is positive emotions, then you might think that the best thing that could happen to the future of the Solar System would be the creation of this giant orgasmatron. The human project would be complete. The world will have reached its pinnacle and nothing else really matters!

[not the orgasmatron I have in mind]

Now here’s my guess. Some of you will think, yeah, that’s right. If everything becomes a giant orgasmatron, nothing could be more awesome, that’s totally where we should go if we can. But I’ll guess that most of you think that something important would be lost. Positive emotion isn’t the only thing that matters. We don’t want the world to lose its art, and its beauty, and its scientific knowledge, and the rich complexity of human relationships. If everything got fed into this orgasmatron it would be a shame. We’d have lost something really important. Now let me tell you a story. It’s from my latest book, A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures, hot off the press this month.

Back in the 1990s, when I was a graduate student, my girlfriend Kim asked me what, of all things, I most enjoyed doing. Skiing, I answered. I was thinking of those moments breathing the cold, clean air, relishing the mountain view, then carving a steep, lonely slope. I’d done quite a bit of that with my mom when I was a teenager. But how long had it been since I’d gone skiing? Maybe three years? Grad school kept me busy and I now had other priorities for my winter breaks. Kim suggested that if it had been three years since I’d done what I most enjoyed doing, then maybe I wasn’t living wisely.

Well, what, I asked, did she most enjoy? Getting massages, she said. Now, the two of us had a deal at the time: If one gave the other a massage, the recipient would owe a massage in return the next day. We exchanged massages occasionally, but not often, maybe once every few weeks. I pointed out that she, too, might not be perfectly rational: She could easily get much more of what she most enjoyed simply by giving me more massages. Surely the displeasure of massaging my back couldn’t outweigh the pleasure of the thing she most enjoyed in the world? Or was pleasure for her such a tepid thing that even the greatest pleasure she knew was hardly worth getting?

It used to be a truism in Western (especially British) philosophy that people sought pleasure and avoided pain. A few old-school psychological hedonists, like Jeremy Bentham, went so far as to say that that was all that motivated us. I’d guess quite differently: Although pain is moderately motivating, pleasure motivates us very little. What motivates us more are outward goals, especially socially approved goals — raising a family, building a career, winning the approval of peers — and we will suffer immensely, if necessary, for these things. Pleasure might bubble up as we progress toward these goals, but that’s a bonus and side effect, not the motivating purpose, and summed across the whole, the displeasure might vastly outweigh the pleasure. Some evidence suggests, for example, that raising a child is probably for most people a hedonic net negative, adding stress, sleep deprivation, and unpleasant chores, as well as crowding out the pleasures that childless adults regularly enjoy. At least according to some research, the odds are that choosing to raise a child will make you less happy.

Have you ever watched a teenager play a challenging video game? Frustration, failure, frustration, failure, slapping the console, grimacing, swearing, more frustration, more failure—then finally, woo-hoo! The sum over time has to be negative, yet they’re back again to play the next game. For most of us, biological drives and addictions, personal or socially approved goals, concern for loved ones, habits and obligations — all appear to be better motivators than gaining pleasure, which we mostly seem to save for the little bit of free time left over. And to me, this is quite right and appropriate. I like pleasure, sure. I like joy. But that’s not what I’m after. It’s a side effect, I hope, of the things I really care about. I’d guess this is true of you too.

If maximizing pleasure is central to living well and improving the world, we’re going about it entirely the wrong way. Do you really want to maximize pleasure? I doubt it. Me, I’d rather write some good philosophy and raise my kids.

ETA, Nov 17:

In audience discussion and in social media, several people have pointed out although I start by talking about a wide range of emotional states (tranquility, delight, having good feelings about your life situation), in the second half I focus exclusively on pleasure. The case of pleasure is easiest to discuss, because the more complex emotional states have more representational or world-involving components. On a proper hedonic view, the value of those more complex states, however, rests exclusively on the emotional valence or at most on the emotional valence plus possibly-false representational content -- on, for example, whether you have the feeling that life is going well, rather than on whether it's really going well. All the same observations apply: We do and should care about whether our lives are actually going well, much more than we care about whether we have the emotional feeling of its going well.


howard said...

If people live life on autopilot, perhaps your naturalistic observations are not so crushingly admissible
So the two questions are: how would people build their lives as if they were building a home, and how would it affect them?
Perhaps people would shudder at an orgasmatron, but still people would not want an evil world with maximal meaning.
There is a lot of pondering that remains to be dome on this topic

Bethany said...

