Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Rob Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is The 80,000 Hours Podcast, where we have unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems, what you can do to solve them, and whether it’s a problem if I produce this show for a bunch of unconscious virtual listeners while you all listen to an almost identical show produced by an unconscious virtual host. I’m Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.
All efforts to improve the world have to take some stand on the question of what is ultimately of intrinsic value — or value theory, as the field is called in moral philosophy.
When we try to do good, we usually have some immediate goal in mind — like, say, causing someone who is very poor to receive some money. But someone having a bunch of coins and paper notes isn’t valuable in itself — that’s just a means to an end.
If we repeatedly ask why something is good, in order to dig deeper into why we’re doing what we’re doing — for instance: “Why is it good for someone who is poor to have more money?” — we’ll eventually hit the bedrock of an intrinsic value.
For instance, you might answer that someone who is very poor having more money is good because it will allow them to buy things that will prevent them from suffering.
But why then is it good for someone not to suffer?
If, like me, preventing suffering is something you think is intrinsically valuable, you’ll no longer say that it’s good for someone not to suffer because it provides some other benefit. Rather, it’s valuable for someone not to suffer just because suffering itself is bad, and that’s that.
But people have all kinds of varying ideas about what things are intrinsically valuable — that is, valuable for their own sake, even if they achieve nothing else.
Intrinsic values that have been proposed include preventing injustice, satisfying people’s preferences, being cooperative, having greater social equality between people, helping someone achieve their full potential, making people happy, making happy people, and so on.
These different answers to the question of what things are ultimately of value might lead to very different ideas about the most impactful actions one can take to improve the world.
So getting clarity on which answers are plausible, and which are not, might be hugely important.
Today, for the first time on this show, we tackle value theory head-on for a full episode, rather than nibbling at the edges, and we do it with Sharon Hewitt Rawlette — philosopher and author of The Feeling of Value: Moral Realism Grounded in Phenomenal Consciousness, which was just released as an audiobook.
Sharon and I dive deep into philosophical hedonism — a theory of value that is as old as the hills but which has been out of fashion until experiencing a resurgence of interest in the last decade or two.
It’s a school of thought I’m sympathetic to personally, and believe deserves a wider hearing — but of course we leave plenty of time to consider the major objections in the second half of the conversation.
FYI, we’re looking for some additional help with our audio engineering, which I’ll say a little more about in the outro.
But now, with that bit of exposition out of the way, I bring you Sharon Hewitt Rawlette.
The interview begins [00:02:45]
Rob Wiblin: Today I’m speaking with Sharon Hewitt Rawlette. Sharon is a writer, philosopher, and consciousness researcher. She did her PhD in philosophy at New York University, in one of the world’s top few philosophy departments, where her advisor was Thomas Nagel, who will be known to many listeners as the author of “What is it like to be a bat?”
Rob Wiblin: Her dissertation won the NYU Dean’s Outstanding Dissertation Award and went on to be published in 2016 as the book, The Feeling of Value: Moral Realism Grounded in Phenomenal Consciousness, which is the topic for today’s conversation, and was just released as an audiobook read by the author herself. Thomas Nagel said of the thesis, “This is a radical and important philosophical contribution and the work of a natural philosopher. It’s the kind of muscular, intuitively motivated philosophical stance that brings the subject to life.”
Rob Wiblin: Thanks so much for coming on the podcast, Sharon.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Thanks for having me, Rob.
Rob Wiblin: To give a bit of context for this episode, I’ve been hearing the basic thesis of metaethics that you’re going to lay out today in various different iterations and versions for about 15 years. And, as far as I know, the simple underlying idea goes back to more or less the earliest records we have of people engaging in moral philosophy at all. I’d say, among philosophers that I know, it’s regarded as the most promising approach to justifying a serious moral realism — with, in fact, there not being that many other compelling options on the table.
Rob Wiblin: But despite that, it’s strange how little the ideas in your thesis get discussed in the mainstream, and how few clear and well-argued writeups of the topic are available out there. So it’s a great relief to me that your dissertation actually got published and is now out as an audiobook as well. I hope we’ll get to see many more people join in, inspired by the book, hopefully, to join in in explaining, developing, and critiquing the ideas in it in the years to come.
Rob Wiblin: So today I hope we’ll get to talk about the relationship between morality and subjective experiences, as well as the best objections to hedonism. But first, let’s start at the beginning. What is the question metaethics is trying to answer?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Well, it’s trying to answer this question of whether there are objective moral truths. Whether morality is something that is just a matter of opinion or preference, or whether it’s something that could justify those opinions or preferences in some way. The basic question is: Are there objective moral facts?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: And then, if you say there are, then I think there are a lot of epistemological questions that come along with that: Then how do we come to know about them? What kind of connection do we have with them that can give us knowledge?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: And if you say no, there aren’t objective moral facts, then what exactly is it that we’re doing when we’re doing ethics? Is it just our desires, our preferences? Are we doing something more complicated? Are we making statements about our desires and preferences, or are we just expressing them? They’re all different ways of explaining an anti-realist view in that area.
Rob Wiblin: So the professional philosophers might not like what I’m about to say, because it’ll be too imprecise. But I suppose all the time people are saying things like, “This action would be wrong,” or “It would be good if X happened,” metaethics to some extent is saying, are those claims like scientific claims? Is it like doing chemistry, where you’re trying to answer a natural question about the world in the same way as when we do science? Or is it more like the definition of a word in language? Is it just a matter of convention in that way? Or are these analytic truths something that you could figure out through pure reason, like in mathematics? Or is it something else entirely? Or are we just confused and there’s no fact of the matter?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right.
Rob Wiblin: If you asked a lot of 10-year-olds — and indeed, I imagine most adults perhaps — I think that they would have a strong sense that some things are just clearly good and bad, and some actions are just right and wrong. The intuition is just so strong about that, that it might not feel like it’s a very uncertain issue that is cause for all of this really extensive philosophical debate. If someone out there in the listening audience doesn’t feel like there’s a mystery here, what can you say that would help to prompt the intuition that actually there is something a bit puzzling about morality and normativity, as we call it?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Well, I think probably the puzzling starts when you start to realise — as you get older and you have more experience with the world — that people disagree with you about what is good to do in certain situations, or what kinds of acts are right and wrong. When you’re confronted with moral disagreement, if you’re moderately self-reflective, you’re like, “If not everybody believes the same thing, why do our beliefs differ? And is there any way that we can adjudicate and decide who is more likely right or wrong on this?” Or even is there a right or wrong? If it seems like there’s just moral disagreement that we can never get rid of, then maybe we’re not talking about something real.
Rob Wiblin: Right. Yeah. So I suppose each of us individually has extremely strong reactions about particular things being good and bad, or right and wrong actions. And those intuitions themselves might feel like enough evidence. But then when you meet other people who have conflicting intuitions about that, if the intuitions were just sufficient to ground these beliefs, then the fact that someone else has opposite intuitions really creates a problem.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah, absolutely. Especially when you start taking philosophy classes and you start interacting with philosophers. You get people with very different views, very different intuitions about these things, and very different ways of justifying their intuitions or their views.
Rob Wiblin: So people make all kinds of claims about what is right and wrong and what is good or bad. Why are you sceptical about most moral theories, or most metaethical theories, on the whole?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So we should make a clear distinction between normative ethical theories and metaethical theories. So normative ethical theories are first-order theories, where we’re talking about what is right or wrong, what’s good or bad. And then the metaethical theories are the next level, talking about what would make those first-order judgements correct or incorrect, or what is their meaning? Even this question of where do our moral concepts come from? What is it that we’re talking about when we’re talking about ethics?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. You think that all of these appraisals are not necessarily reliable in themselves?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: No, I don’t. And part of that is because of the vast moral disagreement that we have. Not necessarily on core issues; there are some areas where people generally agree. But you have plenty of issues outside of that core where people don’t agree — certainly one that’s very salient right now in the US is the abortion debate. So when you’re dealing with issues like that, where you have people with very different views, then there are more levels than just the normative and the metaethical level.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So our first-order judgements are really like: this particular act is wrong, or this particular kind of act is wrong. And then above that, we can have some more theory-level judgments, some more general judgements about what kinds of things — like we might not be talking specifically about the moral status of foetuses at this point, but we might be talking about human life in general, or we might talk about life in general. And we’re still at the normative ethical level, but each time we sort of move up another level of generality, I think we’re trying to help ourselves understand: Why would abortion in certain cases be right or wrong? How can we connect our feelings about why one thing is right and wrong with our feelings about how something else is right or wrong?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: We seem to have this idea that we need to systematise our moral beliefs and our intuitions, and that’s something both realists and anti-realists in this debate seem to agree on. We have this natural tendency to want to have very systematic intuitions. I think part of that is because we do naturally think that we are getting at a truth of the matter. Because if you’re aiming at truth, then you do think that there’s going to be a pattern to the way morality works. It’s not just going to be random: “If Joe Schmo does such and such, that’s bad, but if I do it, then it’s good.” No, we think we have to look at it in a more systematic way because there’s something about those actions themselves that would make them right or wrong — in Joe Schmo’s case and in my case.
Rob Wiblin: So especially in the modern era, there’s been a movement in favour of non-realism or anti-realism about moral claims, saying that in some sense these claims are not factual — there’s not a fact of the matter, or at least that there are no judgement-independent facts about what is good and bad — so potentially it’s all just a matter of what we believe or happen to feel about things. But many people in that camp have argued that that actually doesn’t make any practical difference, that we shouldn’t find it so troubling that there are no judgement-independent facts about what is right and wrong. Why do you think it does matter?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: This is a difficult one to answer, because for myself, I feel like it’s a motivational issue. So reflecting on it, my own self: if morality is just a matter of my preferences, or my society’s preferences — and maybe my preferences under the situation of reflective equilibrium or what have you, but still, ultimately these preferences come from me — well, it seems like it’s going to be really hard to motivate people to do things that we think are right but are maybe asking for some level of personal sacrifice from them.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So certainly in the effective altruism community, you think it’s important for people who have a lot of resources to give many of those resources to people who actually get more benefit from them. But if ethics is just about our preferences, then why can’t I just say, “Well, I really don’t care about poor people”?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I realise that there are a lot of anti-realists who are very unselfish and have a desire to give to others and to see others flourish, so I’m not trying to say that anti-realists are bad people whatsoever. But from my own self-reflection on my motivational states — I mean, maybe I’m a worse person than all of these anti-realists — it just seems to me, I don’t know why I would care about ethics anymore, or why I would care about being systematic about the way that I choose what things I’m going to do, or even care about having ethical debates with people. We’re not talking about anything real. It’s: “OK, so you care about people in this difficult situation, and I don’t, so that’s as far as we can go.”
Rob Wiblin: In the book, you introduced this concept of “perspectival bias.” Basically you say, if you believe that there are real facts of the matter, that morality is a real thing, then you’re likely to have a strong inclination to try to overcome your perspectival bias. On the other hand, if you don’t, then you probably won’t. Can you explain what perspectival bias is?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. So that’s our natural inclination to value our own welfare or the welfare of those that we’re closer to, whether emotionally or physically, over the welfare of people or other beings that are not as salient to us and that we don’t care as much about. So if we think, for instance (and we’re going to get into this later) that pleasure is an objective good — that it’s objectively, intrinsically good for anyone who’s experiencing it — then when we think about the pleasure or pain of people in far-away lands, we have a reason to represent that pleasure or pain accurately.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So if we think there is an accurate way that you can represent the moral value of that pleasure or pain, then you’re going to constantly be trying to change the way that you’re thinking about the way that you’re representing those people’s suffering to accurately reflect that value, because you think it does have an objective value. But if you don’t think that it does, then you’re not going to. And I think that actually those representations that you have of other people’s pleasure and pain affect your motivations.
Sharon’s theory of moral realism [00:16:17]
Rob Wiblin: OK, so with that bit of setup out of the way, let’s dive straight into basically the theory of moral realism that you put forward in The Feeling of Value. What is your theory of moral realism, in a nutshell?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: It’s the idea that intrinsic goodness is an experiential property: it’s something that is a quality of our conscious experience. So when you feel pleasure, or other positive states like happiness or joy, what you’re experiencing is the qualitative property of intrinsic goodness. In philosophy, we tend to call those qualities of conscious experience “qualia.” So there are these positive qualia that you can experience, and there are also negative ones that we experience in pain or suffering or sadness, or other negative emotional states.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: And what I’m saying is, it’s not just that these are the only things that are good or bad, because there are a lot of people that say that there are lots of people who are hedonists and have been throughout recorded history. But I’m saying something that’s slightly stronger than that, or maybe quite a bit stronger than that, which is that it’s not that there’s some qualitative, phenomenal experience that we have, or some property of that experience that we have, that has some nature that is then good or bad. So it’s not that the goodness or badness of this state supervenes on it, as we would say in philosophy, but that intrinsic goodness actually is a qualitative state, a qualitative property — it’s actually something that you can observe and experience yourself.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: And 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. If we didn’t have these states, we might still have desires for certain things, and we might still have certain behaviours and go out searching for certain things. But when we experience pleasure or pain, what we experience is something that justifies the desire, or justifies avoiding a certain thing.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So I talk a lot in the book about the feeling of “ought-to-be-ness,” trying to get at this feeling that when you feel pleasure, you’re like, “Oh, this is why life is worth living. This is what we’re here for. This is worth having.” And when you’re experiencing suffering, you’re experiencing something that, if this were all there was to existence was this kind of state, it would be better to be dead. It’d be better not to not be experiencing anything at all because of the nature of what’s going on in that experience. So I think there’s actually a conceptual connection here.
