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Unformatted text preview: udaimonistic Utilitarianism (the
Greek word Eudaimonia means happiness or
According to his form of utilitarianism, we should seek
to maximize higher forms of well-being rather than
lower ones – it is better to be a dissatisfied Socrates
than a satisfied fool.
And he constructed a test which should enable us to
decide whether a satisfaction is of a high or a low
quality: consult an individual who has experienced
both, he said, and accept the verdict of this person.
A person who has both read Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (the
Art of Love by Erich Fromm 1956) and watched porn
movies can tell what kind of pornography engenders
the highest form (if any) of pleasure. We ought to go
for the higher quality rather than the lower one.
But can the test really guide us? What if two persons
reach conflicting verdicts on a certain kind of pleasure,
which of them are we to trust?
In particular, how do we know that they have had the
same experience? The same stimulus can have
produced different reactions in them.
Moreover, even if the test works, why abide by it? Why
search the higher pleasure rather than the lower, if the
lower feels better?
Suppose that a mentally retarded person feels
pleasures of a lower kind than does a Nobel prize
laureate, but feels them more intensely – is it really
true that the Nobel prize laureate leads a better life?
A more radical departure from classical hedonism than
the one taken by Mill would be to say that what
matters is not that we have pleasurable experiences
(a high degree of well-being), but that we get our
preferences, or wishes, satisfied.
This gives a different twist to Mill’s test. If we prefer
higher pleasures to lower ones, then this is a reason
for us to seek higher pleasures.
But according to this view, it is not only pleasures that
are of importance. We may seek all sorts of things
other than certain experiences. If we do and our
desires are satisfied, then we enjoy a high level of
welfare. The more our desires are satisfied, the better.
We may now speak of ‘preference’ utilitarianism rather
than ‘hedonistic’ utilitarianism.
In order to be a plausible alternative to hedonism,
preferentialism must be qualified. A standard
qualification is as follows:
only the satisfaction of preferences, or desires, that we
hold for our own lives (self-regarding preferences) are
of importance to our welfare; moreover, only the
satisfaction of intrinsic preferences (preferences for
things we want for their own sake, not merely as
means to some other end) matter.
According to this version of Utilitarianism, the best
outcome is the one which satisfies as many people’s
preferences or desires as possible.
The rationale behind these stipulations is as follows.
Suppose I want to discover a vaccine against HIV and
do so. This need not mean that my welfare has
increased. But if it was essential for me that I should
be the person who discovered the vaccine and did so,
then it is plausible to say that my welfare has
However, this presupposes that I had an intrinsic
desire to be the person who discovered the vaccine.
This may seem to be a strange kind of desire. Perhaps
it is more plausible to assume that what I was after
was fame, an academic career, or something like that.
But why did I seek fame and an academic career.
Perhaps because I thought it would make me happy –
in that case, it is only when my intrinsic desire for
happiness is satisfied that my welfare is increased.
But of course, people may have all sorts of selfBut
regarding intrinsic desires. They may desire
knowledge, friendship, and so on. According to
preference utilitarianism, it is the satisfaction of these
preferences that should be maximized.
Note that it may well be the case that some of these
preferences become satisfied without the person
holding them ever noticing that this is the case.
Hedonists often point to this fact as a defect in the
preferentialist position, but preferentialists tend to see
it as a strength in their position. Utilitarianism
A special problem with preferentialism is that we often
abandon preferences. Does this mean that their
satisfaction no longer matters to our welfare?
Preferentialists disagree on this point.
The most plausible move for preferentialists to make
here is to say that what matters to our welfare is that
our preferences get satisfied at the time when we hold
them, not otherwise.
This means that satisfying somebody’s wishes about
what is to happen after their death will not increase
This seems to be the correct conclusion to draw, but
note that many preferentialists have held that what
makes their view plausible is inde...
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- Fall '12
- The American