Tag Archives: moral philosophy

A Simple Utilitarian Argument for Higher Pleasures

Arch-Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham controversially stated that “quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry”. Thus, if someone found immense intrinsic pleasure in counting blades of grass, we couldn’t hold it against them just because we prefer higher intellectual pleasures like reading or other “pursuits of the mind”. I agree wholeheartedly with J.S. Mill that it is impossible to conclusively establish by reason our “first principles” of valuation. I can no more justify why I seek happiness as an end in itself than  can the person who makes it his ultimate value to count all blades of grass.

What then licenses Mill to claim the higher intellectual pleasures are “more valuable” than mere pleasures of sensation? Isn’t this just elitism? Of course an elite intellectual is going to value reading philosophy and science over watching reality tv, but if someone finds more intrinsic pleasure in salivating in front of a TV over a frozen TV-dinner, who is Mill to judge? By what standard do we judge “ultimate ends”? In the end, we are left promoting values from a purely subjective perspective, for we have no choice except to value what we do in fact value and reason on the basis of those values.

But perhaps Mill was onto something. Take Bentham’s push-pin player. What if everyone in society was a devout push-pin player? From birth all anyone wants to do is play push-pin, much like Bobby Fischer’s famous remark that “All I want to do, ever, is just play chess.” This society would be radically different from ours. After all, if everyone played trivial games all day long and never bothered to learn anything, then no one would go to school to be an engineer or doctor. Without engineers and computer scientists our technological infrastructure would crumble until eventually the push-pin players couldn’t rely on the technological conveniences like supermarkets and computers to feed and entertain themselves with minimal effort. They would eventually be forced to begin hunting and gathering food in between push-pin playing, otherwise they would die of sheer starvation. The push-pin players might eventually realize that perhaps it would be good that at least some of them do things other than play push-pin so that they can have enough technology to keep a minimal segment of the population comfortable enough to devote themselves to playing push-pin all day.

The point of this thought experiment applies to all other “lower” pleasures like reality TV watching. If everyone just watched reality TV all day, no one would be able to maintain the TV-production-broadcast technological infrastructure that provides mindless pleasure to millions. Thus, people who value reality TV watching should actually desire that other people value something besides reality TV watching, otherwise there wouldn’t be technologically minded people producing the technological comforts that allow one to live comfortably watching TV and microwave meals without having to work hard to just stay alive.

Thus, the progressive accumulation of cultural and technological knowledge is predicated on the idea that the higher intellectual virtues are more valuable because the epistemic benefits of these higher intellectual virtues allows us to create a leisurely gulf between the hard facts of biological existence and our culturally acquired desires to engage in trivial but pleasurable pursuits like push-pin or television. Like Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, one could easily imagine that an ideal social utopia would consist in everyone devoted to the continual pursuit of game-playing. But that game-playing utopia would only exist on the basis of a hidden technological infrastructure that was built and maintained by people who valued something besides trivialities and sensation-seeking.

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How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Nihilism

Value Nihilism holds a curious position in the philosophical landscape. It is simultaneously respected as a position to take seriously yet most contemporary philosophers consider it a “last resort” option at best, a bleak alternative if all other attempts at “saving” morality are unsuccessful (an incentive to never stop hoping moral theories will eventually converge into a consensus). Often it is held up as a philosophical boogey-man to be avoided at all costs. Some would even claim that if your moral theorizing ends up with nihilism you have a good reason to reject that view because it’s too at odds with our common sense ways of thinking.

But it’s an elementary point in other areas of inquiry that evidence of all humans believing in X is not in itself evidence for the existence of X. If almost everyone on the planet believes in fairies, that all by itself does not provide a good reason to the fairy-skeptic that fairies do in fact exist because it’s possible everybody else is mistaken (perhaps the fairy-skeptic could provide an evolutionary or psychological explanation for why fairy belief stabilized in the population thousands of years ago in our ancient superstitious past). Whether or not everyone else thinks the fairy-skeptic is too conceptually “revisionary” in their suggestion to overhaul belief in fairies is irrelevant to the truth of the matter.

