Dismantling Hedonism-inspired Moral Realism

post by Lukas_Gloor · 2022-01-27T17:06:55.008Z · EA · GW · 21 comments

Contents

  Outline
  Two motivations for hedonism
    Hedonism via Objective Value
    Hedonism as the True Life Goal
  Objections to Objective Value
  Why I’m not a hedonist
  Pleasure’s “goodness” is under-defined
  Putting the cart before the horse
    Example: Sinhababu’s epistemic argument for hedonism
    Distinctions and caveats
  Experience machine thought experiments
    1 – Authenticity
    2 – Reunion
    Discussion
  Acknowledgments
  References
None
21 comments

This is the seventh post in my moral anti-realism sequence [? · GW]; it works well as a standalone piece.

Outline

Hedonism says that well-being consists of the felt quality of our experiences (Tännsjö, 1994). As a theory of value (an “axiology”), it says that positively and negatively valenced experiences make up what’s morally good or bad for someone.

Below, I’ll introduce two motivations for hedonist axiology. I then explain why I disagree with the view that introspection about the goodness of pleasure (or badness of pain) gets us to moral realism. Finally, I conclude that people may endorse hedonism as their subjective value system (a personal choice) but not as objective morality.

My counter-arguments aren’t new. Robert Nozick’s experience-machine thought experiment (Nozick, 1974) suggests that at least some of us seem to care terminally about things other than positive and negative experiences. While hedonists would say this is making a mistake, I don’t find their counters convincing.

I’ll discuss below why I think the hedonists’ arguments are flawed. They often seem based on (1) false consensus effects (“typical mind fallacy”), (2) a false reification of some intuitions about experiences, or (3) appeals to hedonism’s simplicity that derive most of their force from “moral realism is true” as a question-begging premise.

Two motivations for hedonism

Following the naturalism vs. non-naturalism distinction in metaethics, I see two ways of justifying hedonist axiology.

Hedonism via Objective Value

First, one could seek to justify hedonism via the concept of Objective Value – a bedrock concept, i.e., an “irreducible” concept that we cannot identify with concepts from a different domain. (Unlike the way “chemical facts” can be reduced to facts about fundamental particles, or the way "economical facts" can be explained in terms of people's behavior and psychology, and so on. See my previous post, Why Realists and Anti-Realists Disagree [EA · GW], for a detailed discussion of bedrock concepts.)

In her dissertation Normative Qualia and Robust Moral Realism (Hewitt, 2008, p. 325), Sharon Hewitt Rawlette explains Objective Value:[1]

[W]e need to draw a clear distinction between the act or attitude of valuing and the having of objective value. Valuing is what people do; it’s an activity or disposition which involves desiring something and approving of that desiring. [...] Having objective value, on the other hand, is an objectively normative property of an object, event, or state of affairs, such as a positive normative quale.

In other words, something of Objective Value is valuable “in itself” and not only because we happen to value it. Specifically, Hewitt Rawlette argues that we can find Objective Value in the hedonic tone of some conscious experiences. She speaks of the “intrinsic normativity” of pain or pleasure, which we can recognize in our own experiences through introspection (p. 102).

This sort of argument is common among proponents of hedonist axiology. For example, Neil Sinhababu (Sinhababu, 2010) speaks simply of pleasure’s “goodness,” making essentially the same introspection-based argument:

When looking at a lemon and considering the phenomenal states that are yellow experiences, one can form some beliefs about their intrinsic features – for example, that they're bright experiences. And when considering experiences of pleasure, one can make some judgments about their intrinsic features – for example, that they're good experiences. Just as one can look inward at one's experience of lemon yellow and recognize its brightness, one can look inward at one's experience of pleasure and recognize its goodness.

Hedonism as the True Life Goal

Secondly, someone could motivate hedonism via what I’ll call the True Life Goal justification. Namely, they might claim that because evolution built us to pursue particular objectives (specifically: positively rewarding experiences), sophisticated reasoners will come to apprehend these aims and recognize them as compelling once they introspect on their life goals. After all, perhaps that’s why it feels to us, mind-internally, as though these experiences constitute Objective Value.

That said, if we zoom out far enough, there’s a sense in which natural selection “built us” to pursue reproductive fitness. And if we zoom in far enough, we see that many people think of themselves as caring about non-hedonic goals such as “have a loving and flourishing family” or “figure out the mysteries of the universe.” (This is what Nozick’s experience machine thought experiment gets at.) So proponents of hedonism-inspired moral realism have to explain why those other purposes are somehow “incorrect” or “not ours.”

A purpose being “incorrect” or “not ours” are vague notions – but this supports my point. Readers who suspect that the concept of a True Life Goal is unintelligible or too vague presumably aren't moral realist proponents of hedonist axiology.

Still, I don’t think the idea of hedonism as the True Life Goal is unintelligible. The world could be such that when sophisticated philosophical reasoners carefully introspect and investigate experience machine thought experiments (and so on), they’d come to realize that hedonist axiology best describes what matters to us. I think the world isn’t like that, but the hypothesis seems intelligible despite the vagueness it involves.

In any case, for specific world- or other-oriented purposes such as “have a loving and flourishing family,” many of us may find it hard to contemplate how these goals could be merely instrumental to personal pleasure. Experience machine thought experiments highlight how hedonist axiology stands in tension with some people’s fundamental values.

Objections to Objective Value

I’ll now give some objections that apply to hedonism’s Objective Value justification. (Note that my main objection to hedonism, which I’ll state later in the section “Pleasure’s ‘goodness’ is under-defined,” applies to both justifications.)

I’m skeptical of the Objective Value justification because that notion seems empty or meaningless. As the moral anti-realist Richard M. Hare pointed out, it seems unclear how Objective Value woven into the fabric of reality could make any difference compared to worlds without it (Hare, 1972, p. 47).

The idea seems to be that agents who happen to be motivated to pursue Objective Value would change their goals upon learning what contains Objective Value. However, such a story cannot play out that way; it cannot happen for the “right” reasons. As a bedrock concept, Objective Value cannot influence how we act. Therefore, if someone decides to pursue pleasure because they think pleasure is Objective Value, the cause of their decision (and their assessment of pleasure as Objective Value), whatever it is, is still a “subjective” feature of their psychology/motivation. With or without Objective Value, people pursue what they’re already motivated to pursue.

