Arguments in Defense of Preference Hedonism

Here’s the first complete Phil paper I’ve written for my Moral Philosophy class. I turned it in Wednesday, and was reasonably satisfied with it. Like most things I write, I wish I had had more time to edit it, but at least I got a rough draft reviewed by my TA before turning it in. You’ll notice some logical fallacies/omissions, but I tried to smooth those as much as possible.

Arguments in Defense of Preference Hedonism

In “What Makes a Person’s Life Go Best?”, Derek Parfit considers three primary theories for what makes a life good: Preference Hedonism, Success Theory, and Objective List Theory. Preference Hedonism explains that maximizing the happiness we experience alone determine what is good for us. While Success Theory agrees that we should pursue our own pleasures, it expands the domain to all desires regardless of whether we actually experience it. Finally, Objective List Theory assumes that everything is classified into good and bad, independent of our individual preferences. Of these three, I believe Preference Hedonism provides the most complete theory for fulfillment. By primarily considering arguments on deception from Success Theory and on harmful desires from Objective List Theory, I will defend Preference Hedonism and better explore the aspect of this theory.

Before the arguments, I want to fully define these three theories and highlight important distinctions. Objective List Theory asserts that all things are unconditionally either good or bad. Naturally, a good life maximizes the good and minimizes the bad. This theory appeals to our belief that some things can be good for someone regardless of whether he or she want it or not. For example, I might push my roommate to study harder because working hard is inherently good. In that case, his life would improve, independent of his preferences, because his actions would better aligned with good ones.

Preference Hedonism, as an extension of Hedonism, asserts that happiness alone leads to a good life. Preference Hedonism differs from other forms of Hedonism by rejecting common, rigid definitions of pleasure and pain. Torture–a painful experience–might lead to a better life if one desired it over alternatives, such as divulging the truth. Unsurprisingly, Preference Hedonism is a preference-dependent theory. Because happiness exists only within our own heads and never independently, Preference Hedonism is also psychologically-dependent.

Succinctly, Success Theory extends Preference Hedonism from what we know to what is by asserting that the fulfillment of our own desires leads to a good life. A good life doesn’t include our belief in our desires, but the actual outcome of our desires. If John is a Pittsburg Steelers coach who unfortunately lapsed into a coma during Super Bowl XLIII, his life still improved. Even though he was not conscious of it, one of his desires–to have the Steelers win–was satisfied. While Success Theory agrees with the preference dependence of Preference Hedonism, it differs by also being dependent on non-psychological factors: most notably, the objective world.

A relevant difference between Preference Hedonism and Success Theory is at the limit of what one knows or chooses to know. We make assumptions about the world because we cannot constantly perceive all events. Naturally, not all assumptions are correct, including some imperative to pleasure and pain. Success Theory criticizes Preference Hedonism for its stance on this sort of ignorance. For example, I consider my health important to my happiness. Thus, I might enjoy take vitamins every morning because I believe it improves my health. Someone else notices that the vitamins, which contain cyanide, are actually subtly deteriorating my health until I spontaneously die. From his or her perspective, I would not have led a good life because I was actually unhealthy, yet Preference Hedonism would suggest that I did have a good life because I was happy.

One could summarize the Preference Hedonism response as “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.” Just as I can’t absolutely know the actual effect of the vitamins, the beliefs I gain satisfaction from could constantly change, even though from my perspective, my life hasn’t changed. For example, I desire for my friends to be safe. While I’m writing this paper, however, my friend Ben could have been hit by a car. Anticipating the argument from Success Theory that Ben’s safety isn’t related to me, I argue that “related” is too ambiguously defined to be definitive. Regardless, my happiness certainly hasn’t changed because of what might or might not happened to Ben. For completeness, we can even consider the opinion of another friend, RJ, who both knows about Ben’s tragic encounters and my ignorance. He could choose never to tell me about Ben because I would have a better life not knowing and worrying about that past event. Everyday, people use these white lies and omissions to protect others under the assumption that one’s life is better if he or she is happier.

