I actually think that if we didn’t ever experience pleasure or pain, or any of these positive or negative qualitative states, that we wouldn’t actually have the concept of intrinsic goodness that we do in fact have and that we do use when we’re making moral decisions.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette
What in the world is intrinsically good — good in itself even if it has no other effects? Over the millennia, people have offered many answers: joy, justice, equality, accomplishment, loving god, wisdom, and plenty more.
The question is a classic that makes for great dorm-room philosophy discussion. But it’s hardly just of academic interest. The issue of what (if anything) is intrinsically valuable bears on every action we take, whether we’re looking to improve our own lives, or to help others. The wrong answer might lead us to the wrong project and render our efforts to improve the world entirely ineffective.
Today’s guest, Sharon Hewitt Rawlette — philosopher and author of The Feeling of Value: Moral Realism Grounded in Phenomenal Consciousness — wants to resuscitate an answer to this question that is as old as philosophy itself.
That idea, in a nutshell, is that there is only one thing of true intrinsic value: positive feelings and sensations. And similarly, there is only one thing that is intrinsically of negative value: suffering, pain, and other unpleasant sensations.
Lots of other things are valuable too: friendship, fairness, loyalty, integrity, wealth, patience, houses, and so on. But they are only instrumentally valuable — that is to say, they’re valuable as means to the end of ensuring that all conscious beings experience more pleasure and other positive sensations, and less suffering.
As Sharon notes, from Athens in 400 BC to Britain in 1850, the idea that only subjective experiences can be good or bad in themselves — a position known as ‘philosophical hedonism’ — has been one of the most enduringly popular ideas in ethics.
And few will be taken aback by the notion that, all else equal, more pleasure is good and less suffering is bad. But can they really be the only intrinsically valuable things?
Over the 20th century, philosophical hedonism became increasingly controversial in the face of some seemingly very counterintuitive implications. For this reason the famous philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel called The Feeling of Value “a radical and important philosophical contribution.”
So what convinces Sharon that philosophical hedonism deserves another go?
Stepping back for a moment, any answer to the question “What has intrinsic value?” faces a serious challenge: “How do we know?” It’s far from clear how something having intrinsic value can cause us to believe that it has intrinsic value. And if there’s no causal or rational connection between something being valuable and our believing that it has value, we could only get the right answer by some extraordinary coincidence. You may feel it’s intrinsically valuable to treat people fairly, but maybe there’s just no reason to trust that intuition.
Since the 1700s, many philosophers working on so-called ‘metaethics’ — that is, the study of what ethical claims are and how we could know if they’re true — have despaired of us ever making sense of or identifying the location of ‘objective’ or ‘intrinsic’ value. They conclude that when we say things are ‘good,’ we aren’t really saying anything about their nature, but rather just expressing our own attitudes, or intentions, or something else.
Sharon disagrees. She says the answer to all this has been right under our nose all along.
We have a concept of value because of our experiences of positive sensations — sensations that immediately indicate to us that they are valuable and that if someone could create more of them, they ought to do so. Similarly, we have a concept of badness because of our experience of suffering — sensations that scream to us that if suffering were all there were, it would be a bad thing.
How do we know that pleasure is valuable, and that suffering is the opposite of valuable? Directly!
While I might be mistaken that a painting I’m looking at is in real life as it appears to me, I can’t be mistaken about the nature of my perception of it. If it looks red to me, it may or may not be red, but it’s definitely the case that I am perceiving redness. Similarly, while I might be mistaken that a painting is intrinsically valuable, I can’t be mistaken about the pleasurable sensations I’m feeling when I look at it, and the fact that among other qualities those sensations have the property of goodness.
While intuitive on some level, this arguably implies some very strange things. Most famously, the philosopher Robert Nozick challenged it with the idea of an ‘experience machine’: if you could enter into a simulated world and enjoy a life far more pleasurable than the one you experience now, should you do so, even if it would mean none of your accomplishments or relationships would be ‘real’? Nozick and many of his colleagues thought not.
The idea has also been challenged for failing to value human freedom and autonomy for its own sake. Would it really be OK to kill one person to use their organs to save the lives of five others, if doing so would generate more pleasure and less suffering? Few believe so.
In today’s interview, Sharon explains the case for a theory of value grounded in subjective experiences, and why she believes these counterarguments are misguided. A philosophical hedonist shouldn’t get in an experience machine, nor override an individual’s autonomy, except in situations so different from the classic thought experiments that it no longer seems strange they would do so.
Host Rob Wiblin and Sharon cover all that, as well as:
- The essential need to disentangle intrinsic, instrumental, and other sorts of value
- Why Sharon’s arguments lead to hedonistic utilitarianism rather than hedonistic egoism (in which we only care about our own feelings)
- How do people react to the ‘experience machine’ thought experiment when surveyed?
- Why hedonism recommends often thinking and acting as though it were false
- Whether it’s crazy to think that relationships are only useful because of their effects on our subjective experiences
- Whether it will ever be possible to eliminate pain, and whether doing so would be desirable
- If we didn’t have positive or negative experiences, whether that would cause us to simply never talk about goodness and badness
- Whether the plausibility of hedonism is affected by our theory of mind
- And plenty more
Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type ‘80,000 Hours’ into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.
Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ryan Kessler
Transcriptions: Katy Moore