Saturday 16 March 2024

The utter uselessness of hedonic pragmatism as moral discernment

A couple of days ago I devised another new name for the almost universal basis of moral discourse and assertions of moral behaviour in the world today: hedonic pragmatism.

What is striking about this, is that - although almost everybody talks (almost all the time) about practical measures to improve human happiness or reduce human misery; the whole business is absolutely useless and goes nowhere.  


There is no objective or coherent way of reasoning about such matters as whether political change/ social policy X, or the leadership of person Y, is likely to lead to greater overall happiness or reduce misery - and, more strikingly, no way to discover this even in retrospect. 

The outcome of moral discussion is almost wholly predicted by assumptions, and observations about what has happened or might happen seem to make no difference whatsoever. On the basis of assumptions and not of observations, X or Y is either good or bad, the consequences are (or have been) good or bad. 

There are apparently no limits and no agreed discernments. After some political change a nation might rapidly descend into a maelstrom of starvation, theft, rape and murder - even civil war - and there may be a majority consensus who will argue that the change was nonetheless a very good thing. Examples abound.  

Vast resources and effort of time are expended on discovering, generating, and propagating "facts" - but they make no significant difference to moral evaluations - the more people talk about "evidence", the more irrelevant it becomes. The more people talk about rational decision making, the greater the tyranny of ideology.  

Rather than deploring this state of affairs, we ought to accept it as a fact of our time and place; and act accordingly to withdraw from the utter futility and uselessness of hedonic pragmatism. 


Note added: This is another in a long series of posts here about the primacy of assumptions - which ultimately are metaphysical assumptions; and how these - not experiences, not facts, not evidence - are what shape our relationship with the world. And Therefore how we need (yes need) to become aware of our own basic assumptions, and need then to examine them. Because if the assumptions are wrong, then everything will be wrong


Jay said...

@William Interesting. I am curious if you'd agree with another characterization of what you call hedonic pragmatism as utilitarianism gone awry. I have long seen the problem with utilitarianism, which stems from dialectical materialism, as being that it seperating itself from individual virtue. Virtue being an outward extension of Godly soul qualities. If utilitarianism was somehow practiced in a way that was rooted in virtue ethics/ethos or something deeper, rather than materialism, then the measurable wins/losses of utilitarianism would be better informed by a God focused world-view, in theory. Hope that makes sense; does this align with your concept of pragmatic hedonism?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jay (I assume "William" was a typo?)

You are correct in what you imply: Hedonic Pragmatism is essentially just another term for what is covered by "utilitarianism".

I used to call it that - but utilitarianism is a very abstract term, based on the economics abstraction of "utility"; and, in general it comes with a lot of baggage and seems like a real "turn off!

I think it sometimes helps to try-out a new name that maybe brings out the underlying elements a bit more clearly.

Jay said...

@Bruce Yes that was a typo, my mistake :)

It's a good term. As you said, utilitarianism is fully abstract and materialistic, but this term ties it back to the intrinsic motivations and assumptions.