. 4
( 10)


According to MAC, our obligations to the poor or starving character-
istically depend on the group acts that already exist and their normative
weight. We can explore this characteristic feature of MAC by contrast
with Liam Murphy™s recent alternative proposal, the collective princi-
ple of bene¬cence: “The collective principle of bene¬cence . . . requires

agents to promote the well-being of others up to the level of sacri¬ce that
would be optimal under full compliance” with that principle by others
from this point forward in time.26 In other words, you should do this:
Figure out the size that your sacri¬ce would have to be if everyone con-
tributed properly from now on to the relief of poverty. But given that
they won™t, ef¬ciently allocate your individual sacri¬ce to yield the best
consequences. It seems unfair to require more sacri¬ce of you than that,
and yet your sacri¬ce should be ef¬ciently distributed in light of the fact
that others didn™t and won™t comply. It also isn™t just to diminish the size of
the contribution required of you by considering the mass of people who
have failed to contribute in the past, and who got us into this unfortunate
If you are a member of the sole small rich society in the world, this
may put enormous demands on you. But if you are a member of many
rich societies in which most in fact are very sel¬sh, it will put limited
demands on you.
This proposal attractively focuses on the cooperative acts of others.
But MAC and the familiar rationale of direct consequentialism suggest
that we should speci¬cally focus not, as Murphy does, on hypothetical
cooperation, but rather on actual cooperation, on actual group acts of
aiding the poor and starving. MAC and intuition suggest that forms of
real past and present cooperation matter more than Murphy suggests.27
There are various asymmetries in Murphy™s story that are neither intu-
itively appropriate nor appropriately motivated according to MAC. If you
are in the sole rich country in the world because some people in the past
have been grievously unjust inside various poor countries, Murphy sug-
gests that there are enormous demands on you. But if you are the only
less-than-sel¬sh person in the whole pretty rich world now and hence-
forth, and if you know for a fact that everyone else will neglect their duty,
still what they very hypothetically would do if they weren™t so sel¬sh gets
you off easy. This asymmetry seems morally arbitrary.
But my main worry about Murphy™s proposal is this: What if everyone
in the past has worked with might and main to alleviate suffering in the
world, and only the current and immediately succeeding generations,
raised in debilitating luxury, are and will be largely very sel¬sh? And what
if some recent natural disaster somewhere were exacerbated by this general
sel¬shness? You know your peers won™t contribute as your ancestors did,

26 Murphy (2000: 7). For a fuller statement of the principle, see pp. 117“118.
27 Hooker (2000: 164) makes a similar complaint.

and your ancestors would have mitigated the disaster anyway. But Murphy
suggests that you still should ¬gure out what you ought to do on the basis
of what would happen if your peers and future generations all became
sel¬‚ess, even if that is much less demanding, because of current wealth,
than what your ancestors in fact did, or indeed even if it is much less
than the few relatively sel¬‚ess people in the world are now doing. Indeed,
you only have to do your part of that highly hypothetical sort even if
everyone else in the generation to come will have to do much more, and
you know they will, because your sel¬sh generation is really going to mess
things up.
MAC suggests, rather, that you look to actual group agents, which
may include past and foreseen atomic agents, for guidance. The temporal
position of the other cooperators is irrelevant to MAC, since, for instance,
cooperation with your past and future selves is a relevant group act. While
group action requires a kind of mutual recognition, your ancestors can
recognize you in much the same relatively abstract way that the you of
this moment can recognize your future selves. MAC suggests that you
should cooperate with the weighty group agents that you are inside, and
join the weighty ones that you aren™t inside if that is suggested by the true
consequentialist valuation principle, in other words, if you can provide
more additional value by joining than you would hence give up. Once
you are inside, you will be tied in with something like deontological force.
You should defect only if you can create as much value by your individual
defection as the entire group act achieves.
There seem to be at least three real group acts that are quite relevant
to the issue we face. First, Thomas Pogge has plausibly argued that we
support our governments when they engage in vigorous activity “ for
instance, bargaining activity “ in support of optional details of the inter-
national global economic order that kill millions every year.28 While we
haven™t considered how MAC would specify evil acts, still if that govern-
mental activity or that international global economic order constitutes a
group act in which we participate, then it is plausible that our individual
participation is genuinely evil according to MAC. We must desist and
consider the demands of proper reparation. But I will focus here on pos-
itive and general moral obligations to the poor and starving, which the
mechanism I have already developed can treat.

28 Pogge (2002).

The second relevant group act re¬‚ects the fact that, throughout history,
many of the rich have accepted the idea that they have a special obligation
to charity. This acceptance plausibly helps constitute a weighty group
agent in my sense. And you and I are arguably rich enough to qualify. But
I will focus yet more narrowly, on a third and probably more important
group agent that we are more certainly eligible to join.
There has been and continues to be a large normative practice in which
many merely reasonably well-off people accept that they must contribute
a certain ¬xed percentage of wealth or income to the relief of the poor
and starving. This seems to be a weighty group act in my sense, supported
by entwined benevolence and reciprocity that will occasion criticism of
known defectors. MAC is not so much an easy guide to action as a cri-
terion of right and wrong action, and this case reveals that our duties
according to MAC turn on facts about real group actions that may be
hard to discover. And of course I am no historian. But here is my best
shot: There has at least sometimes been a traditional Jewish and Christian
practice of dedicating between one-quarter and one-third of the tradi-
tional tithe to support for the poor and starving.29 Over time, there seems
to have been variation regarding whether the tithe applied to particu-
lar agricultural and animal products or to general income, with ancient
temporal movement toward the more expansive conception. And partic-
ipation was generally conceived as obligatory. Furthermore, the Islamic
practice of zak¯ t prescribes the contribution of at least 2.5 percent of
wealth each year by those meeting certain minimal standards, primarily
for the alleviation of poverty.30 Indeed, this obligation is one of the ¬ve
pillars of Islam. In light of these details of history, we might presume a
relatively conservative understanding of what participation in the relevant
group act requires, which would also encompass the largest group. So I
claim that there has been and is a weighty group agent that contributes at
least 2.5 percent of income to the poor and starving. There are complica-
tions “ for instance, the fact that such obligations have often been focused
within local communities or religious groups. But contemporary means
of communication and travel broaden possible communities in such a way,
and there are enough starving people of various religious af¬liations, that

29 Wigoder (2002: 776); Vischer (1966: 4, 9); Clarke (1894: 85). Singer (1993: 246) suggests
tithing as a morally obligatory contribution to the poor, though he claims it would be
arbitrary. On medieval support of the poor in Europe, see Gilchrist (1969).
30 Al-Shiekh (1995); Weiss (2002).

these are arguably details that can be enfolded into a division of labor
within a single group agent.
These historical facts imply that even a tithe, and certainly one-quarter
of that, would not be so demanding of us as to undercut our individual
autonomy in any realistic sense. Most of us are richer than most members
of traditional societies. And they suggest there is a real group agent of
signi¬cant normative weight that donates 2.5 percent of gross income to
relief of the poor and starving. Whatever religious reasons people have
had for accepting the reasons that constitute this group agent are largely
irrelevant according to MAC. The group agent exists, and atheists can join.
You may accept reasons, at least in a tenuous way, that put you already
inside such a group agent to one degree or another, and that hence require
your participation with something like deontological force according to
MAC. It would be appropriate to defect only if you can achieve as much
good by that defection as the entire group act will achieve over time.
And even if you are not already inside such an agent, it is likely that
the diversion of this trivial amount of your income to famine relief will
generate weightier effects by the tenets of MAC than its present use, and
also that the other costs and bene¬ts of joining the group act “ due, for
instance, to the psychological conditions on participation “ will not forbid
joining. So you are obligated to join up and do your part, and then you
will become bound inside.
Real cooperative practices are naturally salient moral coordination
points according to MAC. You should join the two relevant group agents
if you are not inside them already, and you should cooperate if you are.
You should give at least 2.5 percent if you are relatively poor for a reader
of this book, and you should give more lavishly if you are relatively rich.
The poor and starving have a natural moral claim on us, and so do those
who give. Only that level of individual sacri¬ce would be suitably fair to
those real people out there, in the past and present and in the future, who
have tried, are trying, and will try to hold their end up. This proposal
is not very demanding, but it isn™t trivial. Shifting 1.25 percent of the
aggregate income enjoyed by the 903 million people like you and me
who live in high-income economies would plausibly eradicate serious
poverty worldwide.31 We are not awash in endless human misery. We are
miserly and self-indulgent. We need only do as much to alleviate poverty

