Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Good Hedonist

Imagine the life of a moral hedonist: one who performs good acts because they are good, but for purely selfish reasons. His greatest pleasure is performing good acts for others, but he couldn't care less about the people he helps. For the moral hedonist, charity is orgasmic. He strolls down the street joyously handing out money to beggars. He sends bulging food parcels to the local mission, he volunteers for UNICEF on weekends, he spends his evenings plotting the good health of his neighbour. And this gives him a very great thrill. But when his neighbour comes down with cancer or chilblains, his only regret is that there was never any chance for him to perform the good deed of saving the victim.

How do we assess this person morally, and how should we assess him? My suspicion is that society is disposed to be unfairly harsh on the moral hedonist. We tend to be more forgiving to the conventional hedonist (sex and chocolate, etc.) than the person who takes a selfish pleasure in helping others. (Possibly I am wrong here, and it's just me who is unfair. But there's nothing wrong with self-correction. And possibly the error is rather leniancy towards the conventional hedonist than harshness towards the moral hedonist. But possibly not...) So here are three small points in favour of the character just described.

1) Helpful deeds are (in general) still helpful when they are done selfishly. The beggar doesn't care if you don't care: he's got something to eat when he had nothing before. In many cases, the benefactor of a good act will not be in a position even to know whether we care or not. This is pretty clear in the UNICEF case. It's less clear in the beggar's case, but probably still true. At any rate, the true moral hedonist will make every attempt to suppress any signs of insincerity that might hurt the benefactor.

Granted, this strategy is unlikely to work for long in the case of a close friendship. In principle, I'm not sure that the perfectly skilled and dedicated moral hedonist would ever give himself away (we would need a situation in which revealing the deceit would not hurt the feelings of the so-called-friend). But in practice, the skill and dedication would have to be superhuman to have the right effect in the long-term. (And perhaps the imperfectly skilled moral hedonist would not form any friendships at all, given the hurt that the inevitable exposure would cause).

Nevertheless, it is still true that the moral hedonist can do an awful lot of good. If we think otherwise, it may be because intuitions tell us that an uncaring person is a nuisance. And of course this is true in the case of those misanthropes who take no selfish pleasure in doing good to others. But clearly the moral hedonist is a different kettle of fish.

2) The moral hedonist is not (necessarily) a hypocrite.
Sure, if he sincerely professes to act selflessly, then the moral hedonist is certainly mistaken. But this is primarily an epistemic mistake, not a moral one. There need not be any deliberate duplicity involved.

This is important because our (unwarranted) harshness towards the moral hedonist (if it exists) is probably due to our (warranted) harshness towards genuine hypocrites. We routinely despise people who profess that their good deeds spring from selfless intentions, when the opposite is the case. And often this judgment is justified. Perhaps the judgment is directed at the charitable politician who has both eyes on winning votes. Perhaps it's the rockstar who promotes third-world welfare just because it makes him or her more famous; or the businessman who puts money into the same third-world country to get a better chance of exploiting that country in the future.

These people necessarily deserve our contempt (because their selfish habits will have harmful consequences.) But the moral hedonist does not. The differences between the two cases have already been covered. In most cases the actions of the moral hedonist will "track the good"; and he need not be deliberately dishonest about his motives (indeed, he may publicly pronounce the truth about those motives).

3) As with religious "hypocrites," we may be phsychologically biased against the moral hedonist.
People get terribly prickly about heaven-seeking righteousness. "What fools, what contemptible fools! These people act rightly just because they're scared of being roasted when they die." And we tend to express our disgust by grouping these people alongside the duplicitous politicians and rockstars I described above (which is not quite fair, assuming the moral teaching of religions are not seriously misguided. Well, I did say not quite fair.)

My suggestion is that this prickliness is partly due to a kind of moral jealousy. We value the moral high-ground very much, and get hot under the collar when other people cheat their way to the top. Perhaps this attitude is beneficial in the long run, by protecting society against moral "false positives." But in individual cases it will lead to an unjust assessment of the moral worth of the hedonist.

I mean this point to apply to the case of the moral hedonist who is not deliberately dishonest about his motives, but who does not actively promote his true motives. We see this person go about their good deeds, and are anxious to point out that they are really not so selfless as one might think. And in the case where we assume erroneously that the moral hedonist is necessarily a true hypocrite, our prickliness compounds the error.

Conclusion: Of course, the uncaring person is less worthy than the person who acts in the same way for purer motives. But the two cases may be closer than we think. At the very least, I reserve the right to be unashamed when I derive a selfish pleasure from giving money to beggars.


Richard said...

Well, I wouldn't condone rewarding people for spending their time begging. (Bad incentives.) But if you derive a selfish pleasure from creating new jobs, or giving developmental aid, then that's wonderful. (But then, I always did have consequentialist intuitions - more so than "society", no doubt.)

Richard said...

That raises one worry, though: the psychologically realistic "good hedonist" probably just gets pleasure from performing acts that are prima facie good, e.g. giving charitably, without too much concern for the ultimate consequences.

Mike B said...

I'm less worried than you about the good hedonist's lack of concern for ultimate consequences. Presumably the hedonist's sense of "giving charitably" comes from his knowledge that the benefactor will actually benefit from the act. Otherwise the good hedonist would take pleasure in throwing money into the sea - which seems odd. Consequences matter for the moral hedonist. So, for a sufficiently forward-thinking moral hedonist, why shouldn't long-term consequences matter?

