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The Unity and Commensurability of Pleasures and Pains

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In this paper I seek to answer two interrelated questions about pleasures and pains: (i) The question of unity: Do all pleasures share a single quality that accounts for why these, and only these, are pleasures, and do all pains share a single quality that accounts for why these, and only these, are pains? (ii) The question of commensurability: Are all pleasures and pains rankable on a single, quantitative hedonic scale? I argue that our intuitions draw us in opposing directions: On the one hand, pleasures and pains seem unified and commensurable; on the other hand, they do not. I further argue that neither intuition can be abandoned, and examine three different paths to reconciliation. The first two are response theory and split experience theory. Both of these, I argue, are unsuccessful. A third path, however—which I label “dimensionalism” —succeeds. Dimensionalism is the theory that pleasure and pain have the ontological status as opposite sides of a hedonic dimension along which experiences vary. This view has earlier been suggested by C. D. Broad, Karl Duncker, Shelly Kagan, and John Searle, but it has not been worked out in detail. In this paper I work out the dimensionalist view in some detail, defend it, and explain how it solves the problem of the unity and commensurability of pleasures and pains.

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  1. The McGill Pain Questionnaire is a standard questionnaire for measuring pain. See Melzack (2005, pp. 199–202).

  2. Aydede (2000, p. 540).

  3. Locke (1690/1975, II, XX, §15).

  4. Sidgwick (1907/1981, pp. 93, p. 127)

  5. Katz (2009). Some philosophers oppose this wide usage of the terms “pleasure” and “pain.” Roger Crisp (2006, pp. 103–109) suggests that rather than speaking of “pleasure” and “pain” in this wide sense, we should speak of “enjoyment” and “suffering.” Stuart Rachels (2004, pp. 247–48) suggests that we can keep “pleasure,” but that we should not use “pain” as its antonym. “Pain,” Rachels suggests, should more narrowly be reserved for the negative experiences brought about by nociception, and he argues that the proper antonym for pleasure is “unpleasure.” I have no principled reason to oppose such word usage, but for the sake of simplicity I keep to the wide usage of “pleasure” and “pain” in this paper.

  6. Plato (1997, 12 c-d).

  7. Parfit (1984, p. 493).

  8. Feldman (2006, p. 79).

  9. Edwards (1979, p. 40).

  10. Edwards (1979, pp 34–35, 73).

  11. This view is sometimes referred to as “externalism.” See Sumner (1999, pp. 87–91).

  12. Sidgwick (1907/1981, p. 127).

  13. Alston (1967, p. 345).

  14. Sumner (1999, p. 90). Sumner labels this view the “attitude model.”

  15. Edwards (1979 p. 35).

  16. Brandt (1979, p. 38).

  17. Hall (1989, p. 649).

  18. Heathwood (2007, p. 32).

  19. Korsgaard (1996, p. 147–8).

  20. Moore (2008).

  21. Sprigge (1988, pp. 131–2).

  22. Similar criticisms have been raised by Rachels (2000, pp. 187–210) and Mason (2007, pp. 388–97).

  23. For a more in-depth discussion of these points, see Smuts (2010).

  24. Smuts (2010).

  25. Bentham (1781/1996, pp. 43-46).

  26. Edwards (1979, p. 34).

  27. A first reading of Bentham might give the impression that he holds that pleasures and pains, qua pleasures and pains, vary qualitatively. Bentham lists seven axes along which pleasure and pain can vary: intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent. With the exception of intensity and duration, however, none of these concern matters intrinsic to the nature of pleasures and pains. The other axes refer to different causal roles that pleasures and pain can play, and the different ways in which they can be distributed. “Purity,” in Bentham’s words, refers not to the phenomenological purity of a pleasure or pain, but to “the chance it has of not being followed by sensations of the opposite kind: that is, pains, if it be pleasure: pleasures, if it be pain.” “Extent” concerns the number of individuals who experience pleasure or pain. Bentham, (1781/1996, pp. 38-40).

  28. Rachels (2000, p. 196).

  29. Duncker (1941, pp. 398–9).

  30. Alston (1967, p. 345).

  31. It should be said in Bentham's defense, however, that his theory fares somewhat better when it comes to pleasures than when it comes to pains. Pleasures have more of a holistic feel to them, and are not located in the same way as pains. While you can have a pain in your index finger, you can't have a pleasure in your index finger; pleasures seem to be much more “inside” and “everywhere,” as if the qualitative feel caused a higher hedonic level in us. I do not, however, think that this is sufficient to support split experience theory, and as such that the theory—though not obviously false—should be rejected.

  32. Smuts (2010, p. 254).

  33. Mill (1869, p. 2:184).

  34. Broad (1930, pp. 229–30).

  35. Broad (1930, pp. 229–30).

  36. Duncker (1941, p. 400).

  37. Kagan (1992, pp. 170–72). Aaron Smuts might also be interpreted in this direction when writing that pleasure is “a tone that cannot be cleanly extracted or focused on apart from the experience itself,” and that “pleasure is not a distinct form of experience.” Smuts (2010, p. 16).

  38. Searle (1992, pp. 38, 129).

  39. For an interesting discussion of this, favoring the same conclusion, see Plochmann (1950, pp. 54-55).

  40. Broad (1930, p. 231).

  41. Duncker (1941, p. 412).

  42. Mill (1869, pp. 1:37, 2:185)

  43. A more thorough defense of dimensionalism would require addressing several other issues. The most central of these, I think, is the problem of explaining what mechanism determines what experiences are imbued with what hedonic tone. That, however, must be the topic of a different paper. My aim in this paper is merely to argue that dimensionalism is a very plausible theory, and that—if true—it solves the problem of the unity and commensurability of pleasures and pains.

  44. Kagan (1992, p. 172).

  45. I also believe that a dimensionalist can agree with the traditionally arch-heterogeneous claim that there is probably no such thing as pure “pleasure” or pure “pain,” and that all we ever experience is particular pleasures and particular pains. This is so because on the dimensionalist view, “pleasure” and “pain” are abstractions: They are concepts by which we isolate the property of being on either the positive or the negative side of the hedonic dimension, while omitting the particular distance from the zero point as well as the particular content of the experience. The fact that there are only particular pleasures and particular pains, therefore, need not be a threat to the unity and commensurability of pleasures and pains any more than the fact that there are only particular heats and particular cools is a threat to the unity and commensurability of heats and cools.


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Moen, O.M. The Unity and Commensurability of Pleasures and Pains. Philosophia 41, 527–543 (2013).

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