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February 07, 2008


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Interesting post. Isn't there a distinction to be made between the following two positions:

1) Pleasure is the good, and some pleasures are better than others because of the particular developmental nature of human beings. Poetry gives us better pleasure than pushpin, because we're creatures whose essence is poetry-directed. The relation between the definition of the good and human nature is explanatory.

2) The possession and use of certain capacities is the good. Some activities are better than others because they engage more central human capacities (and perhaps those central capacities are capacities for certain kinds of mental state - pleasures). The relation between the definition of the good and human nature is constitutive.

(1) would be qualitative hedonism about the good, supported by an account of human nature. It would have perfectionist overtones, but I'm tempted to say that it wouldn't be perfectionist: only (2) is actually perfectionism. This would maintain the mutual exclusivity of hedonism and perfectionism.

As far as Mill is concerned, I'd say that there's textual evidence for views of both type (1) and type (2), but that reading Mill as a perfectionist is more consistent with the whole of his thought.

As for Hume: I’m tempted to read the passage about what the sensible knave is missing as a type (1) view: the pleasures of conversation are better than the pleasures of unjust accumulation; but what’s at stake is the good of pleasure, not the good of the employment of conversational capacities. This is off the top of my head, though.

Hi Sam (if I may):

Thanks for your comment! If we're forced to choose between hedonism and perfectionism when it comes to Mill, I'm inclined to agree with you. And perhaps that's the right reading overall. I'm just trying to make room for a third bit of conceptual space.

You're right to make that distinction between the two views. I was reading Hume has having something like the second view. However, I'm a bit puzzled as to how to interpret your (1). You might interpret it as a form of standard, quantitative hedonism. On this view, the further claim that human-like creatures take more pleasure in virtue "explains" the superiority of virtue; the "extent and duration" of the pleasure of virtue would be greater on this view because of the sort of beings we are. Alternatively, (1) could be a form of qualitative hedonism, for which the explanation of the evaluative difference in quality is human nature. But that interpretation would be closer to perfectionism, wouldn't it? That is, nature would have the function of conferring value on the higher pleasures, as opposed to the lower. So insofar as I'm inclined to read the SK passage as a qualitative view, I'm not sure that it's so far from perfectionism. Of course you could be a qualitative hedonist without being a perfectionist if you had some sort of desiderative criterion of higher pleasures, for instance. (Looking back, you might want to quarrel with my assumption that Hume is insisting on a qualitative view rather than a quantitative view.)

One might put my point slightly differently. As I've noted elsewhere, all perfectionisms share three separable claims:

1. Perfectionism: The good life for an x is to develop and exercise the "core" account of x-hood.
2. Identification of the Core Capacities: The "core" account of x-hood involves a specific set of capacities {a, b, c}.
3. Fulfillment of the Core Capacities: A life that develops the core capacities {a, b, c} will involve specific activities {q, r, s}.

Perfectionists differ on the central capacities and what sort of life developing those capacities entails. And my suggestion is that Hume accepts (1), he identifies the "core" capacities as the right sort of taste (viz., the standard of taste), and he identifies the fulfillment of the core capacities as a life that takes pleasure in virtue rather than fortunate vice. Why think that Hume believes (1)? After all, it could just be a coincidence that what ends up being good is crucial to human nature. But I think there is some evidence, perhaps not dispositive, in Hume that he takes human nature to be a normative target. I won't quote it, but you might check out T, T, E App. 1.21. This is all very controversial of course. But one way of reading this is that humanity has a nature, a sentimental/motivational nature in particular, and the development of that nature forms a normative target. Again, this wouldn't necessarily be a pure perfectionism, but it's in a close ballpark, I think.

Dale D.,

Bracketing for the moment our differences over how to read Mill, I'd like to get you to say more about the relation between hedonism and perfectionism. What I am wondering---not asserting, at this point, just wondering---is whether it will always be possible to invoke some thought experiment roughly like Nozick's experience machine on which the views will come down on opposite sides. Suppose that I invent a "Higher Quality Pleasure Machine" (HQPM), to which any dunce can be connected and immediately enjoy higher quality pleasure. A qualitative hedonist has to count a life spent on the HQPM as a good life, I think. What would a perfectionist say about it, though? Once possibility might be that the HQPM is a conceptual impossibility, I suppose, although we would need to hear more about why. Another possibility is that the perfectionist might say that this sort of life is a rather poor one for a human being, in which case perfectionism and qualitative hedonism apparently come apart. Or finally, of course, the perfectionist might claim that a life spent on the HQPM does count as a good life. Could a perfectionist who thinks of the good life purely in terms of the development and exercise of the capacity for higher quality pleasure think this?

Where do you imagine the sort of perfectionist that you have in mind coming down on this sort of example? (Admittedly, my description of the HQPM is pretty ambiguous at this point, so it would be fair for you to ask me to say more about this.)

Hi Dale -

This is a really great question. I suppose there are a number of ways this sort of a perfectionist could go. First, if you're convinced that no sort of experience machine would be acceptable for any perfectionist, one could say that the sort of hedonism here is something Feldmandian, like "Virtue-Adjusted Intrinsic Hedonism" or something like that, where the exercise of one's human nature would have to take the form of pleasure in genuine virtue, rather than experienced virtue.

On the other hand, I'm more attracted to the third option: that a perfectionist of this sort would count a life in the HQPM (if I'm imagining what you're imagining) as a good one. You might suggest that this is a deep violation of perfectionist intuitions. But that's only if you identify the relevant human nature as something that's independent of the higher pleasures. Most perfectionists do this, but I'm not sure why all must.

Another response you might have is that this sort of perfectionism has a wacky account of human nature. In other words, how could it possibly be true that what is in our "nature" is to exercise our "taste" for virtue? Isn't it simply the case that our natural capacities are those tied to rationality? I guess my response is to some degree sympathetic, although notice that all perfectionists restrict the range of our welfare-relevant "natural" capacities in a value-laden way. Perhaps this is one way (which may or may not be Hume's way).

nice post. just yesterday i was thinking about this relationship between "pleasure" and "virtue", working on an aristotelian-like account of perfectionism (i'm taking a phd with a research in sport ethics).

at the moment, a particular claim rolls in my mind: that pleasure comes from activity. making something gives us pleasure. and making something is fundamental (in my opinion) for a good life. so, perfectionism (tryng to "live better") and qualitative hedonism go together: you can understand you're living a good life when you "feel good".

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