Perfectionism, Hedonism, and Hume

Dale Miller’s recent post on Mill’s theory of value (and subsequent discussion) was quite enlightening. And it set me thinkin’ about qualitative hedonism and perfectionism, and in particular the relationship between them. During our previous discussion, we appeared to be treating “Mill is a hedonist” and “Mill is a perfectionist” as mutually exclusive (or, at least, I was). I wonder if this isn’t a mistake. And I wonder if it isn’t possible to read one of Mill’s sentimentalist forbears, viz., David Hume, as a person who holds both views. (Sorry, this post might be a little long. And sorry also if it reads like a collection of notes scribbled on a napkin; basically, it is.)

I don’t mean to be advancing a particular account per se, of Hume’s theory of well-being. Rather, I’m trying a view on for size. But, it seems to me, this view looks good on the rack, if not on Hume. And I wonder, if it looks good on Hume, if it mightn’t look good on Mill, also. (Upshot: this will be really sketchy and probably the wrong way to read all philosophers concerned. These are all REALLY big “ifs”.)

Qualitative hedonism, roughly speaking, is the view that pleasure is good, pain bad, but that certain pleasures or forms of pleasure are better, perhaps even strongly better, than other forms of pleasure. At first glance, Mill’s higher pleasures doctrine reads like an account of qualitative hedonism: the higher pleasures are valuable. The lower pleasures are valuable, but the higher pleasures take strong priority in value to the lower pleasures (whether or not this is lexical priority).

Perfectionism, very roughly speaking, is the view that x’s life goes better as x lives a life that develops and exercises those properties and capacities that are inherent in the nature of the sort of thing x is. A cat lives a better life as it develops those properties that make a cat a cat. For Hurka, human lives go better as they develop capacities that are essential to the human species (though Hurka doesn’t speak in terms of well-being).

Most have read perfectionism as incompatible with hedonism because most perfectionists make a further claim about what the core properties of humans are. In almost all cases, the core properties do not include the capacity for pleasure. It is not, on Hurka’s view, an essential property of humanity. But it is worth noting that perfectionism and hedonism are only incompatible if we make the FURTHER assumption that “what it means to be human” entails more than pleasure. But one might suggest, for instance, that the important, value-determining parts of the human essence, or of human nature, are to experience certain kinds of pleasure.

And I think this might be something like what Hume says, or at least suggests, in discussing the sensible knave in the second Enquiry. Hume starts out E 9.2.14 by saying this: “Having explained the moral approbation attending merit or virtue, there remains nothing, but briefly to consider our interested obligation to it, and to enquire, whether every man, who has any regard to his own happiness and welfare, will not best find his account in the practice of every moral duty.” Hume’s project in this section appears to be to show that virtue conforms to the welfare of the virtuous. Indeed, at E 9.2.16, he declares that he seeks to show that virtue is in the “true interest” of every individual, and not only this, that “the peculiar advantage” of his system is that it is actually successful in so doing.

In discussing most virtues, appeal to the influences of vice on friendship and society are enough: everyone hates being thought a jerk by others. But the problem is justice, “where a man, taking things in a certain light, may often seem to be a loser by his integrity.” And here is the rub: “a sensible knave, in particular incidents, may think, that an act of iniquity or infidelity will make a considerable addition to his fortune, without causing any considerable breach in the social union and confederacy” (E 9.2.22). In other words, in secret, the SK can be vicious and not thought a jerk (and he can free ride on the benefits of compliance with justice by others). The following reading of the knave is controversial, but I wonder if Hume doesn’t respond by insisting that the SK is making a mistake in understanding what is in his interests. The key is in the final paragraph:

the honest man … will discover that [SKs] themselves are, in the end, the greatest dupes, and have sacrificed the invaluable enjoyment of a character, with themselves at least, for the acquisition of worthless toys and gewgaws. How little is requisite to supply the necessities of nature? and in a view to pleasure, what comparison between the unbought satisfaction of conversation, society, study, even health and the common beauties of nature, but above all the peaceful reflection on one’s own conduct: What comparison, I say, between these, and the feverish, empty amusements of luxury and expense? These natural pleasures, indeed, are really without price; both because they are below all price in their attainment, and above it in their enjoyment.

I think the natural way to read this passage is by insisting on a form of qualitative hedonism as opposed to a more standard hedonism. In introducing the SK, Hume suggests that “taking things in a certain light” the “addition to his fortune” might seem to be in the SK’s well-being. But, he argues here, it is not. Rather, the pleasures granted by an addition to one’s fortune, viz., the acquisition of worthless toys and gewgaws, are not worth the sacrifice of virtue, because the “natural pleasure” of virtue is strongly prior in value to the pleasures of an addition to one’s fortune. Hence, Hume is successful in showing that virtue is in the interest of the SK. (BTW, there are passages that tell against this reading, which are worth serious discussion.)

Where does the perfectionism come in? I think one could make the following claim: that to take pleasure in virtue, for Hume is to develop and exercise one’s natural properties and capacities, and the fact that it is explains why it is more valuable than the pleasure of fortunate vice. Quickly, recall that Hume insists that the person who has at hand a proper “comparison” between virtue and fortunate vice will prefer the first. But “comparison” is a key feature of Hume’s “standard of taste”: “A man, who has had no opportunity of comparing the different kinds of beauty, is indeed totally unqualified to pronounce an opinion with regard to any object presented to him. By comparison alone we can fix the epithets of praise or blame, and learn how to assign the due degree of each,” (“Of the Standard of Taste”, 238). So far, so good. Hume believes that authoritative pronouncements on value, etc., are verdicts of those possessed of the standard of taste, including comparison. But, according to Hume, the standard of taste is a feature of human nature: the standard is “founded only on experience and on the observation of the common sentiments of human nature,” (OST 232; similar passages are found at OST 241). Putting this all together you get the following view: the “taste” for the pleasure of virtue, as opposed to fortunate vice, is an important part of human nature. Thus, one might say that in Hume, developing and exercising one’s natural “tastes” (actually taking pleasure in virtue) is intrinsically better; this explains why the “joy of character” is more beneficial than that of “worthless toys and gewgaws.” Hence the fundamental aspect of the good life is to develop and exercise natural tastes–to take pleasure in, among other things, virtue. (This might not be a “pure” perfectionism; the “lower” pleasures might still have value on Hume’s view.)

This view faces all sorts of problems, no doubt. But looked at in a certain way, Hume could be both a perfectionist and a qualitative hedonist. Though I haven’t looked again at the relevant passages, my unconsidered judgment is that allowing Mill the claim that developing human nature is good for itself (which seems to be supported by OL3), AND the hedonist higher pleasures doctrine (to which many passages in U2&U4 seem to point), might prove fruitful at reconciling these texts. But that’s a topic for another way-too-long post.

5 Replies to “Perfectionism, Hedonism, and Hume

  1. 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.

  2. 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 3.2.1.7, T 3.2.5.6, 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.

  3. 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.)

  4. 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).

  5. 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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