Defending the Enlightenment

“The Enlightenment” has received a lot of criticism through the years. Sometimes it is critique from the left, as when feminists accuse the Enlightenment of being inherently misogynist or when critical theorists accuse it of being antithetical to human nature through its technocratic/instrumental ways of relating to the world. Sometimes it is critique from the right, like when it is claimed by conservatives that the Enlightenment undermined organized religon and traditional hierarchies, or when (“classical”) liberals claim that it leads directly to totalitarian attempts to create “perfect” people (mainly by discarding the millions of non-perfect people).

I think, however, that most of those critiques are misdirected. As I discuss in my new (Swedish) book, Upplysning, etik och feminism, it is hard to see how at least the left-wing and liberal critiques can be construed at hitting the correct target (there might be some truth in the conservative claim that the Enlightenment undermines some forms of religion and traditional ways of life, because that’s the whole point of it).

It is hard, of course, to reach consensus about a definition of the Enlightenment. But if we strip it down to its essential elements, I think one has to assume that the main value of the Enlightenment can be summed up by the phrase sapere aude, which literally means “dare to know”, or more loosely “dare to think for yourself”. This phrase became associated with the Enlightenment through Immanuel Kant, but he was not the first to use it in the 18th century.

The Enlightenment “attitude”, as I like to call it, can also be conceived as a recommendation to, so to speak, see the world with open eyes. This means following reason rather than authority or tradition. This means acting on the basis of knowledge and experience rather than whim or instinct. It also means furthering the dissemination of reason and knowledge in the world, allowing more and more people to dare to think for themselves.

So, assuming this view of the Enlightenment attitude, where do the critiques go wrong? Firstly, this attitude is not an enemy of feminism and other “progressive” causes. For instance, questioning tradition gender roles, expectations, and relations seems to be perfectly in line with the idea to use one’s own reason and question tradition and authority. Secondly, the Enlightenment attitude can hardly be associated with the kinds of totalitarianism that liberals (and most other people as well) deplore. The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, for example, can hardly be said to have been built on respect for the idea of free rational discussion and individual development of critical faculties. These things are, on the contrary, what totalitarian regimes fear the most.

It is interesting to note that Michel Foucault himself, who has inspired a lot of critique against the Enlightenment, seems to have changed his mind in later years. One scholar summarizes the earlier view with Foucault’s claim that the Enlightenment “paved the way for the ‘sciences of man,’ i.e. the sciences of discipline and normalization, of surveillance and control of bodies and souls, of marginalization and exclusion of the deviant, the abnormal, the insane”. The later view, however, sees the Enlightenment project as “a permanent reactivation of an attitude – that is, of a philosophical ethos that could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era” (M. Passerin d’Entrèves, in the anthology The Enlightenment and Modernity, 2000).

“Permanent critique” is indeed part and parcel of the Enlightenment attitude. And this attitude is not exactly the best handmaid to those who want to maintain an oppressive status quo.

Recap on core principles

The ethical theory that underlies my political views is hedonistic utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a view which claims that we ought to maximize good consequences (and, of course, minimize bad consequences). The hedonistic element adds that the good that is supposed to be maximized is pleasure and the bad that is supposed to be minimized is pain. (The theory is called “utilitarian”, because one ought to choose the action that has the most “utility” when it comes to maximize pleasure.) Furthermore, pleasures and pains can be of different kinds: they can be mostly physical or mostly mental, they can have different duration and intensity, etc. Of course, one could also talk about maximizing “happiness”, provided that people are aware that we’re actually talking about pleasure.

A utilitarian theory differs from, for example, deontological theories, in that the latter sort sees some absolute duties regardless of the consequences. A deontologist might, for instance, believe it is absolutely wrong to lie to people, or physically harm people, regardless of the consequences. A utilitarian might abide by certain general rules of thumb regarding such actions, but be willing to break them when the consequences demand it. One might, for instance, have to harm (or even kill) someone to prevent an even bigger evil. A more trivial example is the use of white lies to spare people’s feelings.

