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Objection to Feldman’s Attitudinal Hedonism Essay

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Updated: Apr 9th, 2022

In this essay, I argue that the argument Feldman makes for attitudinal hedonism does not hold water. First, I will briefly summarize Feldman’s argument. Next, I will point out a serious flaw in the argument. Then I will consider an objection that Feldman could possibly raise to my criticism. Finally, I will explain why this objection fails.

To the best of my knowledge, the most powerful argument Feldman makes for attitudinal hedonism runs as follows:

  1. Pleasure/enjoyment and pain are attitudinal feelings, not sensory feelings.
  2. Man seeks to maximize attitudinal pleasure and minimize attitudinal pain.
  3. The value of one’s life is determined by how much that person enjoys things that happen in his/her life.
  4. Therefore, a good life is the one enjoyed by person who lived that life (from 2 and 3) (Feldman 604).

Feldman’s argument is logically valid if all premises are taken to be true. Some people might think the argument is convincing when taking the first glimpse at it, but a close examination will reveal a serious flaw in the argument. Specifically, the third premise is by no means beyond doubt. In what follows, I will show that it is actually false.

Ethical theories are normative in nature. They are summaries of principles that should guide behavior towards the desirable and help us avoid undesirable behavior (Crisp 78). In this essay Feldman focuses on the individual’s life and what makes it worth living; the good life essentially comes down to whether the person enjoyed life.

Feldman sets himself apart from sensory hedonists and describes a different approach to hedonism i.e. attitudinal hedonism. Despite this departure from sensory hedonism, I still disagree that the value of one’s life is determined by how much they enjoyed their life. This stems from the fact that value is an extrinsic phenomenon judged on the basis of normative standards usually determined in a societal setting. The value of one’s life therefore is not determined by the individual’s judgment that he/she enjoyed life.

Hedonists, Feldman included, regard pleasure as the only source of intrinsic value. They argue that all things that are desirable are only vicariously so as the main end that is aimed for is pleasure. This is not the case as there are other things we desire as ends in themselves e.g. beauty and truth.

Feldman obliviously appeals to some other sources of intrinsic value when defending his theory of attitudinal hedonism. In his defense against Shelly Kagan’s deceived businessman thought experiment, Feldman argues that the businessman who is living a veridical life is living a life that has more value than the one who is deceived.

In this defense Feldman uses another source of intrinsic value that shows that the deceived businessman lives a life of less value and this other source of intrinsic value is truth (615). The defense against baseless pleasures also implies that there are pleasures that are worthy enjoying while others are not. This admission (some things being more worthy than others) points towards other intrinsic values, thus disqualifying Feldman’s position that life’s value is determined by how much enjoyment we get out of it.

However, it is possible that some philosophers would disagree with me. For example, Feldman might raise the following objection to my disproof of the second premise of his argument. It would be plausible to assume that one desires these other values not for their own sake, but because they bring pleasure.

This would still make pleasure the only value with intrinsic worth, thus proving Feldman’s point. For instance, Feldman might claim that what I think is an intrinsic value might actually be a vicarious value; a value I seek in order to experience pleasure.

Plausible as the objection sounds, it cannot stand a careful analysis. There are values that we seek for their own worth thus proving that they have intrinsic worth (Nozick 43). An example of such values is truth. Kagan’s businessman scenario shows that truth is a source of value in itself even when detached from pleasure (Kagan 36).

The scenario posits two businessmen who have identical feelings only that the feelings of one of them emanate from an objectively real situation while the feelings of the other emanate from a situation of deceit. The only difference remains to be truth and Feldman, rather ironically, admits that the scenario with the true situation is the better scenario. In doing so, Feldman inadvertently defeats his argument that the value of life is judged merely by an individual’s enjoyment (615).

Truth, whether it brings pleasure/enjoyment or not, is desirable on its own therefore has intrinsic worth. Feldman admits that he would not like to live the life of the deceived businessman because the businessman is on the brink of misery in case those around him slip up and tell him the truth (615). If no one around the businessman ever slips up it means then that both businessmen are living lives of equal value, and this is not the case. It follows then that the value of someone’s life is not determined by experiences of enjoyment.

In conclusion, Feldman fails to make attitudinal hedonism a strong theory by which one can use to judge the value of life. Life is not merely more valuable if it has more pleasure and less pain as there are other things matter too (like truth). Pleasure/enjoyment should not be given precedence over these other sources of intrinsic worth.

Works Cited

Crisp, Roger. Reasons and the Good. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006. Print.

Feldman, Fred. Pleasure and the Good Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004. Print.

Kagan, Shelly. Normative Ethics. Oxford: Westview, 1998. Print.

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Oxford: Blackwell, 1974. Print.

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