On this episode of the Utilitarian Podcast I talk with Sharon Hewitt Rawlette about the metaethical thesis of her book The Feeling of Value, which centers around normative qualia. We touch upon perspectival bias, pain and pleasure, how to construct a robust moral realism, the is-ought distinction, the open question argument, evolutionary debunking arguments, the experience machine, the repugnant conclusion, the best argument against utilitarianism and whether we have made moral progress all things considered.

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Thank you for this, Gus and Sharon.

This interview presented one of the most compelling cases for a hedonistic theory of value that I've heard, shifting my credence from “quite low” to “hmm, ok, maaaaybe”.

Some bits that stood out:

  1. Pluralistic conception of positive and negative experiences, i.e. experiences differ in intensity but also in character (so we can recognise fundamental differences between bodily pleasure, love, laughter, understanding, etc).

  2. Hedonism can solve the epistemic problem that haunts moral realism, by saying that we directly experience value and disvalue as a phenomenal quality.

  3. We attribute intrinsic value to non-experiential states of affairs because we recognise them as direct or indirect causes of experiential value. This is a cognitive shortcut, it works pretty well.

  4. Experience of pleasure from e.g. torture is pro tanto good, but it is not all things considered good because of the instrumental effects (i.e. lots of disvalue).

  5. Best argument against hedonistic utilitarianism is that it is too abstract. It's not actually helpful for people to think in these terms. We need nearly-absolute respect for rights, projecting intrinsic value into the world works well for us.

  6. Strong Realism vs anti-realism (as in: total mind-independence vs mind-dependence) matters: only the strong realist can deeply care about self-interested perspectival bias, e.g. can think of their deepest values as perhaps radically wrong, can worry that an AGI with idealised human values might still be an existential catastrophe.

For some reason, it hadn't occurred to me that a hedonist could do (1). It might be that I think of hedonists as aiming for a very tidy theory, and adding pluralism back in messes that up a bit (e.g. comparability and aggregation remain hard).

Anyway... "pluralistic hedonism" seems quite promising to me!

For readers: her PhD was supervised by Thomas Nagel and she thanks Parfit for input. I'm looking forward to reading it: - Normative qualia and a robust moral realism.pdf

FYI, Sharon is now working on an audiobook of The Feeling of Value. It should be published in a month or two.

Glad you found it useful Peter  

I've been very influenced by Hewitt's meta-ethics myself, and I highly recommend reading her PhD. You can also get it in book form here: 

There's a stub Wiki article on introspective hedonism, with a couple of additional references for further reading.