Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Quantifying pleasure

I should have read this before, but I've only just discovered J. C. Hall, 'Quantity of pleasure', PAS 67, 1966-7, 35-52 (JSTOR link here). I can't say I am immediately convinced but I did enjoy the suggestion of the following unit for pleasure comparison (p.44):
Suppose a boy, John, to have a taste for bull's eyes that is constant throughout the time we are concerned with, suppose one bull's eye of a given make of constant size to be available to him each hour from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and suppose that he is able, when they are so spaced, to eat up to twelve bull's eyes in a day without satiety setting in to any appreciable degree. These conditions presuppose that the ordering relations, including quality, are applicable to John's pleasure, at different times, in eating bull's eyes; otherwise one could not say that his taste was constant or say when satiety set in. There is therefore a class of recurrent experiences, guaranteed by the initial conditions as being equal in pleasure. If we could also find an operation analogous to addition, whereby the pleasure obtainable from two members of this class could be combined, we could then use any member of this class as a standard unit applicable to the measurement in terms of pleasure of as many of John's experiences (within the period covered by the initial conditions) as could be compared as being equal in pleasure to, or greater or less in pleasure than the eating of one bull's-eye under the spacing conditions laid down.
Those readers not au fait with traditional British sweets might appreciate learning that a 'bull's eye' is a minty boiled sweet, a bit like a humbug...


RJR said...

I'm not a proper philosopher, and I'd be interested to know whether or not it matters that it is impossible to imagine such an occurrence. (Quite clearly John starts to yearn for pear drops, or throws up, or learns to see bull's eyes as a basic necessity of existence, etc.) If it's just a theoretical way of measuring pleasure then maybe it doesn't matter that it's so non-real-world, or does the fact that it isn't imaginable imply that the idea is flawed? This is probably the sort of thing question you look at in the first term of a philosophy degree.

James Warren said...

Well, thought experiments are odd things. In one way it doesn't seem to matter, or at least you can just set up the situation to avoid the worries you have (imagine he never does get bored...). But in another way it clearly does matter since the more stipulations you set down the less directly the situation speaks to our intuitions.

There is a philosophical argument to be had about them, in other words:

RJR said...

Thanks for the link, that's interesting. It does seem that there's a bit of a danger that he's saying "if pleasure were a bit different from what it's actually like, then we could measure it" -- he does seem to have started by specifying that John isn't quite human. But maybe that's partly what he means. I think I like thought experiments best in novel form. If you wrote a novel where someone ate a bull's eye every hour on the hour with the same pleasure each time, it would have to be a wierd symbolist book, maybe by Thomas Pynchon or Will Self.

Just found a boing boing article about someone who has decided to be a Stoic, and set himself up as a teacher of Stoicism -- he's writing a book about it, natch. He abandoned Zen Buddhism because "for me, the fit wasn't good", which sounds awful (he wanted a guarantee of enlightenment) but I suppose he's just saying these things should be about happiness not truth. At least he seems to have some idea of what the Stoics were up to, unlike that bloke who decided to live like Kant. It is nonetheless intrinsically irritating in a very American way.