A deeper issue from Success Theory is deliberate self-deception or ignorance. Accepting that we cannot know everything, Preference Hedonism still places psychological states above the objective world. Because Preference Hedonism only cares about discernable psychological states, the validity of our beliefs is irrelevant. It therefore equates the happiness of self-deception with that of actually changing reality. The lack of distinction conflicts with our typical morality, which suggests that a good life should be based on generally true beliefs. For example, imagine Bob’s wife is cheating on him behind his back, and one of Bob’s desires is to have a faithful wife. By Success Theory, his life is worse because one of his desires is not satisfied in the real world. By Preference Hedonism, his life is equally as good as if she wasn’t cheating because he doesn’t know to be unhappy. If he were to find out, he could attempt to rectify the situation. If we are considering psychological states, however, he could instead change his memories.

First, imagine Bob changes his memories so that he forgets that his wife is cheating on him. Compare two parallel worlds: in one, Bob never realizes his wife is cheating on him, and in another, he finds out, then subsequently forces himself to think he has ended his wife’s actions. By Preference Hedonism, he makes the same choices and experiences the same pleasures and pains before and after his self-deception, making his life equally good in both. By Success Theory, these two lives are largely equal because Bob’s life hasn’t worsened by simply learning something that is already true. The focus of the criticism is then the choice to go through self-deception, and whether that is acceptable in a good life under either theory. If we continue with this example, Bob has two choices if he doesn’t actively improve the situation. One, he neither pursues any method of self-deception nor changes his wife’s behavior. His life has worsened for knowing that his wife is cheating on him. Two, he can have a mind wipe, where he thinks his life is no worse. In both of these cases, an unaware observer would agree with these evaluations if only by outward signs from Bob.

The logical follow-up to this argument is to compare the two situations where Bob tries to change his wife’s behavior, and the other where Bob alters his memories to believe he has changed his wife’s behavior. Ignoring the moral quality of the mind alteration, the future ramifications of dishonesty, confusion, or further harm still make mind alteration less preferable, even by a Preference Hedonist. Thus, these two situations still aren’t equivalent, as a Success Theorist might suggest that a Preference Hedonist believes. If we were to assume, however, that there were no further interactions that ever caused the warped memories to matter again, then we can accept these as effectively equivalent. From pure Preference Hedonism, we must accept that altered memories are no better or worse than an altered reality. Notably, however, I don’t believe that Success Theory offers a better evaluation in this case. While this might not be a standard Preference Hedonistic perspective because it perfectly summative, I accept that these two situations are trivially different and that Success Theory, even in this case, cannot improve upon this evaluation.

As an analogy, consider a single football game, where the Cardinals are losing to the Steelers. Assume that the Cardinals’ ultimate desire is to win, just as a person’s ultimate desire is to live a good life. Within that desire, the Cardinals also desire to gain yards because yards contribute to winning. On the final drive at the end of the game, the Cardinals make a pass that, even if completed, would have them lose. Intuitively, we would say that it doesn’t matter if they had completed the pass or not, a fair judgment of an isolated desire. Because the game is ends after the pass, the completion of that pass couldn’t possibly affect any other desires within the game (including victory), and therefore doesn’t noticeably make the game any better or worse for the Cardinals. Compare to Bob’s final situation where altered memories never affect his life otherwise. In this most extreme example, even when we accept Success Theory with deception-avoidance as a desire, the two alternative situations are trivially different. Completely isolated pleasures, pains, or desires ultimately contribute minimally to the quality of life, perhaps because of the subtly fecundity of all interactions. Even as Preference Hedonism seems to struggle with aligning deception within what makes a life good, Success Theory doesn’t effectively offer a better explanation.

Moving onto objections from another perspective, Objective List Theory would first note that Preference Hedonism is an inherently unfair system and doesn’t establish a consistent moral code. If everything depends on individual preferences, then we truly have no standard for behavior. One can justify any action as long as it improves self-happiness. A correct theory for what is good should expand and apply to both individuals and the groups they create. We hope that our governments are ethical, but a government based upon Preference Hedonism could never make absolute laws. For example, most governments have laws against stealing. If stealing were to fulfill one’s desire, then that should be allowed within the law.