Rob Wiblin: So I guess with all attempts to get moral realism off the ground, there’s two challenges. One is: What is the nature of goodness and badness? Why would anything be good and bad? And then, even if there were things that were good and bad, how would we ever know about it, given that those facts about things being good and bad, there’s no causal connection to our beliefs about them? Or how would our beliefs about them be causally connected to those facts of the matter? Your theory here helps to address both of those questions. Can you explain why?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So first of all, this idea of how do we even have a concept of moral facts? Well, we have it through these experiences. We can experience their value or their disvalue. And then how can we experience the truth or falsity of moral facts? Well, we can directly experience intrinsic goodness or intrinsic badness. That’s something that is directly present to our consciousness. And then from there, we can use the information that we have about the world that we live in to determine which other things are instrumentally good and bad because of the way that they produce this conscious experience.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So it gives us a way of picking out in the empirical world what it is that morality is talking about, what it is that we’re getting at in morality. Because so many philosophers have said there’s this gap between facts about the way the world is and facts about the way the world ought to be. Most famously David Hume, who said you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is.” You can’t take facts about how the world is — which is often called natural fact, or I think it’s more accurately called a descriptive fact in this context — and get facts about how the world ought to be.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But I think that that’s generally true. That’s true for every kind of fact about the world except in these particular experiences of pleasure and pain — I think we see that those two categories come together. And you can’t describe what it is for an experience to be pleasure without talking about its goodness. It wouldn’t be pleasure if it wasn’t good. And pain would not be pain if it wasn’t bad. That’s part of what the experience is.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, right. I guess we should be clear that when we talk about pleasure, we’re not just talking about eating food or something like that. Of course, we can experience a colossally wide range of different sensations, or different qualia, as philosophers call it. And the thing is, some of them feel good. They have this apparent property that we can perceive, of it being good to feel that way, it being good for that experience to exist. And others have a negative evaluation. Through “direct acquaintance,” as philosophers use that language, we just directly know — by being, in a sense, those sensations — that they have the property of it being bad for them to exist. So we’re going to use pleasure and pain, or pleasure and suffering, but these are very wide-ranging terms.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. And I think often, by hedonists, pleasure is used as a shorthand for all of these different positive experiences, and pain is used as a shorthand to talk about all of these different negative experiences. And I tend to do that as well, because people understand what you’re talking about better than if you say “positive qualia” and “negative qualia.”
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But it is important to understand that there are a lot of different kinds of pleasant experiences that you have, and I think that this same positive quality you feel when you are eating a food that you like, when you’re spending time with a loved one, when you have some —
Rob Wiblin: You feel like you’ve accomplished something great.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah, a great career success or something. One of the things that all of those experiences have in common is that positive nature.
The history of hedonism [00:23:11]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So what is the history of this basic idea in philosophy?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I assume you mean hedonism itself?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Because I feel like the particular brand of hedonism — what I call “analytic hedonism,” this idea that there’s a conceptual connection — I’m not aware of anybody else who actually holds that particular view.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But as far as hedonism itself, it goes way, way back. At least to ancient Greece, Epicurus and his school of thought. And it was something that even people in ancient times who were not hedonists, they really took the view very seriously, and they thought this is something that they have to argue against if they’re going to say that anything else besides pleasure is valuable. So Plato talked a lot about it. Aristotle talked about it.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But then when you come closer to the present day, this was by far the preferred view among the British empiricists. So you’ve got Hobbes, you’ve got Locke, Hume, Bentham, Mill — all hedonists.
Rob Wiblin: Sidgwick?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: And then Sidgwick a little bit after Mill, late 1800s. And then you’ve got some even in the present day. I was very excited to discover, honestly, because hedonism and hedonistic utilitarianism were not very popular when I was in graduate school. And that was only, what, 15 years ago? At least to me, it feels like not that long ago. But it really feels like there’s been a big change within philosophy during that time, and hedonism has become taken much more seriously. But you had mentioned to me, actually as we were preparing for this talk, Peter Singer, and — I can’t remember her name, the Polish philosopher.
Rob Wiblin: de Lazari-Radek.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. Glad I made you pronounce it.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I hope that’s right.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. They’ve written a very important book on that topic. I think it’s great. That’s part of what makes me want to come back and talk to philosophers more, because we can actually have conversations about the things that I think are important now.
Rob Wiblin: It seems like basically the idea has always been there from the beginning, which is no great surprise because it’s a very natural idea that it’s our feelings about things feeling terrible and feeling wonderful that are the basis of goodness and badness. Of course someone’s going to stake out that position pretty early.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: And whenever we do try to adjudicate our moral disagreements, or figure out for ourselves “What should I do in this situation?” when we don’t have a clear intuition about it, or it doesn’t seem to clearly fall under the moral guidelines that we have embraced, we often turn to this, “Well, what’s going to produce the most pleasure for people?”
Rob Wiblin: So if I kick a rock and then I kick a person and I say, “Why was the first thing not bad and the second thing bad?,” I think it’s pretty obvious what answer people are going to instinctively reach for. It’s very clear how consciousness and subjective experiences, at least, almost everyone acknowledges it as a moral consideration even if they don’t regard it as equivalent in the way that you’re suggesting.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. People do seem to have an even stronger conviction about the badness of suffering — and particularly certain kinds of gratuitous suffering, when somebody’s torturing somebody just for the fun of it. Those are some of the few examples of things that absolutely everybody can agree are wrong.
Rob Wiblin: It is interesting whenever you reach for something that is just so bad that you could just use it as a clear example and no one’s going to debate it, I feel like you reach for torturing a baby, where there’s no conceivable benefit that can be gained. Everyone just agrees that that has to be wrong.
Rob Wiblin: It is interesting, this thread: it was a big deal in ancient philosophy, and it’s kind of always been there. And in the 19th century it was huge. And it seems like the 20th century was a real doldrum period for hedonism. And then, interestingly, it was also kind of a doldrum period for the hard problem of consciousness, which we might come back to later.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah, I don’t think that’s an accident.
Rob Wiblin: [laughs] Right. And then in the 21st century, we’re seeing a real resurgence of interest in both. And outside of philosophy as well. Sam Harris, for example, has put forward a pretty similar set of ideas in The Moral Landscape, which was a pretty widely selling book.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Just real quickly on that sort of doldrum period, there are various reasons for that that people have put forward. But I think one that people haven’t talked about that much is this link to scepticism or elimitivism about consciousness. The whole behaviourist turn in psychology: people just didn’t want to talk about mental states, and they certainly didn’t want to talk about what mental states felt like from the inside.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s not scientific enough.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: No. Which is very strange, because our own mental states are the thing that we are the most directly acquainted with. Any kind of observation that we do has to start there. If we can’t read the results on the machines that we are making scientific observations with, we’re not able to observe. We’re not able to do science without our consciousness. I don’t know, it’s just always seemed very strange that we wouldn’t take that seriously.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It is very interesting that we can take almost two diametrically opposed perspectives on our subjective feelings and experiences of things. One is the Cartesian view that this is the only thing that I can be sure about. It’s like, “Everything else could be a lie, but I know that I’m at least experiencing what I’m experiencing. There’s no way I could be mistaken about that.” And the other is that because there’s no way of investigating at least the feelings or the subjective experiences of others, it’s a non-scientific realm. Maybe it doesn’t even exist. It’s deeply weird and deeply suspicious, and this is not a topic that serious people should be thinking about.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah.
Intrinsic value vs instrumental value [00:28:49]
Rob Wiblin: OK, let’s do a whole bunch of clarificatory work here, because I wrote in my notes here, I feel like the English language is almost overtly hostile to talking very clearly.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I love that phrasing, by the way. I think that’s true.
Rob Wiblin: So basically, the concept of good and right is so fundamental, I think, for us as human beings, and it pervades our life in all of these different ways that we have these common words, “good,” and “value,” that is kind of used to incorporate all kinds of different goodness and all kinds of different value that then makes it extremely easy to talk past one another when you start using these terms. So one of the first distinctions we really want to make is the difference between intrinsic value — I think sometimes my friends call it terminal value — and instrumental value. Can you explain the difference between those two?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yes. So intrinsic/terminal value — and I actually think we should make a distinction between those, but for right now we’ll put them in the same category — those are things that are valuable as ends in themselves. You don’t want them because they are going to get you something else down the line, but because of their own properties. Whereas instrumental goods are things that you don’t really care about having just for themselves, but because they’ll produce something else good for you.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Now, the reason I say we should distinguish intrinsic and terminal goods is because anti-realists will sometimes say something is good as an end in itself, but it’s not because of the intrinsic properties of the thing. The goodness of the thing is still dependent on somebody’s desire for it, or preference for it, or the way that it figures in their attitudinal system. So you could have a terminal good that I would say is not actually an intrinsic good. Some anti-realists would use the term intrinsic in this case, but I like to reserve the term intrinsic for something that’s even stronger. It’s something that is good purely in virtue of its own properties.
Rob Wiblin: I see. When I kind of present this idea that goodness is just about pleasure versus suffering, a very common response I get is something like, “I can think of a time in the past when I suffered, but I think that that was good for me, all things considered. Are you saying that I’m wrong about that?” Can you explain what’s going on there?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah, suffering can be instrumentally good. And actually, I think that that’s probably one of the reasons that we do suffer as much as we do: because our bodies and our brains are trying to send us signals that we’re doing something wrong, or something wrong is happening, and we need to fix it if we’re going to survive and flourish in the future.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So there are various situations. Let’s first take one situation where you’re suffering because of a bad romantic breakup. It’s important for you to feel the negative effects of a broken relationship. We are social creatures. We need to know how to have positive relationships with each other. We need the help of others in order to survive and to thrive. So it’s good that our bodies and brains let us know it’s not good that you have this rift between you and this other person. Now, maybe in the long term you needed to break up with this person and you’ll be better off. But your emotional system is reacting to the fact that, evolutionarily, it’s important for you to have good social relationships. So that’s one way in which it could be important.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But I think also when people say, “My suffering was good for me,” they’re also talking about character building — like, “It made me a better person.” And I think that’s also very important. If it changes your dispositions to be more compassionate towards others, or maybe changes your ability to persevere through hardship so that you can meet important goals that you wouldn’t be able to meet if you were purely focused on what will bring you pleasure today, then that’s going to be instrumentally good. So there are lots of ways in which suffering and pain can be instrumentally good.
Rob Wiblin: Another response that I get — which we’ll return to in a whole bunch more detail later on — is, “Are you saying that beauty or knowledge or food or money are not valuable if it’s only experiences?” Of course you could respond and say, “Yes, all of those things are good. All of those things have value.” But on your view, on this hedonistic view, they’re all valuable as a means to an end: those things are all valuable because they will at some point reduce negative experiences or promote positive experiences. That is going to be counterintuitive to a substantial fraction of people, that all of these kinds of things — food, money, beauty, knowledge, relationships — that they’re only useful as means to an end. But at least we’re not saying that they don’t have value. They do have value, just of a different kind.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right. Yes, absolutely.
Rob Wiblin: I think another distinction that is worth drawing is, let’s say that you feel a positive sensation, like a delicious taste. I feel like you can feel directly that that is good through direct acquaintance. There’s a different sense of goodness and badness that we get when we evaluate or consider something and then ask morally, “Is this good or bad?” So you imagine someone punching someone else. There, we might have the reaction that that is bad, but that is different because instead we’re evaluating a propositional claim. And we might inspect our feelings, we might inspect our subjective feelings as a measure, as a way of trying to answer this propositional claim about whether an act is wrong or whether an act is good. But I feel like these are two very different ways in which we get evidence about goodness. Do you agree?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. We have the direct acquaintance — like the intrinsic, inner feel of what that state is like. Because when you’re talking about your own mental states, you know what that state is like from the inside. But when you’re talking about a propositional claim, or even if you’re talking about the experiential states of somebody else, you don’t know the inner nature of that directly — you’re inferring the nature of it and you’re representing itself to yourself, but you’re not directly tuning into what it’s like.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Which is why we have moral disagreement and moral error, I think. Because we’re doing our best to represent the goodness and badness of things outside of us, but when we don’t have that direct acquaintance with it, we can often get it wrong.
Rob Wiblin: OK, one final way of using “good” that I just want to get some clarification on is when people talk about a person being good. I think that that is a very different use of the term “good” from the one that we’re talking about when we talk about experiences being good. In that, when we say that someone is good, we don’t mean that they experience a lot of pleasure and are disinclined to experience suffering.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right.
Rob Wiblin: We’re talking about evaluating their character. We’re talking about whether that person is conducive to good outcomes when you have them around, among other things.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. We’re talking about their instrumental goodness as a person. Do they make the rest of the world better by their presence in it? If we’re consequentialists. You might also have somebody who is judging their character in a different way. But the point is that what we’re doing is evaluating their character — not for the value that it directly brings to the world, but for the way that it promotes value in other ways.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. And this issue can become particularly stark when you might have someone who, in a hypothetical situation, takes an action that in the immediate term brings about pleasure. But you might say, “Oh, nonetheless, I have this really strong sense of badness.” And often what’s going on is that the kind of person who is inclined to take those actions will cause a lot of badness, will cause a lot of suffering, in broader situations.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah.
