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A Heaven Indeed

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 16 years ago, in 2006, on the World Wide Web.

Over at Catallarchy, Professor Miller proposes a challenge:

Okay, then, here’s my challenge: give me an instance of a pleasure that is bad. Not a pleasure that’s bad because it leads to other pain, but a pleasure that is itself bad. Do that, and I’ll happily admit that I’ve simply lept the is/ought gap.

The challenge is actually ill-framed, since hedonism (and thus hedonistic utilitarianism) would be proven false by any instance of a pleasure that failed to be good — either by being bad, or by being simply neutral. But anyway, here is how another notable consequentialist answered Professor Miller’s challenge, 103 years before he posed it:

That the value of a pleasurable whole does not belong solely to the pleasure which it contains, may, I think, be made still plainer by consideration of another point in which Prof. Sidgwick’s argument is defective. Prof. Sidgwick maintains, as we saw, the doubtful proposition, that the conduciveness to pleasure of a thing is in rough proportion to its commendation by Common Sense. But he does not maintain, what would be undoubtedly false, that the pleasantness of every state is in proportion to the commendation of that state. In other words, it is only when you take into account the whole consequences of any state, that he is able to maintain the coincidence of quantity of pleasure with the objects approved by Common Sense. If we consider each state by itself, and ask what is the judgment of Common Sense as to its goodness as an end, quite apart from its goodness as a means, there can be no doubt that Common Sense holds many much less pleasant states to be better than many far more pleasant: that it holds, with Mill, that there are higher pleasures, which are more valuable, though less pleasant, than those that are lower. Prof. Sidgwick might, of course, maintain that in this Common Sense is merely confusing means and ends: that what it holds to be better as an end, is in reality only better as a means. But I think his argument is defective in that he does not seem to see sufficiently plainly that, as far as intuitions of goodness as an end are concerned, he is running grossly counter to Common Sense; that he does not emphasise sufficiently the distinction between immediate pleasantness and conduciveness to pleasure. In order to place fairly before us the question what is good as an end we must take states that are immediately pleasant and ask if the more pleasant are always also the better; and whether, if some that are less pleasant appear to be so, it is only because we think they are likely to increase the number of the more pleasant. That Common Sense would deny both these suppositions, and rightly so, appears to me indubitable. It is commonly held that certain of what would be called the lowest forms of sexual enjoyment, for instance, are positively bad, although it is by no means clear that they are not the most pleasant states we ever experience. Common Sense would certainly not think it a sufficient justification for the pursuit of what Prof. Sidgwick calls the refined pleasures here and now, that they are the best means to the future attainment of a heaven, in which there would be no more refined pleasures—no contemplation of beauty, no personal affections—but in which the greatest possible pleasure would be obtained by a perpetual indulgence in bestiality. Yet Prof. Sidgwick would be bound to hold that, if the greatest possible pleasure could be obtained in this way, and if it were attainable, such a state of things would be a heaven indeed, and that all human endeavours should be devoted to its realisation. I venture to think that this view is as false as it is paradoxical.

— G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica (1903), § 56

Moore, at least, was one exception to Nietzsche’s pithier response:

If we possess our why of life we can put up with almost any how. — Man does not strive after happiness; only the Englishman does that.

— F. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Maxims and Arrows #12.

In any case, I should note that many pleasures that have historically been identified as lower, coarse, vulgar, mindless, empty, decadent, or depraved, are not actually so; but pointing this out will not support Miller’s point. Being very often wrong about which pleasures are worth pursuing, and which pleasures are not, does not at all entail that the distinction should not be made, or that no value attaches to the distinction when correctly applied. (People were once largely wrong as to whether the earth was a round or flat; that hardly throws the categories of roundness and flatness into disrepute.)

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