When one is a utilitarian, inevitably the question comes up of what this “utility” thing we’re maximizing is. For many of my friends, the answer is preference satisfaction: the moral action is the action that satisfies the strongest preferences of the most people, usually giving precedence to more meta-level preferences (so, for instance, if I want a cookie, but I don’t want to want a cookie, you should not give me a cookie).

My dissatisfaction with preference utilitarianism is that it fails to answer the question “why should one prefer one thing over another thing?”

Most preference utilitarians tend to treat preferences– at least at a certain meta level– as unmalleable. This seems utterly contrary to my own experience, where preferences are terribly malleable. Operant conditioning is successful. I can get someone to like a song by cuddling with them while we listen to it. The media regularly convinces people to change everything from their fashion sense to their values. Advertising exists.

Many preference utilitarians say that it is morally licit to change people’s object-level preferences to match their meta-level preferences: for instance, if someone wants a cookie but is afraid of gaining weight, you can create a pleasant environment for them to eat non-cookie food in, so they associate non-cookie food with good things. On the other hand, the entire moral system has no answer about changing people’s meta-level preferences: for instance, if someone wants a cookie but is afraid of gaining weight, you can associate not being afraid of gaining weight with good things. This is basically a lot of what the body positivity movement is doing: while some of it is “your terminal goals of being sexually attractive or healthy will not necessarily be met by losing weight!”, a lot of it is pure operant conditioning:

Original artist.

Furthermore, while preference utilitarianism and hedonic utilitarianism end up giving the same answers to most questions, there are some questions where I think preference utilitarianism gives a wrong answer. First, imagine someone who is horny and desires to masturbate, but who believes that masturbation is morally wrong because it’s a misuse of the genitals and so wants to not want to be horny. The preference utilitarian answer in this case is to remove their libido or otherwise make their situation easier to manage. My answer is to attempt to convince them of a less evil moral system.

Similarly, think about people who are instinctively disgusted by the idea of gay people to the point that they don’t even want to look at us holding hands. A preference utilitarian might think that gay people and the disgusted people should live in separate communities where we never have to interact with each other. I personally want the latter group of people to stop having that preference, because it is a horrible preference.

So I end up being driven towards hedonic utilitarianism, in the sense that I want my utilitarianism to maximize happiness and minimize suffering.

A lot of hedonic utilitarians and critics of hedonic utilitarians end up thinking about maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering in a very simplistic way: they think about increasing the number of good brain sensations and decreasing the number of bad brain sensations. However, I think that’s not true.

An orgasm is probably the most intense pleasurable sensation a person can experience in the absence of drugs. However, a life of continual masturbation would not be described by most people as “happy”, much less “the happiest possible life.” They would instead be most likely to choose words like “sad” and “empty” and “unfulfilled”. So if one wants to maximize happiness, clearly one is maximizing something other than raw good brain sensations.

I tend to use the word “eudaimonia” for the thing I’m maximizing in order to prevent confusion on the part of the truly appalling number of utilitarians who think the maximally happy life is continual masturbation.

So what is eudaimonia? I don’t have a totally satisfying answer, but I have some considerations.

Eudaimonia is different for different beings. The eudaimonia of a cat is to take lots of naps, eat tuna, and hunt lizards. This is not the eudaimonia of the average human. Humans also seem capable of different kinds of eudaimonia: for one human, the ideally eudaimoniac life might consist of quiet study and long walks; for another, it might consist of raising a child; for a third, it might involve exploring mysticism and altered states of consciousness; for a fourth, it might be satisfying manual labor and participating in their local community. (For that matter, it might be all four at different times! –although that would be a fifth type.)

I think one fundamental aspect of eudaimonia is arete, often translated as “virtue” but better translated as “excellence” or “becoming one’s best self”. I think it’s a mistake, however– possibly a product of the typical mind fallacy– to assume that arete is the same thing for all people. A scholar might say “clearly, the highest arete is studying philosophy” and a mystic might say “no, it is connection with the Divine” and a blue-collar person might say “no, it’s the satisfaction of doing a good day’s work and taking care of your family.”

(Yes, I seem to have accidentally reinvented teleology.)

I have an unclear sense of what eudaimonia means in the general case, but I have a very specific idea of my own eudaimonia. My eudaimonia involves writing regularly, physical fitness, intellectually challenging work, not having any goddamn breasts anymore, and being able to bounce when I’m happy without anyone yelling at me. It does not involve lying in my bed feeling sad all day or dissociating while my System 1 optimizes my social interactions for people not hurting me. It’s the lift I feel in my heart when I think “I’m going to become a saint.”

Given the diversity of possible eudaimonias and the vagueness of my idea, I think we ought to be very autonomy-respecting. In general, we should assume that people have the right idea about their own eudaimonia, since they have access to their own feelings, while other people do not. It is quite common for, say, the scholar to look at the blue-collar person and say “gosh! You are doing such a terrible job of reaching eudaimonia, which is of course found in studying philosophy”, when in reality the blue-collar person is pursuing her own entirely non-philosophy-related eudaimonia. I also feel like we should compare notes about eudaimonias to figure out common threads: for instance, the experience of struggle to reach a goal, a certain amount of physical pleasure (such as candy or sex), a sense of meaning, or not having to have a long commute.