Another reason I’m skeptical is that I suspect that consciousness anti-realism is true.[2] According to anti-realist accounts of consciousness, phenomenal experiences are not building blocks (“qualia”) that remain fixed even if we change everything around them. Instead, they are the other side of the coin, the other side of what the brain is doing at a given moment. By making changes to the dispositions related to an experience (e.g., our reactive tendencies, associated concepts or memories, or its embedding in our motivational systems), we also alter the experience itself. For instance, qualia anti-realists, therefore, can’t make sense of the intuitions elicited in “inverted qualia” thought experiments (see, e.g., Dennett, 1988). Without consciousness realism, it seems incongruent to view some of our subjective experiences as intrinsically desirable (“desirability realism”). Based on an interview with the qualia anti-realist Gary Drescher, Luke Muehlhauser summarized the disagreement as follows (see the entire conversation notes here):

A common view among philosophers is that pleasure is intrinsically desirable, pain is intrinsically undesirable, and that humans act to pursue pleasure and avoid pain in recognition of this. Dr. Drescher suggests that, instead, humans are behaviorally hard-wired to tend to pursue or avoid certain sensations, and that the notions of “intrinsic desirability/undesirability” are reifications of those tendencies as observed in our own cognitive reactions and emotions.

If qualia anti-realism is correct, the concept of Objective Value (in the form of normative qualia, i.e., intrinsically desirable experiences) doesn’t have anything to stand on.[3]

Why I’m not a hedonist

My primary objection to hedonism doesn’t rely on consciousness anti-realism. My main objection to both types of hedonism is that I don’t find hedonist axiology compelling. I consider this judgment to be wholly separate from “what pleasure feels like.” (I.e., when I talk to someone to whom hedonist axiology appeals, I wouldn’t expect them to have a different experience of pleasure.)

If I could set up a utopia of my choosing, I wouldn’t set things up according to hedonism. If the promise to live happily for millions of years were in reach for me but required a lot of effort to get there, I wouldn’t be motivated to put in the effort. As long as only my life is at stake, I’d prefer a short and easy life over working hard to eventually get to the hedonist utopia. This isn’t out of laziness – some things really do motivate me to work hard. However, those things are either about altruism or the personal meaning I get from connections to other, already existing people. The things that motivate me to work hard connect to personal meaning, not pleasure.

Moral realist proponents of hedonist axiology think that hedonism is true for everyone, so my counterexample – assuming I’m not somehow making a mistake of reasoning – suffices to disprove it. I’m confident I’m not making a reasoning mistake because I feel like I can see where hedonist proponents of moral realism go wrong.

Pleasure’s “goodness” is under-defined

I concede that there’s a sense in which “pleasure is good” and “suffering is bad.” However, I don’t think that brings us to hedonist axiology, or any comprehensively-specified axiology for that matter.

Behind the statement “pleasure is good,” there’s an under-defined and uncontroversial claim and a specific but controversial one. Only the under-defined and uncontroversial claim is correct.

Under-defined and uncontroversial claim: All else equal, pleasure is always unobjectionable and often something we come to desire.

Specific and controversial claim: All else equal, we should pursue pleasure with an optimizing mindset.
This claim is meant to capture things like:

According to moral realist proponents of hedonist axiology, we can establish, via introspection, that pleasure is good in the second, “specific and controversial” sense. However, I don’t see how that’s possible from mere introspection!

Unlike the under-defined and uncontroversial claim, the specific and controversial claim not only concerns what pleasure feels like, but also how we are to behave toward pleasure in all contexts of life. To make that claim, we have to go far beyond introspecting about pleasure’s nature.

Introspection fundamentally can’t account for false consensus effects (“typical mind fallacy [? · GW]”). My error theory is that moral realist proponents of hedonist axiology tend to reify intuitions they have about pleasure as intrinsic components to pleasure.

Even if it seems obvious to a person that the way pleasure feels automatically warrants the pursuit of such pleasures (at some proportionate effort cost), the fact that other people don’t always see things that way should give them pause. Many hedonist axiology critics are philosophically sophisticated reasoners (consider, for example, that hedonism is not too popular in academic philosophy), so it would be uncharitable to shrug off this disagreement. For instance, it would be uncharitable and unconvincing to say that the non-hedonists are (e.g.) chronically anhedonic or confused about the difference between instrumental and intrinsic goods. To maintain that hedonist axiology is the foundation for objective morality, one would need a more convincing error theory.

I suspect that many proponents of hedonist axiology indeed don’t just “introspect on the nature of pleasure.” Instead, I get the impression that they rely on an additional consideration, a hidden background assumption that does most of the heavy lifting. I think that background assumption has them put the cart before the horse.

Putting the cart before the horse

Dubious metaethical beliefs might drive the appeal of “hedonism as moral realism.” Specifically, I suspect that some people endorse hedonist axiology because they are looking for the sort of theory that can fulfill the steep demands of moral realism[4] – a theory that all philosophically sophisticated others could agree on, despite the widespread difference to people’s moral intuitions. With this constraint, one can view it as a positive feature that a theory is elegantly simple, even if it demands “bullet biting.” (Moral reasoners couldn’t agree on the same answer if they all relied on different moral intuitions.)

However, unless we already start as moral realists, we have no reason to assume that there’s a theory right for everyone (see my previous post, Moral Uncertainty and Moral Realism Are in Tension [EA · GW]). Morality is no coordination game where we try to guess what everyone else is trying to guess will be the answer everyone converges on.

Consider, again, the two claims behind the sentiment “pleasure is good:”

Under-defined and uncontroversial claim: All else equal, pleasure is always unobjectionable and often something we come to desire.

Specific and controversial claim: All else equal, we should pursue pleasure with an optimizing mindset.
This claim is meant to capture things like:

The first claim is uncontroversial precisely because it is under-defined. It represents the largest common denominator in people’s intuitions on what matters. If people commonly expected morality to be under-defined, there’d be no need to go beyond this claim, and hedonist arguments would lose a large portion of their appeal.

However, because many people expect moral realism to be true, they might be tempted to “upgrade” the under-defined and uncontroversial claim into the specific and controversial one. Moreover, our essentialist intuitions about concepts like “goodness” – intuitions that words have objective meaning independently of how we use them – can trick us into thinking that this “claim upgrading” follows a legitimate conceptual discovery. In reality, however, it seems like a sleight of hand, an ambiguity switcheroo where intuitions about the uncontroversial claim are brought in to justify a less intuitive, further-reaching claim.