I imagine the reason that people shudder at philosophers' outrageous thought experiments has something to do with the fact that such thought experiments often operate so far outside of our usual experience that it becomes meaningless to try to probe gut responses to them. Such is the case, I think, with the orgasmatron - I can't even begin to know what it would mean for particles in the solar system (ie for non-conscious entities) to experience pleasure. I'm also not sure I see what your thought experiment adds that isn't already apparent from Nozick's experience machine. His at least seems to fall within the realm of something we can contemplate.

I guess another divergence is that you've shifted the question to whether, if we really only cared about pleasure, we ought to seek to maximize it not individually but in total. If anything, that seems even less plausible - like you've taken the weakest version of the hedonic thesis to refute.

I don't disagree with your position - I think we value things other than pure positive emotion - but I think building that case convincingly might require more plausible thought experiments.

SelfAwarePatterns said...

It seems like the primal emotions that drive us are far more complex than pleasure vs pain, particularly short term hedonistic type pleasure. Although some of this might come down to how we define "pleasure". For example, is the feeling of satisfaction from writing a good blog post, or comment, a type of pleasure?

And there's the fact that our instincts never really let us enjoy things for very long. A long sought after goal, once achieved, may give us enormous pleasure, but few months later our feelings have re-calibrated to the new normal and we're back to striving. This makes complete sense when we think in terms of the motivation to seek food, find mates, etc. It's not adaptive to be satisfied with these things for very long.

Our desires are complex, and often contradictory. One reason I think cognition evolved was to resolve those contradictions. There's a reason most of the connections from the cerebrum to the brainstem are inhibitory, allowing higher level cognition to selectively allow or inhibit lower level impulses.

In fact, I don't think pleasure exists without cognition. You don't need pain or pleasure to react reflexively. We only feel pleasure, pain, or other feelings as input into cognitive reasoning. Which seems like it makes the idea of the orgasmatron without cognition, and all the things it requires, incoherent.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Howard: interesting to compare building a life to building a home. Do you think people would live different if they thought of things that way?

Bethany: Fair criticism on the high-flying thought experiments. I do think they have a role, but I'm not meaning to build my case on them. In this post, the function of the experiment is partly to soften the reader up for the more ordinary observations later in the post. I also think that extreme cases of this sort can highlight features that more get lost in more nuanced and realistic cases.

SelfAware: I agree about hedonic adaptation and contradictory desires. On higher cognition and pleasure -- I'm not so sure about that. The fact that you can react reflexively without pleasure doesn't establish that you need higher cognition to have pleasure or that we only feel it as input to cognitive reasoning.

howard b said...

Yes, they'd or we'd care for our lives more carefully and see it as precious and as something that is our place in the world and both a necessity and a luxury; plus they'd we'd be more likely to share ourselves with others.

Those are the consequences of viewing building a life as building a home.

Maybe you can think of more

howard b said...

Plus, we'd view ourselves as something that ages well and becomes more itself and that can be left for posterity

Philosopher Eric said...

On your thought experiment, a clarification. It would certainly be best for the “orgasmatron” entity to exist if somehow created, that is from the perspective of this entity itself. But this doesn’t mean that its creation would be best for humanity as well. We have our own brain based sources of qualia. Or do you mean that if this entity were created, then all sentient beings that do exist or have existed would thus experience perfect perpetual ecstasy under orgasmatron? And perhaps all current non sentient matter would thus become sentient and so feel perfect perpetual ecstasy as well? If you mean this sort of thing, then yes, I’d say that this would be best for me, you, and everything else that’s included. Of course such scenarios are practically ridiculous on many levels, though I do accept the conclusion for thought experiment purposes.

Apparently there has always been a strong human tendency to differentiate “higher” from “lower” pleasures, for example displayed by the ancient epicureans. A noble versus base or vulgar distinction seems inherent to academic presentations in this regard. For evolution purposes however, all sentience should go to the same purpose in the end, or exist as the stuff which drives the conscious form of function.

One problem with our standard tendency to rank higher to lower forms of sentient motivation, I think, is that it should help prevent our mental and behavioral sciences from objectively grasping our nature. Thus soft sciences continue to remain soft. Once fields such as psychology are socially permitted to explore the human amorally (and note that all hard sciences are explored amorally), then true progress in these fields should finally begin.

To this end, consider my single principle of axiology:

It’s possible for something that is not conscious (like my brain), to produce a punishment/ reward dynamic from which to drive the function of something that is conscious (like me).