Sophistication Beyond Measure: The Limits of Railton’s “Sophisticated Hedonism”

It is a long and storied objection that moral philosophy is only a form of hostile autobiography- a way of dictating rules for the world without embracing it. Meta-ethical debates continue, but it is at least some proof against this claim that contemporary moral philosophy concerns itself deeply with how we live our lives, how friendships, relationships, and the demands of everyday life can be attended to while continuing to be moral. Alienation is just one obstacle among many in such efforts, but it is this obstacle which Railton believes he can dissolve by reworking the way we schematize and apply morality. Railton establishes a subjective/objective duality in interpreting a given moral philosophy and posits that by adopting the objective and dismissing the subjective we become sophisticated and avoid the problems of alienation. While Railton’s sophisticated consequentialism is an innovative and structurally sound approach, it fails to defeat alienation by being impracticable: no human being constrained by the limits of ordinary psychology could possibly live such a life.

If only for a fleeting moment of believability, let us admire Railton’s sophisticated consequentialism. His motive here is a worry that the moral points of view, being necessarily universal and impartial, tends to alienate one from life itself, to create “a kind of estrangement, distancing, or separateness resulting in some sort of loss” of that which “compels his allegiance to life itself” (Railton 134, Williams 18). The strict and upright consequentialist might do all the right things for all the right reasons, but he is still going through life as if following a handbook and a (very undependable) calculator- he has lost touch with humanity.

The solution to this alienation then, is to bridge universalized moral principle (in this case consequentialism) with actions that fully (emotionally and otherwise) acknowledge one’s “special relations” within the world (Railton 136). We begin on the starting embankment of moral law- Railton specifies a pluralistic consequentialism aimed at maximizing a set of goods but notes that the bridge he aims to construct “could be made, mutatis mutandis, by a deontologist” (148). From the bank of ideology we construct our first support pillar, the objective aspect. Objective consequentialism specifies no particular action or pattern of action, but rather supplies a criterion for what makes a thing morally right. This allows one access to moral ideology for assessment but does not force one to act in the alienated moral manner we described previously. Governing such practical action is our second support beam, the subjective aspect. The subjective form of a philosophy specifies motive in action; adopting a subjective consequentialism would have one “determine [on a case-by-case basis] which act of those available would most promote the good” and then execute that act (152). We thus create an alienation-free route to our final destination, real world action. By taking a subjective philosophy oriented around one’s activities (e.g. valuing family when spending time with them), one can intimately connect with the world while still holding separate objective moral beliefs.

Utilizing this established bridge, Railton’s sophisticated consequentialist not only realizes that his objective and subjective philosophy need not match, but that, in fact, matching them often causes alienation (and thus, self-sabotage). Adopting hedonism or consequentialism subjectively leads one to make well-intentioned but ill-advised decisions: actively choosing the most pleasurable or that which will directly cause the most good is ultimately misguided for, in the end, more pleasure or more good would have been produced through other decision methods. Thus, the sophisticated consequentialist is an objective consequentialist who follows patterns of decision making (i.e. subjective philosophies) for their own sake, so long as they are (when considered as a whole) morally defensible from a consequentialist point of view.

This makes a certain sense if we consider the case of the artist. Aesthetics are another field of philosophy concerned with value, but nowhere (or, at least, very rarely) will you see any account of good art which demands that artists support its dictums. There may be grand debates about artist intentionality (just as there are debates about moral intentionality), but all theorists and critics acknowledge there is a difference between theory and practice: the artist who believes himself to be channeling a divinely inspired beauty might still create the most meritorious post-modern works of discomposition. Just so, Railton is merely asking us to acknowledge the difference between moral theory (the objective) and practice (the subjective): the zealously loyal family man might still achieve the most consequential good in his life.

All well and good in theory, but as directive for living a moral life, it is difficult to see how Railton’s sophisticated philosophy is actionable. It might well be true, empirically speaking, that choosing hedonic choices is unproductive towards living a happy life- but Railton is assuming that we can do otherwise, that we can maintain a mental objective/subjective divide. Railton does give us examples of this divide at work, but they all show signs of very advanced, very difficult mental footwork. First, we hear of a “spouse who acts for the sake of his mate” but also maintains an objective hedonism and “that if it[the marriage] proved over time to be inconsistent with his happiness he would consider ending it” (141). Just like that, Railton skims over the long, slow realization of an unhappy marriage, the self-doubt of separation, and the regret of divorce: all mental turmoils originating from the conflict between subjective and objective philosophies. While painful and difficult, at least in the divorce example it is actually true that we can act on an objective/subjective divide, the Ned example shows us the much more common occurrence where the subjective/objective divide cannot be maintained. In Railton’s set-up, Ned is a man attempting to “maximize [monetary] return” to provide the necessary resources for his family and lifestyle. However, Ned has also “come to want money for its own sake,” and Railton tells us this is perfectly compatible with him retaining his family as a primary priority (145). Again, this is theoretically true, but anyone who has read even the simplest of American family novels will know this does not reflect real life. In reality, coming to see money as intrinsically valuable begins to erode and suppress other beliefs, perhaps until Ned becomes that father-figure cliché who resents his own family for depending on him for their livelihood.

In conscious thought it is easy to see why this happens (it is difficult to remember a specific objective goal over years and multiple failed or successful projects which were done for their own sake), but the unconscious psychological explanation is more complex. Self-Perception Theory gives us an explanation in the form of behaviorism: the insight being that while attitudes determine behavior, behavior also affects attitudes. Thus, acting as a good teacher for its own sake can, over time, come to alter or destroy the objective hedonism that originated it. An alternative explanation is that of cognitive dissonance. Simply put, cognitive dissonance occurs when we are internally inconsistent and while it can be (and is, all the time) resolved via rationalization (just as Railton is advising) this takes willpower and concentration. In the end, it is too difficult to keep up for lengthy periods of time.

Perhaps the reason Railton believes such a difficult mental process is possible is because it is exactly what academic philosophers excel at. Any established philosopher must consider varieties of ideologies, both those he agrees with and acts on as well as those he does not. For someone trained to hold competing theories in mind, the subjective/objective divide works perfectly as method for eliminating alienation. Perhaps we should all become philosophers, or perhaps this is just more autobiography.

Source: Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality. Peter Railton. Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 13, No. 2. (Spring, 1984), pp. 134-171.

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