31 Pogge (2002: 2).

in our contemporary global community as our ancestors did within their
local communities. But we don™t do it.
Do you have a direct individual obligation to do even more in our
largely sel¬sh world, on direct act consequentialist grounds, accord-
ing to MAC? Or do you have an obligation to join more rigorously
charitable group activities? That will depend on the normative weight of
the generally bene¬cent group acts from which you must hence defect “
say, by failing to educate your children or yourself to the fullest extent, by
straining your future selves and friendships, by eschewing good clothes
and housing. There is not only your individual project to educate your
own children, but also the general project of educating children. And the
second has great weight according to MAC. Even group acts supporting
hobbies may conceivably have relevant weight, since lots of small satisfac-
tions may trump food bene¬ts for individual starving people according to
some traditional consequentialist valuation principles. And more serious
general projects like that of education and good housing will certainly
provide suitable moral cover.
What MAC will not characteristically protect is costly individual
idiosyncracies, either in the way roles in large group projects are ful¬lled “
for instance, inef¬ciently and at great expense “ or involving commitment
to activities that do not ful¬ll roles in weighty group projects. MAC will
not protect individual whims that de¬‚ect large amounts of money to sel¬sh
pursuits that are not themselves suitably weighty and that are not protected
by their role in weighty group acts. Expensive hobbies and quirky, costly
desires do not receive much protection. It is of course possible for a con-
tinuing individual project to be a group act with weighty consequences.
So if you are Gauguin, MAC may also provide some further moral
But think of a person who is not yet a part of any collective group
act, or who has left all such projects behind. There may be enormous
demands placed by MAC on that person. It may seem unfair that there
is this asymmetry in demands on those not inculcated into familiar moral
However, as we noted in the last chapter, and will discuss again in
Chapter 8, the conditions required for being inside familiar group acts are
not very robust. You need merely to accept the reasons in question and
grant them a limited sort of motivational and practical weight. I think
very few of us are genuinely outside most of the demands of common-
sense morality, except for the very young, who are incapable of accepting

reasons and hence incapable of genuine morally governed action, and the
decrepit, who are incapable of signi¬cant action.
Still, there may be supermen or sociopaths who have genuinely thrown
off conventional morality and other sorts of customary group action in
the full light of some blinding day. But let such supermen or sociopaths be
governed by act consequentialist demands, I say, in their lonely strength
and pride. If they are beyond the customary robust restrictions on murder,
then they shouldn™t complain if they are beyond any customary limitations
on the demands of proper benevolence also.
But what if you are a member of two charity groups, and while the
second is more bene¬cent, your contribution to the ¬rst is much more
crucial to the success of its project? It may seem that MAC suggests that
the less a charity needs you, the greater is your obligation to give. And
that seems wrong.
But as we saw in the last chapter for structurally similar cases, what is
crucial is whether you would be criticized for defecting from the weightier
group agent in order to contribute your more signi¬cant share to the less
weighty agent. In cases in which it seems clear that you should defect from
the weightier group, you would not be. And so the group act in question
incorporates a relevant exception into its project. You would not in fact
be defecting when you contribute in an effective way to the less weighty
MAC is a little demanding, but not terribly so. Normal human lives
are certainly possible within its strictures.
Commonsense morality is a very weighty one-off group agent in my
sense. Aside from the re¬nements required if we properly eschew counter-
productive individual elements of the project of commonsense morality
in favor of a more bene¬cent concentric group agent “ counterproduc-
tive elements that include its recent excessive sel¬shness “ the demands of
commonsense morality are largely endorsed by MAC. If commonsense
morality delivers an intuitive set of obligations, exceptions, and resolutions
of moral con¬‚icts, then so will MAC.
We will return in Part Four to the speci¬c injunctions of MAC when
conjoined with HMP in particular. But we have already seen that it can
evade the three standard intuitive objections to act consequentialism when
conjoined with plausible basic consequentialist normative principles. It is
not too demanding; it is not too permissive; and it implies intuitive special

Part Two
Intuitive Hedonism

Multiple-Act Consequentialism must be accompanied by a basic nor-
mative principle, and the basic normative principle proposed here is the
Hedonic Maximin Principle. HMP has two elements, which are devel-
oped in this and the following part. The next part concerns its maximin
structure. This part concerns its hedonism.
Hedonism is the view that pleasure is the basic ethical or normative
value, and pain the basic disvalue. Chapter 5 will argue that hedonism is
true, whether we like it or not and whatever our normative intuitions.
But this chapter argues that it is appropriately intuitive.
The hoary philosophical tradition of hedonism suggests that it is at
least reasonably and roughly intuitive. But philosophers no longer treat it
that way. For the most part, they think that they know it to be obvi-
ously false on intuitive grounds, much more obviously false on such
grounds than familiar competitors. I will argue that this consensus is
wrong. I will defend the intuitive cogency of hedonism relative to the
now dominant desire-based and objectivist conceptions of well-being
and the good. I will argue that hedonism is still a contender, and indeed
that our current understanding of commonsense intuition on balance
supports it.
It may seem quite unlikely that such an argument will succeed. For
instance, here is Sumner™s relatively sympathetic evaluation of hedonism™s

Time and philosophical fashion have not been kind to hedonism. Although
hedonistic theories of various sorts ¬‚ourished for three centuries or so in their
congenial empiricist habitat, they have all but disappeared from the scene.
Do they now merit even passing attention, for other than nostalgic purposes?

Like endangered species, discredited ideas do sometimes manage to make a

Of course, always at issue is who has the intuitions that count. Is it Spenser™s
Una, Sojourner Truth, or Simone de Beauvoir? The fact that hedonism
was a serious contender within philosophy for much longer than even
the three centuries Sumner notes suggests that it might still have a life
outside of the trained intuitions of contemporary analytic moral philoso-
phers. Nevertheless, it is those intuitions that I will address. Some of
my strategy will be to delimit the kind of hedonism that I will defend,
which will soften its con¬‚ict with our trained intuition. But most of my
strategy will be to undercut or adjust the intuitions that seem to dis-
credit hedonism, by appeal to other intuitions that are more favorable
and forceful.
Section I distinguishes the form of hedonism that I will defend from
others in its near vicinity. Sections II, III, and IV argue that hedonism is
suitably intuitive, despite recent fashion.


The hedonism I will defend is at once very crude, which may make it
seem especially hard to defend on intuitive grounds, and yet deployed
in a speci¬c way that somewhat eases that task. Let™s begin with the
crudity. Focus on the pleasantness of physical pleasures and the painfulness
of physical pains. On my view, the pleasantness of physical pleasure is
a kind of hedonic value; it is a single homogenous sensory property,
varying merely in intensity as well as in extent and duration, which is
yet a kind of goodness. Likewise for pain and hedonic disvalue. We will
get to the details of this conception in the next chapter. Alternatively,
and less idiosyncratically, one might claim that the sensory pleasantness
of physical pains has a value that would be in that sense hedonic. This
difference won™t matter for our present purposes.
While physical pains and crude physical pleasures provide the paradig-
matic examples of the hedonic value and disvalue that I will deploy, other
“higher” pleasures and pains may involve attenuated experience of the
same kind. But that may not seem to help much. Such a view is rem-
iniscent of the classical hedonism of Bentham, which is the sort now
most widely ridiculed. Most of the few contemporary hedonists deploy

