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Vol. 17, No. 1, 2018
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the hedonist case for a



J. Mikael Olsson recieved a PhD in political science from Stockholm University, Sweden. A list of his publications can be found at:

The idea of a basic income which is paid out to every individual irrespective of income from other sources and without requiring any work performance, is an idea which has remained popular in some quarters since theorists started to discuss it seriously in the 1980s (but the idea itself is, of course, older than that). The main philosophical arguments that have been put forward in defense of a basic income are the following:
(i) since the earth should belong to the whole of humanity, those who appropriate parts of it for themselves must compensate those who are left out of these resources (alternatively, one might claim that people properly own the value of the improvements they make upon, e.g., some piece of land, while a basic ground rent must be paid to the community for the use of this common inheritance);
(ii) by egalitarian standards, everyone simply has a right to get their basic needs satisfied;
(iii) a basic income would reduce alienation, as interpreted by Marxists, or other bad effects of capitalism, such as exploitation;
(iv) people's sense of community would increase;
(v) a more green lifestyle would be enabled. Thus, the main arguments seem to have been left-libertarian, egalitarian, Marxist, communitarian, or environmentalist.

Other, less philosophical, arguments that have been put forward for basic income are that it lowers unemployment or that it compensates women for their unpaid work . Some arguments based on different kinds of efficiency, e.g., in the sense that it improves economic growth or that basic income is less bureaucratic than other welfare schemes, also exist. But is there a case to be made for basic income on hedonist grounds? This is something that the literature on basic income does not seem to contemplate very often (and utilitarians rarely seem to discuss this specific measure themselves).

Philip Pettit, in a short article, mentions that "utilitarian theory makes a very good case for a financially adequate basic income," although he does not say any more about the reasoning that would lie behind that conclusion (and he believes that the argument would fail only because the utilitarian justification is too empirically contingent – the right to basic income might be taken away if the utilitarian calculus is revised. The reason for the neglect of hedonism is probably one of the following:
(i) hedonism is not a moral doctrine to be taken seriously, either because some other moral theory is presumed to be correct, or because hedonism is simply not popular enough to warrant any attention;
(ii) basic income can so obviously be defended on hedonist grounds that it is not worth mentioning;
(iii) basic income is so unlikely to be defended on hedonist grounds that it is not worth mentioning. It is safe to say that the third explanation seems unlikely, because most hedonists would probably defend a robust welfare state, even though it remains an open question whether the specific policy of a basic income would be the best one, especially when one considers the many variables that affect these decisions. This is, of course, a purely external counter-argument, since it is a part of the utilitarian idea itself that happiness or (preference satisfaction) is the only thing that matters intrinsically. For a utilitarian, the value of all policies are by necessity contingent on empirical facts.

It will become evident that basic income, on hedonist grounds, can be taken neither as obviously, or self-evidently, justified nor obviously unjustified.

Hedonism is a form of utilitarianism and its foundational moral principle is that one should always act to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Other kinds of utilitarianism say that we should maximize other things. The most common alternative to pleasure is degree of preference satisfaction. It is important that we distinguish between preference utilitarianism and hedonism in the present context, since they may give different answers regarding the desirability of basic income. One of the first famous hedonist philosophers is Epicurus (341-270 BC). In order best to pursue pleasure and avoid pain Epicurus and his followers "lived a life of semi-seclusion, growing vegetables and herbs and discussing the proper conduct of human life." In spite of the reputation that hedonism has had during most of history, Epicurus did not think people should live "by the frenetic pursuit of wine, women and song, but by seeking health of body and serenity of soul," which, among other things, entails cultivating "an inner self-sufficiency, a contentment of [one's] own physical and mental states and a suppression of unnecessary desires." Of course, he conceded that other, more sybaritic, pleasures are also pleasures, and have value; but they often tend to bring with them other kinds of disturbances that far outweigh the pleasures. Thus, someone who "sets his mind on acquiring fame or riches condemns himself to a hectic and anxious life, with no sure hope of reaching his goal."

If the Epicurean version of hedonism is accepted the case for a basic income seems strong. Most proponents of a basic income set the amount of the income sufficiently high to allow someone to live the sort of modest life that the Epicurean ideal entails. As long as one is guaranteed a roof over one's head, decent food one's table and decent clothes to wear (and we should also add free, or cheap, healthcare, as well as other public amenities, such as parks and libraries, since most people discuss basic income in the context of a modern welfare state), it would be possible to lead the sort of life that Epicurus commends. We might at least say that then the politicians have done the best they can do to promote the Epicurean lifestyle. Providing good company and friends is sadly not something that the politicians can do. Of course, if the level of the basic income is set lower than the Epicurean minimum level, a lot of the benefits would disappear. A person who is guaranteed money that suffices to buy only the lowest quality of food, to rent an unheated room without running water in the slums, and without resources to take the bus or train to visit friends or relatives, to go to the dentist once in a while, to pay the membership fees of a club etc, would probably not be a very happy person (although Epicurus himself seems to have thought that many great pains can be endured with the right attitude.

