Thursday, May 16, 2013

On the Motivational Commensurability of Pleasure and Pain

'On the Motivational Commensurability of Pleasure and Pain' is the working title of a talk/paper that is part of this sprawling ‘common currency’ project.

When the project started, I wasn’t especially interested in pleasure and pain. (That is, I wasn’t especially academically interested in them.) That was because I partly shared the behaviourist tendency in both the psychological and economic sense: introspection and affect weren’t much scientific use, and what we needed to know about motivation could be revealed in behaviour, or perhaps in behaviour and cognitive neuroscience.

One thing that changed my mind about this was finding out that pleasure and pain themselves get mooted as being the ‘common currency’. So, as a comparative investigator of common currencies, I had to pay some attention.

Another thing that changed my mind was paying a bit more attention to the pre-behaviourist history of some of the disciplines that are relevant to the project. For early utilitarians (like Bentham, and Mill) what was motivating coincided with what was pleasant or painful. Behaviourist psychology and most economics (since around the 1930s) have studiously avoided reference to affect (in favour of reinforcement, reward, and a de-psychologised notion of ‘utility’). But it’s an interesting question how what is discovered about motivation and what is discovered about pleasure and pain relate.

This represents what I somewhat pretentiously called (in version 1 of the talk) the ‘Optimistic Correspondence Hypothesis’, and which is fairly clearly false some of the time. This is my own diagram, but you will find equivalent images in some theoretically-minded discussions of pain.

Finally, I saw a call for papers for a future special issue of the Review of Philosophy and Psychology that got me thinking. I don’t know if I’ll have something I’m happy with ready in time for the deadline, but I started collecting some thoughts, and put together a working talk.


15 May 2013, at UKZN philosophy. This was the first outing. I think it went pretty well, in the sense that I was reasonably clear, and (as I often find) immediately after thought of a number of improvements to the presentation and ways of describing the issues. So I’ll update the thing, and look for another audience I can pester with it. I'll post the slides here after I've refined them a little.

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