1 Sumner (1996: 83).

more sophisticated conceptions of pleasure or enjoyment,2 and even these
more sophisticated forms of hedonism are widely thought untenable. At
least since Sidgwick, it has been perhaps the dominant view even among
hedonists that there isn™t a single homogeneous quality of sensation char-
acteristic of all pleasures or of all pains. I believe that some real phenomenal
differences between pains and pleasures can be delivered by felt elements
other than hedonic value, and I do not insist that hedonic value or disvalue
provide a phenomenal reduction of, or a necessary condition for, all pains
and pleasures. Still, there is no questioning the relatively simple crudity
of the basic phenomenal properties that I will defend as the basic nor-
mative properties. Contemporary defenders of hedonism usually adopt
what Sumner has called an externalist conception of pain and pleasure,
in which pain is characterized as involving a certain sort of aversion to a
wide range of phenomenal experiences.3 But hedonic value is internalist
in this sense and also phenomenally homogeneous.
Still, even my crude hedonism does not identify pleasure itself with
positive value, but rather merely considers the positive hedonic tone char-
acteristic of physical pleasures to be the sole irreducible kind of positive
value. And simple internalist conceptions of pleasure and pain do have
certain intuitive advantages, well summarized by Sumner:

The attitude model [of pain, which identi¬es it with all aversive phenomenal
states,] can make no sense at all of the testimony of lobotomized subjects who say
that they continue to feel pain but are no longer averse to it. More seriously, it
also runs foul of the perfectly obvious fact that pain is not the only physical feeling
to which we are (normally) averse. Think for a moment of the many physical
symptoms which, when persistent, can make our lives miserable: nausea, hiccups,
sneezing, dizziness, disorientation, loss of balance, itching, ˜pins and needles™,
˜restless legs™, tics, twitching, fatigue, dif¬culty in breathing, and so on. While
none of these is quite the same as physical pain, we experience each as intrinsically
disagreeable. The attitude model simply obliterates these categorial boundaries
by treating all these states indifferently as pain.4

But my crude conception has exactly corresponding disadvantages. It
deploys phenomenal hedonic disvalue and disvalue of a simple sort even

2 Sidgwick (1907); Edwards (1979); Sumner (1996). It is a stretch to call Sumner a hedonist,
but we will return to his view shortly. Feldman (2004) is the best-developed recent hedonist
proposal, and deploys a highly sophisticated conception. T¨ nnsj¨ (1998) is closer to my own
a o
proposal, and I will discuss crucial elements of his account in Chapter 5.
3 See, for instance, Edwards (1979) and Sidgwick (1907).
4 Sumner (1996: 102“103).

to characterize the phenomenal value component of itching or pins and
needles. And the fact that we sometimes do not mind hedonic disvalue
and sometimes do mind other phenomenological states is not obviously
an intuitive advantage for my account. Let me put it this way: Perhaps it is
reasonable to follow Casell and distinguish between pleasure and pain on
the one hand and enjoyment and suffering on the other, where pain and
pleasure are mere sensations but enjoyment and suffering involve, perhaps
only, the attitudes that externalism customarily deploys.5 But then pain
that isn™t suffering and pleasure that isn™t enjoyment may seem intuitively
irrelevant to our well-being or good. And hence a plausible hedonism
may seem of necessity to be a hedonism of enjoyment and suffering, and
not of pleasure and pain, let alone of the homogeneous and crude hedonic
tone that I deploy.
Nevertheless, I will defend my crude hedonism as suitably intuitive.
One thing that helps is the relative speci¬city of the role in which I will
defend it. First, my hedonism is in no interesting sense psychological
hedonism. I make no claim that hedonic value is our ultimate goal or
desire, and indeed no claim that it plays any speci¬c motivational or
psychological role at all. And even within normative hedonism, we must
heed some distinctions.
First, I deploy hedonic value and disvalue, and not pain and pleasure or
suffering and enjoyment strictu sensu, as we will see in full detail in the next
chapter. As I suggested earlier, hedonic value is a single sort of phenomenal
quality that is a component of paradigmatic physical pleasures, but it is
found outside of states we call “pleasure”, and it is not a part of many
states we do. So my view is hedonism in, though a recognizable, still an
extended sense.
Second, there is a variety of different normative roles in which plea-
sure or hedonic value may be deployed. It might be thought to be the
only thing that is good, or the only thing that is intrinsically or non-
instrumentally good. Or it might be thought that one™s own pleasure is
all that is ultimately good for one or all that can constitute one™s well-
being. Indeed, there may be more than one notion of well-being to which
pleasure contributes in different ways, since, as a number of authors have
noted, different notions of individual well-being may be differentially
appropriate for different normative purposes “ say, for the distribution of
certain government services or the retrospective evaluation of one™s own

5 Casell (1982: 11); Sumner (1996: 103).

life.6 But in fact I will not deploy hedonic value in any of these exact nor-
mative roles. I will defend hedonic value and disvalue only as providing
what one might call basic value, which must be augmented, for instance,
by a plausible consequentialist account of other sorts of value, such as that
delivered by MAC, and also by the distribution sensitivity delivered by
the maximin structure of HMP.
But still my view is recognizably within the classical utilitarian tradition.
There is a recognizable sense in which I hold that the overall normative
status of things rests on what we might call the basic well-being and good
of sentient beings, and not on their overall or ¬nal well-being or good,
which includes all those complications. And there is also a recognizable
sense in which I hold that this basic well-being and good is constituted
by their pleasure and pain, or, more precisely, by the crude hedonic value
that is a component of their paradigmatic and hence physical pains and
pleasures. So, despite the complications I have noted, the best way to
engage the hedonism I will defend and contemporary intuition is by
regard to current discussions of well-being and the good.
Perhaps it will seem that some other form of normative hedonism is
more intuitive than my own “ for instance, a more complicated internalist
model that recognizes more sorts of experienced value, or a sophisticated
externalist model like Feldman™s recent proposal.7 In light of the general
disrepute of hedonism, I will not focus here on trying to win these rel-
atively internecine battles. My primary goal is to convince you not to
dismiss hedonism, any form of hedonism, out of hand. But sophisticated
hedonisms such as these are made so by the complications they introduce
in concession to intuitive objections made by the opponents of hedonism
to crude forms like my own. And so in defending my proposal against
the dominant alternatives to hedonism, I will also present the materials
for further argument against closer competitors.
The following sections probe successively into what I take to be sequen-
tially deeper strata of intuitive objections to normative hedonism. Sec-
tions II and III introduce alternative accounts of well-being, and promi-
nent intuitive concrete cases that seem to undercut hedonism and support
the alternatives. Section IV, by reference to W. D. Ross™s discussion in The
Right and the Good,8 addresses in a general way the intuitions that lie behind
these speci¬c cases.

6 One well-developed example is Scanlon (1998: Chapter 3).
7 Feldman (2004).
8 Ross (1930).


Par¬t provides the following typography of theories of what is good for
one: “On the Hedonistic Theory, what would be best for someone is what
would give him most happiness. . . . On the Desire-Ful¬lment Theory, what
would be best for someone is what would best ful¬ll his desires throughout
his life. . . . On the Objective List Theory, certain things are good or bad for
us, even if we would not want to have the good things or avoid the
bad things.”9 Grif¬n adopts a similar organization of extant competitive
accounts of well-being in his well-known treatment of that issue.10 To
save words and letters, I will speak simply of “hedonism”, “desire-based
theories”, and “objectivism”.
It is important to notice that there is more than one possible form of
each type of account. As I said, since hedonism is so widely disparaged, my
primary concern throughout this chapter will be to defend the intuitive
cogency of my crude hedonism relative to dominant desire-based and
objectivist accounts of well-being and the good.11 And I cannot hope in
the short space of a chapter to conclusively refute all alternatives to hedo-
nism. My smaller aim, rather, is to defend the overall relative intuitive
plausibility of hedonism. I hope to establish de¬nitively that hedonism is
at least an intuitive competitor, that it cannot properly be summarily dis-
missed as radically counterintuitive. It isn™t trendy, but it deserves respect. I
also, more ambitiously, hope to convince you that on balance our current
understanding of commonsense intuition suggests that hedonism is the
most intuitive account overall.
As I™ve noted, this is not a popular view. Contemporary arguments
against hedonism and for alternative conceptions of well-being and the
good rest heavily on certain concrete cases, which are deployed to engage
our commonsense intuition against hedonism or in favor of its competi-
tors. They have seemed quite convincing.
Concrete cases can be vivid and forceful, and they are a typical method-
ology used throughout contemporary analytic philosophy. Nevertheless,
they should be handled with some care. First, it is hard in a very con-
crete case to avoid elements that distract intuition from the crucial fea-
tures that it is supposed to test. The very concreteness of cases can make
them impure. Second, overall judgments about normative and other