Similarly, if it turns out that humans are psychologically incapable of giving up on the idea that some actions are “intrinsically good/evil” because it’s just too psychologically intuitive or too useful to think otherwise, that would provide no reason all by itself to think there really are such things as intrinsic values “out there” independently of contingent preferences. I think it’s strange that so many philosophers want at all costs to hold onto moral discourse including phrases like “Hitler was just downright evil“, “Torturing for fun is just intrinsically bad and you really ought not to do it” and have actually convinced themselves that this makes for a good “explanation” of why evil people do what they do. But this appeal to moral “facts” to explain the situation pales in explanatory power compared to the fully naturalistic explanation that falls out of the scientific worldview. Ontological seriousness is just not compatible with the view that there really are values independently of contingent desires.

And that in essence is my sense of what Value Nihilism is all about. It’s the view that there are no objective values that hold independently of contingent desires. Value Nihilism is fully compatible with Value Subjectivism whereby we can form objective standards relative to the standards of evalulation of contingent, desiring beings like human animals. From an ontological point of view, all modern forms of expressivism, constructivism, or subjectivism are compatible with Value Nihilism. If we say that morality can be constructed out of the basic desires/preferences of Earthly creatures, the Nihilist wants to know: Why is it good to promote basic desires? Is the satisfaction of contingent desires inherently valuable? If so, where do these values come from? What gives it value? Is relative to a stance-independent standard? How does this standard exist independently of us? The scientific worldview has no room in it for wiggles in space-time to be “intrinsically valuable”, “worth pursuing”, or “intrinsically good/evil”, etc. Crudely put, all wiggles in space-time are ontologically on the same “level” as all other wiggles of space-time.

Nowhere in science will it ever make sense to say that there are some specially moral “facts” that provide binding normative reasons for acting or thinking in a certain way. Any binding normative force will only be loosely bound by the hypothetical nature of reason. If you are sincerely committed to playing a legitimate game of chess, then you really ought to follow the rules and do en passant properly and obey touch-rules, etc. But this is only if you have the desire to play a legal game. If you really need the tournament money to pay for your dying child’s medicine and you see that you can cheat and get away with it then you really ought to not follow the rules of chess. The rules of chess don’t “bind you”, because you are always free to say to these rules “Who cares? Nobody is forcing me to follow you.” Of course, it is still objectively true that you made a mistake from the perspective of the chess community.

My sense is that all norms have the same “binding” force as the rules of chess. That is, the binding is only hypothetical relative to contingent preferences. But there is no sense in which any wiggle of space-time is “necessarily obligated” to obey some prescription. Norms do not and cannot bind, authorize, guide, regulate, control, enforce, obligate, or compel any physical entity. They just do not have that power because they don’t exist except as stance-dependent properties. But as John Heil as argued, only substances can bear properties. And the most plausible candidates for substances are things like fundamental particles or space-time fields. Relative properties as such are thus quasi-properties that arise from configurations of more fundamental substances, whose “modes” include complex phenomena such as human societies and biospheres. Norms only have force if there is a preference that has an incentive to follow the norm. No incentive, no authority.

This is just a quicky and dirty rendition of some of the motivations underlying Moral Nihilism or Value Nihilism. My own views are leanings towards the view that if you are going to be a Moral Nihilist then you should also be a Global Normative Nihilist, because it seems to me that the arguments for why moral norms must be merely hypothetical are also good argument for while any other type of norm must also have a merely hypothetical nature. Some philosophers might think this is an unsurprising finding, and it’s exactly what they’d expect. But that’s because they’re philosophers! But I think that the implications of this way of looking at the world stands in stark contrast to the onto-theological worldview that has been prevalent for pretty much the entirety of human history. I don’t think an intellectual understanding of Normative Nihilism changes one’s underlying motivational structure, but I do think it enables a subtle shift in how we understand ourselves relative to the Cosmos at large. Conceptualizing ourselves from the perspectives of the universe at large is humbling when we consider that our values are just that: ours. And we should cherish them and promote them the best we know how. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking these values are imbued with a special intrinsic “goodness” that holds for all rational agents. That’s a philosophical pipedream.

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