Egoistic hedonism [00:36:30]
Rob Wiblin: OK, let’s push on and get some more details of the theory. As listeners can probably tell, I’m very sympathetic to this theory, or I think it’s at least super underrated. So later on, we’ll get to a whole lot of potential objections and rebuttals. Fortunately, if you want to find objections to hedonism, you will not have difficulty finding them anywhere on the internet or in any philosophy course, so to some extent, we can take the time here to seriously try to inhabit the view for a minute. So why doesn’t our direct acquaintance with positive and negative feelings imply that the right thing to do is to pursue egoistic hedonism — that is, to maximise just our wellbeing, rather than the wellbeing of everyone taken equally?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I think there are a few different reasons. First of all, I think that when we experience pleasure, or pain, or any of these normative qualia, we’re experiencing that intrinsic goodness or that intrinsic badness directly, and what we’re experiencing is the value of it simpliciter — we’re not —
Rob Wiblin: What does simpliciter mean?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Just simply, like nothing more than that, just the value of it. So we’re not experiencing any implications about what we ought to do about it. I mean, we could certainly have those in addition, but what we’re experiencing in the experience itself is just this feeling that this thing ought to exist or this thing ought not to exist.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: And once we can have the conceptual ability to think about actions — because babies can experience pleasure and pain, but they can’t necessarily think about, “Well, what should I do as a consequence of feeling this? I should promote this in the future”; they’re not thinking at that conceptual level yet — but once we develop the ability to think about the fact that we might be able to promote this or avoid it in the future, I think when we are having those experiences we think, “Well, anybody who had an ability to prevent me feeling this pain or who could help me feel this pleasure in the future, they ought to. There’s a reason that they ought to do these things because of the way these things feel.” So from the first-person perspective, we think that our pleasure and pain is a reason for other people. I think that’s part of the phenomenology.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But then the other thing is, when we start thinking about what it would mean to say that your experiences are only reason-giving for you, we get into these really thorny questions about personal identity. So the idea for an egoistic hedonist would have to be something along the lines of, “If I’m going to experience that pleasure in the future, then I have reason to bring it about. But if it’s going to be somebody else’s pleasure, I don’t have any reason.” But that’s presuming that there’s some way to pick out who you’re going to be in the future and that you are, in some morally significant way, identical to this other experiencing being that’s going to experience that stuff.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: And I think Derek Parfit does a really good job of looking at the concept of personal identity and showing that the best way of thinking about personal identity, the way that makes the most sense, is a reductive view: a view where our identity with ourselves in the future just has to do with some level of continuity between our experiences and our desires. And also the fact he thinks that there can’t be a branching situation going on, but that’s not really relevant here.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But in any case, he thinks ultimately, we should be reductionist about personal identity, and I agree with him for various complicated reasons. But if that’s the case, I don’t think the things that make us say, “I’m the same person as myself this time in the future,” that those are things that are morally relevant — that those are things that should make it the case that that future pleasure or pain is a reason for me now, in a way that it doesn’t make it the case that other people’s pleasure and pain is a reason for me now. I just think that the boundaries of personal identity are vague, first of all, and I don’t think that they’re morally significant in the right way.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So I feel like a dumber way of saying the first part of that is: When I’m in pain, and I’m feeling this sensation of badness ought-not-to-be-ness, I don’t feel like I’m learning from that that it is bad just for me, or that it is only bad because it’s happening to me. I feel like I’m learning that the experience itself is bad, irrespective of what person it’s attaching itself to.
Rob Wiblin: And on the personal identity point, many people here might have heard some of these conundrum thought experiments that show up when you try to really inspect what is personal identity, how do we tell who has the same identity and who does not. Unfortunately, we won’t have time to go into all of that here, so we’ll have to stick out some links to some articles discussing that in the show notes.
Rob Wiblin: But more or less, with personal identity — like so many things in philosophy — the more you look at it, the more your intuitions and your common sense just melt away, and you find that actually it doesn’t seem like there is any simple fact of the matter about especially whether you are the same person over time when you change a lot. What if you pass out so you don’t have continuative consciousness? What if there’s another person who’s extremely similar to you? What if you could run a person on a computer and then you could split the software so it’s running twice at once? Who’s the same person? So there’s all of these issues.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right.
Rob Wiblin: And then if you’ve baked identity into your moral theory — as egoism does, or egoistic hedonism would have to do — then these issues of personal identity are totally devastating, or at least they might just lead you towards nihilism.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah, either you have no reason to promote or avoid any sort of future experience, or you have a reason to promote it for anybody who can experience it.
Rob Wiblin: OK, you have a whole lot more to say on this in the book, so people can go away and read that if they’d like to hear more details.
Single axis of value [00:42:19]
Rob Wiblin: An interesting aspect of your theory is it seems like it’s saying that there is a single axis of value that all subjective experiences can be scored on. Basically, it runs from very very good, then it passes through neutral, and then it goes down to very very bad. Why should we think that that’s the case?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So we’re going to take this question in two parts. I think one part of the question is this very common disagreement within hedonist circles about whether all pleasures are commensurable or whether there are some pleasures that are qualitatively better than others. Certainly, John Stuart Mill believed there are higher and lower pleasures, and other people even more recently have believed this as well — I think Roger Crisp believes that as well.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But then on the other hand, there’s this question about whether pleasure and pain are really commensurable in this way, that they can sort of balance each other out.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So first, let’s look at this question of different pleasures or different pains — this idea that, at least when we stick with one valence, that we have something that is similar across all of them. If we look at pain experiences — I think this is one place where more neuroscientific research has been done — we look at two different kinds of pain experiences or negative experiences: experiences of physical pain or experiences of emotional pain of some kind. We might think those are just completely different sensory or qualitative experiences. And yeah, we avoid both of them, but that’s the only thing that they have in common — there’s nothing that we’re sensing, that we’re feeling, that’s the same in both cases.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I think there’s actually significant evidence that would count against that. I think that there are important physiological similarities between these experiences that would support the idea that there is a phenomenal experiential connection between them. One very basic thing is: whether you’re in physical pain or you are in emotional pain, you cry in both of these. So there’s this same physiological thing that is happening. That’s not proof, but that’s one piece of proof.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But then when you look at what’s happening neurologically, these two different kinds of negative experiences actually share similar neural pathways. Jaak Panksepp is an affective neuroscientist. He’s done a lot of work actually investigating how the brain is processing these affects, or these feelings. So his research shows that some of the similar neural pathways that they have are the periaqueductal gray in the brain stem, which is involved not only in physical pain, but it’s involved in experiences of intense sadness. So there are a lot of differences between what it feels like to be in intense physical pain and to be intensely sad, but they’re both going through this same area of the brain stem.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: And also, I think it’s really interesting that a lot of people talk about physical manifestations of their emotional pain. So when you’re really in deep emotional suffering, a lot of times you actually do feel something physical, like things physically hurt: your heart hurting a lot, people talk about. But also the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a known pain centre, also produces distressing social feelings. So particularly in animals, when animals are separated from their social groups or ostracised from their social groups, they’re going to have this same area of the brain that’s going to be involved. And then when we look at treating pain, the same things — oxytocin, endorphins, opioid analgesics — not only reduce pain, but they also reduce that separation anxiety in animals.
Rob Wiblin: I do find it a bit counterintuitive, or at least it’s not immediately obvious to me, that all of the negative experiences that I have just all have this one common phenomenological property — that is, badness — that can all just be scored on the same thing. So we have all kinds of different negative feelings, like shame, physical pain, different kinds of physical pain, loneliness, rejection, jealousy, and so on. On the surface level, they have all these specifics that are quite different. But you want to say that they all have one thing in common, and that is the property of ought-not-to-be-ness.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah, there are plenty, and plenty of differences. These are very complex experiences. There are many layers of different sensations. Even within physical pain, you can have different sensations if you’re being stabbed, you’re being burnt, or whatever it is. But yeah, there is this one thing that is similar among them.
Rob Wiblin: That’s common to everything, all of the negative sensations.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right.
Rob Wiblin: I think if I introspect a bunch and reflect on it, then I can kind of see that. There’s a way in which we have quite poor access to dissecting all of the different aspects of the sensations that pass through. It is quite interesting how hard it is to break down all of those sensations into their different constituent parts. So I can see it, but I don’t think through introspection I can kind of prove this.
Rob Wiblin: But I think the neuroscientific evidence is super interesting. There’s actually quite a lot of discussion of how the brain works in the book. And basically, you’re saying that through all of these negative experiences, we can point to the part of the brain that is getting activated whenever there’s a negative feeling — whether it’s a social issue, or loneliness, depression, or physical pain — that we can actually see something in the brain that is happening with all of them. And that is potentially the part that is producing the negative qualia, the ought-not-to-be-ness.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right. Potentially. I mean, it’s still not proof, because we don’t know what the one-to-one correlations are between the brain states and the affects or the qualia that we have. But I think that certainly, the knowledge that we have about the way that the brain works here doesn’t contradict the idea that there’s something very similar in these states.
Rob Wiblin: There’s another line of evidence for this that you discuss in the book, which is: All the time in life, we have to make tradeoffs between different experiences that we might have. So we might think, “Do I want to be burnt or do I want to be stabbed?” No, I’m kidding, what’s the actual question? It was like, “Do I want to feel lonely at home, or do I want to go to a party where I know it’s going to be too loud and it’s going to be slightly painful? I don’t like the music.”
Rob Wiblin: So you’ve got two different negative sensations that you could feel that are very different in nature — one more physical, one more social. Now, those decisions can be very hard, but we do, nonetheless, manage to make them most of the time. And when one of those sensations is more severe than the other one, then it can potentially be very easy to make a trade to decide which one you want to experience, even though they’re very different in their qualitative type.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Sure.
Rob Wiblin: You might say, “It’s just going to be so horrible to be stuck alone knowing that I’m missing out on the party that I will accept the physical pain of the music that I don’t like.” How can it be that we make those decisions, unless there’s some way in which we assess how those things would feel, we try to project that in our mind, and then there’s some circuit that weighs them on a common scale and then spits out a decision?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right.
Rob Wiblin: There has to be some point at which they are indicated as commensurate within the brain, because we do make decisions all the time, and we don’t just get stuck saying, “It’s impossible to decide, because these are things that have incommensurable value.”
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So this is called the behavioural final common path: we need some way for the brain’s decisions about these things to come produce the behaviour, so we need the final path that’s going to lead to the particular behaviour that’s chosen.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: One person who’s done a lot of research in this area is Michel Cabanac. He’s a French and then French–Canadian medical doctor. One of the things that he did — and he did many different experiments in this area — is he actually asked people to tell him what their various levels of pleasure or pain were in experiencing different activities. So he didn’t even have to make them imagine it. He had them actually experience different things and then rate their pleasure or pain in those experiences.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: And then separately, he gave them the choice of having, say, pairs of these things — sometimes it was a positive and a negative, sometimes it was two negatives — but he said, “You can change the relative amounts that you’re going to feel of these things. So what kind of tradeoff would you prefer between these two things?” And the tradeoffs that the people chose reflected an algebraic sum of the ratings that they had given before: they were introspecting, they were rating them, and then those were actually equivalent to the decisions that they were making in choosing the behaviour. So we do seem able to consciously rate these things, and our behaviour does seem to be a result of those conscious ratings, or there’s a causal correlation there.
Rob Wiblin: That’s super interesting. I don’t really know that much about how the brain works, but I did read, I think it was a book actually about dieting, or about how we decide what we eat. It was saying basically that the brain generates different options for actions, and then there are particular neurons that fire at different paces — basically bidding for how much expected reward the brain is anticipating from a course of action. The neurons are basically firing at a rate that is meant to indicate the expected value, and then the one that is firing faster is the option that gets chosen.
Rob Wiblin: And literally, it’s not just the ordering — it’s like they’re providing what we call cardinal value. It’s not just saying that the one that is going twice as fast is better than the one that’s going half as fast as the other one; it’s saying it’s twice as good, the expected reward is twice as high. And so you could maybe then vary the length of the processes to try to change the tradeoff.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right. And that does seem to be exactly what people are doing in these experiments. And they can do it with very different sorts of activities or pleasures and pains. So there was one case where he had people make tradeoffs between being cold or playing a video game. So you’ve got presumably a positive for the video game but a negative for being cold, right? So they’re trading off the pleasures and pains in these two cases, but also interesting because one is a physical pain and one is more mental.
Rob Wiblin: Intellectual.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. But then also a case where he had people balancing physical pain and receiving money. So again, it’s sort of more cognitive.
Rob Wiblin: An instrumental value.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah, and that too. So people were able to make these comparisons. Which makes total sense, like you were saying. I mean, evolutionarily, we need to be able to rate these kinds of different things.
Rob Wiblin: It has to be so. Well, at least it has to be so in an engineering sense of how the brain works. I suppose morally things could be different, but I suppose because of the way that you’re grounding your evidence through direct experience, it’s very hard for these things to come apart on your system.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right.
Rob Wiblin: One thing I want to point out is that people disagree, and think that there are incommensurable different experiences. So you might say the joy you get from being in love just can’t be one-to-one traded off — or can’t be just traded off in this linear, algebraic way — against the joy you get from eating food. That is a position that philosophers have staked out. That definitely complicates the hedonistic system here, and it also makes decisions much more difficult, but you could still proceed with the hedonistic theory of value, just with different kinds of hedonistic value that you need more complex analysis in order to weigh up.
Rob Wiblin: I think the most famous system of this kind is John Stuart Mill’s higher and lower pleasures. You had this really quite fun section of the book where you talk about John Stuart Mill. I think he would compare base physical pleasures against the great joy you might get from writing or reading poetry, for example, or appreciating great art. You have some quote from him where he’s like, “No one could seriously think that just eating a great meal is the same as the kind of pleasure you might get from fantastic achievements or insights.”
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But he doesn’t actually think that nobody could. He thinks that there’s a difference between people who are capable of experiencing the higher pleasures and people who aren’t. People who aren’t capable of experiencing the higher pleasures, they don’t know how good they are, and so they might absolutely think that eating a great meal is as good as it gets.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, sorry, that’s exactly right.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: And that’s part of his argument for why he thinks that some pleasures are qualitatively better than others, because anybody who can experience both of them will always choose the higher pleasure over the other one.