9 Par¬t (1984: 4).
10 Grif¬n (1986). He distinguishes between objective accounts and perfectionist accounts,
which I will treat together.
11 For an effective defense of a considerably less crude form, see Feldman (2004).

philosophical matters may be complex, and may require that we balance
competing intuitive inclinations in a complex way. So it is important to
consider a suitably wide range of different concrete cases that may pull in
different directions, if we are to come to a plausible overall understanding
of our intuitive judgments. We must be wary of hasty overgeneralization
from single cases. Third, the intuitions of sober and relevant judges may
differ. And so not all individual intuitions can be taken as decisive.
Unfortunately, perhaps just because hedonism no longer seems like a
serious contender, the discussions of hedonism even by very able, con-
scientious, and relatively sympathetic authors are now less than ideal in
these ways. I will begin with the standard cases that seem to undercut
hedonism. I will focus our discussion on the negative treatment of views
like my own by Grif¬n and by Sumner, who propose instead recogniz-
ably desire-based accounts.12 Part of my point will be that their accounts
of well-being are unusually able and conscientious, relatively sympathetic
to hedonism, and standard. They are a best case. The likely explanation
for the problems that we will uncover in their discussions is that crude
hedonism like my own no longer seems worth real attention. That is also
part of my point.
Sumner says of hedonism that the “two strongest objections to an
account of this sort have been nicely summarized by James Grif¬n.”13
But it is striking that Grif¬n is effectively done with hedonism by the
fourth page of his ¬rst chapter.14 His two objections are two sorts of
concrete counterexample. The ¬rst objection is deployed against simple,
homogeneous hedonic tone accounts such as mine and Bentham™s, while
the second objection is deployed against more complex hedonisms that
identify well-being with “states of mind” of a broader sort. Since my
hedonism is so crude, and since the second objection would count against
crude as well as more complex hedonisms, we can safely ignore that detail.
First, there is Freud in pain. Here is the entire relevant passage from
At the very end of his life, Freud, ill and in pain, refused drugs except aspirin.
˜I prefer™, he said, ˜to think in torment than not to be able to think clearly™. But
can we ¬nd a single feeling or mental state present in both of Freud™s options in
virtue of which he ranked them as he did? The truth seems, rather, that often we

12 Carson (2000) also provides an excellent discussion of desire-based theories. It suggests that
hedonism may be defensible on moral realist grounds such as I deploy in the next chapter.
13 Sumner (1996: 92).
14 Grif¬n (1986).

just rank options, period. Some preferences “ Freud™s seems to be one “ are basic.
That is, preferences do not always rest upon our judgments about the quantity of
some homogeneous mental state found in, or produced by, each option.15

First point: A normative hedonist need not deny that we prefer other
things than pleasure. I certainly do not deny that we have nonhedonic
preferences, even if we ignore complexities like the instrumentality of
some desires. I just claim that such preferences can be mistaken. And notice
that this paragraph mostly just reminds us that Freud had a nonhedonic
preference. Grif¬n presents this as an objection to a certain conception of
utility in particular, which might perhaps plausibly be de¬ned by reference
to individual preference. But the problem is that this paragraph constitutes
Grif¬n™s entire attack on a simple hedonist notion of well-being, with
which utility has been linked on his preceding page.
And there is a second point: While Grif¬n is a desire-based theorist,
he is an informed desire-based theorist. He thinks that desires must be
corrected by full information if they are to have normative weight. Two
pages after the paragraph I have quoted, he rejects the “actual-desire”
account in this way:
[N]otoriously, we mistake our own interests. It is depressingly common that even
when some of our strongest and most central desires are ful¬lled, we are no better,
even worse, off. Since the notion we are after is the ordinary notion of ˜well-
being™, what must matter for utility will have to be, not persons™ actual desires, but
their desires in some way improved. The objection to the actual-desire account
is overwhelming.16

But if the actual-desire account is false, then a simple appeal to contrary
preference cannot establish the falsity of hedonism.
Perhaps my reading of Grif¬n™s case is unsympathetic. Perhaps his cen-
tral thought was not that Freud simply had these preferences, but that he
“ranked” the states in question, in some way expressing what we are to
take to be an intuitive normative judgment about his well-being. Sum-
ner stresses this alternative way of reading Grif¬n™s case as an argument
against simple hedonism: “On Bentham™s version of the classical view,
Freud seems plainly to have chosen the option which was worse for him.
But that is a judgment few of us would join in making, and one which
he himself would presumably have rejected.”17

15 Ibid., 8.
16 Ibid., 10.
17 Sumner (1996: 92).

But remember the ¬rst characteristic danger of concrete cases that I
noted earlier. The Freud case is complex, and its very impurity makes it
hard to isolate those of our reactions that re¬‚ect intuitive judgments about
individual well-being. Freud was surely moved by considerations other
than his own well-being, given the grand nature of his intellectual ambi-
tion and self-conception and the therapeutic nature of his overall project.
He may legitimately have preferred clear thinking, but on grounds other
than a mere sel¬sh concern with his own well-being. So this concrete
case is inconclusive.
Considerations of the general sorts that are in play in this ¬rst case
arise again in Grif¬n™s more extended second objection, where Grif¬n
and Sumner focus most of their discussion. So let™s turn there. Here again
is the entire relevant passage from Grif¬n:

The trouble with [the hedonist] account is that we do seem to desire things other
than states of mind, even independently of the states of mind they produce. This
is the point that Robert Nozick has forcefully made with some science ¬ction.
Imagine an experience machine programmed to give you any experience you
want; it will stimulate your brain so that you think you are living the most ideal
life, while all the while you ¬‚oat in a tank with electrodes in your brain. Would
you plug in? ˜What else can matter to us™, Nozick asks, ˜other than how our lives
feel from the inside?™ And he replies, surely rightly, that we also want to do certain
things, to be certain things, and to be receptive to what there is in life beyond
what humans make. The point does not need science ¬ction; there are plenty
of examples in ordinary life. I certainly want control over my own fate. Even if
you convince me that, as my personal despot, you would produce more desirable
consciousness for me than I do for myself, I shall want to go on being my own
master, at least as long as your record would not be much better than mine. I
prefer, in important areas of my life, bitter truth to comfortable delusion. Even if
I were surrounded by consummate actors able to give me sweet simulacra of love
and affection, I should prefer the relatively bitter diet of their authentic reactions.
And I should prefer it not because it would be morally better, or aesthetically
better, or more noble, but because it would make for a better life for me to live.
Perhaps some such preferences, looked at with a cold eye, will turn out to be of
dubious rationality, but not all will. This fact presents a serious challenge to [the
hedonist account.]18

First point: Notice that for the most part this passage also simply
observes that we desire, want, or prefer things other than our own hedonic

18 Grif¬n (1986: 9).

tone. And still, by now on the next page, what we prefer is rejected by
Grif¬n as a criterion for our well-being on “overwhelming” grounds.
There are, though, other elements in this passage. The third-to-the-
last sentence claims that interfering factors “ factors other than intuitive
judgments about individual well-being “ do not play a role in our reaction
to the cases, or at least no ineliminable role, that the cases are suitably pure.
The second-to-the-last sentence approaches the claim that some of the
preferences in question are correct, though perhaps it doesn™t quite get
there, since the claim that something is not of dubious rationality may
be merely the claim that it isn™t mad or incoherent and not quite the
claim that it is correct in the relevant sense. And it is striking that though
Grif¬n says that some of the preferences he™s noted are not of dubious
rationality, he doesn™t tell us which ones. But my main point is that the
claims in the second- and third-last sentences are controversial and in
part normative claims about the concrete cases, and not parts of those
There are many elements in these concrete cases that disturb our ability
to factor out confounding elements. The experience machine is unfamil-
iar gadgetry that invokes our fear of the unfamiliar. It certainly is wildly
unrealistic.19 It involves a troubling irrevocability.20 And it seems to at
least threaten risks of even hedonic harm that the corresponding actual life
would not present.21 Grif¬n deploys other concrete cases, from “ordinary
life” and not from science ¬ction: the personal despot and the consum-
mate actors. But of course these are not all that realistic. Consummate
actors would not realistically devote their lives to the project suggested.
And even if they did, there would always be the realistic possibility that
things might go radically amiss, in a way that wouldn™t threaten an ordinary
life such as the actors were only simulating.
A second important cluster of confounding factors that in¬‚uences our
reaction to all these cases is that things other than our own well-being are
in play in all of them, and matter to us. For instance, our lives have effects
on other people that are quite signi¬cant, and that we care about, and
that the judgments Grif¬n favors apparently ignore.22 It is hard to suspend
consideration of those effects. It is hard to forget that one™s loved ones
would be hurt in Nozick™s scenario, and that one might blunder badly,