To be sure, one should be careful of equating hedonism with Epicureanism without further ado. Empirical happiness research seems to indicate that Epicurus was correct on some things and incorrect on others. He may have been mostly right about the importance of a healthy body and mind, and in his observation that intimate relationships enhance happiness more than material pursuits. But he was probably wrong in advising us avoid public life (as well as to avoid marriage).

Another advantage of a basic income is that it allows the "experiments of living" that 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill talked about. Although Mill was a hedonist, it was not exactly a hedonism of the Benthamite4 kind, since he – among other revisions – distinguished between higher and lower pleasures. A higher pleasure could be regarded as more valuable than a lower pleasure, even though the former actually gave an equal amount (or even a lower amount) of pleasure than the latter. Among the higher pleasures he seems to have counted the appreciation of art, science, nature and so forth. However, the distinction between higher and lower pleasures does not seem to be extremely important when it comes to deciding about basic income (it seems that the policy could advance both higher and lower pleasures throughout society). But another dimension of Mill's thought seems to be more important. Mill was wary of the dangers of the "tyranny of the majority," i.e. the risk that a political majority might use their power to the severe detriment of the minority. But he was also wary of more informal power, namely "the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; […] the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them." To combat this conformism, Mill thought that not only is it desirable that there should be different opinions in society, but also different practical experiments of living; that "the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when anyone thinks fit to try them." Now Mill's proposal was that the government (at least among civilized peoples) should not interfere with anyone's liberty, except for the reason of protecting harm to other people. Actions that do not concern other people (although it is not easy to interpret exactly what Mill meant by this) should not come under the domain of law. However, it is not obvious that this libertarian measure would be the best to foster the kinds of experiments of living that Mill talked about. A basic income should enable all people (and not just relatively rich people, which the libertarian proposal entails) to live by their own social rules and experiment with ways of living.

Now it my be claimed that most people are really not that interested in experiments of living, which would mean that a basic income would not be desirable for that reason. On the other hand, Mill probably thought that although experiments of living would be of interest only to a few people, their experiments are very important for the future. Every new social practice must be tried out by some avant-garde before it can spread throughout the rest of society. It seems obvious that a basic income would enable more of these experiments of living, and if one agrees with Mill about the importance of individuality for well-being then the case for the policy appears to be strong. (Moreover, if very few people would be willing to be a part of the avant-garde, the basic income scheme would be cheap for society – and we should also keep in mind that some of the experiments of living would probably contain some entrepreneurial elements).

Thus, the hedonist case for a basic income – set on a level that allows one to live comfortably but modestly – seems, to repeat, to be strong. But the strength of this conclusion depends on how many people are, in reality, convinced hedonists. I am, of course, alluding to the problem of incentives to work, to accumulate capital. If everyone were convinced hedonists there would be no problem in this regard. Since the hedonist ought to regard everybody's pleasure as equally important there would be no need to persuade anyone to set off some time to work for other people's benefit or to save up and invest capital for the benefit of all (i.e., no consistent hedonist would really want to be very rich – or refuse to do some of the necessary work to keep modern society going – as long as there are plenty of poor people to help in the world). Incidentally, this means that the modern hedonist would probably have to reject one important aspect of Epicurus's ideal, namely his advice to back away from society and reject participation in politics and the common life outside the hedonist Garden, as well as to accept the common hierarchies of one's society.

Anyway, in the real world one cannot expect that everybody will be a convinced hedonist. Thus, many people will feel that some people get things they have not deserved through hard work, like the rest of us. Still, this may not be a huge problem, since we must (if we want to be democrats) assume that at least half of the population is behind the idea of a basic income. The problem will only be acute if the large minority who are against basic income are really against it, and are prepared to evade taxes on a massive scale, or the like. But it is hard to see that this would be the case, since today other kinds of tax financed social benefits are widely accepted. Of course, this is a matter where one can make different empirical assessments. Still, there is another problem lurking for the hedonist case for basic income. A basic income set at the comfortable level discussed above seems to require vast resources, such as can be found in modern industrialized countries (in a very poor country, I assume, the level of the basic income would be so low that it would defeat its purposes). If, however, it would be possible to lead a happy, epicurean life – or a life of various experiments of living – without working, then the more the epicurean ideal becomes popular, the less people would be willing to work hard to provide the resources that society needs to keep the basic income scheme going (I am, again, assuming that far from 100% of the population will be convinced hedonists). Thus, it would be best if only a small portion of the population pursue a hedonist lifestyle (or an epicurean type of hedonism), while the rest of the population continue to work hard in order to get the things in life that epicureans believe are unnecessary for real happiness. But this rather paradoxical conclusion – namely, that if too many were to pursue ‘real’ happiness, we could not afford it as a society – can perhaps be avoided if the basic income is not set high enough to allow for the raising of a family. Since the urge to have children is so prevalent (even though it is not clear that parents have more pleasure and less pain in life than non-parents), most people would probably continue to work hard in order to be able to raise a family.