Rob Wiblin: Right, right. And I guess your take on this is that it might not just be the case that some people don’t appreciate the higher pleasures that John Stuart Mill enjoyed, but perhaps John Stuart Mill wasn’t getting invited to the right parties and perhaps wasn’t the kind of person who could fully appreciate just a nice meal for its own sake, without having to worry about the philosophy of it.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Exactly. Yeah, I think it’s important to understand there might be a little bit of bias going on there.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, yeah.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But, a little bit more seriously, that some people aren’t as capable of enjoying more “base pleasures,” as he might put it, because they have a really strong need for intellectual stimulation, say. So they can go to the same party as somebody else, but they’re just not having a good time because nobody’s thinking about metaethics there or something.
Rob Wiblin: Speaking from experience?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right, right. So yeah, it’s important to understand that different people aren’t necessarily going to know the full range of pleasures, they’re not necessarily going to be capable of the full range of pleasures, and your personal dispositions are going to affect what you’re able to take pleasure in or not.
Rob Wiblin: As someone who I think has a great capacity to enjoy both base and higher pleasures, I can assure you all: both are great and they can be traded off against one another.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: It’s good to know.
Rob Wiblin: You learn so much on this show.
Key objections to Sharon’s brand of hedonism [00:56:18]
Rob Wiblin: All right, let’s talk about some of the key objections that people raise against hedonism and against your particular brand of hedonism. We’ll basically go through the major flavours of objection.
Rob Wiblin: One very common and strong reaction that people have is that you’re saying that knowledge and beauty and good relationships, they’re only valuable inasmuch as they bring about positive experiences for someone, or they prevent negative experiences.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right.
Rob Wiblin: But I just have this incredibly strong intuition that no, my relationship with my partner can be incredibly valuable for its own sake — even if it never makes us happy. It’s just so important. And it’s really important that people know the truth, or that they understand how the world works — even if it isn’t instrumentally useful, even if it doesn’t make them happy to know the truth. Maybe if it was disastrous to know the truth and caused you immense suffering, then that could outweigh the intrinsic goodness of knowing the truth and having understanding. But it is, in itself, good for people to know the truth. How do you react to that?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Well, I think that I actually share those feelings to some degree, and I think that we do actually value things besides pleasure and pain. And by that, I mean that we actually desire things other than that, and we would actually make choices sometimes to have those things — even if it brings us less pleasure or more pain. But I don’t think that that means that those things are objectively, intrinsically good. It just means that we treat them as something that we want to get.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But when you’re approaching it from this question of, “But are they objectively good?” then I think you have to look at this epistemological question of, “If they are — if there’s something about the truth, or reality, of relationships that is good in itself and not just because of the way that it makes me or anyone else feel — how do we come to know that? How do we somehow get connected to the goodness or badness of that state that is not part of our consciousness that’s somehow out there?”
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: And I’m very sceptical that there is a way to do that, or that we could be connected to it, or that it even makes sense to talk about those things being good in themselves. How would they even instantiate goodness or badness? I don’t know. When we are looking at pleasure and pain, it’s really obvious. And even for people to whom it’s not as obvious as it seems to me, like we talked about at the beginning of this interview, pleasure and pain are important. Other things may be important too, but definitely, those are important. And our direct connection to them makes it clear that there’s a reason to think we’re getting it right about whether those things are intrinsically good or not — because we know about their intrinsic qualities, but we don’t know the intrinsic qualities of these other things.
Rob Wiblin: Right.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Now, I do think that it can be instrumentally good for a hedonist to value things besides pleasure and pain, because a lot of those things are instrumentally valuable and it might actually be pleasure-maximising to treat them like they are intrinsically valuable, not just instrumentally valuable.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Particularly if you think about personal relationships. If you’re in a romantic relationship with your partner and maybe you’re going through some tough times or whatever, if you’re constantly thinking, “The only reason this relationship is valuable is because of what we’re getting out of it, and clearly, we’re both suffering a lot. We should just call it quits,” then you might actually call it quits earlier than if you believed that the relationship was intrinsically valuable — that that might cause you to persevere through some of these things. Especially with relationships, there’s a lot of value right at the beginning of a romantic relationship, and then there’s a lot of difficulty when you’re adjusting to each other, and then I think the pleasure over pain rises again. In a good relationship, that’s what’s going to happen.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But to get us through that really difficult period of adjusting to one another and learning how to have a close symbiotic relationship with somebody, you have to just be committed to the relationship no matter what. Maybe not no matter what, but have the strong desire to continue the relationship for itself. And just imagining what sort of pleasure that might provide you down the road, I don’t think is necessarily going to be as motivating.
Rob Wiblin: Well, especially with relationships — which is, I think, maybe where this intuition is strongest for many people, including me — a lot of the value that you get out of relationships with other people is your willingness to commit to remain in them even when it’s unclear whether they’re instrumentally useful. You want to think that other people are going to stick around and that you can trust them, and that’s a reason why it’s great to think about it in terms of terminal value, because you’re less inclined to spend all this time questioning whether you should end it constantly because it’s ceased to be of instrumental value.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right. Yeah, and all that questioning is not useful hedonistically.
Rob Wiblin: Not useful, right, right. It makes it harder to coordinate with other people, as we’ll talk about later.
Rob Wiblin: I also have these intuitions about things having intrinsic value other than sensations. Maybe not as much as other people, but my sense of how we come to have these beliefs is that they are in significant part from learned experience: that we see time and time and time again that being trustworthy, and understanding the world, and being reliable, and having influence, that these things are instrumentally useful because it’s just so consistently true.
Rob Wiblin: And because in our minds, we just blur together all of these different concepts of goodness, as we were talking about earlier, it’s just this real miasma of all of these different slightly distinct ideas of goodness. It’s like, “It’s instrumentally good, it’s instrumentally good, it’s instrumentally good. It’s good, it’s good, it’s good, it’s good” — and it becomes very hard to introspect and distinguish between instrumental and intrinsic value. Or at least that’s one possible debunking explanation for some of the times that we have these intuitions.
Rob Wiblin: A counterexample that someone put to me when I put this argument to them is that maybe that is happening when we talk about aesthetics, and beauty, and the value of art, but it doesn’t seem like almost anyone gets confused about the instrumental versus the intrinsic value of money. It seems like everyone understands that money is only instrumentally valuable in that having a bunch of pieces of paper is, in itself, of no value.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah, on a desert island, it wouldn’t do you much good.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, exactly. So why don’t people get confused about that one? And I was like, “Yeah, that’s a good argument. I’m not sure I know how to respond to that.”
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Well, I don’t actually think that the process is quite like you’re saying. I don’t think we actually start out thinking about them as instrumentally valuable and then sort of getting confused. I actually think we learn about the value of different things by the consequences that we experience from them, but also by what other people say about them and the attitudes that other people express to us. So when we do certain things, people express strong disapproval. When other people express their disapproval of us, we feel a strong negative feeling because, going back to the social ostracism thing, we’re very sensitive to what other people think about us. And so when other people are disapproving of things that we do, we get this negative value associated with those things.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I don’t think that there’s a conscious process of thinking, “Yeah, it’s instrumentally valuable. Oh, now I’ve forgotten, and now I think it’s intrinsically valuable.” No, I think when we think about certain things, whether they’re actions or states of affairs, we have a strong positive or negative feeling, and that leads us to say, “It’s good or it’s bad. I feel good or bad about it.” So that’s how I make that intuitive determination for myself.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: And if you’re looking at the difference between money and other things, I think there’s also an evolutionary component. Through millions of years of evolution, we have developed positive responses to being included in the social group, to doing things that are helpful to our group, and also positive responses to beauty in certain ways. There are more plausible stories about how we have developed those associations evolutionarily. But when it comes to money, everybody in our society knows it’s just instrumentally valuable. Everybody’s going to say that. It’s very clear in our consciousness, and there’s no evolutionary reason for us to have developed this intrinsic desire for these pieces of paper — or for these numbers on our bank app, as it is these days.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I suppose if you take it to a more conceptual level to something that did exist in our ancestral evolutionary environment which is similar to money — power, or influence, or the ability to get stuff done, which is what money allows us to do — then maybe at that higher level of abstraction, people do feel like that is intrinsically valuable, sometimes at least.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah, it does seem like the feelings get stronger there. I still think, at least in our culture today, we have pretty healthy scepticism of the intrinsic value of power over other people.
Rob Wiblin: Of the desire to dominate others in that way, yeah.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. But we don’t have that strong scepticism of beauty or of social relationships. We still tend to think those are generally good things.
The experience machine [01:06:08]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. OK, pushing on. The most famous, and my guess is the most influential, objection to the idea that subjective experiences are the only thing that matter is the experience machine thought experiment, which the philosopher Robert Nozick first published in his classic book Anarchy, State, and Utopia back in 1974. We need to spend a little while on this one to do it justice.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah, let’s do.
Rob Wiblin: First, can you lay out the experience machine example or case?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Nozick’s presentation of it has various parts, and he sort of changes it and everything. So I’m just going to give an example that I think is most relevant to us here; it’s not necessarily exactly how he laid it out. But the idea in general is that if pleasure and pain are the only things that are intrinsically valuable or disvaluable, then if we had the option of living in a virtual world created by the “experience machine” that could produce all of the best experiences that we could ever have — not even the most pleasure, but more pleasure than living in the real world — then shouldn’t we plug into the experience machine? Nozick’s thought was that most people were going to say, “No, you shouldn’t,” and that that proved that things besides pleasure and pain were intrinsically valuable or disvaluable.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So there’s various different rebuttals that someone could offer, or ways that we could try to tackle this, and say, “Does it really show that things other than subjective experience have value?” One is to use a similar strategy to what you’ve mentioned before, which is to say, maybe that is your propositional feeling about it. Maybe that is your reaction intuitively when thinking about this question as a matter of fact, but how would you know and why would you necessarily trust the intuitive judgements that come back when you evaluate such a case? Is there anything more you want to add to that, or could we just say we’ve used that one already; we can always just bring that up whenever we’re considering such thought experiments?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. Well, no. I think it’s very important here, and it’s something that Nozick didn’t address when he first put out this thought experiment. He took it for granted that if we had intuitions that we shouldn’t go into the experience machine, that was somehow evidence for the value of reality. But what it really shows is just that we value reality, that we care about reality — it doesn’t show that it’s objectively valuable.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: An anti-realist might say, “The experience machine objection shows that we value other things and that other things are valuable,” because they don’t see a distinction between what we value and what is valuable. But for a realist, our intuitions might provide some evidence, but they could be mistaken.
Rob Wiblin: You might value something, but it turns out, just as a matter of fact, it’s not valuable or it isn’t actually good.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. Right.
Rob Wiblin: OK, so that’s one line of argument. The next thing is to say: Nozick has said a hedonistic utilitarian would have to recommend getting into the experience machine, but we have this strong intuition that we shouldn’t, which shows that our intuitions are not informed by hedonistic utilitarianism; that there’s other stuff going on.
Rob Wiblin: Now that may be the case, but you want to push back on this claim that a hedonistic utilitarian would recommend getting into the experience machine quite forcefully. Do you want to give some of the reasons why, in fact, a hedonistic utilitarian would not get into the experience machine? At least not in the case as it was originally presented?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. First of all, there are egoistic reasons. If somebody in the real world comes along and says, “Look, I’ve got this machine that will give you all this great experience, and you never need to be in contact with reality ever again,” I think we would be pretty sceptical about whether we should put ourselves in the hands of this person or this machine. First of all, there are practical questions about if a machine is going to be better at looking after our welfare now, and into the future, and given any problems that may come up. Maybe there’s some software glitch. I get in there, and I’m having really terrible experiences, but the experience machine never notices. Because I’m not in contact with the outside world, there’s no way for me to signal the fact that things are going very badly for me.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So this idea of being completely helpless. Not only if our experiences are bad right now, but maybe after we plug into the experience machine, then a war breaks out around us and people are coming. They’re going to dismantle the machine, all this stuff. We have no way of defending ourselves, because we’re not even aware of what’s going on around us. Certainly having a relationship with the real world is very instrumentally valuable.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Now, Nozick wants us to disregard all of those reasons. He wants to say, “No, just think about a situation where you can be absolutely sure that everything is going to be fine inside the experience machine.” I don’t know if we could do that. I don’t know if just stipulating “these things are irrelevant” is going to mean that they aren’t affecting our intuitions.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. You can say in the text setting up the case that you’re sure nothing will ever go wrong, you’re sure it’s going to be great, that you can completely trust whoever’s operating the machine, and it will never break down, and there’s no need to be in contact with the real world. But we have, through all of our years of life, this extremely strong intuition that completely removing our knowledge and agency is a bad idea, because it leaves you completely vulnerable to exploitation by anyone else. If you misunderstood the situation, it could be really wrong. The text on the page saying, “Don’t worry about X, Y, and Z”: is that enough to offset our decades of knowledge that you need to take those things into account intuitively?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: It’s not that reassuring.
Rob Wiblin: I think it’s realistic to say probably not. Probably some of those concerns are bleeding over into our reaction, even if you’ve said they shouldn’t.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right. In a minute, let’s talk about ways that we could help ourselves imagine better what the situation would actually be. But before we get there, there are also non-egoistic reasons that we shouldn’t plug into the experience machine. The fact that we could actually help other people in the world — that our life might somehow make the world a better place if we don’t plug into the experience machine — this is very relevant. Again, Nozick tries to say, “Well, just imagine that everybody is in the experience machine. The machines can completely take care of everybody and make sure that everybody is happy for an infinite time into the future. There’s nothing you could ever do to make the world a better place. Would you plug in?”