In politics, a utilitarian outlook has certain consequences. It would, for instance, be absurd to regard punishments as a matter of “revenge” without looking at the effects on wider society. If one form of punishment does not deter very much from further crimes among the populace at large, while at the same time it’s draining the society’s resources, as well as destroying the life of the criminal who could instead go through a program of rehabilitation and become a productive member of society again, then it is not a good form of punishment. It would’t have the best consequences for society at large.

When it comes to economic issues, a hedonistic outlook must compare the pain of being poor to the pleasures of being rich. If one could raise the pleasure levels of the poor by lowering the pleasure levels of the rich by a smaller amount, then that appears to be a net gain for society. It is often assumed – correctly, I think – that the same amount of money (let’s say $200 a month) would make a bigger difference for the happiness of a poor person than a rich person. This is probably because it is easier to alleviate pains than to raise pleasure levels. Not having to worry about how to pay the rent, medical bills etc. makes a huge difference for people, while having to choose a slightly less luxurious car, or only being able to take one vacation abroad per year, makes a much smaller difference for overall happiness (keeping aside the environmental impact of a rich lifestyle). One could even argue that beyond a certain point extra riches brings hardly no gains in pleasure at all (there might even be a reduction in some cases). In short, economic redistribution based on progressive taxation is a very good idea from a utilitarian perspective.

But we must also keep in mind that mental pains comes from other things than lack of money. Bullying, discrimination, harassment, etc. are big sources of pain. They prevent us from being who we truly are (to speak in clichés). Using our capabilities and realizing our creative visions is important for happiness (much more so than being rich) and oppressive social structures might stand in the way of this.

The richer a society gets the more important it is to focus on the things that prevent us from living our lives in a manner that suits us. This means fighting against such things as sexism, homophobia, racism, and nationalism. And we should not, through, for instance, upbringing and education, pigeonhole people in ways that constrict their choices in life. This entails that common institutions that allow for different perspectives on life to be exposed to each other are beneficial, for instance schools where people from different backgrounds can meet – as distinct from different groups separating themselves in private schools. Furthermore, a welfare state is beneficial when it comes to enabling people to escape many forms of social oppression, since one is not as economically dependent on one’s relatives.

These ideas might seem rather left-wing; and I think that, indeed, hedonistic utilitarianism renders basically left-wing policies when consistently applied, and in view of the experiences of the 20th century. But this is, of course, an empirical matter. If convincing evidence could be given that right-wing politics maximizes pleasure it is something we would have to consider. But I don’t think such evidence have been seriously put forward in modern times. Add to this the fact that statistics consistently show that social-democratic states (especially in northern Europe) provide the most life-satisfaction (which is not exactly the same as pleasure, but at least gives some indication). Conversely, it might be argued that the left-wing policies argued for here are not left-wing enough – that a communist revolution to introduce common ownership of the means of production would be the best route to maximize happiness. Currently, I see no empirical evidence to suggest this either – and communists usually don’t appeal to maximization of happiness to defend their views.

It might, however, be adduced that not all people become happy in the same ways. Some people might not mind being poor at all, some people might feel an incredible rush of pleasure every time they make an extra million to pile upon their billions, and yet some other people would be happy living with a religious cult who tells them exactly what to do. To this I would answer that it is not possible to adapt a society to the exact needs of everyone (this is true no matter what kind of society we’re talking about – there is no utopia that harmonizes everyone’s interests). We have to accept the fact that most people are reasonably similar and that certain policies benefit the vast majority of people. Add to this that all politics, be they utilitarian or not, should be realized in a democratic context, which means that certain rights cannot be taken away from people, regardless of perceived gains in aggregated pleasure. The option to join a (peaceful) cult, or to be a poor but free vagabond, will always be open to the few who actually want it (although the choice to be a billionaire might not be).

