Ethical and Political Philosophy Forum

Apr 2, 2013 at 3:32 PM

If you’re anything like me, you first encountered utilitarianism years ago and it sounded promising. The greatest happiness for the greatest number: what could be wrong with that? Prima facie, all human action can be explained by the desire to be happy. At our core, humans are hedonists and nothing more. Thus, pleasure is the only thing desirable for its own sake. Therefore, the highest good to aim for is to maximize happiness.

But then I heard the classic arguments against utilitarianism. For one, it treats people as means rather than ends. It dehumanizes us all as it reduces human flourishing to a mere equation. What’s more, there is no room for justice in utilitarianism. It is morally obligatory to publicly torture someone so long as the pleasure of the crowd outweighs the man’s suffering. And here’s the kicker: five men are dying and they need organ transplants. There’s a homeless man nearby that nobody likes. Utilitarianism says we have to kill that homeless man, cut him up for his organs, and distribute them accordingly. That’s one life for five. The math checks out. Needless to say, my brief stint with utilitarianism was over. But then, this year I heard one more argument against utilitarianism. Robert Nozick came up with an argument against one of its core tenets: psychological hedonism. That argument actually convinced me the utilitarians had it right all along.

Psychological Hedonism

Psychological hedonism states that our only motivation for any action is pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Thus, we are all at our core pleasure-seekers. This is Jeremy Bentham’s psychological hedonism and it is central to his argument for utilitarianism. However, it is difficult if not impossible to prove. It is an empirical claim, but come on let’s...

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