Sunday, January 24, 2010

hedons and dolors

When I was a junior in college I took a course called Ethics. It was, for the most part, a very dry class. The instructor was well meaning but his classes consisted mostly of him posing a question to the class that was uninspiring. Then the number (dwindling weekly) who attended a particular session would squirm musing more about why we had decided to attend that day than about the specific inquiry.

However, despite this there was something about the class for which I will forever be grateful.

To satisfy the requirements we had to write three opinion papers. One asked us to compare the wisdom of two philosophers, John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant. If these thinkers had been discussed during a class session I must have been dwelling about something else at the time. So, as the deadline approached for the paper, I hauled out the textbook and read about Mill's Utilitarianism and Kant's Categorical Imperative.

I was aghast. I could not believe that Utilitarianism was a philosophy of ethics that had earned any traction.

Utilitarianism is often called the Greatest Happiness Principle. It means essentially that things are ethical or right in proportion to the extent they tend to promote happiness, and wrong if they tend to produce unhappiness or pain. The Categorical Imperative appears to be antithetical. It argues that behaviors are right because they inherently are right, and wrong because they inherently are wrong, and it does not matter if something that is right does not cause pleasure.

I saw no merit to Utilitarianism. My 20 year old self was outraged by the idea. The only good news was that my revulsion made the writing of the paper relatively easy and made the course more interesting than it had been previously.

Since that time I find myself attracted to lectures and debates and some articles that discuss utilitarianism. Proponents (still around despite my 1970 five page rant) attempt to quantify pleasure and pain by counting hedons and dolors. A hedon is a unit of pleasure. A dolor a unit of pain. So to determine if something is right, count up the hedons, count up the dolors, if the hedons outweigh the dolors an action is right.

At one debate I attended I was fascinated listening to two philosophers contentiously argue that there were more dolors than hedons in a particular case therefore rendering a decision unethical. One fellow in particular was really piling up the dolors because he couldn't seem to convince anyone that he was correct. What struck me as odd about this debate and any other attempt at quantifying was the subjectivity in determining what constitutes a hedon or a dolor.

Dolors and hedons. Can we really quantify these in a given situation and then count up the results? A coach has to determine whether to tweak the academic credentials of star players in order to make them eligible. A recruiter has to decide whether to embellish the qualities of the school in order to woo outstanding athletes to the school. Can you count up the collective hedons for playing the disqualified players or signing the deceived athletes, and compare that to the dolors accrued by lying to authorities and young people, and perhaps sullying the reputation of your program.

These are relatively easy examples. The actions are unethical. There are many more dolors, long term and short term for lying to the players and authorities. Yet, there are other instances that are not as clear.

I am not as adamant as I was at 20 about the Greatest Happiness Principle versus the Categorical Imperative. I do think we need to respect hedons and dolors. We have to be careful not to manufacture dolors for others, or accrue hedons at the expense of others. Maybe if we could carefully count hedons and dolors, and genuinely respected how our actions and communications, created dolors and hedons, we would find little that separates Utilitarianism from the Categorical Imperative.

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