Thursday, May 10, 2007

Hedonism and Stoicism: a comparison

One of the latest defenders of hedonism (thousands of years after Epicurus) is Roger Crisp.

In his article (Well-being) on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Crisp provides the following defence of hedonism from the “philosophy of swine” objection (basically the same argument can be found in his most recent book “Reasons and the Good”:

Bentham tended to think of pleasure and pain as a kind of sensation, as the notion of intensity might suggest. [...] Thomas Carlyle, for example, described the hedonistic component of utilitarianism as the ‘philosophy of swine’, the point being that simple hedonism places all pleasures on a par, whether they be the lowest animal pleasures of sex or the highest of aesthetic appreciation. [...]
Now this is not a knockdown argument against simple hedonism. [...] But there is an alternative to simple hedonism, outlined famously by J.S. Mill, using his distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures (1998 [1863], ch. 2). Mill added a third property to the two determinants of value identified by Bentham, duration and intensity. To distinguish it from these two ‘quantitative’ properties, Mill called his third property ‘quality’. The claim is that some pleasures, by their very nature, are more valuable than others. For example, the pleasure of reading Shakespeare, by its very nature, is more valuable than any amount of basic animal pleasure. And we can see this, Mill suggests, if we note that those who have experienced both types, and are ‘competent judges’, will make their choices on this basis.
A long-standing objection to Mill's move here has been to claim that his position can no longer be described as formally hedonist. If higher pleasures are higher because of their nature, that aspect of their nature cannot be pleasantness, since that could be determined by duration and intensity alone. And Mill anyway speaks of properties such as ‘nobility’ as adding to the value of a pleasure. Now it has to be admitted that Mill is sailing close to the wind here. But there is logical space for a hedonist position which allows properties such as nobility to determine pleasantness, and insists that only pleasantness determines value. But one might well wonder how nobility could affect pleasantness, and why Mill did not just come out with the idea that nobility is itself a good-making property.”
What could be a Stoic reply to this contemporary revival of the “Epicurean” position? Let us imagine a dialog between a stoic and a hepicurean, respectively S. and H.

S: you insist that nobility can determine pleasantness, but only pleasantness can determine value. However this cannot be a defense of hedonism, since admitting that nobility can determine pleasantness leads to think that the goodness of the lives of different people depends from their nobility. This leads some support to the stoic position according to which nobility or honesty is the only authentic good.

H. But this position is indefensible since a honest or noble life is not good when it does not contain also pleasure.

S. An authentically noble person would always gain pleasure from acting virtuously. If she does not, she is not authentically virtuous.
H. But this is obviously false! Consider the honest judge's lack of pleasure in applying certain laws to certain cases, for example when he has to expropriate the poverty of a poor and honest man to give it to a rich and evil man.

S. Well, the judge is not authentically honest, or he lacks pleasure when he does what is just. The judge you are imagining is not doing something just, because he is applying unjust laws. This is not to say that he should bend the laws. Rather a honest person would not occupy such a role as the judge in a country which has unjust laws. Summing up, a law is either a good law or a bad law; and that if it is a good law, the judge should be pleased to apply it, while if it the law is a bad one, an honest judge should not apply and should resign office.

H. This view of the law is totally unplausible. A good or just law is a law whose consistent application fosters human happiness. But we can have no guarantee that a just law will do always more good in every particular case. As Hume clearly saw, even the best law can produce more harm than good in some particular case of its application. Therefore it is perfectly natural for a judge - who, being human, possesses sympathy - to lack pleasure in applying some just laws, in particular circumstances.1
S. A good law must be such that its application produces most of the time more good than harm, and hence a honest judge will find pleasure in his exercise of honesty more often than not. So the honest will be happy in a country that has good laws.

H. But then a judge cannot be both happy and honest in country whose laws are imperfect or unfair, say because they produce harm rather than good in most cases!