19 Haslett (1990).
20 Goldsworthy (1992: 18“20).
21 Sumner (1996: 94“95).
22 Haslett (1990).

through the ministrations of the consummate actors, in any attempt to
help those one cares about.23
Mill™s satis¬ed pig “ who, you will recall, it is supposed to be worse to
be than Socrates dissatis¬ed “ is one ancestor of these cases.24 Plato™s happy
“creatures who live in shells in the sea” are more distant ancestors.25 But
of course serious contemplation of becoming a pig or a mollusk invokes
interfering factors of all the kinds we have traced, with a little species
pride thrown in.
There is indeed yet another cluster of considerations that interfere with
our ability to draw clean judgments from these cases, but it is perhaps best
to consider these in light of another general set of worries about the use
of concrete cases that I noted earlier. As I said, it is important to consider
a range of concrete cases all at once in order to form a properly balanced
judgment about our complex normative intuitions.
Let me focus speci¬cally on the intuitive signi¬cance of living in the
truth. Grif¬n™s cases do reveal a certain revulsion we feel not merely to
being deceived, but also to false experience itself. The personal despot
may more manipulate than deceive, and it is interesting that there Grif¬n
retreats to a relatively weak claim about control over one™s own fate,
that he™d prefer to be his own master as long as the benevolent personal
despot didn™t have a much better record. Still, even just the truth of an
experience involves more complexities than a single case or a few cases
can easily reveal.
We all grant that truth is the characteristic epistemic value of beliefs.
So when other things are equal, of course true beliefs are better in some
sense, though not necessarily a morally relevant sense partly constituting
individual well-being. And of course true beliefs allow more certain action
toward one™s goals, whatever they are. But the crucial question is whether
living in the truth is of signi¬cance to well-being in itself and not for its
various effects “ for instance, whether there are decisive commonsense
intuitions that show that someone would be intuitively better off if less
happy but more in the truth. There is some suggestion of this in Grif¬n™s
claim about bitter truth. But our intuitions on these matters are complex
and delicate, and not adequately revealed by our reaction to a single

23 I presume that some of these might not be among the consummate actors, or that one
might even care about some of the consummate actors regardless of their lies.
24 Mill (1979: 7“9).
25 Plato (1975: 21d).

Sumner™s discussion uncovers some of the relevant complexities. To
understand this discussion, it is useful to know that his view is that welfare
consists of authentic happiness.26 Happiness is supposed to be life satis-
faction, which has an affective component that involves experiencing the
condition of your life as ful¬lling or rewarding, and a cognitive compo-
nent, which involves judging that your life is going well. Such happiness
is supposed to be authentic when it is informed, and autonomous. But of
course the crucial question is how to balance off authenticity and happi-
ness. And Sumner has interesting things to say on this topic, our current
Sumner suggests, plausibly, that Grif¬n™s cases alone may suggest too
rigid a view. Virtual reality machines might be something that we would
enjoy in limited ways. Here it seems perhaps that individual preferences
should guide us in judgments about well-being. Some people may like
experience machines for some purposes, and some may not. But there are
even more dif¬cult cases. Sumner considers a mother asking a sergeant
whether or not her soldier son died in agony, saying that she™d rather be
so unhappy that she™d want to die than to delude herself. But then, after
having been informed of her son™s agonized death, she writes, “I wanted
to know and got what I thought I wanted.”27
In the end, in light of the various complexities he considers, Sumner
proposes an account of the relevance of falsehood to well-being that rests
on individual retrospective judgments. Consider
the case of a woman who, for a while, lives in ignorant bliss with a faithless
partner. Her endorsement of her life lacks information about his character and
intentions. Is this information relevant? It is if her possessing it would undermine
that endorsement. There are, therefore, two possibilities, which open up once
she has been undeceived. One is that she re-evaluates how well her life was
going . . . during the period of deception: ˜I thought everything was going well,
but now I can see that it was all a farce.™ In that case, the discount rate she now
imposes on her earlier assessment of her well-being determines how relevant the
information was. The other possibility is that she does not care: ˜C™est la vie; at
least he was charming and we had a lot of fun.™ Here the information turns out
to have zero relevance, since that is the status she confers on it.28

One sort of objectivist account would hold that the truth of an expe-
rience matters to its contribution to well-being, period, whatever our

26 Sumner (1996: 138“183).
27 Ibid., 97.
28 Ibid., 160“161.

individual beliefs and preferences on the matter. That still leaves the prob-
lem of determining how much it counts, how much happiness is worth
how much truth. But the main problem with such an account is that
it is unintuitive to insist on the signi¬cance of truth despite individual
preference to the contrary. Sumner™s is a kind of desire-based account,29
and appropriately and attractively rests the issue on individual preference.
The relevant preferences can™t be revealed during the deception, but they
can be afterward, retrospectively.
Sumner goes on to require that the revealed preferences be informed
and authentic, and we might wonder about whether there is a determinate
fact of the matter about what we would desire if fully informed. And there
are other worries also. We can so assess the state of those terminally duped
only by reference to counterfactual retrospective enlightenment, and there
are a range of different possible counterfactual enlightenments that might
lead to different judgments.
But what™s worse, and in the end decisive against Sumner™s account, is
that it is implausible to assume that actual (or hypothetical) retrospective
judgments will be stable over time. On good days our now undeceived
woman may be glad she was deceived and had a good time, and on bad
days she may not be. And both attitudes may survive confrontation with
full information. Even when such a judgment is stable, it may be an
irrelevant accident that it is so. Sumner™s retrospective account hence fails,
at least in some cases.
Nor are there obvious desire-based alternatives to Sumner™s proposal.
It will not be suf¬cient to appeal to actual preferences about hypothetical
scenarios rather than to retrospective preferences. Remember the mother
and the sergeant. And it won™t be suf¬cient to consider what one hypo-
thetically would prefer if one in fact knew about the deception, since then
one wouldn™t be blissfully ignorant. And in any case there may be an inde-
terminacy about what one would prefer in that hypothetical condition,
as there is about what one would prefer if fully informed.
Obvious objectivist accounts of well-being that invoke the signi¬cance
of the truth of an experience fail intuitively, because they fail to take
individual differences seriously. But obvious desire-based accounts that
invoke truth also fail for the reasons just noted. Since there is no extant
account that handles all extant cases relevant to assessing the relationship
of truth to well-being in an obviously intuitive way, these cases hardly

29 Though closer to classical hedonism than most.

constitute decisive objections to hedonism that adequately support com-
petitive accounts against it. Since we do not know that all our intuitions
in this arena can be made coherent, we do not know that hedonism is
And notice that desire-based accounts such as Sumner™s fail in this
context in a revealing way, a way that re¬‚ects a general dif¬culty for
some of the apparent concrete counterexamples to hedonism that we
have been discussing. There is more than one perspective invoked by these
examples, and it is not always obvious that one particular perspective is
intuitively dominant, at least when a full range of cases is considered. The
experience machine, the consummate actors, Socrates and the pig, and
the deceived woman all involve a dual or multiple perspective on things
that makes them unrealistic or unusual, and that hence perhaps directly
undercuts the probity of the intuitions that they generate. But it also
creates the important issue of whose perspective takes precedence, even
whose corrected perspective. In the experience machine case, one makes a
judgment regarding one™s later state from an original perspective in which
one feels discomfort about the possibility of deception, but such that one
will not feel that deception later because in fact one will be deceived. It
isn™t obvious that the ¬rst perspective has automatic normative authority
over the second, and indeed it isn™t obvious that the view from the ¬rst
perspective isn™t distorted by irrational discomforts. We can see this more
clearly in the case of the soldier™s mother. Or consider this case: You are
amputating Ahab™s leg without anesthetic, and he is screaming that he™d
rather die. Then he wakes up the next morning and thanks you. You
feel better, of course. But why think that Ahab in the morning is the
better authority on what the pain was worth? After all, he isn™t feeling it
anymore, and it is safely in the past.30
We can evade differing temporal perspectives in these cases only by
considering counterfactual judgments or actual judgments about hypo-
thetical cases. But as I™ve already noted, people™s actual judgments about
hypothetical cases may not re¬‚ect their judgments should things like that
in fact become actual. When we ask real deceived people whether they™d
always like to know the truth, we can reasonably suspect their positive
answer is a hope that they will ¬nd out that their illusory beliefs are
true. The relevance of that attitude is undercut if they turn out later
to be miserable in light of the truth. And I also noted that there are