Example: Sinhababu’s epistemic argument for hedonism

Neil Sinhababu’s The epistemic argument for hedonism (2010), which is cited by Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer (2014), provides an example of potentially[5] putting the cart before the horse. The argument goes as follows (my paraphrasing):

Widespread moral disagreement exists and is often deep-seated. When two parties disagree about morality, at least one party must be in error. The fact that there is widespread moral disagreement suggests that the processes that generate most people’s moral beliefs must be mistaken. All the avenues philosophers have advanced for developing accurate moral beliefs are unreliable, except for introspection about the value or disvalue of our experiences. Therefore, if moral realism is true (in a way where moral truths are accessible to us), introspection on the moral nature of our experiences is the only way to form accurate moral beliefs.

According to Sinhababu, this introspection favors hedonism:[6]

If introspecting pleasure's goodness is the only answer to the skeptical argument [from widespread moral disagreement], our only moral beliefs should be in pleasure's goodness and whatever it entails.

Sinhababu’s argument presupposes moral realism. As I have argued in my previous post [EA · GW], we can’t both be confident moral realists and morally uncertain. Consequently, unless we are already convinced of hedonist axiology (and therefore no longer morally uncertain), we cannot be moral realists. There’s something irreparably circular about practically applying the epistemic argument for hedonism.[7]

Distinctions and caveats

I’m not saying that any endorsement of hedonist axiology comes with false metaethical beliefs. For example, some people may consider hedonist axiology universally compelling on its own merits.

I also want to distinguish between anti-realist/subjectivist and realist/objectivist proponents of hedonist axiology, and within the former (anti-realist/subjectivist) camp, between hedonism-as-altruism and personal hedonism. My counterarguments in this post only target realist/objectivist versions of hedonism.

Anti-realist proponents of personal hedonism may find the specific and “controversial” claim perfectly intuitive for themselves. They'd happily enter the experience machine, but they'd recognize that all philosophically sophisticated others wouldn’t necessarily share their reasons. Also, personal hedonists don’t necessarily want others to experience the most pleasure. By contrast, anti-realist proponents of hedonism-as-altruism care about others experiencing the most possible pleasure, too.

In cases where other people’s convictions differ from hedonism, moral anti-realists who endorse hedonism-as-altruism wouldn’t necessarily want to override other people's strongly held convictions (their “life goals”). After all, as moral anti-realists, they understand and hopefully respect that other people may hold different life goals. Still, their hedonism has room to come into play wherever others’ life goals are under-defined or in the case of population ethics (when contemplating how to allocate resources in the future, hedonists-as-altruists would consider it altruistically important to create more happy beings).

Experience machine thought experiments

To justify hedonist moral realism, one needs to argue that hedonism is appealing not because we are looking for a simple theory, break it or leave it, but because the proposed theory happens to be convincing by itself. I have already mentioned in previous sections that I think hedonism can’t live up to this challenge. This section will give more details by describing and discussing two experience machine thought experiments.[8] Note that I’m not claiming that the answers suggested by hedonism are indefensible at the individual level. Instead, I want to highlight that it’s perfectly defensible for people to favor the non-hedonist answers (and that’s why hedonism doesn’t work as universal morality).

1 – Authenticity

All involuntary suffering is abolished. You and your loved ones are each offered the following choice. You can enter an experience machine or choose life outside. Life outside the experience machine is excellent – much better than anything we have today. Life in the experience machine – from an experience-focused perspective – is even better. The device will give you the perfect life. For instance, if you’ve always wanted to live in a cozy home in the forest together with your significant other and your closest friends, your experience machine might place you in an out-of-this-world beautiful forest that contains the cuddliest and most fascinating animals, and the tastiest mushrooms and berries.[9] Any project you undertake, such as building a fort around your home – it’ll go amazingly. If you want to learn new crafts or skills, you’ll become an expert after just the right amount of effort to keep you motivated throughout. Whenever you interact with your friends and loved ones, your interactions will feel meaningful and rewarding. And whenever the forest life starts to become even a tiny bit boring, some version of Gandalf will show up and ask to take you on an adventure, such as rescuing an innocent victim from some evil overlord.

You’ll retain autonomy within the experience machine, and you’ll be making your own choices: where to go, what to learn, who to hang out with. If you decide to enter, you’ll forever forget that the experience sequences within the machine are scripted. The primary way your life will differ from life outside is that the people with you won’t have a continuous personal identity. Unbeknownst to you, their behavior is computed to be the best response to yours. In other words, your virtual loved ones are going to be subroutines optimized to give you the best possible life. From your perspective, their personalities will seem stable and consistent. However, their viewpoint only exists when you interact with them. Their memories from times without you are continuously implanted to synergize perfectly with what you’ve been doing. As a result, your loved ones will feel like better and more exciting friends, better adventure companions, and better and more compatible romantic partners. But they won’t have authentic selves independently of your actions.

Do you choose to enter the experience machine? What are you hoping will be the choices made by your present loved ones?

2 – Reunion

The world’s problems are solved, and humans are about to enter experience machines tailored to give them the most experientially rewarding lives. You know that two people in the queues haven’t seen each other in 11 years. The last thing they said to each other, before parting under tragic circumstances that forced them to hide in different parts of the world, was to promise each other unending love and to spend the rest of their lives looking for each other. They indeed looked for each other for a decade until they recently gave up hope, each thinking the other person must have died. You know these two people are standing only a few kilometers apart in queues to their respective experience machines, minutes away from entering.

Do you inform them about their situation? Or do you let them enter their machines, knowing that they can thereby have their reunions earlier, but with virtual versions of each other?

Discussion

Since my aim is not to defend any specific answers, I’ll focus only on some quick points.

The first thought experiment (“Authenticity”) highlights that hedonism arguably commits us to a somewhat narcissistic view of our loved ones. It implies that we love them based on how they make us feel instead of loving them for the people they are. People with a solid preference for life outside might find that what generates the most meaning for them is serving others, the point of which would be lost if they entered the experience machine. On the other side, those in favor of entering can argue that staying outside looks like the more self-absorbed choice. It would arguably be motivated by a desire to feel special about one’s pre-existing relationships and refusing to accept that there are better relationships to be had. (Consider the sentiment “If you love them, let them go.”)[10]

The second thought experiment (“Reunion”) highlights that replacing one type of pleasure with another can completely change the meaning of the pleasure moments in question.[11] Moreover, since the thought experiment’s choice affects other people, even readers who consider themselves hedonists might hesitate to act according to hedonist axiology (they may be personal hedonists but skeptical about hedonism-as-altruism).

Overall, we see that the non-hedonist choices are defensible at the very least. Many people care intrinsically about things other than their experienced happiness and aren’t thereby making mistakes.

Acknowledgments

For their helpful comments on the draft, I thank Lance Bush, Pablo Stafforini, Adriano Mannino, and Lydia Ward.

