Thomas Hurka is one of my favorite moral philosophers. His essay on Nietzsche found in the compilation Nietzsche and Morality is meaty and challenging both as a stark reading of Nietzsche and as a strong perfectionist view of ethics, developed on Nietzsche’s behalf. I’ve also read most of his first book, Perfectionism, which was excellent. Below are my notes I took on an interview he gave to Philosophy Bites during my first week at Camels With Hammers in June of 2009. Digging through my unpublished drafts for blog posts, I found them and realized I never got around to writing my own post out of them and think they’re helpful enough simply in their present form as notes. Again, what follows below are notes, not attempts to write in my own words and so nothing below should be attributed to me as there may be some extremely close paraphrases that might otherwise count as plagiarism were these not just my notes. Hurka went on to write up the ideas below as part of his very good and accessible book The Best Things in Life: A Guide to What Really Matters (Philosophy in Action) which he released (and I read) a year later.
Hurka begins by distinguishing that pleasure is a good thing but not necessarily the only good thing. Achievement, knowledge, being morally good, etc. are other examples of human values. While there are these other values in addition to pleasure, we can’t imagine a good life without pleasure. It is an essential element of a good life.
Then he distinguishes two kinds of pleasures
(1) pleasures which are simple feelings (simple pleasure)
(2) pleasures about something being the case (pleasures that)
Hurka: Each pleasure we actually experience will be a complex sensation combining the dimension of pleasantness and the particularities of the pleasant thing–the rich swirl of chocolate or the feel of sun on the skin. You can never feel pleasantness on its own but it always has to be with something else.
–When we have a “pleasure that” something is the case then our pleasure is aimed at something in the world. This kind of pleasure requires a conscious thought. Animals can have simple physical pleasures but can’t have the pleasure that the Mets scored because they can’t have the thought that the Mets scored.
–A simple pleasure is often localized in a specific part of the body. Taste is only in the mouth for example. Simple pains are localized as well–pain in thigh, soreness in throat, etc. And we can have combinations of all these different localized pleasures and pains simultaneous with each other with each being a discrete element in consciousness.
–To simple pleasures we can contrast general pleasures such as “being in a good mood.” It’s not physically localized (not in a good mood in your right thigh). General pleasures also permeate all of consciousness. They provide both background and coloring to them.
Can take the general in looking at my life as a whole and have a “pleasure that” which extends well beyond my pleasure that the Mets scored.
Ordering this, Hurka distinguishes 4 types of pleasure:
(1) Pleasures which are Simple and Localized, e.g., physical pleasures
(2) Pleasures which are Simple and Extended, e.g. an overall good mood
(3) Pleasures That, which are Localized, e.g. pleasure that the Mets just scored
(4) Pleasures That, which are Extended, e.g. pleasure that my life has gone as it has.
How do we compare these different pleasures?
They all involve good feeling, which can be more or less intense. Hurka’s view is that all that matters is how intense the buzz is (a la Bentham).
People have often used the word happiness for the more extended kinds of happiness, when he’s overall feeling good about his life as a whole, to try to get us to think of those as better. But Hurka thinks any good feeling is good.
This is not to say that pleasure is the only good. You could have an sensualist, a Don Giovanni who enjoys erotic adventures but second guesses his life as a whole. So he has both intense experiences but not an overall extended good mood. On the other hand, an ascetic with few intense pleasures but an overall extended good mood and life satisfaction. It is possible both of them have led equally but differently pleasurable lives. Hard to say which is more pleasurable life.
Hurka: there are other goods in life. So while poetry and playing a simple game may be equally pleasurable the poetry involves an extra good, like achievement or aesthetic enjoyment.
–Torturing animals is good insofar as it is pleasant but it is bad insofar as it is vicious, which subtracts from its overall goodness, and also makes it worse than comparable pleasures which don’t have an evil object. And since the object of such malice has a balance of pain, overall it’s a bad thing.
Hurka rejects hedonism. 2 Main objections to hedonism: mindless pleasures and morally vicious ones. A life with higher goods involving skill, talent, challenge, and lack of delusion, is better than a life with more base pleasures than it. Also a good life involves certain pains. The hedonist would recommend against ever feeling pain, even when grieving over lost loved ones but that sounds wrong to Hurka.
For more, read Hurka’s book The Best Things in Life.