In his seminal paper, “Death”, Nagel writes the following:
Someone who holds that all goods and evils must be temporally assignable states of the person may of course try to bring more complicated cases into line by pointing to the pleasure or pain that the more complicated goods and evils cause. Loss, betrayal, and deception, and ridicule are on this view bad because people suffer when they learn of them. But it should be asked how our ideas of human value would have to be constituted to accommodate these cases directly instead. One advantage of such an account might be that it would enable us to explain why the discovery of these misfortunes causes suffering—in a way that makes it reasonable. For the natural view is that the discovery of betrayal makes us unhappy because it is bad to be betrayed—not that betrayal is bad because its discovery makes us unhappy.
I’ve been thinking that there may be a good argument against hedonism to be found in this quotation, one which I will elaborate below the fold.
First, however, we must be clear that Nagel’s stated target in this passage is not necessarily hedonism, but is instead anyone who holds that “all goods and evils must be temporally assignable states of the person”. A hedonist can deny that all goods and evils must have this feature. Suppose my rich uncle sends me a large envelope stuffed with cash just before he dies. He tells no one, including me, about this action, and croaks just as he places the money in the mail. My mail carrier sees the money stuffed with cash, and so takes it. It is open for the hedonist to claim that this action harms me. The harm will not be an intrinsic harm, for I feel no displeasure, but will instead be an extrinsic harm: the action of the mail carrier prevented a lot of happiness coming my way.
However, the argument that can be found in that quotation may have a wider target than the one Nagel intended. The best way to conceive of this Nagelian Argument is as an argument to the best explanation. The basic idea is this: sometimes, when we learn that something is the case, we become displeased; other times, when we learn that something is the case, we become pleased. What accounts for this difference? Why should it be that the knowledge of some facts makes us displeased while the knowledge of other facts makes us pleased? A pluralist who maintains that things other than pleasures and pains can directly affect our welfare can make sense of this. The explanation is that the discovery of facts that constitute a harm to us makes us displeased, while the discovery of facts that constitute a benefit to us makes us pleased. If the states of affairs of which we become aware were not already seen by us as being good or bad for us, then our reaction to them, with either pleasure or pain, would be mysterious. Why not become pleased when we discover that someone is betraying and despising us behind our backs, and displeased when we discover that someone is being honest and loving to us?
However, the hedonist will find himself with just this mystery on his hands. The hedonist denies that any state of affairs has any independent final welfare value at all. It is neither good nor bad for me to be deceived behind my back. What is bad for me, according to the hedonist, is discovering the betrayal, and then becoming displeased by the discovery. Without the pain that accompanies the discovery of the betrayal, the betrayal is neutral. So a question arises for the hedonist: why should it be the case that I become displeased when I discover this fact that is, by the hedonist’s own standard, completely neutral in terms of welfare value?
If this argument can be defended, then there may be one reason to prefer non-hedonistic theories of welfare to hedonism. Non-hedonistic theories can explain a fact that everyone agrees is true, while hedonism cannot. The more a theory can explain, the better that theory is.
What I am looking for, then, are objections to this line of argument. I have not fully worked out how to defend this argument, and I am sure that objections will abound. So, let’s hear them.