References

De Lazari-Radek, K. & P. Singer. (2014). The Point of View of the Universe, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dennett, D. (1988). Quining Qualia. In: Marcel, A. & Bisiach, E. (eds.) Consciousness in Contemporary Science, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gloor, L. (2017). Tranquilism. longtermrisk(.)org. <longtermrisk(.)org/tranquilism>.

Hare, R. M. (1972). Applications of Moral Philosophy, London: Macmillan.

Hewitt, S. (2008). Normative Qualia and Robust Moral Realism. PhD thesis. New York University.

Lerner, A. (unpublished draft). Fine-tuning Evolutionary Debunking Arguments.

Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia, New York: Basic Books.

Sinhababu, N. (2010). The Epistemic Argument From Hedonism. Unpublished. (Retrieved: May 2018).

Tännsjö, T. (1994). Classical Hedonistic Utilitarianism. Philosophical Studies, 81(1):97-115.

Yetter-Chappell, R. (2013). Value Receptacles. Noûs, 49(2):322-332.


  1. Hewitt Rawlette recently published a book on the same topic, and she talked about her work on the Utilitarianism podcast [EA · GW]. ↩︎

  2. See the dialogue in endnote 18 [? · GW] in my post Why Realists and Anti-Realists Disagree for a description of this stance. ↩︎

  3. Note that even if consciousness realism is correct, Drescher’s concerns about reification remain and demand an answer. ↩︎

  4. I mean moral realism “worthy of the name,” as I’ve described it in this sequence’s first post [EA · GW]. ↩︎

  5. To Sinhababu’s defense, he’s only making the conditional argument “If moral realism is true, hedonism follows.” Still, I think there’s something odd about this argument being made at all. The arguments in my previous post [EA · GW] imply that there’s no circumstance where the conditional statement “If moral realism is true, hedonism follows” is of any use. ↩︎

  6. I disagree here: hedonist axiology doesn’t feel like the only plausible answer to me. One could analogously argue for tranquilism (Gloor, 2017) as the True Life Goal. That argument could be centered around the claim that there’s stronger agreement on the importance of reducing suffering than about the importance of bringing about pleasure. Alternatively, it could be centered around a claim that tranquilist axiology is arguably more “simple and elegant” than hedonist axiology. Arguably, it’s more intuitive to think that all types of suffering fall into a natural category so that different kinds of suffering are straightforwardly comparable in their severity (“How strong is the arrow of volition pointing away from the experience in question?”). By contrast, it seems harder, arguably, to compare different types of pleasure. For example, consider comparing (1) orgasmic pleasure to (2) the feeling of everything being perfect when you wake up in bed cuddled together with your soulmate to (3) the state of flow from playing a fantastic video game. Arguably, these three pleasures have very distinct “flavors.” In (1), the positive feeling results from intense satisfied cravings. In (2), the positive feeling results from everything being perfect, both in the moment itself and in terms of life satisfaction (“nothing is found wanting”). In (3), the positive feeling results from maximal task immersion and losing one’s sense of surroundings. Suppose that morality was, in fact, about playing a coordination game where we try to guess what everyone else is trying to guess will be the answer everyone converges on. How confident are we that there’s a uniquely compelling way to specify pleasure-pleasure tradeoffs within hedonist axiology? If there’s subjectivity here, i.e., if there are judgment calls for us to make about pleasure-pleasure tradeoffs, wouldn’t we fare better in picking tranquilism instead? Arguably, tranquilism seems to appeal to at least some people (similar to hedonist axiology) but has fewer free variables. Therefore, it should be easier to exactly guess tranquilism as a well-specified moral view the same way others would. Of course, by that logic, we should strongly consider axiologies such as “maximize entropy” – that would be even more straightforward to specify. My point is not that tranquilism is appealing as moral realism. After all, adopting an optimizing mindset toward tranquilism would have highly counterintuitive consequences. (For starters, it has the same implications as hedonism in experience-machine thought experiments, except that according to tranquilism, it’s also a perfect option to prefer death.) Instead, I’m emphasizing that we shouldn’t approach morality as a coordination game where we try to guess everyone else’s guesses. Because we shouldn’t treat morality this way, there’s no reason for people to bite philosophical “bullets” they wouldn’t otherwise be comfortable biting, solely for the sake of the “simplicity and elegance” of a moral theory. ↩︎

  7. There’s a similar issue in a suggestion in Adam Lerner’s draft paper “Fine-Tuning Evolutionary Debunking Arguments.” In that paper, Lerner analyzes evolutionary debunking arguments against moral theories. He points out that these debunking arguments require fine-tuning strategies to overcome common objections. According to Lerner, one of these fine-tuning strategies gets us to hedonism, but it relies on presupposing moral realism. ↩︎

  8. For more examples and analysis, I recommend Joe Carlsmith's post Contact with reality [EA · GW]. ↩︎

  9. Many readers may find this vision of an ideal life comparatively tame. I like things to be cozy and slower-paced. Of course, for more action-oriented individuals, the experience machine could generate an intergalactic civilization with megacities full of the most fascinating or beautiful people (and aliens) to get to know and uncountable opportunities for self-actualization or ambitious quests to take over planets. ↩︎

  10. Thanks to Ruairi Donnelly for making this point. ↩︎

  11. Relatedly, in the paper “Value Receptacles,” Richard Yetter-Chappel (2013) points out how it’s strange to treat people as receptacles for pleasure: 
    If the utilitarian’s theory simply tells her to maximize net happiness, it may seem natural to reconstruct the fitting utilitarian’s thought-process as follows: Bob is in agony. My goal is to maximize utility, i.e., the balance of pleasure over pain. There is some agony (namely, Bob’s) that I am in a position to relieve. Doing so would serve my goal. So I will act to relieve Bob’s suffering. But now note that the interests of Bob himself seem to have dropped out of the picture for our imagined utilitarian agent. She is merely concerned to minimize pain and suffering. The fact that doing so is good for Bob (or anyone else) is not a relevant consideration to her way of thinking, or so we might imagine. Helping people is incidental, a mere side-effect to her real goal of patterning the universe with a particular class of experiences. Call this view Utility Fundamentalism. By taking the value of pleasure (and disvalue of pain) as fundamental, and not to be explained in terms of their value for individuals, Utility Fundamentalism seems objectionably fetishistic. It treats individuals as intrinsically valueless ‘receptacles’, of moral interest only insofar as they provide a space or habitat for what (supposedly) really matters: the brute promotion of pleasure over pain. This moral perspective strikes us, I think rightly, as perverse. ↩︎

21 comments

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comment by Robi Rahman (robirahman) · 2022-01-28T00:14:45.459Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for writing this sequence. I have gotten some weird looks in my discussion group last year for not being a moral realist - wish I'd had this link handy back then!

comment by John G. Halstead (Halstead) · 2022-01-27T18:13:03.517Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for these posts, they are very interesting

related to the experience machine, you say "hedonism arguably commits us to a somewhat narcissistic view of our loved ones." I don't think this is correct. The experience machine is meant to show us that hedonism is false as a theory of personal wellbeing. Hedonism says that what makes my life go well for me is positive conscious experiences. 

