What may not be evident from the title of this post is that I’m fairly sure that there is an equivocation in Feinberg’s “infinite regress” argument against psychological egoism. This appears in Section C of his article “Psychological Egoism” in the popular anthology Reason and Responsibility (12th ed., ed. Feinberg & Shafer-Landau).
Feinberg makes a point to distinguish the following:
(Mere) Desire Fulfillment (DF): DF is simply the “coming into existence of that which is desired” (479). For instance, a desire for the obtainment of some object x is fulfilled when and only when x is obtained. (With DF, there need not be the requirement that the bearer of a given desire experience its fulfillment. Death-bed wishes can be fulfilled.)
Pleasure2 (P2), or Satisfaction: This is the type of positive feeling/s that one tends to experience upon getting what s/he desired (and, of course, being aware that the desire was fulfilled). That is, P2 is the pleasure that often results from and in virtue of DF.
P2 is not, Feinberg repeatedly emphasizes, DF. And though the term “satisfaction” can denote either DF or P2, Feinberg makes it quite clear that he uses it with the latter sense in mind.
The following argument is directed against the P2 egoist-hedonist [i.e. one who holds that P2 is “the sole ultimate objective of all voluntary behavior” (483)]:
[The “satisfaction thesis” of the P2 egoist-hedonist], however, is so confused that it cannot even be completely stated without paradox. It is, so to speak, defeated in its own formulation. Any attempted explication of the theory that all men at all times desire only their own satisfaction leads to an infinite regress in the following way:
 “All men desire only satisfaction.”
 “Satisfaction of what?”
 “Satisfaction of their desires.”
 “Their desires for what?”
 “Their desires for satisfaction.”
 “Satisfaction of what?”
 “Their desires.”
 “For what?”
 “For satisfaction”–etc., ad infinitum.
In short, psychological hedonism interpreted in this way attributes to all people as their sole motive a wholly vacuous and infinitely self-defeating desire. The source of this absurdity is in the notion that satisfaction can, so to speak, feed on itself, and perform the miracle of perpetual self-regeneration in the absence of desires for anything other than itself. (483)
And later on…
On the other hand, if [the egoist-hedonist] means pleasure2, then his theory cannot even be clearly formulated, since it leads to the following infinite regress: “I desire only satisfaction of my desire for satisfaction of my desire for satisfaction . . . etc., ad infinitum.” (483)
As this argument is directed specifically at the P2 egoist-hedonist, one would hope that Feinberg invokes the concept of P2 somewhere in the argument. Presumably he does at lines 1, 5, 9, and so on, and takes himself to do so throughout the whole argument. The problem is that the language of lines 2, 3, 6, and so on (specifically, the “satisfaction of” locution) only makes sense on the DF reading of “satisfaction.” If we replace “satisfaction” with a definition of P2, I think this becomes more apparent:
[1′] “All men desire only pleasant feelings resulting from and in virtue of DF.”
[2′] “Pleasant feelings resulting from and in virtue of DF of what?”
[3′] “Pleasant feelings resulting from and in virtue of DF of their desires.”
[4′] “Their desires for what?”…
Pleasant feelings are not of desires. Nor can we charitably replace “of” with “from,” for even that is not right. The pleasant feelings do not simply come from the desires but from their fulfillment.
I believe that Feinberg equivocates in this argument. Of course, if someone sees a charitable interpretation on which he is not, please share.
Based on some discussion with Steve Darwall and Peter Railton, I suspect that the spirit of Feinberg’s argument may still be preserved, though I have not worked out, to my own satisfaction (a third sense!), exactly how this will be done. It would involve a regress caused by the type of desire in which the P2 egoist-hedonist trades. What do you say, dear blog-post reader?
Also, were I a psychological egoist, P2 egoism-hedonism would not be my brand of choice. (Would or has anyone ever endorsed this brand of psych. egoism?? I have doubts about that.) Could it really be that our apparent desires for certain strong “physical” pleasure sensations (Feinberg’s P1) are only disguised desires for weaker P2 pleasures? Before rejecting psychological egoism on philosophical grounds, I would like to see a sophisticated version presented. Such a version does not make an appearance in Feinberg’s article, as far as I can see.