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: In that case, we think about, “What would practically have to be true in order for it to be the case that I have absolutely no instrumental value to the world whatsoever?” For me to know that the experience machine is going to do everything that I could do, or even better than I could do it, I’m going to have to know an awful lot about the world. I’m going to have to know all of the important facts about the way that reality is — which, if you don’t know all the facts, I’m not sure how you can know that you know all the important ones. But leaving that aside, you’re going to have to know an awful lot about the world, enough to be absolutely certain that there is no problem that will ever come up that those machines will not be able to handle.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: And also, to know that those machines — which are apparently at least as smart as you are, if not smarter — are always going to think that keeping you alive and happy is the best thing that they could do with us. That they’re not going to, at some point, decide that it’s not worth taking care of you anymore.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So to have that much knowledge about the world, to where you can actually be sure that Nozick’s claim is true, then if you stay out of the experience machine, what is it exactly that you’re going to do? There’s nothing else to really learn about the world. There’s nothing else to accomplish. You know exactly how to make people as happy as you ever could. There’s nobody to help. It seems like the best thing you could probably do is at least have a good time. Plug into the experience machine and maybe at least you’ll have the experience of making great discoveries or helping people.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. To set it up more realistically, we have to imagine a world where basically humanity or civilisation has accomplished everything. We’ve solved science. We’ve figured out how the universe works. We have machines that are just brilliant, that are going to be able to operate the experience machine indefinitely. They’ve been doing this so reliably for so long that we’re beyond confident that everything is fine in perpetuity. And obviously, these machines are so much smarter and more competent than we are that there’s no way that you could do anything useful, even if there was a problem — because they’ll be able to handle it far and beyond whatever you could do, so you’re insignificant in this world.
Rob Wiblin: In that case, I do still have reservations about getting in the machine. There’s something that feels a bit squicky about it, but it also maybe feels kind of all right. It’s like, “There’s no more work to do. Everyone else is great. Why don’t I go in?”
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: It certainly doesn’t seem like obviously a bad idea. Maybe it could be good. There are reasons for it.
Rob Wiblin: Exactly, yeah. Especially if your life in the experience machine would be just way better. What if you could have 100 times as much pleasure as you could in the real world? Where everything’s just really mundane in the real world, because all of the effort has gone into improving the experience machine world. I don’t know. It sounds pretty good, in that case.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I mean, the world would be kind of boring if you already knew and understood everything, right?
Rob Wiblin: Right. So in the original case, the hedonists probably wouldn’t recommend that we get into the machine, and so maybe it does comport with many people’s common sense. And if we change it enough such that the hedonist does recommend getting in the machine, then maybe many people would be happy to go along with that anyway. In fact, the intuitions do line up with people’s common sense, at least to a greater degree than is initially appreciated.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: We should look at examples in real life, where we actually do something like plugging into the experience machine: when we play video games, when we watch movies, when we read books. When we sleep, we’re just in a dream world, right? We’re disconnecting ourselves from the external world. We’re disconnecting ourselves from our ability to help others or to protect ourselves in certain ways. We certainly become very vulnerable when we sleep, for example. But we do this in only a partial way. We understand, “It’s just for a limited period of time. I’m going to make sure, before I go in, everything’s OK.”
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Even when we’re sleeping, some part of us is alert to worrisome sounds that we might hear. When we’re in the video game, some part of us is still aware of what’s going on outside. But to the extent that people do get so caught up in these virtual worlds, we do start thinking there’s something bad about it.
Rob Wiblin: It’s gone too far.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. Maybe they’re not living in the real world anymore. This is not good for them; this is not good for society as a whole. I think that our intuitions do track the hedonistic reasons in these real-world cases, and in the hypothetical cases, as long as we make them sufficiently concrete.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, exactly. We’re not against people detaching from a perfect perception of reality or a perfect focus on reality in order to get pleasure. That’s OK, within reason. The reason that we don’t do that all the time is because of all of these practical considerations, among others, that encourage us to maintain some connection to reality and some agency. And to ensure that we’re spending some time sustaining ourselves as beings so that we don’t die.
Rob Wiblin: I think a third strain of response is to say that Nozick says that people say they wouldn’t get in the experience machine, but actually, if you survey people, it’s a much more mixed picture than you might appreciate. I saw some philosophy professor tweeting about this a couple of months ago, where they had a whole lot of Gen Z students coming in. They set up the experience machine case and said, “Who would get into the experience machine?” And I think half of the students said they would get in the experience machine. This apparently messed up their lecture, because it all proceeds on the assumption that people say that they wouldn’t. But of course, some people do enjoy living a pleasant life, and they might not share these practical concerns quite as severely.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I wonder if that has to do with the fact that we are much more familiar with and comfortable with these sorts of virtual worlds now. Certainly, the generation younger than I am is much more comfortable with them than I am. We don’t have that inbuilt scepticism.
Rob Wiblin: I think that makes a tonne of sense that if, through your life, a lot of the pleasure you’ve gotten is from screens of different kinds, you say, “Well, this is just as legitimate as any other kind of pleasure that I’ve been getting. How is this so wrong?” That’s one thing.
Rob Wiblin: I think another thing is that it’s becoming easier and easier in the modern world to imagine that, before too long, we might have machines that could take care of us, that could make decisions, and could do a whole lot of work that humans presently do — and that we might be able to trust to manage it. In a way that, maybe in the ’70s, seemed more crazy. A bit more sci-fi.
Rob Wiblin: But in fact, it actually goes further than that. People have tried to change the case a little bit to isolate exactly what is it about the experience machine case that turns people off the idea of getting in the machine. One possibility is that, just in general, people prefer to keep the status quo. They just prefer to stay in the situation that they’re in rather than take some leap into a very different world. Someone did a survey — unfortunately, I think again of philosophy students, or at least American university students, who may not be fully representative of the world —
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yes, an accessible demographic.
Rob Wiblin: Accessible, yeah. It was a “convenience sample,” as they say. Here they set it up and said: You’re just going about living your normal life as you do now, and someone comes to you, some sort of character — Morpheus, I suppose — and says, “As it turns out, you’re actually living in the experience machine now. Look at all this magical stuff that I can do,” so that you come to actually believe them and trust them.
Rob Wiblin: They say, “We check in on people who are in the experience machine from time to time to double check whether they want to stay in the experience machine. Because obviously, we want you to still have some agency and still be able to decide whether you prefer the experience machine or the real world. You have the option now of exiting. I should warn you, though, that the reason you got in the experience machine is that the real world is very bad. You’re going to suffer a whole lot more. It’s very unpleasant, and you don’t know anyone there, obviously, because you’ve been in here with all of the other people who are in the experience machine. Would you rather just stay in the experience machine where your life is pretty good, or exit to where it’s going to be a real struggle because the real world’s a dumpster fire?”
Rob Wiblin: In that case, most people say they’ll stay in the experience machine. Perhaps unsurprisingly — that’s certainly my intuition as well. But if you value reality somehow more, then at least if it was a close call, then you might want to exit. And so this suggests that maybe at least one aspect of the reason that we don’t want to get in the machine is just that we prefer to stay where we are. Which is a very safe intuition, a very natural intuition for people to have.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But also, I think there’s something psychologically useful about that bias towards the status quo. Because if we’re looking at the experience machine case — all of these worries we might have about, “Is it really going to be good in the experience machine?” and all of this stuff — in the case where we’re already in it, we know. We have at least so many years of experience in it, and we’re like, “Well actually, the experience machine is pretty good.”
Rob Wiblin: It’s worked out so far.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah, right. So we’re much less afraid of it. We’re much more afraid of the real world, because we don’t have any idea what that’s actually going to be like. I mean, we know it’s going to be worse, according to Morpheus. Some people say it’s just a status quo bias, almost like they’re saying it’s irrational. I don’t necessarily think that a bias towards the status quo is irrational. So I just wanted to make that clear.
Rob Wiblin: No, not at all. Definitely, definitely. I’ll link to a page that describes a series of these surveys that have been done with ever slightly tinkering with the setup. I think one that’s particularly interesting is a case where someone’s asked to decide for another person, who has spent half of their life in an experience machine and half of their life out of an experience machine, and they enjoyed their life much more in the experience machine. In that case, a majority, although not an overwhelming majority, say that it’s fine to keep the other person in the experience machine, which is interesting.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah.
Robot spouses [01:22:29]
Rob Wiblin: Here’s another case from a listener, which I find definitely challenges my hedonistic intuitions. They say: “Most people would not wish to swap spouses or kids with a stranger, even if they knew this would have no effect on how happy each person was. Even more dramatically, suppose that one spouse was long ago kidnapped and secretly replaced by a cleverly disguised robot. The real person is then set up in a duplicate word with a cleverly disguised robotic copy of you, and so on. This is clearly a terrible outcome from my perspective, but all the instrumental benefits remain as before. Each robo-spouse provides the human partner with happiness and promotes their moral flourishing. What’s missing is the genuine personal connection. Since the loss of it makes no instrumental difference, the value here must be intrinsic.” I guess this is a remix of objections we’ve considered before. But yeah, what’s your reaction to that?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Well, first of all, I’m not sure that I share their intuition that this is an obviously terrible thing. It sounds like maybe you do. You feel a bit more worried about this.
Rob Wiblin: Well, terrible is a strong word, but it doesn’t sound great.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. Given that pleasure and pain are going to be the same in both of the cases, maybe I would choose to have my actual spouse still there, not now a robot. But again, I’m not sure that that’s not just my preference. If I go through the epistemological questions again, and I say, “Well, it’s not bad for anybody. Where is this badness coming from in this situation?” Yeah, I don’t like that idea, and it makes complete sense why I wouldn’t like the idea. But if I never find out and life is just the same for both of us as it would be otherwise… I don’t know.
Rob Wiblin: Don’t quite feel the same way, yeah.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I don’t quite feel the issue there.
Rob Wiblin: The punch.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I mean, maybe if we phrase it a different way. Because in other contexts, I am drawn to this idea that there’s something about relationships or about love, this ability to care for someone who is not yourself. That there’s something deeply good about that in more than an instrumental way.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: One of the things you said you wanted to ask me about today is what do I think is the most likely problem with this view, or the best objection? I think for myself, it’s that. I feel this strong draw to this idea that somehow truly caring for another person has a value that isn’t reducible to just the pleasure that I bring them or the pleasure that it brings me to care for them. That there’s something else deeply valuable about that.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: The epistemological questions, the metaethical questions, lead me to think that that maybe is a mistaken intuition — that that’s just my strong preference. As a human being, we’re such social creatures. Of course, we can’t get away from this idea that that’s important, love and relationships. If I have any doubt, that’s where it is.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I think it’s really important to ask these epistemological questions and these metaphysical questions — but at the same time, we do have to recognise our limitations in understanding the world. Just because I can’t conceive of a way in which those things could be intrinsically valuable, and somehow I’m responding to actual value in desiring them, doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be possible. Maybe if we were much smarter or we were able to experience the world in a more holistic way, instead of being isolated in our own little conscious minds, maybe it would make sense to us.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. That’s a very interesting point. I suppose within your framework, if you were a robot that could think, but couldn’t experience positive and negative qualia, then you could just never learn that goodness existed. You might just be completely confused and baffled by the concept. I suppose it’s possible that there are other things that have intrinsic value that we just can’t find out about, because we can’t experience it. Or that we are not them and there’s no way for us to learn, which is an interesting issue.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. If I have a doubt about the view, it’s there.
Rob Wiblin: Something like that, yeah.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: It’s important to allow ourselves to feel that cognitive dissonance: to hold competing views and to feel pulled in different directions. We want to try to be coherent, but I don’t think we should be coherent to the degree that we discard things that could be valuable pieces of evidence.
Most common misunderstanding of Sharon’s view [01:27:10]
Rob Wiblin: OK, another flavour of counterargument runs along the lines that your whole theory is misinterpreting in some way what we learn from our own subjective experiences. This kind of argument can take various different forms. It’s quite hard to talk about, because we just don’t have very good language here, but here’s a way that two different listeners put it.
Rob Wiblin: One was: “I feel like the more natural picture of how pleasure involves the experience of value is that pleasure involves the representation of value, which would leave open whether or not that value is actually instantiated or not.”
Rob Wiblin: Another listener wrote: “How does she respond to evolutionary debunking? Isn’t pain precisely a negative judgement about something, programmed into us by evolution? If pain is a negative judgement instilled in us by evolution, then it isn’t objectively bad — by her own definition of objectivity as ‘judgement-independence.'”
Rob Wiblin: What would you say to people like that?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Well, I think, first of all, that it’s the most common misunderstanding of what I’m saying. Not that they’re misunderstanding it; that’s not what I’m saying. But it’s really hard for people to understand, first of all, that I’m saying pleasure and pain are basically nonrepresentational — so at least they’ve understood that; they know what I’m saying.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So then, why should we think that there is some part of pleasure or pain that is nonrepresentational? That isn’t just projecting the value onto other things? Part of the reason that I think that there’s something nonrepresentational here is that there do seem to be a lot of states where we can experience pleasure or pain, and it doesn’t seem to be about anything else. You could just be euphoric, right? Especially in these cases where neuroscientists stimulate parts of the brain — they can create these feelings of just pleasantness. It’s not about anything, they just feel good. You can have these states of dis-ease. Or even, again, in one of these neuroscientific cases, I forget where it was, but stimulation in a certain part of the brain would create this feeling of dread, but without any object. It was just this terrible feeling.