30 I owe this case to a public lecture by Thomas Schelling.

sometimes indeterminacies regarding the judgment that a hypothetically
fully informed person would make, and that such indeterminacies also
infect what someone would judge under other hypothetical conditions.
And in addition, judgments under hypothetical enlightenment cannot
reveal the relevant preferences of the ignorant. It is not relevant to know
that I would prefer ¬ne claret if suitably educated, when what I really want
is a beer. What™s more, we have noted that even fully informed judgments
may not be temporally stable.
We have seen that the standard concrete cases that apparently undercut
hedonism are not suf¬cient, for a variety of reasons, to dismiss hedonism
as an uncompetitive relic. And in fact the issue of the relation of true
beliefs to well-being does on balance suggest some intuitive grounds to
prefer hedonism. Let me turn now to that positive case.
Clearly, another important and relevant set of concrete cases probing
the relationship between truth and well-being stems from the observa-
tion that, depending on how we factor out effects on other people from
the concrete cases we have been considering, we may be left with cases
that are oddly reminiscent of some familiar metaphysical views that don™t
intuitively threaten well-being.31 Presume that Berkeley is right about
the world. It would seem intuitively that your well-being is as great as it
would be if, for instance, Cartesian dualism were true, if all other rele-
vant facts were unchanged. Presume that you feel good about your life
because you have climbed a large mountain in Berkeley™s world. Now
ask what the relevant difference is between being in Berkeley™s world and
in Nozick™s machine. Perhaps it is normatively relevant that other people
experience things as you do in Berkeley™s world but not in Nozick™s. Still,
to cleanly assure ourselves that we aren™t in¬‚uenced by considerations of
other people™s well-being in making our judgments about such a case,
we™d have to put everybody affected relevantly by your life “ say, your
whole family “ into a similar machine. Now what™s the difference? Per-
haps you™d still worry that some people, or God, would see that the whole
family was being manipulated, and indeed that some were engaged in that
manipulation. But consider the coordinating role that God plays even on
Berkeley™s conception. Why is that any better? Or for that matter, consider
the coordinating role of the Galilean colorless world on some physicalist
conceptions of our color experience. These things seem analogous to the
manipulation you would undergo in the experience machine, at least if

31 Carson (2000: 51“53).

enough people were placed along with you in coordinated experience
machines. And it should be that, if anything, actual manipulation and not
merely people™s perception of it is what matters, since those perceptions
might be false, and we wouldn™t want to quickly grant that other peo-
ple™s false perceptions make us worse off in some intrinsic way. If people
think you are deceived but in fact you are not, probably that shouldn™t
matter directly to your well-being, independent of its effects. Of course,
philosophers often have cherished metaphysical views. Perhaps it is deeply
signi¬cant to you whether idealism or physicalism is true, and perhaps if
Berkeley™s world were true you would judge your life to be much worse.
But then that fact will distort the relevance of your judgment about this
case as a clue to the general signi¬cance of truth to individual well-being.
We should consider rather the judgment of the nonphilosopher who has
no idiosyncratic commitments at risk in just this area.
The obvious parallels between these metaphysical cases and more ordi-
nary deception cases suggest some support for the hedonist treatment of
deception. And there are less metaphysically extravagant scenarios that
can make something like the same point. Assume that you want to be
loved, and that your family acts throughout your life in some behaviorally
loving way. But now presume both that our ordinary conceptions of love,
shared by you and your family, are naive, and that the complex facts of
human psychology are very dark, so that in fact no one is loved in the
way in which our folk theory suggests that people would love people if
they behaved as your family behaves toward you. Does that mean you are
worse off than you believe yourself to be? Not, I think, in any clear way
supported by commonsense intuition. This case may occasion worries in
those with signi¬cant and hence idiosyncratic theoretical commitments
about the truth of behaviorism or of some psychological theory of love,
but those idiosyncratic commitments seem an element of distortion.
And my positive case has another component. There is yet another
set of related cases that we need to bear in mind if we are to judge ade-
quately the intuitive signi¬cance of the truth of experience for well-being.
These, like the metaphysical cases, are related to cases we have reviewed
that apparently tell against hedonism, yet they intuitively tell, on balance,
against at least the dominant desire-based accounts and for something
like hedonism. These cases indeed invoke a characteristic dif¬culty for
desire-based accounts.32

32 Overvold (1980, 1982).

The true satisfaction of desires may make no difference in one™s expe-
rience, and in a way that hence has no obvious intuitive relevance to one™s
well-being. One may have desires for something to happen much later
to a stranger one meets momentarily on a ferry and will never see again,
and the ful¬llment of those desires has nothing intuitive to do with one™s
well-being.33 And many object to the thought that one™s well-being can
be affected by things that happen after one™s death, even if some informed
desire is ful¬lled after death. The obvious way to modify desire-based
accounts to evade these dif¬culties is to build in an experience require-
ment, that one experience the satisfaction of the relevant desire. But of
course that doesn™t allow desire-based accounts to deploy some of their
alleged intuitive advantages over hedonism in dealing with the truth of
Grif¬n, for reasons like this, doesn™t build an experience requirement
into his characteristic desire-based account, and grants that it is in some
sense initially intuitive to insist that the satisfaction of a desire after death
is irrelevant to well-being. But he argues that there is a slide between cases
that are intuitively better for his view and these after-death cases, which
should adjust our intuitions about the latter:

Some of our aims are not ful¬lled until we are dead; some, indeed, being desires
for then, could not be. But is this so embarrassing after all? You might have
a desire “ it could be an informed one, I think “ to have your achievements
recognized and acknowledged. An enemy of yours might go around slandering
you behind your back, successfully persuading everyone that you stole all your
ideas, and they, to avoid unpleasantness, pretend in your presence to believe you.
If that could make your life less good, then why could it not be made less good
by his slandering you with the extra distance behind your back that death brings?
You might well be willing to exert yourself, at risk of your life, to prevent these
slanders being disseminated after your death. You might, with full eyes open,
prefer that course to longer life with a ruined reputation after it. There seems
nothing irrational in attaching this value to posthumous reputation. And the value
being attached to it doesn™t seem to be moral or aesthetic or any kind other than
the value to be attached to the life as a life to be lived.35

33 Par¬t (1984: 494).
34 It also requires that we develop some way of balancing experienced satisfaction of a desire
accompanied by unknown frustration, which, if it is not to collapse into hedonism, requires
adjudication of some of the balancing dif¬culties that Sumner faces.
35 Grif¬n (1986: 23).