Hedonistic versions of utilitarianism of course say that our own personal wellbeing is not all that matters. From a utilitarian point of view, we care about our loved ones because of our own happiness and because of their own happiness as well. So, this isn't narcissistic. Indeed, this is one debunking account of the experience machine. insofar as people have moral motivations, they would no longer people able to live a moral life once they clambered into the experience machine

Replies from: Lukas_Gloor
comment by Lukas_Gloor · 2022-01-27T20:33:05.335Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree that what you describe is probably a defensible sentiment. Your point is similar to what I said in the text:

On the other side, those in favor of entering can argue that staying outside looks like the more self-absorbed choice. It would arguably be motivated by a desire to feel special about one’s pre-existing relationships and refusing to accept that there are better relationships to be had. (Consider the sentiment “If you love them, let them go.”)

But I don't see how this is the only defensible sentiment. (It feels very viscerally wrong to me.)

comment by John G. Halstead (Halstead) · 2022-01-27T18:25:58.978Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

As well as intuitive critiques of hedonism like the experience machine, there are also strong intuitive arguments for hedonism. Imagine a world with no sentience, no conscious experience. No-one feels anything. It is full of things like tables and rocks. I fail to see why this world would matter. 

Another point is that all theories of morality have a hedonistic component. Any plausible moral theory should say that the inflicting pain on someone is bad in and of itself, independent of its effects on anything else, such as their resources, capabilities, abilities to achieve their projects etc. It also seems like any plausible moral theory should say that it is better other things equal for people to have pleasure. If we have a choice between a festival in which people have loads of fun and one in which people have moderate amounts of fun, we should choose the former.

Experience machine-type arguments don't work so well when we try them with suffering. According to hedonism, only bad conscious experiences are bad. Imagine experience machines that produced extreme unbearable torture for prolonged periods of time. It seems like a world in which as many sentient creatures as possible were in these negative experience  machines would be as bad as it is possible to be.  Other theories of value just don't seem to do very well here. Imagine having your strongest preference violated (what if the torture victims are moral patients incapable of agency or preference). Imagine if you had no capabilities or no resources (still doesn't seem as bad as the negative torture machine). Hedonism at least seems like the correct account of negative wellbeing, or a central component of it. By symmetry, we should also expect it to be a central component of positive wellbeing. 

Replies from: seanrichardson@outlook.com
comment by seanrson (seanrichardson@outlook.com) · 2022-01-28T04:13:39.071Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I might be misunderstanding but I don’t think the intuition you mentioned is really an argument for hedonism, since one can agree that there must be beings with conscious experiences for anything to matter without concluding that conscious experience itself is the only thing that matters.

Replies from: Halstead
comment by John G. Halstead (Halstead) · 2022-01-28T09:53:38.473Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree that this is the next stage of the dialectic. But then the situations is: sentient experience is a necessary condition on there being value in the world. No other putative intrinsically valuable thing (preference satisfaction, authenticity, friendship etc) is a necessary condition on there being value in the world - eg even proponents of the view that authenticity is good don't think it is necessary for there being value in the world, as illustrated by the example of a torture experience machine. If you are assessing whether something is intrinsically good, I think a reasonable test is - imagine if that thing existed alone - would it matter? If the thing were good by virtue of its intrinsic or necessary properties, then it would be valuable all on its own. But that only seems to be true of sentient experience. eg if authenticity were really intrinsically valuable, then it would be valuable by virtue of its intrinsic properties. So, it should be the case that the world is better by virtue of the fact that agents have accurate beliefs about the world they interact with. But one can imagine worlds where this is true but that have zero value, namely worlds in which no agents are sentient. So, authenticity is not intrinsically valuable. 

One possible view is to say that things like authenticity and friendship have conditional intrinsic value. I however don't have this concept. 

The fact that other putative intrinsically valuable things only become valuable when there is sentient experience in the world is also a debunking argument in favour of hedonism. The argument is that people confuse things that are merely connected in some way to sentient experience with what is intrinsically valuable. 

Replies from: Lukas_Gloor
comment by Lukas_Gloor · 2022-01-28T13:19:34.052Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

(I’m also replying to the original comment in this thread.)

I agree that there are intuition pumps in favor of hedonism and it’s good that you mentioned some of them! I’m not saying that hedonism doesn’t have its appeal, just that it doesn’t have universal appeal.

No other putative intrinsically valuable thing (preference satisfaction, authenticity, friendship etc) is a necessary condition on there being value in the world

Why is it clear that we want to limit the option space for moral principles to intrinsically valuable things? Especially if we don’t necessarily expect moral realism to be true, I can see other options. You may say that every ethical system needs to be centered around some kind of thing (e.g., preferences, experiences, objective list). I agree with that, but if we go with some form of subjectivist account (which is similar to counting "preferences"), it wouldn’t necessarily say that preference satisfaction is intrinsically valuable. Instead, what’s good for someone is subjective, it’s what they want to live for.

You mention the concept of conditional value, which I find quite intuitive. For what it's worth, I certainly wouldn’t think that "authenticity/contact with reality" has intrinsic value. If you had asked me a year ago, I’d have taken the experience machine without hesitation. At the time, my identity was only to a very small degree about specific relationships. (I like my friends but it doesn’t mean the same as loving someone.)

We can even view pleasure as having conditional value – it’s valuable to the degree that people care about it. They usually do, but maybe not always in quite the same way. Someone may care more about certain pleasures than others, orthogonal to “how good they feel.” For instance, it’s hard to believe that people who often go on traveling adventures really get the most hedons that way. But they seem to find meaning in exploration and adventure, so they value the pleasure from successfully camping on a frozen mountain lake without freezing to death or being eaten by a bear more than they value other types of pleasure.

You might say that the situation is confounded, that people who got bitten by the travel/adventure bug would go mad if they stayed cozily at home. So, given their situation, their lifestyle will make them happiest. Sure, but then we should discuss what we’re doing when we point out these kinds of “defeaters.” If anti-realism is indeed true, you can play this game endlessly, pointing out that the reason someone values something different from you is just an idiosyncratic part about the others' psychology.

