Saturday, November 21, 2009

Utilitarians and love

I have been thinking about how when you miss someone, I mean for real, it's not that you feel some generic emotion - missing - and that the person is the object thereof. No. When you really miss someone, what you experience is the absence of them, in their very own constitutive particularity. Missing a person you love is nothing at all like missing some other person you love; it just doesn't work that way. This gets us to utilitarianism because even Mill (J.S.), who wants to, can't - within the categories available to him given his ontological commitments - actually differentiate qualitatively between the pleasure of this and the pleasure of that. Why are the higher pleasures higher? Because they are more pleasurable. MacIntyre pointed out a long time ago that there is no pleasure-substratum; rather, pleasures are all different. (Though, for the record, we could have learnt this from Plato.) It is a failing of utilitarianism, it seems to me, that it can't make good on this. And it's an implication of not being able to make good on this, I think, that utilitarianism can't make sense of what it is to miss someone -- or, by extension, what it is to love someone. This seems a fatal flaw for an account of the moral, though I appreciate that the Kantians in the crowd will beg to differ. Don't get me started on them, though. No offense to my favorite K's.


Irem said...

I sympathize with this. Feeling the presence of one person is not same in kind as feeling the presence of another person except in a formal sense. So, feeling their absence need not be either. But I don't understand why U. needs to be in the doghouse over this. Isn't it a fact that you are displeased (albeit differently) by missing a certain pooch and by missing a certain buddy? I grant that they are different experiences, but aren't they both are displeasing.

t-ruth said...

Hmmm. Well, ok. I think I think 3 things. (Also, yay! Irem's here!) First is this: won't there be a problem running the numbers, pleasure-wise, if the pleasures that you are supposed to assign values to don't reduce to some common pleasure denominator? Or, conversely, to some common "pain" denominator? How will I know which rule or action yields the most pleasure, if all pleasures are different? This, as I recall, was MacIntyre's point -- though I may be mis-recalling. Second, and related, and maybe smaller, I think it's a problem for J.S. in particular that he can't really deliver on his own effort to introduce qualitative distinctions. One problem in this regard is that he can't tell us *why* the higher pleasures are better (other than that they're quantitatively better). But the other problem, I'm suggesting, is that the very way that he is thinking about pleasure disallows qualitative differentiation. Third, I think what I'm thinking is that utilitarianism - in virtue of (or at least, in some way related to, not having got the particularity of pleasure right - can't sustain a compelling account of love. And I want to say that being able to do so is a litmus test for a moral philosophy. Have I answered at all, or am I just not getting it, about utilitarianism?