To conclude, I think the main message behind politics based on hedonistic utilitarianism is that no one has a “right” to be selfish (at least not beyond a reasonable threshold). Instead, we all have a “duty” to contribute to the sum of happiness in the world. And if people won’t perform their duties we have the right to use (democratic) politics, as well as social pressure, to make them perform them, at least as long as it won’t be counter-productive.

Resurrection + updates

In spite of the continued lack of interest in utilitarianism I have decided to resume blogging. Though I have not decided exactly when, and what kind of focus I will have. Perhaps I will try to engage more with political and philosophical opponents, as one commenter suggested on my last post.

I might also publish some translated parts of my new book, which is in Swedish: Upplysning, etik och feminism (“Enlightenment, ethics, and feminism”). In this book I argue that radical feminism is totally compatible with classical enlightenment values and utilitarianism. This is something that many feminists (as well as anti-feminists) would reject. I argued something similar in my latest scholarly (peer-reviewed) article, “Hedonistic Utilitarianism and Feminist Politics” (Cosmos and History, vol. 14, no. 3, 2018), in which I show that much of what feminists have said about concrete policies could be accepted by hedonistic utilitarians as well (the article is open-access, so anyone can read it here).

In 2018 I also uploaded a paper at the Social Science Research Network (a site where researchers post working papers and the like). It’s called “Hedonistic Utilitarianism and the (Non-)Problem of the Double Standard with Regard to State Justification”. Many anarchists (mainly “right-wing” ones) argue that people are inconsistent when they give representatives of the state licence to do things private individuals cannot do, such as taking other people’s property. I argue that utilitarians need not be inconsistent in this way, because they usually believe that private individuals – at least under certain circumstances – have a right to do what state representatives have a right to do. You can access the paper here.

So what else have I done since I thought I would stop blogging? Not much. I recently set up a Twitter account (the feed is visible on the right side of the blog). Thus, you can follow me there if you think I have interesting (or perhaps just amusing) things to say. You might also want to consider buying a copy of my book Leftism – A Concise Defense (this can be done here). I would very much appreciate that kind of support.

My Last Post

This will be my last post on this blog (at least for the foreseeable future). There are basically two reasons for this. The first is rather straightforward, namely the lack of interest out there in what I am writing. I have managed to write a lot just because it is interesting to myself and  without any hope of reaching more than a handful of persons; but this gets harder and harder without any input, feedback and suggestions from readers. One could, of course, reply something like the following: “Just write when you feel like it. Wait until you find the inspiration and energy”. My principle, however, has been that a blog like this should be updated with new posts with some regularity (my goal has been at least a couple of posts per month, preferably more), and if I can’t keep up the regular schedule I might as well pack it in. To me, it should be clear if a blog is active or not. Anyway, I must confess that I did not have high expectations about reaching a big audience in the first place, since utilitarianism is so out of fashion. So it does not feel very sad for me to wrap up this effort, or experiment, as one might call it.

The second reason for quitting is broader and has to do with my personal disillusionment about ethics in general and its place in society. I have come to realize that ethical arguments – at least analytically rigorous arguments – will not change the world to any noticeable degree. Most people (we’re talking at least 99%) have no interest whatsoever in “academic” ethics, and this figure is not about to change anyway soon. And those who have some interest mostly use ethics as window dressing for an ideology they were instinctively drawn to before they had scrutinized the arguments for or against it. The usual route is that people are drawn to, for instance, socialism, anarchism, conservatism, or libertarianism when they are young (or youngish), and then they (or at least a few of them) look for an ethical theory that will verify their youthful choice; and if they can’t find one they will probably disregard ethics and keep on with their ideology anyway. In short, one does not change politics, or society at large, by appeal to philosophical argument, but rather to feelings and other crude rhetorical devices; and I have no inclination or interest in the latter.