My view is that whether something is a moral bias or a foundational moral intuition is subjective. In my next post, I sketch a descriptive account about how people seem to adopt self-enforcing identities, and those determine what we value. It might be interesting to continue the discussion in that context, once the post is out.

Experience machine-type arguments don't work so well when we try them with suffering. [...] By symmetry, we should also expect it to be a central component of positive wellbeing.

Or positive wellbeing and suffering could be dissimilar.

The fact that other putative intrinsically valuable things only become valuable when there is sentient experience in the world is also a debunking argument in favour of hedonism. The argument is that people confuse things that are merely connected in some way to sentient experience with what is intrinsically valuable.

If that were true, would you predict non-hedonists to be systematically worse at coming up with "good thought experiments?" If so, that's something we could potentially measure! Have hedonists and non-hedonists come up with intuition pumps for (or against) hedonism. Have the judges try to guess which ones were written by hedonists vs. non-hedonists.

comment by MaxRa · 2022-01-28T16:43:19.419Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I also appreciate these posts, thanks Lukas. A few reactions from someone who still finds hedonism-inspired moral realism very intuitively convincing, not particularly sure about any of this though:

1) Hedonism via Objective Value

[...]

> [W]e need to draw a clear distinction between the act or attitude of valuing and the having of objective value. __Valuing__ is what people do; it’s an activity or disposition which involves desiring something and approving of that desiring. [...] __Having objective value__, on the other hand, is an objectively normative property of an object, event, or state of affairs, such as a positive normative quale.

In other words, something of Objective Value is valuable “in itself” and not only because we happen to value it.

I think this dichotomy is losing something. Here is how I currently think about it:

There are algorithmic processes that underlie what some neuroscientists call the global neuronal workspace. I currently think of "hedonist value" as a subprocess of the workspace that can introduce the features "good"/"bad"/"unsatisfactory"/etc. in our inner world simulation that is expressed in the global neuronal workspace. For example, while enjoying a sweet fruit, not only will our inner simulation include features of it's sweetness and sourness, it will also include the feature goodness.

The component of our global workspace to "express" features of goodness/badness/worthiness/meaningfulness/etc. is what I currently have in mind when thinking of bedrock intrinsic values. These features are expressed for things that our ancestors were selected for, e.g.

  • sweet tastes, 
  • mates with historically high reproductive value

 and that we learned to value, e.g.

  • socially approved accomplishments like winning a game, getting a job

2) Hedonism as the True Life Goal

[...]

So proponents of hedonism-inspired moral realism have to explain why those other purposes are somehow “incorrect” or “not ours.”

Given what I said before, my hedonism-inspired moral realism wouldn't claim that things like valuing sweet fruits is incorrect, just that we can take a step back in explaining why we seek out and like sweet fruits: because evolution equipped us with algorithms that can express something like "assigning intrinsic goodness to something". So it's not wrong to value sweet fruits, just that in my view the world doesn't lose any value if our brains all switch to enjoying the taste of plain cooked potatoes like we enjoyed sweet fruit beforehand.

In any case, for specific world- or other-oriented purposes such as “have a loving and flourishing family,” many of us may find it hard to contemplate how these goals could be merely instrumental to personal pleasure.

I expect this is true for many people who find hedonism intuitive: using "pleasure" as a shorthand for "everything hedonism-inspired theories value" often feels a bit frustrating because it's so easy to then do a move like "Aha, but clearly not everything is these lower pleasures!". E.g. for the example with the family, I think the experience of meaning and love and caring for others, and even "rightness", are different ways how our global neuronal workspace expresses that something is intrinsically valuable. I wonder if there's a better word that summarises it better than pleasure.

comment by antonin_broi · 2022-01-28T22:44:52.310Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the interesting post ! 

I'm very sympathetic with what you call hedonism via objective value. I agree that hedonism does not fit very well with our normative intuitions. And I also agree that the notions of objective value or irreducible normativity seem dubious and meaningless, but I think hedonism is our best shot at making sense of them and resisting normative anti-realism/nihilism: if there is objective value at all, then pleasure and displeasure, understood as phenomenal states, are by far the best candidates to have it, and nothing else comes close. (And from there we can use the anti-nihilist wager to let hedonism guide our ethical behavior.) I'm not sure you really address the idea of hedonism as a "last-chance" normative theory, which is precisely what I find most compelling about it. 

I agree that this version of hedonism is conditioned on realism about phenomenal properties, and even non-reductionism (phenomenal properties are not reducible to physical or functional properties), because if pleasure and displeasure were just some sort of physical or functional properties, it would be hard to maintain that they possess the weird characteristics that objective value is supposed to have. 

The problems of how objective value can influence us and how we can get reliable access to it are extremely puzzling, but similar problems are already faced by dualism and other kinds of non-reductionism about phenomenal properties (phenomenal states are causally inert, etc.). So it would a small extra step to embrace hedonism, at least for people who find non-reductionism appealing.  

comment by antimonyanthony · 2022-01-28T19:27:50.699Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

[Edit: Halstead made some very similar points already, didn't read them before.]

Independent of the moral realism connection, I'm curious if you think anti-experience machine intuitions plausibly survive reflection when it comes to suffering in particular, i.e., if a hybrid of tranquilism with hedonism is more defensible. When I imagine having the choice between (1) living my life as it would be by default, and (2) having my consciousness enter a pain-free experience machine while my body does all the same things it would have done regardless, including fulfilling my altruistic goals, option 2 seems clearly better. I think I would be making a serious moral mistake by choosing 1, selfishly condemning my future self to unnecessary bad experiences just because of my current self's gross feelings about The Matrix.

(To be clear, a non-SFE hedonist could agree with my choice here. My point is that your experience machine case compares two lives that are both perfect from the tranquilist perspective, so I don't think they get at the heart of my intuitions about hedonics being uniquely morally important. I share your intuition that symmetric hedonism is too "demanding," in the sense that I don't have a prudential obligation to pursue super-pleasures.)

Replies from: Lukas_Gloor
comment by Lukas_Gloor · 2022-01-28T20:18:26.316Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I still think some people would object to this for essentially similar reasons. I wouldn't call it "grossness feelings about the Matrix." That may apply to some people, but I think a more forceful point here is that someone could care a great deal about having close personal relationships with real people, who continue to exist when the "main character" doesn't interact with them. People whose reactions to how you behave hold you accountable and like you for who you are, rather than ("hollow" versions of) people who are destined to like/accept/admire you no matter what.