Rob Wiblin: People get that from night terrors. I don’t think it’s a normal nightmare. It’s a specific condition that people have, where they wake up just feeling this intense sense of dread, which I had as a kid. It’s not about anything. It’s in fact very confusing, because you just feel dread for no reason, about nothing, which is interesting. But sorry, go on.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. I think that’s one piece of evidence. We’re not always connecting it with an object. But also, when we think about how the process of representation works, how would a brain state represent to you the goodness or badness of something else? There are lots of different theories, and there are different ways that you could go about it. But it seems to me, based on the way that our minds represent to us other qualities out there in the world… I’m just thinking about colours in the world: so some sort of reflectance property of these surfaces gets represented in our mind by a colour qualia that we experience.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Now, it’s true that it is a representation, but there’s also the qualia itself, which you can investigate, the internal quality of what it is. Just the experiential quality of the redness. This is what philosophers of mind have been taking really seriously for the first time in a long time: this idea that there’s something that it’s like to have these experiences. That it’s not about how we’re representing external objects, but it’s something that it’s like to have the representation.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Some people have this idea of, “Well, if it’s a representation, then it doesn’t have any internal character,” but I think the internal character is what allows it to represent something outside of itself as well. It makes a lot of sense that we would represent the instrumental goodness or badness of something else by something that is intrinsically good or bad — and for that reason, we’re directly motivated to want to produce or to avoid.
Rob Wiblin: When I try to introspect about this — and I don’t find it easy — I focus on a positive sensation that I have, something that feels good. I don’t feel like I’m representing something, and then evaluating, “Is it good?” It feels like I am the sensation and it is good. At least that’s how it feels for me, or at least that’s how I conceptualise what’s going on in my mind. But for people who introspect and don’t feel that way, who think that they are instead evaluating the proposition that a representation of something is good, I’m not sure how to argue with that. I’m not sure where that debate goes.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I wonder if anybody besides a philosopher has this “intuition.” Because it seems to me it’s very theory-laden to say, “Well, it’s a representation. It must be representational.”
Rob Wiblin: “We’ve added this concept of representation.”
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Because one of the quotes that you gave was something like, “The best way to think about it, or the best theory that we have, is to think of it as representational.” I just don’t think that that’s right. I don’t think that that’s true to the actual experience. Yeah, it does some representational work, but we also feel like it’s bad to constantly be around things that we’re representing to ourselves as bad. Just feeling those representations all the time is something that should be avoided, unless it’s instrumentally useful in some way.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I’m not sure exactly, what’s the dialectic? What’s the back and forth about this topic of representation versus direct acquaintance? One of the smartest philosophers I know takes this view that it actually is representation and judgement in a way that’s not informative in some special way. I’ll see if I can find the best piece that I can defending that view. Because definitely it seems plausible, because it is so hard to tease apart all of the things that are going on through our subjective experience. It’s definitely a line of argument that troubles me.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: No, it is. I think it’s definitely something that people should be working on, on both sides of the question, to really understand the processes of representation. How does this happen in the brain? And then, do they have these objective qualities as well, or as a necessary part of what’s going on?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I’ve been using this language that “I am the pleasure” or “I am the suffering.” I think you don’t use that kind of language. Is there a reason for that?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I guess I didn’t see any particular need to. I feel, in some ways, it invites people to misunderstand what you’re saying, because, “Well, I’m not just that — I’m all of these other things as well.” But I do think that it’s true that those experiences are constituting part of who we are, so they are part of our existence. If we think of ourselves as these conscious beings, as our consciousness being who we are, then yeah, they’re part of us when we’re experiencing them.
Rob Wiblin: If listeners wanted to go away, and hear more objections or just a different take on metaethics than the one that you’re offering, what’s something they could potentially read?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So the book that I was reading, when I saw the need to develop this view, would definitely provide a different perspective. That was Allan Gibbard’s book, Thinking How To Live, which I read as part of Sharon Street’s metaethics course at NYU. Gibbard is an expressivist…
Rob Wiblin: What does that mean?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So his idea is that what we’re doing when we’re talking about morality is we’re expressing our intentions to make certain plans. We’re expressing our plans to do certain things in the future, or our intentions to make certain plans in counterfactual situations. He motivated his project by saying, “This is just what our concept of goodness is: it’s just this planning to do something.”
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I don’t know if he says this specifically, but there are plenty of anti-realists who say things like this, who say that there’s no deeper kind of way that things could matter, except that we desire them or that we seek them out, and we plan to bring them about. And that just struck me as fundamentally wrong, that we do have a much deeper concept of something being good than just it being something that we seek or desire. We have these experiences of pleasure and pain, which would seem to justify our desires.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So when you experience pleasure, if you desire the thing that caused the pleasure ahead of time, then you say, “Oh, well, you know, I was right to desire this, it really is as good as I thought it would be.” But if instead something we thought was going to be good — that we were really looking forward to, and you know, making sure it would happen — if it brings us a lot of suffering, we’re like, “Oh, I was wrong to think that that thing was good.” We measure the goodness and badness of things against this experience that we have that seems to justify desires. So that’s where the idea came from. But if you want to hear the opposite point of view, that’s one place that you can go for it. But there’s a lot of different kinds of anti-realism out there.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Are there any other classic texts expounding anti-realism that you might learn if you did a grad philosophy course?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: One of the books that we used in that same course was called Moral Discourse and Practice. These days there’s all sorts of metaethical collections. But I think that book, which was written by Darwall, Railton, and Gibbard himself even helped to put that book together, I think gives a really good overview of different realist and anti-realist perspectives and the different metaphysical, epistemological, conceptual questions there are. And there may be better collections that are more recent, but I’ve been out of philosophy for the last 12 years, so I don’t have the most up-to-date literature to recommend to you.
Rob Wiblin: I might ask around for some other recommendations and we’ll stick up links to some of the best summaries in the show notes.
How might a hedonist actually live [01:37:46]
Rob Wiblin: Let’s move on and talk about the sections of your book called “The Practice of Utilitarianism” and “The Practice of Hedonism,” where you think about what would this imply in real life, in actual situations? How might hedonists live and how might they think?
Rob Wiblin: Now, I think there’s maybe two reasons that this matters. One is that, as you’ll explain, there’s all of these practical considerations that cause the recommendations of hedonistic utilitarianism to converge on common-sense behaviours and the recommendations of many other moral systems to a degree that maybe is underappreciated. So, in fact, inasmuch as people say hedonism can’t be correct because it gives these absurd recommendations, in many cases that’s actually mistaken.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Or moral realism can’t be true. If this is the only way to be a moral realist, then we should just get rid of it, because hedonism’s obviously bunk.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So that’s one important thing. And the other one is just, well, it’d be nice to know what potentially matters, and what kind of recommendations might come out of this.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right. Exactly. What should we do?
Rob Wiblin: It’s kind of the whole thing, yeah. OK, so in the book, you list three key practical instrumental considerations that appear in almost all actual situations in which we find ourselves, that potentially can shift, to a great extent, what hedonism would recommend. The three that you single out are uncertainty, the need for coordination, and motivational limitations — all of which we’ve briefly mentioned before.
Rob Wiblin: In brief, why is accounting for uncertainty a big deal for hedonism in real-world situations?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I think it’s actually a big deal for any consequentialist views. Let’s be clear about that upfront. It’s not particularly hedonism; it’s any consequentialism, even if you have a very different idea of what welfare is.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But the issue is that we are trying to make decisions about what’s going to happen in the future. And obviously the future isn’t here yet, so we’re having to make our best possible predictions about this, and so we’re going to have to base that on our past experience. Now, in the past, nothing has happened that is exactly like what’s going to happen in the future. So we have to try to look for similarities between the past and the future and say, “Actions of this particular type in the past generally were disutilitous, so they’re probably going to be disutilitous in the future,” and so on.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Now, where the uncertainty thing comes in is that we don’t have all of the possible information in the world. This is going back to the experience machine thing. We’re not omniscient about the world. We’re in a very limited situation, which means that we have to actually collect information to make our decisions. But of course collecting information has a cost. So we need to know, “How much information should I collect to make any particular decision?” There’s going to be a certain point at which more information is more costly than it’s probably going to be worth, so we’re always going to be working with partial information.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Given that partial information, what sort of decision should we make? Well, we’ve got to examine these different kinds of acts, like we said. But how generally or narrowly should we specify the kinds of acts that we’re investigating the utility of? The more generally we specify them, the more relevant information we’re going to have. Because the more past actions, the more examples of that action in the past we’ll be able to look at. But some of them are probably going to be less relevant to this case. So there’s another part: we want to more narrowly specify the case, because we want to eliminate anything that’s irrelevant to the way that this future action is going to turn out.
Rob Wiblin: So this is, I think, called the reference class problem. Where you can have a small sample of cases that are very similar to the one that you’re considering, and so seem especially relevant, or you can have a very large sample of cases, many of which are not super similar to the case that you’re considering.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. When you have a small sample, they’re really similar. But because you have a small sample, something random could completely disrupt your calculations or your predictions. So you want to balance these two things.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Now, some interesting research has been done by a lot of different people, obviously in decision theory and psychology and elsewhere. But some of it was put together by Gerd Gigerenzer. He’s written several books on this, but the one that I talk about in The Feeling of Value is his book Gut Feelings, which is just very interesting.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: He says that the research shows that, generally in the situations that we actually experience, the best thing to do is make a decision based on the one factor that is the most correlated with the result that you’re trying to achieve. So don’t try to take into account three or four or five different factors — it doesn’t actually make your prediction more accurate. Sticking with the one most correlated factor will actually provide you with the best predictions.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So why this is interesting is that one of the objections that a lot of people bring to consequentialism in general — and to utilitarianism and hedonistic utilitarianism in particular — is to say that they don’t take into account certain duties we have, or certain classes of action that are just always wrong. It’s just always wrong to murder an innocent person, or it’s wrong to tell lies. We have these certain classes of actions that we just shouldn’t perform, or only in a very small number of cases. And what I’m trying to show here is that when you actually look at how to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty, what people are saying is you should make your decisions based on a very small number of factors.
Rob Wiblin: Rules of thumb.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah, these very simple rules of thumb. So when you look in the world, if you look at murders: yeah, they generally have really bad outcomes. So unless in your particular case you have so much evidence to show you that the things that have made murders bad in the past are not going to be applicable here, unless the positive value of it is just astronomical, you should not murder someone. And that’s the rule of thumb that you should go by. So I think there is a parallel between the practice of utilitarianism and these deontological duty-based conceptions of ethics.
Rob Wiblin: I see. So basically what you’re saying is that one thing that you can in general throw at consequentialism is to say, “It’s impossible to do what you are asking. You’re saying that every time I make a decision, I should stop and think about all of the consequences of my action for all time, and then try to estimate how all of the goodness and all of the badness that will result and net it out.”
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. That’s a good way not to produce good consequences: to spend all your time worrying about the consequences.
Rob Wiblin: Exactly. And the response is that humans are exceedingly finite creatures, relative to the size of the universe and the potential consequences of our actions. And the best decision procedure for a consequentialist to follow in practice as a person is to simplify the decision massively, and overwhelmingly follow rules of good conduct — trying to be a virtuous person because it’s been demonstrated that cultivating these virtues in general is good.
Rob Wiblin: And sure, in any particular case, it might not be so, but it would take so much effort to figure out which ones they were, even if you were smart enough to do so, that it wouldn’t be worth the cost. So this is one way that utilitarianism in practice just comes to resemble what everything else recommends anyway — like don’t murder, don’t steal — except in exceptional, truly bizarre situations.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: It does. And I do want to emphasise that it’s not that we shouldn’t do more research on the value of different kinds of actions, because absolutely we should. And as a culture, as a whole, I think it pays to actually look at the effects that our actions have on other people. With the abortion debate that’s raging in the United States right now, I think it pays to actually look at what the consequences are going to be of the kinds of legislation that are being made. It’s not that we’ll go with whatever our intuitive feeling is about our duties. No. But certainly in each individual case, you have to go with what the already established wisdom is about these things. And then hopefully, over time, our culture will continue to develop better and better wisdom.
Rob Wiblin: This is a slight aside, but consequentialism also helps to ground where these rules or virtues come from. Because in many of the other theories you have this mystery of, “We think it’s bad to steal, but how would we know that?” and “We think it’s good to cultivate kindness, but what makes that true? And how would we know?” Whereas if you’re saying, “These are practical implications of the goal of improving the consequences of our actions,” then it’s very clear where those rules of conduct and those virtues that we want to cultivate are originating from.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right. And it helps, too, when those duties or values conflict with each other, which they often do. Should you save a life or should you tell the truth? Well, how could we figure that out unless we think about what the consequences are going to be?
Rob Wiblin: Right. Moving on to the second one, what’s the importance of considering the need for coordination?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: This piggybacks on the uncertainty question, because coordination is important because we’re trying to figure out what the consequences of our actions are going to be. A lot of times, this depends on what actions other people are going to take. So unless we know what choices they’re going to make, we don’t know what is the most utilitous thing for us to do. So it’s not only helpful to have rules of thumb for our own individual cases, but it’s helpful for us to follow general rules in acting, because it makes our behaviour more predictable to other people.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Now, it’s not always important that our behaviour be predictable to other people. When we’re just doing things that really only affect ourselves, we don’t really need any coordination between people, that doesn’t matter so much. But when we are acting in the public sphere, when we’re thinking about whether to tell the truth about something in a public way, about what’s happening — something political or something moral, that’s going to have effects on a lot of other people — I think we need to be able to trust that other people are generally going to tell the truth. Our society is going to function much better, and we’re going to be much better at promoting pleasure, if we can generally trust that other people are doing their best to represent the world correctly.
