Monday, February 23, 2009

Psychological hedonism in Laws V

Does Plato advocate a form of psychological hedonism in Laws V? Certainly, the famous argument against akrasia in Protagoras seems to invoke such a view, but it is notoriously difficult to know whether that view should even be attributed to Socrates the character in that dialogue, let alone to the author. What about Laws V? The Athenian seems to be offering something in that direction.

The passage I'm interested in is 732d8ff. The Athenian says that the finest (kallistos) life is praiseworthy not only because of its glorious reputation but also because it provides what we all want, namely a preponderance of pleasure over pain throughout a life (732e7–3a4). He will eventually conclude that the life of psychic and bodily virtue is not only better than other lives in its nobility (kallos) and correctness (orthotēs) but also by virtue of being more pleasant (734d4–e2).

At 733a9ff. the Athenian sets out a list of principles which he thinks govern our general preferences within a life and between possible lives. The principles listed here seem to be as follows:

1. We want to have pleasure but we neither choose nor want to have pain.
2. We prefer pleasure to a state of neither pleasure nor pain.
3. We prefer a state of neither pleasure nor pain to pain.
4. We do not prefer a state of neither pleasure nor pain to pleasure
5. We want smaller pain and larger pleasure.
6. We do not want larger pain and smaller pleasure.
7. It is not possible to make clear any preference between two cases in which the pleasures and pains are equal.

This much is probably uncontroversial, apart from the minor question whether there is indeed an intermediate state between pleasure and pain. It amount to a general ranking in descending order of choice-worthiness: pleasure --- neutral state --- pain (2–4), combined with a relative ranking of mixtures of pleasure and pain (5 and 6). Two things here are worthy of attention before moving on. First, we ought perhaps to notice that there is no explicit discussion of whether we prefer a combination of large pleasure and large pain to a combination of small pleasure and small pain. Presumably, the question is supposed to be settled by 7: the only case in which preferences are possible are those in which there is some inequality between pleasures and pains and in those cases the preference will be settled by the most basic preferences outlined in 1–4.

Second, we might note that ‘larger’ and ‘smaller’ in 5 and 6 are not clarified so it is unclear whether a larger pain, say, is a more intense or a longer-lasting pain, or both. It is unclear what the ranking would be between a shorter but more intense pain and a longer but less intense one. The Athenian does indeed refer to a variety of variables which might differentiate one pleasure from another or one pain from another or indeed one set of pleasures from another and so on, namely: number, size, intensity, equality and their opposites (733b6–7) and says that our preferences may or may not be affected by them. There is, however, very little interest in what readers familiar with the intricacies of hedonic calculations demanded by various utilitarian theories.

What precisely does he mean when he says that our preferences may or may not be affected by them? Is it that some differences in intensity, for example, are irrelevant to our preferences? (In that case the Athenian is continuing to express our general preferences and practices as in some way correct and justified in the choice between different hedonic arrangements). Or is the idea that sometimes we do take into account relevant and significant differences and sometime we do not? If the latter, what explains this variety in our competence at enacting the preferences outlined in 1–6? In particular, what is the import of the comment later in the passage at 734b4: everyone who is akolastos is so unwillingly?

The obvious answer will be that the preferences in 1–6 express a kind of psychological hedonism. If so, anyone who as a matter of fact ends up living a life in which pain predominates over pleasure must all along have been trying to live a life in which pleasure predominates over pain. So his end result is not what he would have wished. As the stranger puts it at 733d2–4, we are being offered a choice between the sort of life we want by nature and the sort that we do not want by nature.

The introduction to this section, at 732e3–7 says only that humans are particularly (malista) concerned with pleasures, pains, and desires (and this is what contrasts them with gods) and also that humans are held suspended like puppets by these, the greatest influences on us (megistai spoudai). Further comments suggest a similar picture. At 733d4–6 he says that if someone asserts that they want something besides these things – by which he must mean the things revealed by the various preferences he has just outlined – then such a person is talking out of ignorance or an inexperience of actual life (ontes bioi).

But does this commit the Athenian to psychological hedonism? The suggestion here may be only that the way people generally are, they are motivated only by pleasure and pain. But perhaps the Athenian would not say also that it is impossible for us ever to alter so as to be motivated by some other value, albeit perhaps still alongside these hedonic preferences.

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