There are various things to note about this paragraph that are related
to problems with Grif¬n™s cases against hedonism that we™ve already dis-
cussed. Again, his appeal is largely to our actual preferences, and once
again there is a pretty weak claim to nonirrationality playing a crucial
role. What™s more, value attached to a life as a life to be lived is not obvi-
ously the same as well-being. It is also hard to control in our reactions to
this case for the real risks of real unhappiness that such slander during your
life would imply. But my main point is that a slippery slope argument can
be run in two directions. If we are con¬dent that the satisfaction of desires
after death does not matter to well-being, as many are, then Grif¬n™s argu-
ment should convince us that slandering us behind our backs doesn™t in
itself affect our well-being during life. What makes us ¬rst and mislead-
ingly think there is a difference in the cases is simply their impurity, the
fact that slander while we are alive creates all sorts of risks that we will
suffer experienced effects even if, in lucky fact, we don™t ever suffer those
This is not to say that there are no currents in our common sense
that suggest the signi¬cance of what happens after death to well-being.
But they are hardly decisive. The majority of philosophers who are not
theologically inclined should be especially wary of distortions that have
been introduced by the long historical focus on salvation. Aristotle perhaps
introduced this topic into philosophy,36 and even his own conclusion on
the topic does not support a strong signi¬cance for what happens after
death, but merely a “weak and negligible” one. And it is probably also
relevant that some of his wording suggests literal causal effects on the dead
that we should not take seriously.
Certainly, there is plenty in our tradition to suggest that what happens
after death does not matter. If there is any text which can claim to be
central to our tradition, Sophocles™ Oedipus the King is such a text.37 It™s
¬nal line is “[C]ount no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.”38
It is also interesting that the ¬nal speech of the chorus, which concludes
with that line, in fact suggests a link between the issue of effects on
the dead and the general importance of deception and truth to well-
being. The overall suggestion of the play, perhaps the most important and
dramatic example in our literature of a life lived, for a while, in serious
falsehood, is in accord with the suggestions of hedonism. Oedipus falls

36 Aristotle (1980: Book I, Chapters 9“11).
37 Sophocles (1984).
38 Ibid., 251.

calamitously into a bad life, the play suggests, when he ¬nds out the
truth about himself. It contrasts his former greatness with the black sea
of terror which has now overwhelmed him.39 Immediately following the
main revelation to Oedipus, the chorus says that the joy of his life is
ground down to nothing.40 The messenger who reports Jocasta™s death
and Oedipus™s self-blinding in the next scene says of the pair:
The joy they had so lately,
the fortune of their old ancestral house
was deep joy indeed. Now, in this one day,
wailing, madness and doom, death, disgrace,
all the griefs in the world that you can name,
all are theirs forever.41

Don™t we really agree that he was better off not knowing? Of course,
this does not imply that Oedipus would not have been better off than he
actually was even before ¬nding out the horrible truth if his then false
beliefs had been true. But the dominant suggestion of the play is certainly
that living in falsehood “ living in falsehood in perhaps the grandest and
most terrible manner in our literature “ is of quite limited signi¬cance
to well-being. Otherwise there would be no calamitous fall for Oedipus
upon his discovery of the truth.
At the very least, the relationship between truth and well-being is too
intuitively complex for the concrete cases of deception we have surveyed
to ¬rmly establish that desire-based accounts or objectivist accounts are
superior to hedonism. And indeed, the great dif¬culties and complexi-
ties that they introduce into these accounts suggest some argumentative
advantage for hedonism, which at least gives a simple and de¬nite answer
that isn™t obviously false for all the cases, and is supported by some intu-
itions. Still, this is not to deny that the concrete cases that are customarily
deployed against hedonism re¬‚ect deep and general intuitive currents that
are worthy of respect and further consideration, and that a deeper con-
sideration of trade-offs between happiness and truth is required. We will
return to these issues in a more general and abstract way in section IV.
While the concrete cases that are customarily deployed against hedonism
are not alone adequate to privilege competitors over it, we will later
try to probe the deeper and more important general currents beneath

39 Ibid., 251.
40 Ibid., 234.
41 Ibid., 237.


While our discussion has already involved some concrete cases that con-
cern objectivist theorists, our primary focus so far has been largely on the
dominant desire-based accounts. Contemporary arguments for objectivist
accounts of well-being over hedonism, at least to the degree that they are
distinct from the alleged counterexamples that we have already discussed,
seem to rest less on particular concrete cases, and perhaps more on the
general intuitive considerations that we will discuss in the next section.
Still, let me say a little about some relevant and relatively concrete cases
that may seem to specially favor objectivism.
Objectivist accounts have a variety of forms, but all specify individual
well-being or good without regard to individual psychological attitudes.
Perhaps there is a set of basic and objective human needs “ say, paradig-
matically, food or health “ which we all have independent of any of our
subjective desires or pleasures. These needs may de¬ne our well-being.
Or perhaps there is an objective form of human ¬‚ourishing of a more tra-
ditional Aristotelian and perfectionist sort. Or perhaps, as Rawls suggests
in A Theory of Justice, we should compare the well-being of individual lives
by comparing amounts of “primary goods” possessed by the individuals
in question, where primary goods are, more or less, universal instrumen-
tal goods, goods that one wants as a means of pursuing one™s projects
whatever those subjective projects turn out to be.42
Consider the ¬rst and second forms of objectivism, needs-based and
perfectionist accounts. There are such accounts that make room for the
signi¬cance of truth. The most obvious forms have intuitive dif¬culties
we™ve already noted, in failing to allow for the proper treatment of cases
in which individuals fail to care about the truth of their experience. But
the health of those who don™t care about it and receive no pain from ill
health is another reasonably concrete case that may intuitively support
objectivism of these sorts against hedonism or desire-based accounts.
But such a case is double-edged, since there are also related intuitive
dif¬culties for objectivist accounts of well-being that, unlike hedonist or
desire-based accounts, are not rooted in individual psychological states.
While it is clear that health has intuitive relevance to well-being, that
is most obvious when we care about it, and hence when its value is
recognized by desire-based accounts or other mental-state accounts like
hedonism. Objectivist accounts, to the degree that they do invoke features

42 Rawls (1971).

of people™s lives that they do not care about, are not particularly intuitive.
Unlike both hedonist and desire-satisfaction accounts of well-being, they
can be criticized as intuitively insuf¬ciently subjectivist, as paying too little
attention to relevant features of individual psychology.43
Another relevant point about health is this: Many things have intuitively
healthy states “ for instance, coral reefs and corporations, and even cancers
and viruses. But it is probably the dominant intuition that it is things with
psychologies, in particular, that are of genuine normative signi¬cance. If
life matters for its own sake, it is hard to see why all life doesn™t matter for
its own sake.44 And it is certainly hard to balance the health of different
But the main point is that it is not obvious to common sense that health
is important to an individual™s well-being when at least their rational indi-
vidual preference suggests otherwise. Other things may matter more, even
sel¬shly. Imagine spending some health on salvation or on artistic, athletic,
or intellectual achievement. Of course, preferences aren™t pleasure, even
though frustrated preferences are characteristically unpleasant. But I am
in the process of arguing that rational preferences for one™s well-being will
track hedonic tone. And one™s health that is not ever re¬‚ected in hedonic
tone does not seem properly to matter much. Ill health is characteristically
eventually painful. But if we know that some form of ill health will never
cause us any pain “ say, because we will certainly die ¬rst “ then it seems
insigni¬cant to our well-being. Death is perhaps an extreme form of ill
health, but of course it removes all possibility of pleasure.
Similar intuitive dif¬culties trouble the third type of objectivist account.
Universal means, of the type of Rawls™s primary goods, involve elements
that because of individual peculiarities of projects or motivation may bear
insuf¬cient relation to the things someone cares about, and hence are not
intuitively relevant to their well-being. What™s more, some individuals “
for instance, those with certain sorts of handicaps “ are not able to trans-
form such objective “goods” into intuitive well-being as ef¬ciently as
others. They hence seem subject to discrimination by such accounts, and
indeed in a way that suggests that there must be some deeper phenomenon
against which we intuitively assess individual well-being and hence their
relative discrimination. This is not to deny that institutions of certain par-
ticular kinds should distribute some generally helpful good that it is their
special concern to distribute “ for instance, money or food or medical