Rob Wiblin: And then the third one: what’s the importance of motivational limitations in applied hedonistic utilitarianism?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Here the idea is kind of related to perspectival bias. We have motivational biases: we’re most motivated by our own pleasure and pain and that of people that we care about that are in our emotional circle with us. And we can try to stretch ourselves and make ourselves care about other people more — and certainly most of us care about other people to some degree — but we still seem to have just this innate motivation to care about ourselves. We’re just more motivated. Even if we recognise that that’s not a great way to be, that’s just how we are.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So it’s really useful when we’re organising society to have people’s actions have the most effect on themselves and the people that are close to them. Because those are the cases where their actions are going to be most likely to line up with the actual utility of what’s going on. It’s not great to have your actions controlling the lives of a bunch of people that you don’t really know or care about. Not going to produce much utility.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But also it’s important that we have a society where people can expect that if they pursue certain personal projects for themselves, that other people aren’t going to interfere. And this is also connected to the coordination problem: we have to have some sort of way to predict that the actions that we take now are going to lead to certain consequences for the people that we care about in the future.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: If we had a world that was full of utilitarian busybodies, who were constantly going around to other people’s houses and making sure that they’re doing the most utilitous thing, or interrupting what they think is the most utilitous for something else to happen, then I think over time, this ends up diminishing the motivation that any of us have to work on our particular projects, because we can’t know whether they’re actually going to bear fruit. Other people might decide that that’s not a great project and take it away.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So we need to have spheres of some level of autonomy. I think it’s really important that we have it for our own lives, and our own bodies, but maybe for some measure of personal property as well. That when one person is taking care of this certain piece of land, say, and it’s going to be their responsibility and they’re going to benefit from it or experience the negative consequences if they don’t take care of it, then people are much more likely to take care of land than if it’s just a free for all.
Rob Wiblin: Totally. Yeah.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I think that that’s a basis for some measure of rights: rights to life, and to your body, and rights to some degree of property.
Rob Wiblin: I guess that’s one reason why so many utilitarians lean towards liberalism as a way of organising society. Communist societies move just partially in the direction of people being able to meddle in one another’s lives. So in our society, we do meddle in one another’s lives through the legal system, through politics and government, a bunch. Communist societies go a bit further — certainly not all the way — and it produces all kinds of maladies and problems.
Rob Wiblin: Well, the issue with communism is what I think economists call the socialist knowledge problem, which is that people end up meddling in situations that they don’t understand. And I think it is interesting that, for practical reasons, even if we were all totally committed to hedonistic utilitarianism, we would think it was good that we should all act as if we cared more about our own wellbeing than about the wellbeing of others. Because nobody is in a better position to help us than us, because we know our preferences better than anyone else possibly can.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yes. The Ayn Rand. Yeah.
Rob Wiblin: Well, so, not actually.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: No. She’s the most extreme version of that, but yeah.
Rob Wiblin: But I think we see this when a friend is struggling, and maybe being a bit self-destructive, and we try to help them. We just realise how hard it can be to help someone else when you are not them. That there’s many actions that people can take to help themselves that it’s extremely hard for anyone else to substitute. Just because we have so much more knowledge about our own circumstances, and we are the people who decide our own movements. That gives us a strong reason to really focus on the consequences of our actions for ourselves.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. The knowledge question and the motivation question, both. Absolutely.
Rob Wiblin: They’re related. Yeah.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So all of these things — the uncertainty and the motivational limitations and coordination — they’re all in there together. But getting back to what you’re talking about, liberalism and communism, I think these are questions that we’re constantly trying to decide. Where should we fall on the spectrum? Exactly what kind of rights should we have? And I think utilitarianism, and hedonistic utilitarianism, actually gives us a framework for answering these questions. It lets us know what we should be investigating in order to decide.
Rob Wiblin: And how to strike the right balance between the different competing considerations.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. Because it’s not just that rights somehow fell out of the sky, but that they’re really, really useful. And how can we make them work in the best way possible?
The organ transplant case [01:53:34]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. OK, let’s talk about this beautiful example in the book that you go through in extensive detail, and which I found really entertaining to read. It goes through this thought experiment that is often thrown in the face of consequentialism as a potential counterexample to consequentialist recommendations. This is the idea that: Imagine that you have one healthy person and five sick people, each of whom need a different organ in order to survive. And it seems like you could, if you wanted to — you’re a surgeon, presumably, in this case — secretly kill the healthy person and then take the different organs and save the lives of the five.
Rob Wiblin: So the argument goes: Wouldn’t utilitarianism — potentially both hedonistic and otherwise — recommend doing this? And also, isn’t this repugnant? Now, you argue, for all kinds of different reasons, that in fact it’s very unclear that utilitarianism would recommend saying yes to that scenario. Do you want to explain some of the reasons?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. They’re sort of more concrete examples of the three reasons that we’ve talked about. So we’ve talked about, why are rights important? Why is it important that people have a right to their own body, and that when they’re going to the hospital, they’re not going to be afraid that somebody’s going to cut them up to save five other people? This is actually the last thing that I talk about in the book, but we’ll start there. What would happen in society in general, if we did make this a general rule that this is how we operated?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: We were talking about communism, down to the point of sharing our bodies, right? I think it’s not going to take many years of a medical system where this is openly the way that we operate for people’s overall health to degrade dramatically. Because in this kind of system, you’re going to be rewarding people who don’t take care of their bodies, because they’re like, “Well, if I have a problem, if I have organ failure, then somebody else will provide the organ that I need.” And at the same time, you’re discouraging people from taking really good care of themselves, because that just makes them better candidates for giving their organs to other people. So everybody’s going to try to take the worst care possible of themselves, and everybody’s going to end up worse off in the end.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Surgeons are prowling the streets, looking for the people who are most ripped to harvest their very, very healthy organs, hypothetically.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So work on that beer belly.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So that’s a good reason not to do this openly. All right. But in the example that you’re talking about, we’re talking about doing this secretly. This question of, maybe if we do it secretly, it will be OK. So there’s still some other things that are important. First of all, we should talk about the drawbacks of secrecy itself. We talked about the importance of truth-telling.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But also, relatedly, if you’re doing something like this, like performing a surgical operation, and you’re trying to keep it hush-hush from all the other people in the hospital, you’re not going to be able to get advice from other people about whether this really is a good idea — in this particular case: whether this person really is a good candidate, or these people really are good candidates. You’re not going to have the benefit of their advice. And if anything goes wrong, you’re not going to be able to appeal to them for help, with the worry of being discovered. And just your ability to gain more information: you’re going to have a lot of uncertainty if you’re not able to ask for information from other people.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So that’s one thing. But then I also think we need to think about the concrete implications of these kinds of surgeries, or saying that this is the tradeoff that we ought to make. Why is it the best-case scenario that we take a healthy person and we give their organs to five people who have had some kind of organ failure? Aren’t there other, perhaps better ways to bring about more pleasure and pain overall?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: We don’t want to neglect some possibly superior alternatives. For instance, what if we wait for the next person to die, and maybe they’re not an organ donor, but we decide to take their organs anyway? Now, granted, maybe there are reasons that we shouldn’t do that either, but it does seem less bad than taking a living person and taking their organs. Maybe we should consider that alternative.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But also this idea that, in the practical situation, there are a lot of medical concerns that go into this question. Is it really going to be better to give these organs to five people who obviously have some kind of condition? At least with technology the way that it currently is, organ transplants aren’t 100% successful. A lot of times, people still have a lot of health issues afterward. Is their quality of life and the length of life that they have, is it really a 5:1 ratio? It probably is still a positive balance if we’re not thinking about the effects on society as a whole, but I don’t think it’s 5:1 as far as the benefits to the costs.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: These are all things that I think you would need to think through if you were actually going to carry this out. And again, if you’re being secret about it, you don’t have anybody else to talk to and be like, “Do you think this is really a good idea or not?”
Rob Wiblin: “Have I thought this through correctly?”
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right. Yeah. So I think there are lots of reasons to think that this is bad and that there are many better ways to approach the need for organs in people.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Yeah. I think another one that you haven’t gone through is what would happen if this plot is discovered, which is pretty likely.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah, eventually.
Rob Wiblin: And it’s very reasonable that people would have a concern intuitively that maybe if they tried to pull off a scheme like this, it could go awry and people might find out. And of course, this would lead to catastrophically bad consequences. We could go through a few of them.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Of course, there’s the immediate bad consequences to the person that actually did this: they’re probably going to spend the rest of their life in prison and all of this. But as for society as a whole, one of the things that we talked about earlier was the way that this is going to affect other people’s motivations to take care of themselves. Some people, who say that the utilitarian reasons not to perform this is because you’re worried about what the societal consequences are going to be of discovery, these people say it’s not really as strong as the utilitarian is making it out to be like. If one act of this is discovered, it’s not really going to change people’s behaviours in the future.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: And that’s probably true. It might have a small effect. Although a small effect spread over all of the hundreds of millions of people who are going to find out about this might be pretty big. But also, you have to consider the fact that, at some point, there may be a threshold effect: there may be a tipping point where enough of these things come to light that, suddenly, people just completely stop worrying about their own health.
Rob Wiblin: Or completely stop trusting the medical system.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Well, yes.
Rob Wiblin: Or fear that they’re going to be snatched off the street as they’re walking about.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right. Yes. Absolutely. So all of the other good that the medical system is doing, suddenly, it’s not able to do. We saw something similar to this during COVID, right? People were scared to come out and get medical treatment. And a lot of people suffered not from COVID itself, but from the fear of going out to the hospital.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think in the case where a single person contemplates doing this, this consideration is just so enormously decisive by itself, because the possibility of them being discovered is pretty high. And if they were discovered, this would be an international sensation, the discovery that a surgeon had done this. Hundreds of millions of people would find out. Many people would find it distressing in itself to learn about this. They would be less likely to go into a hospital. You would lose any capacity to do good in the rest of your life because you’re sent to prison.
Rob Wiblin: Then you can try to change the thought experiment to say you’re absolutely sure it will never be discovered. But again, all of our intuitions through life that you shouldn’t do horrific things in the expectation that people will never find out bleed over into our disgust reaction at the prospect of doing this.
Rob Wiblin: Anyway, I think basically the bottom line is that utilitarians often, in practice and in principle, do not recommend the things that are thrown in their face.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right.
Rob Wiblin: Now, let’s change the case a little bit, and let’s say that somehow, by killing an innocent person, you could save 100 innocent lives. I don’t know exactly what the case should be. And it’s not going to be a secret. People are going to find out that you did this. And indeed, you might be proud that you did it because you’re going to argue, “I had to kill this one person. It was the only way to save these other 100 people.”
Rob Wiblin: In that case, I can see the argument against it. I can also see the case in favour of it. We do face these conflicting intuitions. And I think most people might feel conflicted, but they might say that they would do it.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: It does seem like for anybody, there’s a certain point where if there’s enough people saved, then they’re OK with it.
Rob Wiblin: There’s got to be a level. Exactly. So then we’re just haggling on the level. And I think that that, again, can kind of be explained and made consistent with the fact that we’re doing this consequentialist calculation to some extent: trying to take into account how much this violates good norms of behaviour, trying to account for our potential bias in favour of the actions that feel good for us, trying to take into account how much this is going to screw up the coordination across society, and on and on and on.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right.
Rob Wiblin: Actually, I would say when you think about all of the different things that have to go into this cake, all of the different ingredients, our intuitions are actually remarkably in tune with what actually would be good from a consequentialist point of view in these instances. The tension is much less than might be initially supposed.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: It does seem so. I like that you say that it’s remarkable, because I think it is. It’s pretty amazing that we have come up with a system that does work as well as it does from a utilitarian standpoint, even though most of us are not consciously utilitarians. Or we wouldn’t use the label, but we do seem to ultimately make our decisions in that way.
Counterintuitive implications of hedonistic utilitarianism [02:03:40]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. OK, so let’s push on a little bit to maybe some cases where hedonistic utilitarianism could have implications that people might find reasonably counterintuitive that they don’t often consider.
Rob Wiblin: I think one that really stands out to me is: I didn’t know this, but apparently, people, when they lose the ability to feel pain in parts of their body, they stop taking care of those parts of their body. One thing is that they can’t tell when they’re hurting it, so the pain is useful as an information source. But it turns out that it’s also incredibly important as a motivation source, because even when you add prosthetics or medical devices that are there to indicate tissue damage, it turns out that people who can’t feel pain prefer to just turn off the buzzer that’s telling them that they’re damaging their body.
Rob Wiblin: I’m sure this doesn’t happen every time, but reasonably often enough they just decide to dismiss the notification to the point that they still hurt themselves. Then you can try to motivate people by having those prosthetics actually zap them on the skin on some other part where they can still feel sensation. Again, in that case, if they have the option to turn off the buzzer, they turn off the zapping reasonably often such that they still nonetheless hurt themselves. So the ability to feel physical pain is very important, it seems, as a motivation device.
Rob Wiblin: But couldn’t we create motivation in a different way? Couldn’t we try to change people, and potentially animals, such that when we’re not damaging ourselves, we feel just incredible bliss, we feel fantastically positive? And then as punishment and motivation and information, when we’re causing tissue damage, we simply feel less wonderful. We still feel good, so there’s no suffering involved. However, some of the bliss is withdrawn.
Rob Wiblin: Now, this would be seemingly good from a hedonistic utilitarian point of view, because we might still be informed and motivated to take good actions. But you could almost entirely get rid of suffering, and instead just have much higher levels of wellbeing at all points in time. What do you make of that if it was possible?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Well, I think it would be great if it was possible. Yeah, that would be the way to go. I have serious reservations about whether it is possible. I was thinking a lot about this, because you told me ahead of time that you wanted to talk about this. And I was trying to think about, why do we have this system where there’s actually negative value? That it’s not just not-great value, and a little more value, and the best value?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: And it seems to me that we need a state where, in the present, we’re feeling something that is actually negative — that would be better if it didn’t exist. Because that is more motivating for us to get rid of whatever the stimulus is that’s creating that pain than it is just to have the idea that, “If I did something else, I’d feel even more pleasure.” Because that is depending on you imagining something that doesn’t exist: this other state that would be better. Whereas when you’re experiencing the pain, it’s like, clearly, “I just want to get rid of this.”
