A Hot Afternoon in Texas

Yesterday I listened to Peter Singer's encomium to Henry Sidgwick on Philosophy Bites, and so finally took The Methods of Ethics off the shelf, after meaning to do so for the longest time.  Singer says Sidgwick is extremely careful and interesting, but not as lively as Bentham and Mill. Indeed.  But here's a very interesting passage that relates to a current preoccupation of mine--how to "sum" pain and pleasure. (It's a preoccupation because I think it's relevant to various puzzles about procreation.)

We shall understand, then, that by Greatest Happiness is meant the greatest possible surplus of pleasure over pain, the pain being conceived as balanced against an equal amount of pleasure, so that the two contrasted amounts annihilate each other for purposes of ethical calculation.  And of course, there as before, the assumption is involved that all pleasures included in our calculation are capable of being compared quantitatively with one another and with all pains; that every such feeling has a certain intensive quantity, positive or negative (or, perhaps, zero), in respect of its desirableness, and that this quantity may be to some extent known: so that each may be at least roughly weighed in ideal scales against any other.  This assumption is involved in the very notion of Maximum Happiness; as the attempt to make 'as great as possible' a sum of elements not quantitatively commensurable would be a mathematical absurdity. [Hackett edition, pg. 413, my italics]
So...pain and pleasure are positives and negatives on the same scale.  You can therefore "sum" them:

-92 [pain] +  3 [pleasure] = -89 [balance]

That's me getting my teeth cleaned.  -92 is the misery, and 3 is the dental hygienist telling a joke.  The 3 annihilates just a little bit of the pain,  making the balance -89.

As often as I've read and taught this story, it's never really struck me full force that this cannot be.  Here goes--a quick argument why not.

Suppose it's a hot afternoon in Texas (not a difficult supposition, because we're in the middle of a heat wave).  It's 102 degrees. I am a good utilitarian mother with a 5 year old child (neither is the truth).  I'm trying to decide how to keep him happy for the next couple of hours.  The right course of action is the one with the best consequences.  I'm fully committed to that--I'm not going to change my mind about it. 

So I think about two options and I think about them as Sidgwick proposes--pain and pleasure annihilate each other.  Here's what I wind up with--

Option #1:  we sit at home and enjoy the dull pleasure of playing board games while listening to Burl Ives.  This will be pleasant for little Charlie, and not at all unpleasant.  The calculation is something like this:

0 [pain] + 15 [pleasure] = 15 [balance]

Option #2:  we walk 10 blocks to the local McDonald's in 102 deg. heat where Charlie will have riotous fun for  many hours on the play structure while I read Henry Sidgwick. I know that at the very least, the balance is going to be 15. 

-100 [pain] + 115 [pleasure] = 15 [balance]

(Effects on others?  The same in both cases.  Other things are equal.)

Given (1) my consequentialist assumption about rightness, and (2) my Sidgwickian assumption about how to calculate value, there is no moral difference between choosing option #1 and choosing option #2.  But (wait for it...) there is a difference. 

Obviously, obviously, a morally acute mother will see a difference between giving her child a bland afternoon of games and music, and imposing a miserable walk on him, so that he can have a wildly good time.  I'm not saying one is clearly the right option, but the choice is difficult, not easy.  This isn't a toss-up.

If consequentialism is not to be questioned (and please, let's assume it's not), then there's got to be a problem with this way of calculating value. And the problem has got to be that pain and pleasure do not "annihilate" each other.   There is no balance in each case, there's just a lump of pain and a lump of pleasure.

"But .... but ... but there has to be some way to integrate the information about pain and pleasure, combining it into one value assessment."  One hopes so, but this way is the wrong way--pain and pleasure just don't annihilate each other.


ʡɫɧʭɔɼɥɝɽɔɺɸʨʬɪʝʆʄɽʫ said...

yes, there's a lot missing in the unidimensional picture.

I think you're aiming at much deeper issues here. Maybe we should aim for the greater good, but in policy matters we should aim to minimize the bad, as negative utilitarians would like. Unidimensional Maslow-like metrics do not correlate well with our psychology. There's a lot of psychological literature on this. But then again, this might a normative problem after all ...

In general the deepest vision on life that I've read comes from Nozick. We don't want to be happy (his "Experience Machine" thought experiment shows why not) but we want our life to have (in his terms) Value, Meaning, Importance and Weight. He elaborates a lot on those concepts in his "the examined life" book.

So maybe you want your kids' life to have Value and Meaning more than happiness. Surely happiness correlates with those terms, but it's not the end of all metrics. Maybe it's only instrumental.

Alan Cooper said...

Under the assumptions of your scenario it is the determination of the cost&benefit numbers that is the source of moral challenge. There is no reason to doubt that *IF* the numbers were known with absolute confidence then the decision would be easy, because since there is no plausible way that they ever could be there is no way of testing the proposition.

But in fact I don't think there is any biological or other evidence for the existence of "some way to integrate the information about pain and pleasure, combining it into one value assessment" so the point may be moot.

Jean Kazez said...

"There is no reason to doubt that *IF* the numbers were known with absolute confidence then the decision would be easy"

But that's just the opposite of my point, which is that *if* the numbers are known, the decision is *not* easy. No sane mother sees an equivalence between option #1 and option #2 despite the identical balance. Should I put my kid through that miserable walk, in order to get a positive balance of pleasure over pain? That's a difficult question. In the game scenario, there's nothing to agonize about. Same balance, but nevertheless not the same. That goes to show that the standard utilitarian way of summing pain and pleasure can't be right.

ʫʖɫʘʘɿʇɭɥʬɾɬʕɘʐɓɜʭʞɼ said...

and BTW you're attacking hedonistic utilitarianism here. What about preference utilitarianism? Are you really attacking the idea that you can "sum" over one dimension, or the idea that this dimension measures pleasure/pain?

Aeolus said...

What if you begin with hours of riotous fun (+115), and then follow that with a long walk home in miserable heat (-100), so that you both arrive tired and grumpy? (Does the order of experiences matter?)

Jean Kazez said...

Aeolus, I think the order in which you do things can certainly affect the pleasure and pain you experience, and thus the balance when you sum it all together.

Unpronounceable, Actually, I'm not really attacking all types of summing. I don't (at the moment) see the problem with summing goods or summing bads. What's bothering me is the idea that when you sum goods *and* bads, they "annihilate" each other.

This seems most obviously problematic if you assume good=pleasure and bad=pain, but I wouldn't say the problem disappears under other assumptions. It seems very odd to suppose that preference-satisfactions and preference-frustrations annihilate each other. If you describe the two options in those terms, you get the same puzzle. The balance might be the same, so it ought to be a toss-up for the mother, but it isn't.

ʑɘʬɛʒʕɪɬɠʜʎʈɮʟʯʪʬʍɣʔ said...

the "annihilate" is dictated by the desired output. If it's a binary choice "do" vs "don't" then of course there must be some middle ground between extreme scenarios where a balance is reached. In that balance they "annihilate" each other.

If instead you're considering deeper things as Value, Meaning, ... then it's not so clear that they cancel out. They don't. It's pretty clear that a life full of extreme pain and extreme pleasure is very different from one that has neither.

Faust said...

"It's pretty clear that a life full of extreme pain and extreme pleasure is very different from one that has neither."

This is the crux in my opinion.