August 15, 2005

Pleasure and Aggregation

In this essay, I intend to demonstrate that hedonistic utilitarianism is not only false, but incoherent. Hedonistic utilitarianism is a version of utilitarianism, the belief that the purpose of all morality is to maximise a good, and it is called hedonistic because they believe that that good is pleasure. However, pleasure and pain cannot be aggregated in the way that utilitarians need it to be. As a result, hedonistic utilitarianism is not only false, but incoherent.

When I was a child, I remember an advertisement for Dr. Scholes' insoles. In that ad, the commentator claimed that if one added up all the pressure put on a foot during the day, it would be enough to crush a diamond. I knew even at this young age that there was something wrong here. What the commentator had done was simply take the amount of pressure put on the foot on each step and multiply it by the number of steps a person takes this day. This is, of course, nonsense. Pressure cannot be added up this way. One can step as much as one wants and one will never crush a diamond. What I had here was my first encounter with false aggregation.

Not all aggregation works the same way. Discrete objects work best. When I add three chairs to seven chairs, I get ten chairs. Sets merely merge together. For instance, if I add one pile of sand to another pile of sand, I do not get two piles of sand, but one, larger pile of sand. Incidently, this is an interesting exception to 1+1=2, as sets to not aggregate this way. Measurements of intensity do not aggregate at all. For instance, if I add the temperature of each room in my house, I will not get the total temperature of my house.

Qualia, or sense impressions, are an interesting case. Qualia are difficult to aggregate because they are meaningless without an observer. For instance, unobserved pain is meaningless. However, it is difficult to understand who observes the sum of all pleasure and pain. At first, it might seem that the answer would be "everyone". However, this answers who experiences each instance of pleasure and pain, but not who experiences the sum of all pleasure and pain. The answer here has to be "no one". However, since the sum of all pleasure and pain is felt by no one, the hedonistic utilitarian is left with one of two options. Either the sum is meaningless, or the sum is not pleasure and pain, which is uninteresting. Either way, the theory fails.

As a result, all the pleasure and pain in the world will be found in a single individual. There is no sum of all the pain and pleasure in the world with which to concern ourselves. The sum is an illusion, much like Dr. Schole's crushed diamond. Worrying about it would be irrational, much like concerning oneself with melting furniture after having added up the temperature in each room.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You don't explain why unobserved pain is meaningless. Nor do you fully explain why pleasures must be observed by the same person if they are to be aggregated. In any case, you might want to consider the following Platonic argument: the perception of pleasure and pain is subjective; therefore, there is no objective standard or measure of pleasure and pain; but summing requires a common unit of measurement; therefore, it is in principle impossible to sum the pleasures of people.