43 Sumner (1996: 45“80).
44 Sumner (1996) makes similar points.

treatment “ without regard to individual peculiarities. But, as Grif¬n has
argued, there is plausibly a rationale explaining why these generally help-
ful goods are good that lies in their aiding some human well-being of a
deeper sort.45 It is by reference to that deeper well-being that we can see
that wealth is a good. But it is also by reference to that deeper sort of
well-being that we can argue “ as, for instance, Plato argues in the Laws “
that too much wealth is destructive of well-being, or that certain indi-
viduals for special reasons should receive less or more of some particular
generally helpful good, or instead some alternative good that is especially
helpful to them. Levels of generally helpful goods are not intuitively sen-
sitive enough to determine the well-being of those who are unusual in
various ways.
One complication: Hedonism itself is in a recognizable sense an objec-
tivist view. But still, our pain and pleasure that we don™t care much about
in the speci¬c sense involving desire are yet at least recognizably relevant
to our own sel¬sh good.
We have so far identi¬ed no clear intuitive support for objectivism over
hedonism. Indeed, the reverse may be true. There are two ¬nal classes
of relatively concrete intuitive objections to hedonism that we have yet
to consider, which are not speci¬cally identi¬ed with either objectivist
or desire-based accounts. Perhaps they simply suggest a hedonism more
sophisticated and quali¬ed than my own, but in any case we should con-
sider them.
First, it has long been held that certain pleasures or desires shouldn™t
count normatively because of their sources. Foolish happiness, which
we™ve already discussed, may be an instance of this, but there are others
that are more characteristic of this set of objections. It may seem intuitive
to claim that the pleasures of sadism or successful murder have no positive
normative signi¬cance at all. And if the oppressed feel no pain about
something, that may be just a sign of their deeper and more insidious
psychological oppression.46 Second, it may seem that the pain of the
evil is a good thing, and the happiness of the evil is a bad thing, even
independent of its particular source for them. Kant famously says at the
beginning of the ¬rst section of the Groundwork: “[A]n impartial rational
spectator can take no delight in seeing the uninterrupted prosperity of a
being graced with no feature of a pure and good will, so that a good will

45 Grif¬n (1986: 40“55).
46 Sen (1987: 45“46).

seems to constitute the indispensable condition even of worthiness to be
My ¬rst point in response is that such cases are not all on balance intu-
itively troubling against simple hedonist conceptions, nor against contrary
simple desire-based conceptions, of individual well-being. Even intuitive
retributionist conceptions of punishment must suppose that bad things
happen to the evildoer who is punished, that the punishment is bad for
them.48 Otherwise it wouldn™t be a punishment. And the sadist is, after
all, intuitively one who ¬nds their own good in the suffering of another.
That is part of what makes sadism so troubling and abhorrent. Note also,
in the quote from Kant, that his point is that prosperity and happiness
themselves are what those without pure will don™t deserve. Pain is bad
for the evil as for the good, and pleasure is good for them equally. If not,
these things would not intuitively constitute punishments and rewards
that might be justly or unjustly distributed.
Still, it might be that nonautonomous pleasures, in the sense we™ve
already noted in our discussion of Sumner, provide decent concrete cases
that tell intuitively against hedonic conceptions of well-being. But note
also that these cases provide intuitive dif¬culties for any familiar account.
Desire-based accounts obviously suffer analogous dif¬culties, and no intu-
itively plausible objectivist account can simply ignore the intuitive rele-
vance of happiness to the well-being even of the deeply psychologically
oppressed. Oppressed as they are, would they be better off being miserable
And yet, there is a sense in which the oppression of someone may play
an intuitively negative role in their well-being that isn™t easily captured
by hedonist accounts, analogous to the intuitively negative role of false
experience that Sumner and Grif¬n do succeed in invoking. And there
is, in any case, a recognizable intuitive pull to the claim that the pleasure
of the evil shouldn™t count normatively as good even if it does count
intuitively toward their own abhorrent well-being. There is, we should
admit, some contrast between one™s well-being and goodness tout court.
Perhaps the pleasures of the guilty or sadistic ought to count against the
overall value of a state of affairs, and not for it at all. The pains of a guilty
person may not be bad from the point of view of the universe even if they
are bad for the evildoer.

47 Kant (1996a: 49).
48 Carson (2000: 70“71).

To address these matters properly, we will need to turn now from
a piecemeal consideration of concrete cases relevant to individual well-
being to a more general consideration of intuitive features of competing
conceptions of the good. The hedonic tradition is one version of a plau-
sible insistence that overall good must ultimately be rooted in the well-
being and good of the sentient. But issues about punishment and reward
remind us of the possible difference between conceptions of individual
well-being, which have been our main concern so far, and conceptions
of the good. The latter will be our primary focus in the next section.
And of course we have also seen throughout this and the preceding sec-
tion that single concrete cases are indecisive even for issues about intuitive
individual well-being. We must, it seems, consider things more gener-
ally and abstractly if we are to make adequate progress in developing our
understanding of commonsense commitments about well-being or the


The methodological dif¬culties presented by reliance on concrete intu-
itive cases suggest that it would be better to deploy abstract cases. This
can assure at once that impurities are minimized and that a relatively wide
range of particular concrete instances are considered simultaneously, at
least by implication. The best discussion of well-being or the good with
this form that I know, which in fact incorporates most of the various
important general factors suggested by the concrete cases we have sur-
veyed in the last two sections but in a purer and more systematic way, is
eight pages of W. D. Ross™s The Right and the Good.49 This discussion is
reminiscent of, and probably modeled on, Plato™s excellent discussion in
the Philebus, but applied to a wider range of goods.50
Ross argues that four things are intrinsically good: pleasure, virtuous
disposition and action, knowledge, and the proper apportionment of plea-
sure and pain to the virtuous and vicious.51 He does so by deploying a
characteristic pattern of argument to each of the relevant cases. Here™s

49 Ross (1930: “V: What Things are Good?,” 134“141).
50 It is also reminiscent of Moore (1903: 84). For effective criticism of Moore™s argument, see
Feldman (2004: 191“192.)
51 There are certain quali¬cations of his claims about pleasure and pain, to which we will

the case against mere hedonism and for the intrinsic good of virtuous
disposition and action:
And if any one is inclined . . . to think that, say, pleasure alone is intrinsically
good, it seems to me enough to ask the question whether, of two states of the
universe holding equal amounts of pleasure, we should really think no better of
one in which the actions and dispositions of all the persons in it were thoroughly
virtuous than of one in which they were highly vicious. Most hedonists would
shrink from giving the plainly false answer which their theory clearly requires.52

As honest hedonists we should admit that, if the pro¬les of hedonic
tone present in two situations are identical, and if the probabilities of
future pro¬les of hedonic tone associated with those situations are likewise
identical, and if in one situation all actions and dispositions are vicious and
in the other virtuous, then we are committed to the answer Ross thinks
plainly false. Nevertheless, we have a reasonable response to his objection.
Arguments with this general pattern, which may seem to support against
mere hedonism the basic normative signi¬cance of virtue or knowledge
or of the retributory distribution of pleasure and pain, are misleading. The
paired cases under consideration involve equalized basic value of the kind
introduced in section I, I claim. Therefore, they magnify the intuitive
signi¬cance of any other sorts of value that they contain. But of course
this need not be basic value.
Indeed, Ross misses some kinds of value that are delivered by his test
but that have little plausible moral weight. There are intuitive character-
istic excellences with a certain rough degree of speci¬city for all sorts
of human projects, activities, artifacts, and institutions, and also for enti-
ties and organs created by mechanisms of natural selection or that mimic
natural selection. Equalized cases such as Ross deploys can magnify the
intuitive signi¬cance of such intuitive excellences and goods until they
seem to be of basic normative signi¬cance. But they aren™t. Or at the very
least, not all of them are.
Some instances of this phenomenon are the goods beyond pleasure
that Ross suggests are also intrinsic: (i) As we saw in the last part, con-
sequentialism can indirectly deliver the derived normative signi¬cance of
virtues and the right. And considerations of equitable distribution, and
not merely the amount of basic value contained, may plausibly constrain
our sense of the relative value of overall states of affairs. (ii) The truth

52 Ross (1930: 134).

of beliefs is an obvious epistemic value, and there is perhaps a further
epistemic value of knowledge beyond mere true belief.
And there are other cases that Ross™s method shows to be signi¬cant in
some sense, which he ignores, and which cannot plausibly be incorporated
into any overall account of basic normative value in all of their instances.
They include (i) the health of all organisms and even of organs and cells,53
(ii) the satisfaction of at least most desires or whims, (iii) the excellence of
forms of practice of almost any sort, and (iv) the signi¬cance of works of art
according to any set of coherent standards. All these things, all members of


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