Valence utilitarianism FAQ

Page 1 - What's valence utilitarianism?

If you know what utilitarianism is, turn to page 2

If you don't know what utilitarianism is, turn to page Wikipedia

Page 2 - But what's valence utilitarianism?

It's hedonistic utilitarianism with a better name.

If this answer satisfies you, turn to page 100

If not, turn to page 3

Page 3 - Tell me something substantial, goddammit

Ok, ok. The basic problem with hedonistic utilitarianism is that people still think it means something far more limited than the views its advocates actually hold.

In the worst case, some people ignore the ‘utilitarianism’ bit altogether and just hear ‘hedonism’, so believe it's a self-serving philosophy about going out and dancing with satyrs all night (I have known professional political philosophers who really should know better claim this).

Others believe it has relevance only to a limited range of human experience, and that it excludes, for example, a state of thoughtless serenity from meditation, or the preferences of someone who suffers pain asymbolia - a condition where the subject feels physical pain, but doesn’t find it aversive.

If you don’t believe either of those things, turn to page 4

If either sounds like what you'd expect from hedonistic utilitarianism, turn to page 5

Page 4 - Tumbleweed

Well, this is awkward. Look, would you empathise with the other guys for a few minutes, so I can minimize any actual branching? You’ll get your chance for glory later.

Here, have this nice PACK OF CASHEW NUTS.

Sure. Turn to page 5

Page 5 - Ok, so what’s hedonistic utilitarianism actually about?

The basic premise is that, rather than there necessarily being an integral element of pleasure/pain (or even happiness/suffering), any conscious experience worth worrying about can be assigned a value, positive or negative.

The numbers in question might be no more integral to the experience than degrees Fahrenheit (or Celsius) are integral to the rate of motion of atoms. But nonetheless, just as there is a correct way to derive Fahrenheit readings from groups of bouncy atoms, so hedonistic utilitarians believe that, for any given scale you use, there is a correct way to derive numbers from particular experiences.

If that all sounded completely clear, and is exactly what the word ‘hedonism’ evokes for you, turn to page Humpty

If you’re not entirely surprised that this causes confusion, turn to page 6

Page 6 - What’s this ‘valence’ business, then?

It turns out that psychology actually uses the word ‘valence’ to refer precisely to the concept in the previous section. From Wikipedia, it means ‘the intrinsic attractiveness (positive valence) or aversiveness (negative valence) of an event, object, or situation’.

So, why not use it? It’s not in as common use as ‘hedonism’, but that’s precisely why its meaning is so clear - colloquial use distorts words. ‘Valence’ is pristine.

Maybe someone can come up with a sexier phrase that evokes the concepts in question for everyone, while simultaneously sounding like something you’d want to buy in a supermarket - but until they do, I suggest we at least refine the lexical materials we do have.

So that’s that. To add some pzazz to this FAQ, a FIREBREATHING DRAGON appears, with a helpless prince/ess (delete to suit preference) as its captive. It seems to have a nut allergy.

If you have a PACK OF CASHEW NUTS and choose to throw them at the dragon, go to page 7

If you don’t have any nuts, or choose not to use them, go to page 8

Page 7 - Congratulations, you have slain the dragon!

You and the prince/ess live valently ever after.

Unfortunately, the dragon was a utility monster, so the meagre speck of wellbeing you and your partner gain pales in comparison to the boundless joy you’ve deprived it of.

Page 8 - Congratulations, you’re not a speciesist!

The dragon thanks you for your mercy by gifting you a beautiful tigerskin rug. You try very hard to look appreciative.


Valence utilitarianism