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I actually think that if we didn’t ever experience pleasure or pain, or any of these positive or negative qualitative states, that we wouldn’t actually have the concept of intrinsic goodness that we do in fact have and that we do use when we’re making moral decisions.

Sharon Hewitt Rawlette

What in the world is intrinsically good — good in itself even if it has no other effects? Over the millennia, people have offered many answers: joy, justice, equality, accomplishment, loving god, wisdom, and plenty more.

The question is a classic that makes for great dorm-room philosophy discussion. But it’s hardly just of academic interest. The issue of what (if anything) is intrinsically valuable bears on every action we take, whether we’re looking to improve our own lives, or to help others. The wrong answer might lead us to the wrong project and render our efforts to improve the world entirely ineffective.

Today’s guest, Sharon Hewitt Rawlette — philosopher and author of The Feeling of Value: Moral Realism Grounded in Phenomenal Consciousness — wants to resuscitate an answer to this question that is as old as philosophy itself.

That idea, in a nutshell, is that there is only one thing of true intrinsic value: positive feelings and sensations. And similarly, there is only one thing that is intrinsically of negative value: suffering, pain, and other unpleasant sensations.

Lots of other things are valuable too: friendship, fairness, loyalty, integrity, wealth, patience, houses, and so on. But they are only instrumentally valuable — that is to say, they’re valuable as means to the end of ensuring that all conscious beings experience more pleasure and other positive sensations, and less suffering.

As Sharon notes, from Athens in 400 BC to Britain in 1850, the idea that only subjective experiences can be good or bad in themselves — a position known as ‘philosophical hedonism’ — has been one of the most enduringly popular ideas in ethics.

And few will be taken aback by the notion that, all else equal, more pleasure is good and less suffering is bad. But can they really be the only intrinsically valuable things?

Over the 20th century, philosophical hedonism became increasingly controversial in the face of some seemingly very counterintuitive implications. For this reason the famous philosopher of mind Thomas Nagel called The Feeling of Value “a radical and important philosophical contribution.”

So what convinces Sharon that philosophical hedonism deserves another go?

Stepping back for a moment, any answer to the question “What has intrinsic value?” faces a serious challenge: “How do we know?” It’s far from clear how something having intrinsic value can cause us to believe that it has intrinsic value. And if there’s no causal or rational connection between something being valuable and our believing that it has value, we could only get the right answer by some extraordinary coincidence. You may feel it’s intrinsically valuable to treat people fairly, but maybe there’s just no reason to trust that intuition.

Since the 1700s, many philosophers working on so-called ‘metaethics’ — that is, the study of what ethical claims are and how we could know if they’re true — have despaired of us ever making sense of or identifying the location of ‘objective’ or ‘intrinsic’ value. They conclude that when we say things are ‘good,’ we aren’t really saying anything about their nature, but rather just expressing our own attitudes, or intentions, or something else.

Sharon disagrees. She says the answer to all this has been right under our nose all along.

We have a concept of value because of our experiences of positive sensations — sensations that immediately indicate to us that they are valuable and that if someone could create more of them, they ought to do so. Similarly, we have a concept of badness because of our experience of suffering — sensations that scream to us that if suffering were all there were, it would be a bad thing.

How do we know that pleasure is valuable, and that suffering is the opposite of valuable? Directly!

While I might be mistaken that a painting I’m looking at is in real life as it appears to me, I can’t be mistaken about the nature of my perception of it. If it looks red to me, it may or may not be red, but it’s definitely the case that I am perceiving redness. Similarly, while I might be mistaken that a painting is intrinsically valuable, I can’t be mistaken about the pleasurable sensations I’m feeling when I look at it, and the fact that among other qualities those sensations have the property of goodness.

While intuitive on some level, this arguably implies some very strange things. Most famously, the philosopher Robert Nozick challenged it with the idea of an ‘experience machine’: if you could enter into a simulated world and enjoy a life far more pleasurable than the one you experience now, should you do so, even if it would mean none of your accomplishments or relationships would be ‘real’? Nozick and many of his colleagues thought not.

The idea has also been challenged for failing to value human freedom and autonomy for its own sake. Would it really be OK to kill one person to use their organs to save the lives of five others, if doing so would generate more pleasure and less suffering? Few believe so.

In today’s interview, Sharon explains the case for a theory of value grounded in subjective experiences, and why she believes these counterarguments are misguided. A philosophical hedonist shouldn’t get in an experience machine, nor override an individual’s autonomy, except in situations so different from the classic thought experiments that it no longer seems strange they would do so.

Host Rob Wiblin and Sharon cover all that, as well as:

  • The essential need to disentangle intrinsic, instrumental, and other sorts of value
  • Why Sharon’s arguments lead to hedonistic utilitarianism rather than hedonistic egoism (in which we only care about our own feelings)
  • How do people react to the ‘experience machine’ thought experiment when surveyed?
  • Why hedonism recommends often thinking and acting as though it were false
  • Whether it’s crazy to think that relationships are only useful because of their effects on our subjective experiences
  • Whether it will ever be possible to eliminate pain, and whether doing so would be desirable
  • If we didn’t have positive or negative experiences, whether that would cause us to simply never talk about goodness and badness
  • Whether the plausibility of hedonism is affected by our theory of mind
  • And plenty more

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type ‘80,000 Hours’ into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ryan Kessler
Transcriptions: Katy Moore


Sharon's theory of moral realism

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.

Single axis of value

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.

Sharon's thoughts on anti-realism

Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: 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.

Intrinsic value vs instrumental value

Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: 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.

Robot spouses

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.

Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: I don’t quite feel the issue there. 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.

Machines that just experience pleasure 24/7

Sharon Hewitt Rawlette: 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.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

Sharon’s work:

Utilitarianism, hedonism, philosophy of mind, and decision-making:

Personal identity:

Other 80,000 Hours Podcast episodes:

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About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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