Rob Wiblin: It does feel to me that if I was feeling really fantastic for some reason, and then I took some action that then made that be withdrawn, that I would be motivated, at least to some degree, to undo that and get back to feeling even better. But it is true, I suppose, that the absence of pleasure is less immediately grabbing. It doesn’t scream at your attention in the same way that physical pain does.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. And I wonder if there’s a connection with what we were talking about with the status quo bias. So if your current status is OK, then it’s less important to you to seek out how else it could be better. Whereas if your current status is not OK, then you’re definitely looking for ways to make this better.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. A good reason to think that you’re right is that evolution has designed us the way that it has. So evolution tried to design minds that are effective at survival and replication and so on. And it’s included suffering in that, rather than mere withdrawal of pleasure, even though presumably, evolution could have designed it this other way where it’s merely gradients of positivity.
Rob Wiblin: I suppose we might find that perhaps gradients of pleasure are less motivating, but maybe it’s sufficiently motivating to get us by. And we gain so much from the fact that we no longer have to suffer and that we feel great all the time that it would still be a net benefit, even if maybe we have to have a bit more conscientiousness and diligence towards paying attention to harmful things.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I think it’s worth looking into.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Well, maybe not now, but maybe in hundreds of years’ time.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Well, yeah. But as we get a better understanding of how our qualitative states are produced and how they motivate us and things, there’s no reason not to explore that. Absolutely.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. People think painkillers are useful now, when people experience pain and it’s not useful. So this seems kind of like a scaled-up version of that, or a much more extreme version.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. Whenever I think about taking painkillers — and granted, I don’t experience a lot of intense pain; I never get migraines or anything like that — but I do always have this utilitarian thing in my head that’s like, “But maybe it’s really important that I stay in contact with the state of my body that’s having this issue. If I take the painkiller, I won’t know whether things are better or they’re worse.” So I always have that conversation with myself.
Rob Wiblin: That concern. That’s interesting. Yeah, it makes sense. I guess the times that we take painkillers are when we’ve already responded to the problem as much as we think that we practically can. And then we’re just like, “OK, the pain is not helpful anymore.”
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Well, that’s when we should take them, but I’m not sure that everybody uses them that way.
Rob Wiblin: I suppose opiates, yeah.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. In the same way that people turn off the thing that’s supposed to alert them that they’re hurting their hand or something. It’s causing pain in them. But if they can just turn the pain off, obviously, they’re not concerned about the hurt to their hand.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. That’s really interesting.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So if we can disconnect our mental states from our body, we seem to bring ourselves to care less about our bodies.
Rob Wiblin: OK, here’s another potential wacky implication — especially once technology frees us from the constraints that we’re potentially used to and that our intuitions are designed around. It seems like at some point, we’ll be able to understand more about how the human brain works, and we’ll be able to study the circuits that seem to always be lighting up and associated with the experience of positive qualia. And then maybe at that point, we’ll figure out what information is being processed, what fundamentally is happening in the brain that is generating the positive qualia. So we figure out what happens in the brain that causes pleasure.
Rob Wiblin: Then we might think, could we design a machine that does that outside of the human brain? Could we find a synthetic way to generate what the human brain is doing when it experiences pleasure? In the same way that we’ve designed computers that do analytical tasks, that figure out what the human brain was doing when it recognised objects, or at least that they do some kind of simulacrum of what the human brain does. Then we’re off to the races. Then we can just potentially create limitless amounts of pleasure on computers, say. I suppose there’s going to be some epistemic questions about how will we ever know that we’ve managed to succeed with this. But how do you feel about that, in principle at least?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. We have to make sure that our computers can introspect and tell us how they’re feeling.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I think when you start thinking about what would we have to do to put that in place, we’re going to have to create the part of the machine that’s creating the pleasure. But then you’re also going to have to have some kind of system that’s monitoring that — that’s monitoring any outside threats to the future ability of this machine to continue producing this pleasure.
Rob Wiblin: That produces energy.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right. You’re going to have to feed it. Whatever wastes it produces, you’re going to have to get rid of those.
Rob Wiblin: It’s starting to sound like a person.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. A little bit. Maybe evolution already did this, and we’re one of the results of it. Because my initial intuition, when I think maybe the most moral thing or the best thing that we can do for the world is to create these machines that just experience pleasure 24/7, is that seems morally repugnant to me. But then when you think about what would that machine actually be like, the more that you make it actually able to function in the world, the more it starts to seem like something that we actually would care about.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But on the other hand, maybe that’s just wishful thinking. And maybe there are states of the world, including maximal pleasure states for the world, that would be good, but that we just don’t like. That we, as human beings, we’re going to look at that and we’re going to be like, “Ugh. If that’s what life’s about, I don’t care about this project anymore.”
Rob Wiblin: They don’t look nice to us.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right. We may not be able to appreciate that value, from “the point of view of the universe,” to use their title. So we may not be able to look at things from that point of view. We may never be able to have a strong, positive intuition that is equal to what that would actually be like.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Even now, when we’re talking about the pleasure enjoyed by people and other sentient beings all over the world, like the sheer numbers, we can’t represent to ourselves the actual value of those numbers. I mean, we can rationally make calculations about what outweighs what, but I don’t think our intuitions can even get close to understanding how much value there would actually be if everybody in the world was blissful all the time.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s interesting that you don’t find that intuitively appealing, because if I imagine such a world where we have figured out how to produce enormous amounts of pleasure synthetically, so to speak, then I think that I would just be so happy about that and so stoked to create more of this. And I would do it the same way that I achieve empathy for other people or for other animals: I imagine the best day, the best experience that I’ve ever had. They tell me, “This server farm is producing a million times as much pleasure as you’ve ever experienced,” and I’ll just be like, “Wow, that’s so good. That’s amazing. We’ve won.”
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. Maybe I’m just not making it concrete enough to myself, and so my difficulty empathising with computers is interfering there. Maybe I could get better at that.
Rob Wiblin: It is interesting that I think the intuition does change a lot, and it changes for me as well, if you think of just a server farm that’s just sitting there — and it just looks like a normal set of computers — versus a being that can communicate to you how it’s feeling, and indicate to you what’s happening internally and saying, “I am just feeling incredible. You cannot imagine the sense of enlightenment and brilliance of my life.” In that case, I don’t even really have to stretch to achieve empathy. I’d just be like, “Wow, this is fantastic. A person having an amazing, amazing life. A life better than I could ever possibly imagine. Isn’t that excellent?”
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. It’s all in the details of how you describe the thought experiment and how you represent it to yourself, I feel like.
Rob Wiblin: And that’s the problem with going with people’s evaluative judgements of situations rather than what we really know, which is that pleasure is good.
Rob Wiblin: OK, we’re out of time. But just as a final thing, I’d love to talk about what you’re working on next and what’s the next book.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Well, actually, it’s a great time to ask that question, because I just got a grant from the Future Fund, the effective altruist organisation — the Future Fund regranting programme, in particular — to work on a follow-on book to The Feeling of Value.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So going more deeply into both the theoretical and the practical aspects of this. But on the theoretical side, specifically integrating this metaethical view with what’s going on in philosophy of mind right now, and trying to understand the nature of qualia, how widely distributed are qualia in the world, what’s the relationship between qualitative states and causality/motivation.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: So I’m going to get to really dive into all of this, and look at a lot of the recent stuff that’s been going on in metaethics as well. Because there have been some interesting crossovers already happening between these areas, which really wasn’t happening the last time I did philosophy 12 years ago, so it’s so interesting to see how the field has been changing. And I’m really looking forward to seeing how all of these new methods and new concepts and ways of looking at these things can be applied to this view.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Fantastic. Regular listeners will know we have this epic five-hour-long interview with David Chalmers —
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. I’ve listened to part of that.
Rob Wiblin: Understandable. Yeah. Chalmers works through some of the many different theories that philosophers and scientists have come up with over the years for why on Earth does it feel like something to be a person. And what is the nature of consciousness? A question that remains very, very mysterious. One of the theories is called eliminative materialism, which is basically saying that you think you’re conscious, but you’re not really conscious. It’s an illusion. It’s kind of a mistake. There is no such thing. I think your theory of ethics here is in tension/conflict with that.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Absolutely. Let me just say, yeah. Yeah. But that’s also a crazy view, so.
Rob Wiblin: It is counterintuitive. Does your view go more easily or less easily with other theories of what consciousness is?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: It’s certainly compatible with various types of physicalism, as long as it’s a type of physicalism that acknowledges that there’s something that it’s like to be that physical thing, or that physical event, or that relation or whatever it is. So as long as you can have qualitative states, then I think that it’s compatible.
Rob Wiblin: OK, yeah. I guess this is one thing you’ll probably develop in the book a bunch and have a chance to think about more. It does seem like it’s compatible with, in fact, almost any theory of what consciousness is, as long as that theory includes there being some subjective experience, and that’s a real thing.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right. I think also that looking at pleasure and pain — and the roles that they play in our understanding of morality, but also in our motivation — I think it could be really useful in understanding what qualia are, and why they’re there to begin with. So I think it’s an important datum in philosophy of mind, these normative experiences.
How could we discover moral facts? [02:18:05]
Rob Wiblin: Totally. One actual final question now. Just to leave the audience with a kind of tantalising, I think it’s fair to say, kind of edgy idea in philosophy. So one of the central mysteries in moral philosophy has always been: How would we learn about the existence of moral facts? Because it seems like those facts wouldn’t be, philosophers say, “causally efficacious.” So how do we know that the Sun exists? Because the Sun has a causal effect on us via the light that travels and hits our eyes, and then the signals go into our brain. The Sun can causally affect us, and so we can observe it and tell that it’s there.
Rob Wiblin: But it seems like moral properties don’t have causal interactions with us, so it seems hard for us to discover them in the way that we discover physical things. And likewise with most ideas of good and bad, and valuable and disvaluable, and so on. But you maybe have a theory that value and moral facts, in fact, are causally efficacious in the world. Do you want to explain how that could possibly be true?
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Yeah. I think they’re causally efficacious because they are properties of our consciousness. And I think that our consciousness is causally efficacious. Now, not everybody thinks that. So in the versions of physicalism that are epiphenomenal — that say what it’s like to be something — the qualia are there, but they don’t really do any causal work. The world isn’t causally different because of them. They wouldn’t agree with this part of my view, but maybe they’re separable.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But I think that that’s a real problem for epiphenomenalists, not just about normative qualia but all qualia. If they think we have them but they don’t affect anything, then that’s including the fact that they don’t affect the way that we talk about them, right? So when I ask you, “Are you experiencing qualia? Is there anything that it’s like to be you, Rob?,” and you say yes, well, I can’t trust that, because there’s no causal relationship between what you say and what you’re feeling, according to epiphenomenalism.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I think it’s really important that when we are reflecting on our own qualitative states, that we do feel like the feeling that we have is affecting our response to somebody — that we wouldn’t make the same response to them if we were experiencing something different or nothing at all qualitatively. Maybe it’s an illusion. Maybe there’s a way that you could explain away that illusion. I think that it’s more possible that that illusion could be explained away than the illusion that mental states exist at all or phenomenal mental states exist at all.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: But I still think it’s really odd for any philosopher of mind — when they’re thinking about how they are in the world and their direct acquaintance with what it’s like to be this conscious creature — to just throw out this feeling that we have that our conscious states are causally efficacious. Maybe instead, we should try to take that seriously and see if there’s some kind of theory where this could actually be true — especially because we don’t understand what causality is. We just see that certain events happen together, but we don’t understand what it is that makes them happen. But maybe in our experience of conscious states, we’re actually getting an inside scoop on how causality happens in the world.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So just to flesh out the difference that it would make, I guess one model that is consistent with your moral realism is to say that when something bad happens to people, it feels bad. It produces this property of ought-not-to-be-ness. And also, they act to evade that sensation, but for a different reason.
Rob Wiblin: But on this model — where, in fact, the properties of the sensation itself are causally efficacious — you would say they experience a sensation, it has these negative qualia, and that’s what causes the being to act to avoid it. It’s the nature of the feeling that is driving the behaviour in a way that couldn’t be otherwise. Which I find just super tantalising. I suspect that while this is super cool, it might not really work out. I can see some problems with it. But it’s a super tantalising idea.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Right. Yeah. It’s something that should at least be explored in more depth. And that’s part of what I want to do in this book, at least go a little bit farther than some other people have. Because people have put forward views like this. Alfred North Whitehead is probably the most famous with his whole process philosophy — this idea that qualia are causally efficacious. And with the return to panpsychism these days, and philosophy of mind, it’s becoming much more popular, maybe people are going to be more interested in what Whitehead had to say about that.
Rob Wiblin: Well, I can’t wait to read the book. My guest today has been Sharon Hewitt Rawlette. Thanks so much for coming on The 80,000 Hours Podcast, Sharon.
Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: Thank you. Great talking to you, Rob.
Rob’s outro [02:23:02]
Rob Wiblin: First today, I want to let you know that we’ve got two new interviews on our other show, 80k After Hours, which you might want to check out. They’re both experiments with what happens when I interview someone for an hour without much preparation, the episodes being Andrés Jiménez Zorrilla on the Shrimp Welfare Project and Kuhan Jeyapragasan on effective altruism university groups.
And a second notification is that we’re looking for another audio editor to join our podcast team.
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All right, The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering and technical editing for this episode by Ryan Kessler.
Full transcripts and an extensive collection of links to learn more are available on our site and put together by Katy Moore.
Thanks for joining, talk to you again soon.