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The Nagelian Argument Against Hedonism

In
his seminal paper, “Death”, Nagel writes the following:

Someone who holds that all goods and
evils must be temporally assignable states of the person may of course try to
bring more complicated cases into line by pointing to the pleasure or pain that
the more complicated goods and evils cause. Loss, betrayal, and deception, and ridicule are on this view bad because
people suffer when they learn of them. But it should be asked how our ideas of human value would have to be
constituted to accommodate these cases directly instead. One advantage of such an account might be
that it would enable us to explain why the discovery of these
misfortunes causes suffering—in a way that makes it reasonable. For the natural view is that the discovery of
betrayal makes us unhappy because it is bad to be betrayed—not that betrayal is
bad because its discovery makes us unhappy.

I’ve
been thinking that there may be a good argument against hedonism to be found in
this quotation, one which I will elaborate below the fold.

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What Can We Learn from the Experience Machine?

I was browsing some of the blogs over at Experimental Philosophy the other day, and it got me thinking about something weird that has happened in every ethics course I have taught to date. The class will be discussing hedonism (about welfare), and I present Nozick’s Experience Machine thought experiment in an argument against this view.

For the uninitiated, hedonism about welfare claims (roughly) that the only intrinsically valuable thing is pleasure, and the only intrinsically disvaluable thing is pain; a person’s life, therefore, goes better for her the greater the balance of pleaure over pain there is in that life. Robert Nozick argued against such a view in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia by asking us to imagine The Experience Machine (EM). This is a machine, created by super-duper scientists, that can give a person any experiences she desires. These experiences are indistinguishable from veridical experiences (i.e. experiences that are obtained by interacting in the real world in the normal way rather than triggered in our brains by a machine). Imagine that you were looking for a way to get the best possible life for yourself (the life with the most welfare value for you). Would you hook into the machine?

If hedonism were correct, the answer should be yes. However, almost all of my students say they would not hook into the machine. I am sure that anyone who has taught a course on ethics has had a similar experience. But this is where things start to get weird.

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Peer Editing Projects

First, let me apologize to my fellow bloggers at PEA Soup for taking so long to break my silence. I agreed to join a couple of days before leaving for an extended vacation on the East Coast, and upon my return, the great weather we have had here made several home improvement projects shoot to the top of my priority list. But now that fall quarter has begun, my mind is back to philosophy and all that it has to offer.

Specifically, I have been thinking about my courses and the assignments I give to my students. I believe that a philosophy course must have an argumentative paper at its core, but I have been frustrated in the past with the papers I receive from students. So last winter, in an effort to improve student writing, I assigned a peer editing project to my students. Students were required to write a rough draft of their paper, and exchange these drafts on a specific date with other students in the class. They were then required to edit the papers they received from their classmates, return them to the authors, and make changes to their papers based on these comments.

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