H. But is that a paradox? My view leads to thinking that no judge can be perfectly honest (and therefore happy) in a society like ours, society which has some laws which can only be applied reluctantly. It leads to thinking that people who cover a certain social position cannot be perfectly happy and honest but in a society with just laws. Is that such a paradoxical result?

1As Hume puts it:

"A single act of justice is frequently contrary to public interest; and were it to stand alone, without being follow'd by other acts, may, in itself, be very prejudicial to society. When a man of merit, of a beneficent disposition, restores a great fortune to a miser, or a seditious bigot, he has acted justly and laudably, but the public is a real sufferer. Nor is every single act of justice, consider'd apart, more conducive to private interest, than to public; and 'tis easily conceiv'd how a man may impoverish himself by a signal instance of integrity, and have reason to wish, that with regard to that single acct, the laws of justice were for a moment suspended in the universe" (Treatise on Human Nature, 3.2.2, 497)


HewManatee said...

to further add, on behalf of hedonism, it is unclear to one as to how anyone could even adopt or advocate any theory of life, etc. without first dubbing such as 'pleasurable'

Michele said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michele said...

From the point of view of the Stoic, he would probably dub the life of the virtuous as "happy" (I'm not an expert on Stoicism, I'm just trying to make up a position that sounds coherent with what I understand of their world view). The problem is: when the Stoic says "happy", does he assumes some pleasure as a necessary component of that happiness? Probably not, if by pleasure you mean a corporeal sensation that you and I, the brute and the sage alike, can feel. But he would not deny that the sage would have some "good feelings" (see Perhaps a Stoic could try to debunk the belief about which you seem so certain by asking how you can be sure that you can distinguish any shared quality between the joyfulness of the sage and the pleasure of the brute. (This is almost axiomatic for philosophers in the tradition of British empiricism, like most utilitarians, but it has been doubted for instance by other British philosophers such as Anscombe and Ryle.) A stoic may then argue that "plesaurable" just does not mean the same when it is applied to sensations associated to different activities. It is a mistake to think that a life of pleasure by the brute is good, just because of an apparent analogy with a life with virtous enjoyments. (Which in reality do not have anything in common.) In reality, only the activities of the sages are authentically good, and they happen to be quite enjoyable. But it is a mistake to infer that they are good because of the enjoyableness. This is, I think, how a Stoic would describe his observations about life.

It is coherent with these observation to claim:
1. that there is only one supremely good thing, which is being sage and acting according to virtue,
2. that the sage's acting according to virtue is normally enjoyable to him
3. that, as a result, the entire life of a virtuous sage will be on balance enjoyable;
4. that what makes the life good is the virtue, not the accompaining good feelings;
5. that acting according to virtue when it is not enjoyable is still part of happiness (that is, a good)

Of course, one would try to create a difficulty to the Stoic by asking "you would certainly admit that, if you could choose between one of those cases in which you can act according to virtue and enjoy that (for instance, rectifying a tort made against a weak person) and one of those cases in which you must act according to virtue without enjoying it (for instance, enduring torture in order not to betray a friend), you would choose the former. Does that not show that the happy life must contain enjoyable virtue, that is, enjoyment in addition to virtue? And once you admit that, are you not forced to call enjoyment "a good"?

To this question, the Stoics would answer, I believe, by appealing to a strange idea, the idea that there are not only goods (virtue) and bads (the loss of virtue) but also "preferred indifferent". A Stoic would maintain that X is preferrable to Y, even if it is not true that X is a good and Y is not, or that Y is less of a good than X. They say this about health as opposed to disease, riches as opposed to poverty, for instance. The idea of the preferred indifferent smacks of a contradition, but perhaps we can make sense of it by thinking that according to the stoic, it is compatible with virtue to prefer health to disease only a little bit, while it would be foolish to make the promotion or conservation of health the aim of one's life.
They would probably say, that the enjoyment of acting virtuosly must be considered a "preferred indifferent".