Someday I hope to be a part of a network of people who adhere to hedonistic utilitarianism and want to influence politics on the basis of that philosophy. But at present no such network exists (at least none that I am aware of). Right now the “Alt-Right” and similar right-wing groups are pumping out content on YouTube and other social media. There are also some “classical” leftists (Marxists, etc.) who try to keep up in this contest, although I think they have fallen behind considerably – and perhaps irreparably. But when it comes to utilitarianism, there is nothing (except maybe for a few interviews and speeches by Peter Singer), and this is not bound to change anytime soon.

Nevertheless, even if I would be more than willing to do more in the future, I feel like, for now, I have done my part for the promotion of hedonistic utilitarianism. I have written one philosophical book (albeit only available in Swedish) which answers the most common objections to hedonism, as well as a short book (in English) that draws out some political implications from hedonist ethics. Now I leave it to others to continue this arduous work. If I may wish for something to happen it would be the creation of a podcast devoted to hedonism, since any movement needs podcasts (or YouTube channels) to achieve anything these days. I, however, do not have the skills for that.

Against Culturally Biased Ethics

I am a big proponent of “universalist” ethics, i.e., finding ethical principles which can be shared by all people in the world. Thus, it is important to try to find some common core deep in us all about what might be called good or bad. The hedonist will, of course, claim that the intuition that pleasure is good and pain is bad is the most plausible candidate for that common core. There might be some people who simply do not have this intuition – they might not see anything “bad” in experiencing pain or seeing someone else experiencing it, or anything “good” in experiencing pleasure – but I think it is still the most widespread intuition among human beings.

However, people have other intuitions too, and many philosophers today believe that we must take account of many intuitions, and attempt to achieve some balance between them. (The good thing about hedonism, on the other hand, is that there is just one fundamental intuition, so there is no other no need to find a “balance”.) One risk with this methodology is that it is no longer universalist, or at least not as universalist as it could be. This is because intuitions about what is good and bad are often strongly affected by our own culture (something which the hedonist principle presumably is not, or at least to a lesser degree than other candidates).

A recent reading of Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Ethics made me contemplate examples of culturally determined moral intuitions. Spencer, for instance, observes that many cultures have been extremely aggressive, and some have seen murder as perfectly honorable. Common have also been practices like slavery (including kidnapping women to “marry”), cannibalism, and different forms of stealing and robbery. It seems that thieves – at least successful and cunning ones – have been admired in many cultures. Two among the many examples of the latter are an African tribe called Waganda, in which “[T]he distinctions between meum and tuum are very ill-defined; and indeed all sin is only relative, the crime consisting in being detected”, and the Fijians, among which “[s]uccess, without discovery, is deemed quite enough to making thieving virtuous, and a participation in the ill-gotten gains honourable”. We see, then, that moral intuitions about property rights are very different across cultures.

Even more conspicuous are, perhaps, the differences in sexual mores and family relations. We know that polygamy (and sometimes even polyandry) has been very often approved of. Among some peoples adultery has been accepted, and it is reported that “among the Esquimaux it is considered a great mark of friendship for two men to exchange wives for a day or two” (and they were not the only people doing this).

One could go on indefinitely recounting examples of customs that are very different from the ones we take for granted in our own societies. The point I wanted to make is that people in other cultures throughout history probably felt as strongly as we do that their way of doing things is intuitively correct, and if they were to develop ethical systems built on the methodology that all intuitions should be respected they would simply end up by justifying the existing customs of their own culture. And something seems to be wrong with this approach to ethics. Surely, it cannot be the task of ethics to simply affirm the prejudices and inherited conceptions of our own culture.

In short, when developing an ethical system, one should not assume anything, except the assumptions that are necessary to establish any ethical system at all. And it should be clear that the assumptions of the latter kind are assumptions, and not “truths”. In other words, we cannot simply accept our culturally biased values, unless we can justify why they are acceptable on a more fundamental (“universal”) level. If you disagree with the tribes and peoples who think that killing, stealing, prostitution, or polygamy is honorable, don’t simply assume that they are wrong and that you are right. Demonstrate how they are wrong (and how you are right) with appeal to culturally unbiased arguments. (The same should, of course, hold for those who disagree with you.)