At the present time, immigration is a very pressing issue all over the world. This raises important questions for the hedonist, since, presumably, national borders are not supposed to matter when it comes to maximizing pleasure. If more and more immigrants (and refugees) turn up at the doorsteps of your country, are you not supposed to welcome them and give them access to the basic income without further ado? These questions cannot be handled at length here, but the main question seems to be whether there are any limits to what a hedonist must do in order to help other people (and, correspondingly, what a rich country must do for people living in, or leaving, poor countries). Must we say that the rich hedonist should give until the poor recipient and the rich giver have reached the same level of happiness? Must a rich country, in other words, receive immigrants to the point where so many receive no other income than the basic income that the scheme is no longer affordable? Although some hedonists will answer yes to these questions, I believe that answer is not self-evident. It is possible to claim that the hedonist's duties to help stop well before the equilibrium point discussed above.

J. W. Bailey (1997) has argued forcefully that there is something counterproductive for a hedonist to give until the recipient has reached the same level of happiness (or level of income) as oneself. In a world where hedonists must interact with non-hedonists, there is a chance that the hedonists will simply be exploited. If, for instance, the hedonist treats the children of egoists in exactly the same way as her own children, then hedonism seems to become a very evolutionarily unstable position, since egoists will free-ride on the altruism of hedonists, while not giving back anything when the tables have turned. Can, in other words, the hedonist expect the same kind of help when she is put in dire straits herself (which might easily happen if one altruistically gives away most of one's income every month)? Similarly, it would be very doubtful whether it is morally right for a hedonist to sacrifice his life to save an egoist. A hedonist cannot, in other words, be a naïve altruist (at least not in a world where everyone is not a hedonist).

In the immigration case this means that the hedonist who argues for a basic income has some grounds for either restricting immigration when the level gets too high (although this ‘too high’ level may not have been reached yet in any rich country) or postponing the basic income reform until the financial stress due to immigration has abated. Of course, this would not be a problem if the number of immigrants and refugees were more equitably distributed across the rich countries (and across different regions within countries) than what has been the case in recent years.

In conclusion, the hedonist case for basic income seems sound, provided that most people do not, in reality, adhere to the epicurean lifestyle (and where immigration is handled in a more equitable way than today). Were more people to adhere to it, we would probably have to implement other kinds of schemes to allow people to have more leisure, while still having access to the amenities that are taken for granted in a welfare state. We could, for instance, institute a maximum working day of five hours, thus giving those who already have jobs more leisure, while giving the unemployed the work that remains do be done. And with unemployment virtually gone, the need for a basic income would be substantially less. Furthermore, a traditional unemployment scheme (perhaps involving means testing and/or compulsory education or other training activities), coupled with a shorter workday, might give isolated individuals the chance to engage in the social relationships, which are of such great importance for Epicurus (and confirmed by happiness research). A basic income may keep some isolated individuals in a passive state, and passive pleasures (such as watching television by yourself) are usually perceived as less pleasurable than active, social pleasures. Reducing the length of the workday (with a corresponding reduction in earnings) would of course mean lowering the income and standard of living substantially for many people. But that is just the point of epicurean politics; many people – at least the affluent middle class and above in industrialized countries – already have more money than they need to be happy, while many have less than they need to be happy.

So how would the hedonist analysis differ from an analysis based on preference satisfaction? The main difference, I believe, is that a hedonist must consider more empirical factors than the preference utilitarian. The latter perspective is based on simply accepting whatever people want, whereas the hedonist may, so to speak, dismiss some people's (demonstrated) preferences on the grounds that they do not promote pleasure. Thus, the hedonist perspective includes some measure of paternalism that preference utilitarianism (at least in the form considered here) lacks. For instance, a preferentialist defense of a basic income would probably not be affected very much by the considerations about leisure and isolation discussed above – instead it would probably rely heavily on the diminishing marginal utility of money.

Welfare utilitarianism might be viewed as a sort of middle ground between hedonism and preference utilitarianism. Welfare utilitarianism basically accepts that preference satisfaction should be maximized, but that there are certain basic needs, the satisfaction of which is necessary to all humans, or that one cannot simply take people's demonstrated preferences at face value, because they may be constrained (or misshaped) by circumstances of which one must take account. Robert Goodin has endorsed a utilitarianism of a welfarist kind and argued for a basic income on the grounds that they are "less prying and intrusive, less demeaning and debasing" than conventional programs of income support, and they "simply make fewer assumptions and presumptions about whom they are aiding." Although Goodin is no doubt correct when he rejects some presumptions built into regular social programs (for instance, regarding a "conservative" family structure), there may be other presumptions that the hedonist must accept; for instance, that the social benefits are used to enable a lifestyle consistent with the Epicurean-Millian lifestyle described above. If we have reasons to assume that social benefits will not be spent in that way by most people who receive them, then those benefits should perhaps not take the form of a universal basic income. On the other hand, it might be difficult to imagine that traditional social benefits would do a better job in furthering that lifestyle. Thus, the hedonist who rejects basic income will probably need to get seriously creative in order to come up with a scheme that will be superior to both basic income and traditional welfare programs.


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