Monday, December 07, 2009

False pains

I’m re-reading some of Fred Feldman’s Pleasure and the good life (Oxford, 2004).

In chapter 5 Feldman is wondering about the sort of objection you might raise against hedonism on the grounds that it may not be able to account for our intuitive dislike of ‘false pleasures’ (pp.109-14). ‘False pleasures’ here, roughly speaking, are those that are predicated on some false belief or taken in some false object. Imagine someone who falsely believes that he is well-respected; he might take pleasure in this belief. But we might be uncomfortable if hedonism cannot distinguish between the value of this pleasure and the value in a similar pleasure taken in a similar true belief. Feldman then tries to offer a hedonism that does respect this difference in value.

There are some interesting questions to raise about this, but the specific point that interested me today is the following comment (p.111):

In order to state this modified version of the theory, we will need to say something about pain, too. Shall we say that pain taken in true objects differs in intrinsic value from similar pain taken in false objects? I am puzzled by an apparent disanalogy between pleasure and pain here. On the one hand, I can readily sense the attractiveness of adjusting the value of pleasures for truth. Pleasure taken in things that are true does seem somehow better than equal pleasure taken in things that are false... But on the other hand, I cannot readily see the corresponding attractiveness of a similar adjustment of the value of pain for truth.

The thought is this: the pain caused to a person by the false belief that he is thought an idiot by his colleagues is not distinguishable in value from the pain caused a similar but true belief. We may want our pleasures to be true rather than false. Do we want our pains to be false rather than true? It depends why we want true rather than false pleasures.

If what makes a true pleasure better is some thought about being right or about the intrinsic value of knowledge then I suppose we might indeed prefer true pleasures to false pleasures but then also I think we should also prefer true pains to false pains. I should like, if I am pained, to be pained justifiably, truthfully, at some true object, and so on.

On the other hand, if what makes a true pleasure better than a false one is some lingering concern that the false pleasure is, by being false, less reliable or that it might easily be dissipated then I would answer differently. The examples that are used to generate a preference for true pleasures tend to stipulate that the person taking false pleasure ‘would be miserable’ if the falsehood were revealed. Even when it is stipulated that the person does not suspect and does not ever discover the falsehood, the lingering suspicion of this counterfactual may be doing a lot of work on our assessment of the example. And if so, then I think I can see a case for preferring false pains to true pains since we will say that the person imagined ‘would be happy’ if the falsehood were revealed. And again, the lingering suspicion of this counterfactual is that the false pain – like the false pleasure – may be dissipated by the discovery of the truth. And just as I might prefer my pleasures not to be subject to such contingencies, I might well prefer that my pains are.

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