I think you're missing the thrust of my question.

I'm asking something more like "What if mental states are mostly a means of achieving worthwhile consequences, rather than being mostly the consequences that should be cared about in and for themselves?"

It is "consequences" either way.

But what might be called intrinsic hedonism would then be a consequentialism that puts the causal and moral stop sign at "how an action makes people feel" (mostly ignoring the results of the feelings (except to the degree that the feelings might cause other feelings via some series of second order side effects)).

An approach like this suggests that if people in general could reliably achieve an utterly passive and side effect free sort of bliss, that would be the end game... it would be an ideal stable outcome for people to collectively shoot for, and once it was attained the lack of side effects would keep it from being disrupted.

By contrast, hedonic instrumentalism (that I'm mostly advocating) would be a component of some larger consequentialism that is very concerned with what arises because of feelings (like what actions, with what results) and defers the core axiological question about the final value of various world states to a separate (likely independent) theory.

The position of hedonic instrumentalism is basically that happiness that causes behavior with bad results for the world is bad happiness. Happiness that causes behavior with good results in the world is good happiness. And happiness is arguably pointless if it is "sterile"... having no behavioral or world affecting consequences (though this depends on how much control we have over our actions and health via intermediaries other than by wireheading our affective subsystems). What does "good" mean here? That's a separate question.

Basically, the way I'm using the terms here: intrinsic hedonism is "an axiology", but hedonic instrumentalism treats affective states mostly as causal intermediates that lead to large scale adjustments to the world (though behavior) that can then be judged by some external axiology that pays attention to the whole world and the causal processes that deserve credit for bringing about the good world states.

You might break this down further, where perhaps "strong hedonic instrumentalism" is a claim that in actual practice, humans can (and already have, to some degree) come up with ways to make plans, follow the plans with action, and thereby produce huge amounts of good in the world, all without the need for very much "passion" as a neural/cognitive intermediate.

Then "weak hedonic instrumentalism" would be a claim that maybe such practices exist somewhere, or could exist if we searched for them really hard, and probably we should do that.

Then perhaps "skeptical hedonic instrumentalism" would be a claim that even if such practices don't exist and might not even be worth discovering, still it is the case that intrinsic hedonism is pretty weaksauce as far as axiologies go.

I would not currently say that I'm a strong hedonic instrumentalist, because I am not certain that the relevant mental practices exist as a factual matter... But also I'm just not very impressed by a moral theory that points to a little bit of tissue inside one or more skulls and says that the whole world can go to hell, so long as that neural tissue is in a "happy state".

We need a better theory of happiness and suffering

by toonalfrink 1 min read4th Jul 201739 comments


We rationalists know a lot about winning, but we don't know what our terminal goals really are. Such things are handwaved away, as we just mumble something like "QALYs" and make a few guesses about what a five year old would like.

I'd like to dispel the myth that a 5 year old knows what they like. Have you ever seen a kid with a sack of candy? I don't think they really wanted to get nauseous.

"But hold up", you say. "Maybe that's true for special cases involving competing subagents, but most cases are actually pretty straightforward, like blindness and death and captivity."

Well, you may have a point with death, but what if blind people and inmates are actually as happy as the next guy? What's the point of curing blindness, then?

A special case where we need to check our assumptions is animal welfare. What if the substrate of suffering is something in higher-order cognition, something that all but mammals lack?

One could hold that it is impossible to make inferences about another being's qualia, but we can come quite far with introspection plus assuming that similar brains yield similar qualia. We can even correlate happiness with brain scans.

The former is why I've moved to a Buddhist monastery. If (whatever really causes) happiness is your goal, it seems to me that the claim that one can permanently attain a state of bliss is worth investigating.

So, to sum up, if we want to fix suffering, let's find out it's proximal cause first. Spoiler: it's not pain.

(To be continued)