Is the only intrinsic good pleasure, and intrinsic evil pain?
The focus of this paper is an examination of the question: Is the only intrinsic good pleasure and the only intrinsic evil is pain? The moral view which agrees with this claim is called value hedonism. Welfare hedonism although very similar is of a slightly different view. Welfare hedonists hold that pleasure and pain are the only intrinsic goods and evils which are counted towards a person’s well-being. They do not rule out the possibility of there being other intrinsic goods and evils just not ones which count towards well-being.
If all that is important is that someone is gaining pleasure regardless from the activities it is that they receive pleasure from, then it would under the view of pleasure being the only intrinsic good mean that a person is living a good life even if they are gaining their pleasure from the most basic of forms.
The objection here, however, is that we intuitively believe that it is not only that someone is gaining pleasure that is important but also from what sorts of activities they are gaining that pleasure from. For instance, if we were to compare someone who gains pleasure from watching the weather network to someone who gains pleasure from watching the opera, we are rightfully inclined to think that the one gaining the pleasure listening to great music has a greater overall well-being than that of the person watching the weather network. This objection raised though does not entirely rule out that pleasure is the only intrinsic good it merely shows that how someone is getting the pleasure is also of importance. Clearly, the mental state someone is in while gaining pleasure is also of importance but even with a combination of physical and mental states producing pleasure is that enough to determine someone’s well-being? Kagan thinks not. He illustrates through the use of the businessman and the experience machine examples that merely having physical and mental pleasures is in fact not by itself enough. There is reason to think that to determine well-being there must be some form of an external criterion to the situation so that well-being cannot be solely determined by the individual. These reasons can be seen in the businessman example.
The businessman example is that of a businessman who believes he has everything he has always wanted, a wife, children, and a successful business which provides him with large amounts of both mental and physical pleasures. What he does not know though is that his wife actually cheats on him, his children use him for his money and his business is about to be bought out. Under the view that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and pain the only intrinsic evil we would have to accept that the businessman’s life is a good one. It is reasonable however to reject the consideration of his life as being a good one because when looked at the situation objectively it is clear that the truth of the matter is he is not living the life he would like. It may be reasonable to say then that another intrinsic good is a certain objective truth of the matter or truth in general. Thus if we are to reject the idea that both the person watching the weather network and the person listening to opera are of equal well-being and also reject the idea that the ignorant businessman is living good life, then it seems to be there is good reason to deny the claim that pleasure is the only intrinsic good.
None of what has already been mentioned however specifically seems to addresses the issue of the intrinsic aspect of the question. Does the idea that the businessman is better off if he actually knew the truth of the matter necessarily mean that the objective truth of the matter is an intrinsic good? Does it not seem to be that the truth of the matter will make the businessman’s life better is a sufficient enough of a reason to state that truth is an intrinsic good. It is clearly a good, but for it to be intrinsic it must meet specific criteria.
To say something has intrinsic value is to say that it is valued for its own sake. Pleasure, for instance, is taken to have intrinsic value because it is valuable in itself, it is not used as a means to an end. Playing a sport, for instance, would be a good but it would not be an intrinsic good because people play sports as a means to the end goal of pleasure. A distinction is therefore made between goods which are in themselves valuable and those which are used as a means to an end called instrumental values. To say that pain is the only intrinsic evil and pleasure the only intrinsic good is not to deny the notion that there are other good’s and evils simply that the only intrinsic ones are pleasure and pain.
There are good reasons however to think that pleasures are not all good, specifically in three instances. The first instance involves morally vicious pleasures. The classic example of this is with torture. It seems reasonable to want to deny the claim that the pleasure someone gets from torturing someone is a good thing, rather just the opposite. Additionally, it is true that we take it to be a good thing to feel some pain for others in pain. Undeserved pleasures also raise serious doubts to the claim that pleasure is intrinsically good. For instance, after committing a crime it is reasonable to accept that the perpetrator deserves a certain degree of pain. The final instance of pleasure which is reason to think that pleasure is not intrinsically good is with mindless pleasures. A good example of this is someone who watches television all day to receive pleasure. These three objections seem to be sufficient enough for disputing the claim that pleasure is an intrinsic good and pain and intrinsic evil, since it is clear that not all pleasures are good and not all pains are evil.
So it may be the case in the end that the only intrinsic good is pleasure and the only intrinsic evil is indeed pain. At the same time, however, it seems clear that to determine the well-being of one’s life there are other goods aside from pleasure which may need to be counted which do not lead to bringing you pleasure but add to the well-being. Likewise with the case of evils which bring you pain but are needed in order to perhaps better recognize the pleasures.