On Laziness

To find out what (if anything) is immoral about laziness, we must first try to define it. On Wikipedia laziness is defined as “disinclination to activity or exertion despite having the ability to act or exert oneself”. This definition may not be totally adequate, since people would probably not call someone lazy who works all day with things they really like (i.e., it would not be “exertion” for them). If we, on the other hand, were to say that they are nevertheless “exerting” themselves in some way, despite the fact that they are thoroughly enjoying they work, we would have to concede that very few people are actually lazy, since we would not be able to distinguish this kind of exertion from paradigm cases of laziness, such as lying on the couch watching tv all day. The only significant difference between a film critic (who loves her job) and an unemployed movie buff (let’s say that the latter person also writes about movies on his blog)  might be the fact that the film critic gets paid. In this case the laziness of the movie buff, thus, cannot be constituted by the difference in “exertion”. Still, if we were to insist in calling the movie buff lazy anyway, we would have to concede that all people who have enjoyable jobs are lazy too. But that seems wrong.

A way of getting out of this dilemma would be to specify the nature of “exertion” in some way. We might define laziness as “disinclination to unpleasant activity or exertion despite having the ability to act or exert oneself”. In this way we couldn’t really tell (without further information) whether the film critic or the movie buff were lazy or not. In order to know whether someone is lazy or not they must be put to the test by being asked to do things they do not enjoy. Unfortunately, this leads to other problems, since, presumably, virtually everyone has a disinclination to do things they do not enjoy (i.e. find positively disagreeable). This would mean that almost all people are lazy.

Still, many people do things everyday that they find disagreeable, like going up too early in the morning, commuting to work, doing the work itself (which is usually a mix of agreeable and disagreeable tasks), cleaning the bathroom, shopping for groceries etc. (of course, some people genuine enjoy things like cleaning or shopping, but you catch my drift). One paradigm case of laziness seems to apply to those who are not willing to do those everyday unenjoyable things that most other people do. We might, for instance, think of unemployed people in countries with generous welfare provisions – at least those few who are unemployed because of their laziness.

So the difference between laziness and non-laziness does not seem to consist in differences in “inclinations”, since most people are disinclined to do unpleasant things. The difference seems to lie in the actual doing of unpleasant things. Most people are “lazy” in the sense that they would refrain from doing unpleasant things if they could, but the genuinely lazy people are those are actually not doing unpleasant things, while the industrious (let’s say that that is the opposite of lazy) are actually doing them.

If this account is reasonable we would have to say that, for instance, a rich heir who is never doing anything unpleasant is a lazy person. Maybe some people would be inclined to call such a person lazy; but when laziness is used in a pejorative sense (which it usually is) the idle rich are usually exempt from that sort of criticism. Poor people, on the other hand, who are avoiding unpleasant activities as well, are often called lazy, even in spite of the fact that rich people are able to avoid unpleasant activities to a higher degree than poor people. So it all seems to boil down to on who’s expense you are leading your displeasure-avoiding lifestyle. If you are living pleasurably on other people’s taxes you are condemned as lazy. If you are living on your own money (which we assume have been earned in an “honest” way) you are not condemned as lazy (although we might not call you industrious either).

But I don’t think this is the whole truth about laziness. If common language does not seem to condemn the rich heir as lazy on account that he is not being idle on someone else’s expense, he might nevertheless be called lazy for other reasons. For example, he might justly (again, according to common language) be called lazy if he refuses to fulfill certain social duties that may be unpleasant for him. If he prefers to stay at home relaxing with a drink by his swimming pool instead of helping out with certain arduous arrangements for his uncle’s funeral, then his family would probably be warranted in calling him lazy (among other things).