True, "hedonist" usually suggests "lack of interest in long-term pleasures." But surely the forward-thinking hedonist benefits immediately from his knowledge of all the good things that come from his act. He is not forced to delay his pleasures.

On beggary. Good point. Having spoken to a few beggars, though, beggary seems to be a last resort, at least in some cases. Being denied jobs repeatedly, getting insufficient help from community and government groups, too poor to travel somewhere else - vicious circumstances seem to leave some people with no choice but to beg. Certainly there are a lot of lazy, good-for-nothing beggars out there (and perhaps it is naive of me to take the word of my beggar-friends). But it seems fair to occasionally give them the benefit of the doubt.

ClareB said...

I have, as time goes on, become more certain that it is rarely possible, at least with me, to do a good/helpful deed without it having some selfish motive at its core. Whether it be a future benefit or simply a boost of pride. Can the good feeling produced from doing good be considered in itself a selfish motive? Perhaps, but then that would render all good deeds as somehow corrupt and the world would seem a very miserable place. And I can say with confidence that the world is not nearly so bad as that.
I think true charity emerges out of the very human desire to see other people thrive. At least when all other selfish obstacles are either ignored or overcome. More often it is the latter, but occasionally it is the former. Perhaps in that case it is somthing 'intrinsically human'? But that question needs more thought than I can manage right now, since my dinner is nearly served. I am more concerned for my empty stomach than considering these deep matters.
See, there is the selfish motivation for the good deed of cutting this comment off before it gets borishly and unhelpfully long.

Mike B said...

ClareB - it's good to see another B on the web - perhaps we're related.
The beauty of blogging is that you can write enormous irrelevant comments without seriously damaging a discussion (unlike in real-life discussion). Not to say that your comment is long or irrelevant.

Some bright people think that all good people are necessarily the "good hedonists" I have described. Other bright people think otherwise. I wanted to avoid that dispute in the post, not because it is uninteresting but because I don't want the hassle of thinking about it.

To clutch at straws for a moment, perhaps the idea in this post could contribute to the egoism/altruism debate by suggesting that the debate is not as important as we are inclined to think ie. it's really not that bad if all good people are actually moral hedonists.

The Scarlet Pervygirl said...

Even given the dilettantism with which I have approached the study of psychology I have become aware that many psychologists argue that selfishness does indeed underlie all human action, including apparently charitable or selfless acts.

I think this is needlessly and incorrectly reductive, and still another example of the deplorable instinct to artificially divide and place in hierarchical positions what is in fact a complex and gestalt whole, so I propose this: what if it's both? What if everyone who does charitable work does so BOTH because it gives them pleasure and because they know it to be beneficial or right?

People seem to gravitate toward ideas that occur in two basic categories, selfishness and selflessness. These concepts often seem at odds with each other: to help someone else is usually to give up an opportunity to help yourself, and the person able to so radically ignore her own survival instinct is rare (and usually insane).

But there occur times when some balance is reached between the two. Almost all human-human interaction qualifies as these times.

Maybe you've got some spare time and money and figure distributing sandwiches is at least as entertaining as a movie and does more good besides. That's both selfish (you're amused by what you're doing, and that provides some of the motivation for doing it) and selfless (you recognize it is beneficial, and THAT provides some of the motivation for doing it).

But maybe your conscience is struck so forcefully with the onus to help someone that it would make you feel far worse to not help them than to do so. Isn't that the same thing, though in a different proportion? You're acting both selfishly (in order to preserve your emotional health) and selflessly (you have a conscience and it works) at once.

Thus I must disagree with the idea that a selfish motive underlying a good deed corrupts the good deed. I think it's pretty awesome that humans might be ABLE to get pleasure from helping each other, actually, that giving can benefit the giver as well as the recipient; the very idea of someone deriving pleasure from doing good (even if she does not derive pleasure from *personal* caring for others) does not, in a way, strike me as very selfish at all.

Quite the opposite, in fact: I think there is in general a much greater emotional reward for helping people whose lives are closely tied to yours and in which you can see the results of your good works. Often charity--particularly charity of an impersonal kind--is indeed very much like tossing money, or work, or energy, into an ocean: you never get to see what good you did. I find the moral hedonist in some ways far LESS selfish, and far more morally upright, than the helper who craves interpersonal connection.

Also: thanks for the heads-up about chilblains fatalities. I'll be on the lookout for that from now on.

ClareB said...

Yes, the word 'selfish' perhaps has a reputation it doesn't fully deserve.

Mike B said...

clareb - I'm glad you agree.

scarlet - thanks for the meaty comment.

I agree that in real life most acts are a mixture of virtue-based motivations (ie. motivations that stem from the mere fact of doing good) and the rest. And it is an interesting question what, overall, is the ratio between the two.

(Though I would say that this doesn't settle the question of whether or not those virtue-based motivations are selfish or not).

"Often charity--particularly charity of an impersonal kind--is indeed very much like tossing money, or work, or energy, into an ocean: you never get to see what good you did."

That's interesting. I'ld never thought of relationship-cravers as being more selfish than charity-givers. I guess this is because a) this is a relative judgement (it does not mean that rel-cravers are selfish per se and b) rel-cravers tend to give a lot back to the person they focus their craving on.

"the very idea of someone deriving pleasure from doing good (even if she does not derive pleasure from *personal* caring for others) does not, in a way, strike me as very selfish at all."

Yes. I'ld still say though that there is (at least conceivably) a higher level of selfishness than merely taking pleasure in good acts. Note that the moral hedonist doesn't actually care about other people (as in the last sentence of the first paragraph of the post).

cheers for the comment.