Most Preference Hedonists would likely agree that stealing is generally wrong. They could also extend it to say that it not good specifically for the stealer to steal. Even with laws, typical mob mentality has led to lynching, so the potential pain to an individual is great. Stealing threatens the happiness of others, and they will act in their own best interests to eliminate the potential loss. By and large, violations of conventional morality would tend to lead to greater long-term pain than short-term happiness. The real issue that leads to crime, then, is short-sightedness. Thus, government intervenes by enforcing rules of thumb (similar to Mill’s interpretation) to decrease immediate happiness for an ultimately harmful action. For efficiency, a just Preference Hedonistic government could make absolute laws to discourage generally bad behavior.

Self-destructive behavior seems to also fit better with Objective List Theory than Preference Hedonism. Imagine Bill locks himself in a room and lives in misery. By conventional morality, we would say that he does not lead a good life, with which Objective List Theory can immediately agree by placing Bill’s actions on the bad list. This construction of a counter-example is fairly simple for a Preference Hedonist to defeat: Bill simply doesn’t know about greater pleasures. If he had been sheltered and never known the value of love, then that existence is the best choice available. An Objective List Theorist could extend the counter-example by assuming that Bill knew the full extent of pleasures and pains that existed in an idealized manner. While perhaps initially fanciful, this notion carries in even less idealized situations. Many turn to drugs or illegal behavior, which we would typically see as self-destructive and bad for one’s life, when fully knowledgeable of the alternatives.

Given that the argument from Objective List Theorists holds in non-idealized worlds, a Preference Hedonist must simply concede that an apparently bad existence is the one that leads to the most happiness. If Bill truly preferred an existence that everyone else finds repugnant, perhaps his aggregate happiness totals to less than the average, yet is still the best out of his alternatives. By premise, Bill would dislike being forced into a marriage or love than his previous life. On the basis of pleasure, this reversal is no different than putting a normal, innocent man into prison. By any of these theories, this is wrong, and on preference, this is the same as Bill’s situation.

While the examples used seem somewhat outrageous, the distinctions between these are necessarily bizarre. In conventional usage, these theories largely propose similar intuitions and goals, and thus, we can assess the validity of them by considering extremes. Preference Hedonism’s defense of some principles is somewhat tenuous, particularly with respect to self-deception, yet across objections to all of three of these theories, I find Preference Hedonism most consistent in maximal coverage.

Works Cited
Parfit, Derek, “What makes Someone’s Life Go Best?” Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 5th ED. Wadsworth Publishing, 2007.

4 thoughts on “Arguments in Defense of Preference Hedonism”

  1. Hi Kevin! I was reading through your defense of the preference-hedonism theory, and I wanted to point something out – it is unfair to compare success theory and preference-hedonism to the case where “you desire that your friends are safe.” Parfit is clear about the fact that a success theorist would not consider this preference because it is not a preference about your own life (similar to the example he gives about being in exile and desiring that his children’s lives go well). Success theory is only meant to apply to desires about your own life.

  2. I don’t know anything about preference hedonism, as a school within hedonism in general, but I disagree with all three views. Preference hedonism seems contradictory to me since the basis of hedonism is the idea that pleasure is the only thing that is intrinsically good and preference hedonism, as you’ve described it, argues that pain can be good if it’s the result of one’s preferences (your torture example) and a hedonist could justify pushing your friend to study harder if your friend will, in the long run, be happier with a college diploma than he would without one. I don’t understand the concept of ‘preference hedonism’, they seem to be at odds because what people prefer and what will make them happy are not necessarily the same thing. A desire to be happy/free from suffering is the basis of all decisions but that doesn’t mean those decisions are rational (ie. actually do increase our happiness or minimize suffering). Preference utilitarianism is flawed because people, hardwired to associate the objects of their emotions with their actual emotions, don’t intuitively realize that what they want is to experience pleasure and not the objects that increase pleasure. Maybe I’ve misunderstood your essay but here’s an interesting blog that deals with hedonism and ethics :

  3. Hi Kevin! I really enjoyed your essay and found it very helpful after reading Parfit’s essay. Thank you! Nice work!

  4. Thanks, Jane! I can’t claim to be any more authoritative than you as this was written for an intro philosophy class, but I like to think that everything may help. I hope you find some insight in Parfit however you came across it!

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