And now we may have struck at the core what what laziness and industriousness is all about. It seems to be mostly about fulfilling certain (unpleasant) duties – duties which might be of various kinds, but often social or economic. The reason, then, that some of the unemployed might be called lazy seems to be that they fail to fulfill a presumed duty to share the burdens of economic life and to contribute to the economic stock of riches that they themselves are drawing from (again, we are assuming the context of the welfare state). The reason why the rich heir discussed above is called lazy is that he fails to fulfill his duty as a member of the extended family. Another example might be a priest who declines to preform important (but arduous) rituals because he would rather do something more pleasant.

So, let’s proceed from the latest definition of laziness, i.e., that it consists in the non-performance of unpleasant duties, to the question of whether laziness is really immoral or not. Evidently, it depends on whether one thinks that we have any moral duties or not. If you, for instance, believe that we only have negative duties, i.e., duties to refrain from doing certain things to others (for instance, harming them physically or taking their property), then it seems hard to call laziness immoral. No doubt, a person might violate negative duties out of laziness. A person might, for instance, turn to robbing because she finds that less unpleasant and time-consuming than working. But the person who subscribes to this libertarian philosophy would probably not call this a problem of laziness, because laziness seems to imply non-activity and non-performance. When a duty is unfulfilled through activity and performance people would probably avoid the label laziness (laziness, in other words, is about not doing things). I suspect that a firm believer in negative liberty would mostly use that label to describe the reasons that some are poor and others rich etc., because according this worldview people only get what they deserve. If you are lazy you will simply become poor, and if you do not fulfill your social duties you will simply become lonely. And if these are your choices, that is up to you.

Thus, laziness only seems to appear as a moral problem if we actually think that people have positive duties. Let’s take the example of the unemployed. If you, like me, are a hedonistic utilitarian you will think that people have a duty to contribute to maximizing pleasure, or, perhaps more practically relevant, to minimizing pain. One way of doing this could be to taking an ordinary job. Obvious examples of professions who contribute to reducing pain are doctors, nurses, or firemen; but most professions contribute to it in more indirect ways by making our everyday lives run smoothly.

It seems, then, that a conscious choice to live on unemployment benefits, in spite of the fact that one would be able to find a job, may be immoral. In other words, it may be a case of immoral laziness. I say that it “may” be so, because it is still possible for the unemployed to engage in other sorts of activities instead of paid work which could contribute to the well-being of other people. In other words, since unemployment (even voluntary unemployment) does not by itself constitute laziness, the moral status of the unemployed depends on how they actually spend their time. It is still possible for them to fulfill the duty which consists in doing what one can to maximize happiness in the world. (Needless to say, most cases of unemployment are not voluntary, unless we are taking “voluntary” in a highly formalistic and morally useless sense.)

When it comes to other kinds of social duties, whose neglect is commonly condemned as laziness, we would have to examine the purpose of those duties in order to resolve the moral question. In some social settings the neglect of social duties might be a valuable protest against unreasonable demands. In other words, as a hedonist one cannot accept a “duty” that does not, in fact, contribute to enhanced well-being. Nevertheless, refusing to fulfill a “false” duty does not get one off the hook when it comes to participating in fulfilling the real duty of maximizing happiness. You might be warranted in skipping some religious social requirement if you think that this requirement is only making the world worse; but then you should find something more productive to do instead than sitting by the pool all day.

The main thing for the hedonist is that you should find some time to make yourself useful for other people (in the sense that you should contribute to making their lives happier). If you are not fulfilling that duty then you may rightly be condemned as lazy. Of course, this does not mean that you should devote all your time to the service of others. After all, your happiness is also a part of the total sum of happiness. And we all need some recreation in order to fulfill the rest of our tasks in an efficient manner. Furthermore, there are many ways of contributing to happiness in society. The obvious ways are doing volunteer work to directly help the less fortunate, but one one can also spend time educating oneself in order to contribute to the betterment of society in more structural ways, or composing music or writing poetry for others to enjoy etc. etc.