So it's less about the Matrix being gross/bad somehow. Instead, it's about how potentially there's something really valuable and personally meaningful in the outside world, depending on how a person relates to things there.

Replies from: kokotajlod, antimonyanthony
comment by kokotajlod · 2022-01-28T22:58:38.885Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I personally would love to live in a simulated utopia. I just think that would be very different, morally speaking, from an experience machine. I wouldn't be able to tell the difference from the inside of course.

comment by antimonyanthony · 2022-01-29T18:18:17.904Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hm, okay I can grant that there can be less shallow reasons for not entering the machine than my caricature claimed. But those reasons still strike me as trivializing the suffering, and, in your words, "reifying intuitions they have about [the external world] as intrinsic components to [the external world]." It seems pretty clear that we would expect ourselves to have intuitions about "hollow" experience machine relationships being bad even if we wouldn't endorse them upon reflection, because such intuitions are confounded so heavily by how hollow relationships work in reality. i.e., people have negative experiences when you try to force them into loving you.

Replies from: Lukas_Gloor
comment by Lukas_Gloor · 2022-01-29T20:34:17.964Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

and, in your words, "reifying intuitions they have about [the external world] as intrinsic components to [the external world]."

In the case of hedonist moral realists, I think they are treating their personal intuitions about pleasure as components of pleasure, in the sense that they're thinking everyone should value pleasure the same way they do.

When I say that some people may not want to enter the experience machine because they see their life's meaning primarily in their closest interpersonal relationships, the claim is not that everyone should value relationships that way. People think about relationships in different ways. But those who value their relationships more than other things and place a lot of value on features related to "authenticity/Contact with reality", those people may not want to enter the experience machine. Not because they have something against the machine per se, but because entering the experience machine would mean losing their existing relationships.

I made the last sentence bold because it seems like you shift to talking about people being put off by features of the experience machine, whereas the intuition I want to convey is one of losing something specific that one currently values. (Edit: My last comment didn't make this clear, I see now.) (Compare: Would people want go to the most awesome job imaginable if it meant moving to a different country where your girlfriend or boyfriend [or husband/wife] can't follow? People can say no to this for reasons related to their relationship; it doesn't mean they dislike something about the job description or the country they'd be moving to.)

If you're in a point in life where you don't care about any of your ongoing relationships particularly much, then the experience machine becomes a lot more attractive!

Alternatively, if you've internalized hedonist axiology, and so have your loved ones, you could all rejoice in finding new loved ones in your respective experience machines. So I'm not saying that hedonists necessarily care less about the people they're in relationships with. It just gets awkward if one person in the relationship is a hedonist and the other person isn't.

Replies from: antimonyanthony
comment by antimonyanthony · 2022-01-30T09:51:57.192Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
When I say that some people may not want to enter the experience machine because they see their life's meaning primarily in their closest interpersonal relationships, the claim is not that everyone should value relationships that way.

Sure, but I am expressing skepticism that such people really value authenticity or contact with reality intrinsically, or at least that they would endorse doing so if they engaged with the debunking argument. Which is that outside of Thought Experiment Land, there are obvious and strong hedonic disadvantages to "fakeness." It feels really bad to realize someone never really loved you, for example, and was just using you for their own purposes. It feels bad to think of yourself as replaceable to your loved ones. And so on. Ditto for having contact with reality — and to the extent that delusions are blissful for the delusional person in the moment, almost always they are malign eventually to themselves or to others.

There's a strong correlation between beliefs in authenticity and happiness in the real world with evolved brains, and that correlation breaks in the experience machine thought experiment. (I don't think every moral intuition people have can really be cashed out in terms of hedonism, to be clear — some of them I would explain as being naturally selected on a basis that has ~nothing to do with what people would care about pursuing upon reflection. Others I don't have a good explanation for at the moment, but to me the intuitions in favor of (suffering-focused) hedonism are more compelling.)

I don't think it matters if the machine per se is judged as especially bad here, or if the "real" relationships and such are judged as especially good. My debunking argument applies just as well either way, since it's the relative evaluation that matters.

If you're in a point in life where you don't care about any of your ongoing relationships particularly much, then the experience machine becomes a lot more attractive!

While you do later say, "I'm not saying that hedonists necessarily care less about the people they're in relationships with," I think this quote is not accurately representing the hedonist position. I do care about my relationships plenty—the point is that I care about them instrumentally. Not just for my own hedonics but for others'. Clearly when I spend time with loved ones, I don't frame it as something ultimately instrumental to hedonics, but that's not in tension with hedonism because the framing itself is hedonically unproductive in that context. (Well, it's clearly unproductive if it's framed as just about my hedonic good, but I'm not so sure about the framing as something that is mutually hedonically beneficial. I find the idea of making my loved ones' lives less painful while they do the same for me actually pretty inspiring.)

comment by Shakked Noy · 2022-01-27T19:32:52.355Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is a really interesting post. A few points of pushback:

  • You object that facts about objective value would be causally inert (wouldn't have a causal influence on people's motivations or actions, or on anything else for that matter). Two things:
    • This isn't true if you're a naturalist moral realist, who holds that facts about objective value are reducible to natural facts that are causally efficacious.
    • Lots of other arguably unproblematic classes of facts are causally inert - including facts about mathematics, conscious experience (under some views of consciousness), and practical normativity. For example, we may think it's objectively true that I ought not to stick my hand in a fire if doing so would hurt me and not help me at all. But this objective normative fact has no causal effect on my motivations or actions.
  • I don't follow your discussion of why qualia anti-realism would undermine the idea that pleasure has intrinsic value. It seems possible to be a hedonist and also a naturalist or reductionist about conscious experience. The quote from Dr Drescher is pointing more at an evolutionary debunking argument against the belief that pleasure is intrinsically desirable than an argument that hedonism is incompatible with qualia anti-realism.
  • You claim your prioritization of goals other than pleasure is a counterexample to hedonism. But  this is begging the question by assuming your priorities are reasonable or correct. Hedonists would simply argue in response that you're mistaken about what to value and pursue. Similar remarks apply to your two thought experiments, which channel anti-hedonist intuitions. Hedonists would respond by arguing that these intuitions are mistaken (John's comment gives some strong counter-intuitions). In fact, I think an evolutionary debunking argument much like the one Dr Drescher suggests would work very well at undermining these anti-hedonist intuitions.
Replies from: Lukas_Gloor
comment by Lukas_Gloor · 2022-01-27T20:23:54.112Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Quoting from my post:

Following the naturalism vs. non-naturalism distinction in metaethics, I see two ways of justifying hedonist axiology.

