The masochist problem in hedonistic utilitarianism

Walter asked:

The masochist problem in hedonistic utilitarianism.

The hedonistic utilitarian goal is to maximise pleasure and minimise pain, but a masochist causes a problem since he equates pleasure with pain. I posed this problem to my philosophy professor and he sent me a long complicated reply based on a passage about masochism in Fred Feldman’s Pleasure and the Good Life.

An alternative explanation, based on semantics, is much simpler. The word pain was chosen as the opposite of pleasure (like unhappiness compared to happiness, preferred to nonpreferred), but it is different in kind which causes the problem. Rather than go into why pain is different, instead consider pain replaced with unpleasure which we can define as the exact opposite of pleasure.

Pleasure (American Heritage Dictionary): ‘The state or feeling of being pleased or gratified.’

This is defined from the viewpoint of the subject or one experiencing the feeling, basically something he likes rather than dislikes. By definition it is impossible to hate pleasure.

Unpleasure (opposite of the above): ‘The state or feeling of being unpleased or ungratified.’

Again defined from the viewpoint of the subject or one experiencing the feeling, basically something he dislikes rather than likes. By definition then, one cannot like unpleasure.

Now if the goal is to maximise pleasure and minimise unpleasure, the masochist is no longer a problem since for a masochist, pain is pleasure and not unpleasure.

Is this explanation right?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I have to say that I dislike these hair-splitting arguments intensely. They do not strike me as philosophical, but as templates for arguments about words and concepts, and they habitually leave the complexity of human reactions out of the picture in order to arrive at one “fundamental” criterion. Who is being satisfied by such reductions of human impulses and motive to a common denominator I cannot say.

There are two issues embroiled in this that are not reducible in any such way. Pleasure on the whole (in general) is preferable to pain; and on the whole humans will seek a pleasurable state of being in preference to a painful state of being. But this depends on the person and what their sense of personal gratification involves. A masochist, for example, does not enjoy pain as such, but the gratification of having pain inflicted on them for all sorts of motives including the desire to be punished or dominated etc. The general pleasure seeking or pleasure maximisation drive is nothing other than the cheap and easily acquired sense of being untroubled–not necessarily actual pleasure, but the absence of displeasure, discomfort, responsibility and so on. The colossal entertainment industry and the bulk of our industrial output which is designed to gratify consumers with mostly useless trinkets, serve those lukewarm desires.

The really more important issue is that gratification very often involves a great deal of pain which the pleasure seeker takes on board in order to achieve their goal. Take performance sports people, who punish their bodies for the purpose of achieving an Olympic medal; or the ordeals of mountain climbers; or the desire of religious people to flagellate themselves to please their divinity. I think you can multiply instances of this self-inflicted pain or displeasure without any troubles. There are no “solutions” to be found here, no reductions to simple pain/pleasure dichotomies. On the observe side you find people who hate easy gratification by e.g. pop singers and film stars or pulp novels because they are bored or disgusted by them. So they will make themselves slaves to immensely hard work to gratify their intellect, their deeper sensibilities etc. Philosophers can be instances of this; or creative artists; or explorers, inventors, missionaries, or indeed any person who takes their life’s calling seriously.

If this was at the back of your mind when you wrote your question, I’m happy to agree that you’re on the right track in criticising the arguments you found deficient.

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