Now let’s return to the case of lying on the couch watching TV all day. Would the hedonist say that this constitutes laziness and worthy of moral condemnation? In many cases, yes. No doubt, there are many valuable things one can learn by watching TV which might be of profit in one’s work as a pleasure-maximizer, but it would be hard to claim that a lifestyle dominated by the television is the most efficient type of lifestyle. And it would be hard to claim that watching television all day is such a blissful activity for you that the pleasure of it outstrips all other things you could have done for the benefit of other people. If we replace television with computer games it is even harder to see how more than a very modest amount of time per day could be reasonable.

Of course, I do not want to scare  anyone away from hedonism by claiming that you should devote a lot of effort to the improvement of society. If you already work full-time and have children to take care of it might be hard to squeeze in a lot of such activities on top of the necessary time for recreation for yourself, and that is understandable (besides, working hard to earn money to give to charity or the taxman is not a bad way to contribute). But the least one can do is to try to be noticeably less lazy than the average person in your circumstances. If your perception is that most people who work as much as you do, do five hours of charity work per year, then try to do seven or eight yourself. If the average person reads half a book on politics per year, try to read two or three yourself. There is always something you can do instead of being lazy.

Discounting Preferential Pains

One problem in hedonistic utilitarianism is how to treat mental pain – or distress, as I would prefer to call it. The fact that some actions might cause distress to people sometimes leads people to make dubious interpretations of what hedonistic policies might look like. For example, if it is the case that the mere thought that homosexual intercourse is taking place causes some mental distress for a substantial amount of people, then wouldn’t the hedonist have to say that homosexual intercourse must be forbidden? (This may not be the most interesting example to bring forward, since most people who argue against homosexuality do not do it on utilitarian grounds, but anyway…)

To answer this we must firstly put the distress of those who are being denied the opportunity to engage in sexual activities in the balance. Even so, it may still be the case that the distress of a lot of straight people counterweighs the distress that comes from a relatively small minority of people being sexually frustrated. Would the hedonist have to concede that in this case, the ban on homosexual intercourse is still a good policy?

I would say no, since it is still the case that many (probably most) of those who feel such grave distress at the mere thought of homosexual intercourse taking place feel this distress merely because they have previously formed (or have been taught) the preference that homosexuality is wrong. On the other hand, most people who see absolutely nothing immoral with homosexuality do not feel very much mental distress when imagining homosexual activities, or at least not so much distress that they feel warranted in complaining about it.

In other words, if grave cases of mental distress are caused by certain preferences (or ideas), and if the distress would go away if the preference were to go away, then it seems unreasonable to count this distress in the summation of pleasures and pains. I might have a preference not to be tortured, but the pain of the torture does not go away if I somehow managed to talk myself out of this preference. I might have a preference for eating ice cream, but the pleasure of eating ice cream would (in most cases) not go away if I got rid of this preference (otherwise, imagine how easy it would be to lose weight, stop smoking, etc.).

But the pain of thinking about about homosexuality will (at least in most cases) be considerably mitigated if the preference against it disappears. We might say the same thing about the pains and pleasures pertaining to revenge. If we get the (rather primitive) idea out of our heads that all wrongs must be revenged by inflictions of pain to the offender that supersedes the pain inflicted to the victim, then we would probably not feel so much pain when someone who has done us wrong is not getting the punishment he or she “deserves”.

It should also be added that we are often fooled by our preferential pleasures when it comes to planning our own lives. We often think that we will be happier if we only take this or that journey, buy new clothes or furniture, pursue a certain career, win another medal, have another child etc. etc. Often we turn out to be mistaken. Or preferences do not always increase our pleasure (or reduce our pain). Of course, it may be the case that we get a certain amount of joy (mental pleasure) from the mere act of planning these future events, and it would seem strange to discount this joy just because it is built out of as yet imaginary things. If it all stopped at planning then no harm would be done; but if we are fooled by these preferential joys we will eventually try to make the things themselves happen, and often find out that we are no happier than before. We would, in other words, find out ex post facto that we could have used our energy on other things that would, perhaps, have a greater change of increasing our pleasure.