I meant the two justifications ("Hedonism via Objective Value" and "Hedonism as the True Life Goal") to be separate. The arguments I make in "Objections to Objective Value" only apply against the first justification, the moral non-naturalist one. So it seems like we might agree!

The quote from Dr Drescher is pointing more at an evolutionary debunking argument against the belief that pleasure is intrinsically desirable than an argument that hedonism is incompatible with qualia anti-realism.

Yes, that's why I mention "desirability realism" in that context. (Another word for "Objective Value" is "normative qualia," as is the title of Hewitt Rawlette's dissertation on the topic. That notion makes little sense without consciousness realism. You're right to note that the other type of justification, the one I called True Life Goal justification, isn't affected by Drescher's considerations (that's why the Drescher quote is in the section "Objections to Objective Value").

You claim your prioritization of goals other than pleasure is a counterexample to hedonism. But this is begging the question by assuming your priorities are reasonable or correct.

I agree. At the same time, I feel like it's a strong thing to claim that others are mistaken about what they value. I haven't encountered a compelling description of the sort of mistake I'd be making.

Replies from: Ben Dean
comment by Ben Dean · 2022-04-05T13:37:29.425Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

But Hewitt Rawlette's theory is naturalist ("synthetic naturalism").

It is extremely important that it be understood that I am not suggesting that our normative phenomenology represents some further realm of normativity, that it somehow acquaints us with normative properties that also exist detached from phenomenal experience, perhaps in actions or in non-mental states of affairs...

My proposal is that intrinsic goodness and badness just are felt qualities.

Emphasis in original. As she points out, arguments like Hare's don't really work against this kind of realism ("Hare's dismissal of objective value...") .

Replies from: Lukas_Gloor
comment by Lukas_Gloor · 2022-04-07T10:19:44.818Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

You're right that Hewitt Rawlette considers her theory a version of naturalist moral realism. I missed that and should have addressed it, because I treated her concept of "Objective Value" as a non-naturalist concept in my text.

That said, I continue to think the concept "Objective Value" seems non-naturalist. It comes across like the typical bedrock concept [EA · GW]: we can't explain it with the help of different terminology, and the concept even has its subjectivist counterpart (things being valuable in the sense of "valued by us"). (We can compare that to the distinction between "reasons simpliciter" or "irreducibly normative reasons" on the one hand versus "instrumental/subjectivist reasons" on the other. In that case, too, we have a bedrock concept and its subjectivist counterpart.) So to go from "valued by us" to "objectively valuable" – that's the step that seems to get us away from mere naturalism.

It's also worth noting that the SEP entry on moral non-naturalism mentions the following: 

There may be as much philosophical controversy about how to distinguish naturalism from non-naturalism as there is about which view is correct. [...] Perhaps the most vexing problem for any general characterization of non-naturalism is the bewildering array of ways in which the distinction between natural and non-natural properties has been drawn.

Taking a step back, I'd say naturalism and non-naturalism face different challenges. Non-naturalism, if the concept works at all, is without question the morally relevant thing – but it faces accommodation charges ("queerness" objections). By contrast, naturalism is made of tangible stuff and therefore uncontroversial in terms of its fitting into our conceptual repertoire. Still, whatever natural properties one identifies as "those are the ones that are morally relevant," someone could ask "Why do you say so?"

In light of that, it feels like Hewitt Rawlette is trying to have the cake and eat it. (Of course, if this actually works, that's exactly what one would want to do!) 

If I were to interpret her position as pure naturalism, I'd think she's saying that pleasure has a property that we recognize as "what we should value" in a way that somehow is still a naturalist concept. I don't understand that bit. I would get it if she said, "introspection about pleasure helps us recognize that pleasure is what we value" or "what's right for us to value given the way we're built." After all, that's how I set up the naturalist justification for hedonism ("Hedonism as the True Life Goal"). And maybe her use of the phrase  "Objective Value" is just shorthand for that? However, it doesn't seem to me like it is. That's why I still consider her position non-naturalist in some way. 

Replies from: Ben Dean
comment by Ben Dean · 2022-04-12T04:55:28.389Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think an important distinction is that her position focuses on the intrinsic nature of pleasure and pain as feelings, not any relationship they have either to some even more fundamental concept of "objective value" or to our judgements, thoughts, and desires. We know pleasure feels good in the same way we know what the redness of red is like. Defining pleasure in terms of behaviors, beliefs, or desires can't capture this in the same way that the wavelength of red light doesn't convey the experience of seeing red. The power of this argument comes from taking this direct concept of phenomenal goodness ("feels good") and inflating it into a full fledged account of moral goodness (hedonic utilitarianism).

Put another way: If we started out with no language for normativity, we wouldn't be able to describe pleasure and pain without inventing one. (Try it!).

So pleasure has a "what we should value" property in the sense that "should" is already defined in terms of pleasure. But at a more basic level, value just is pleasure in the way water just is H2O.

Since moral knowledge in this view is just a special kind of descriptive knowledge the subjective position seems to flow from the objective one in a relatively straightforward way.

This argument is a bit circular, but I think that's hard to avoid in general re: qualia. Of course discussion of qualia in your OP is relevant.

Replies from: Lukas_Gloor
comment by Lukas_Gloor · 2022-04-13T14:05:03.435Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

That makes sense – your account sounds way more persuasive than what I came up with when I tried to steelman the view.

The power of this argument comes from taking this direct concept of phenomenal goodness ("feels good") and inflating it into a full fledged account of moral goodness (hedonic utilitarianism).

This is where the logic doesn’t work for me. As I describe in the section “pleasure’s goodness is under-defined,” I disagree that the sense in which “pleasure feels good” is the same sense as “pleasure is good” according to hedonist axiology. Those seem like different claims, and the latter cannot reveal itself to us from mere observations about the way things are.

You say that “her position focuses on the intrinsic nature of pleasure and pain as feelings, not any relationship they have either to some even more fundamental concept of ‘objective value’ or to our judgements, thoughts, and desires.” I see the way the argument is supposed to work and that this explains how her position is “naturalist” in spirit, but on close inspection, I don’t buy it. I feel like Hewitt Rawlette (and other hedonists) are smuggling in extra connotations of “pleasure feels good” that bridge the gap to the normative realm. However, those connotations are subjective assumptions, which beg the question. As I phrase it in the post, “My error theory is that moral realist proponents of hedonist axiology tend to reify intuitions they have about pleasure as intrinsic components to pleasure.”