Love of All Wisdom

Is pleasure the only intrinsic good?

by on Oct.14, 2009, under Analytic Tradition, Christianity, Confucianism, Emotion, Foundations of Ethics, Happiness, Monasticism, Morality, Pleasure, Prejudices and "Intuitions", Psychology, Truth

I recently had the pleasure of reading an interesting paper by Neil Sinhababu, a friend I met while I was a visiting scholar at the University of Texas. Neil’s paper, thoughtfully posted online, is entitled The Epistemic Argument for Univesal Hedonism. In it, Neil makes an argument for a strong and controversial position that I’ve flirted with before myself: that pleasure and displeasure are the only things intrinsically good or bad in any ethical sense.

Neil’s argument proceeds roughly as follows (and this summary, qua summary, must necessarily leave out some of the detail and precision of his argument): Ethical judgement all derive from one of two sources: emotional perception and phenomenal introspection. The source of most of our commonsense judgements about morality is emotional perception: a process by which we react emotionally to states of affairs in the world, form moral judgements in connection with these emotional reactions, and thereby perceive the states of the world as having objective moral qualities. Neil draws on Jonathan Haidt’s empirical research to support this point.

Neil goes further, however, in arguing that we are wrong to make moral judgements on the basis of emotional perception, thus rejecting Mencius’s metaethics as well as those of the moral sense theorists. Emotional perception, he claims, is inherently unreliable. Here he draws on the work of Todd Stewart, in order to argue roughly as follows: There is widespread disagreement about the morality of many behaviours (sexual practices, intoxicants, gender roles, vengeance, etc.) These divergent views have generally been arrived at through emotional perception. If emotional perception were a reliable way to achieve knowledge about morality, then we would expect that each of these divergent views would be justified. But on an issue where many positions contradict each other (as many of these moral issues seem to be), only one can be correct; the others must be false. And if emotional perception produces this many false beliefs, it cannot be genuinely reliable.

By contrast, phenomenal introspection – “a process of looking inward at one’s subjective experience, or phenomenology, and determining what it is like” (21) – is generally reliable. While it is occasionally fallible, it is only so in the way that vision is occasionally fallible; like vision, and unlike emotional perception, its conclusions do not diverge so widely as to make it unreliable. Conclusions about colour (such as “yellow is bright”) are one example of these conclusions. But the conclusions significant to the argument are: pleasure is good, and displeasure is bad.

I wonder if there’s a certain amount of tautology in Neil’s phenomenal account: he identifies pleasure as “felt goodness,” which suggests that the goodness of pleasure is analytic rather than synthetic, providing us only with a definition and not a fact. This definition seems to need work. But I’d consider that point a relatively minor objection.

I find a potentially bigger problem in the distinction between emotional perception and phenomenal introspection. I’m not sure how much these really differ from each other. What are pleasure and displeasure, first of all, if not emotions? Neil doesn’t define “emotion” in the paper, so the paper has no way of distinguishing the two. If pleasure is “felt goodness,” it sure sounds like one of our emotions, our “feelings.” Then while phenomenal conclusions about colour are not necessarily accompanied by emotion, phenomenal conclusions about pleasure are – because they derive from emotional states (namely pleasure and pain) that we experience. So when the paper says that phenomenal introspection tells us that pleasure is good “independently of any emotional responses we might have to our pleasure” (21) – it might be technically true in that it’s independent of emotional responses to our pleasure, but that doesn’t seem to matter if it’s dependent on the emotional response that is our pleasure. Some clarification on this matter would help the paper a lot.

But let us suppose that the distinction between emotional perception and phenomenal introspection does hold up. Where Neil’s argument most goes astray, I think, is in identifying emotional perception and phenomenal introspection as the only sources of knowledge about ethical facts. He acknowledges at the end (41-2) that there might theoretically be other such sources, noting correctly that Kant saw his own moral philosophy as deriving from something other than these two. But since he believes that Kant’s arguments for such a source fail, he doesn’t see Kant’s philosophy as any reason to identify another such source.

I also disagree with Kant’s moral philosophy; but there’s a weaker form of Kant’s arguments (found to some extent in Plato and Augustine) which I think does hold true, and does give us ground to believe in an alternative source of ethical facts. Kant aims to derive his moral philosophy entirely from the logical requirements of reason; it is simply illogical to follow anything other than the categorical imperative. He would claim that “pure practical reason” is a reliable source of ethical knowledge (and that neither emotional perception nor phenomenal introspection is reliable in this way). While I don’t buy the whole structure Kant puts up, I agree with him that there’s at least one kind of ethical fact we can derive from pure practical reason in this sense: truth is an intrinsic good, a good in itself, independent of pleasure (or happiness).

My argument here follows the same foundationalist line of reasoning I referred to in the post on certain knowledge. Thought must be possible, for to doubt its existence is self-contradictory. So likewise, truth must be intrinsically good. To make any claim at all – about pleasure, ethics or anything else – is to make a claim to its truth, and also a claim that one’s audience should believe the claim. In order to deny that truth is a good, one must assume that truth is a good; if one doesn’t assume that truth is a good, one has no reason to be convinced by that denial or by any other claim.

Now it’s a trickier matter to say what follows from the goodness of truth, what kind of concrete ethical view is implied by this claim. It would suggest that lying and promise-breaking are bad at least if they don’t have some other good as an end – even if they have no net effect on our pleasure or displeasure. Beyond that, it doesn’t say anything about how we rank-order the goods of truth and pleasure. But sticking for the moment to the context of Neil’s paper, we don’t yet need to go there. The point is, there’s more to life (and ethical goodness) than just pleasure.

This point is especially important with respect to the section of Neil’s paper that deals with asceticism (33-4). Contrary to the paper, ascetic suspicion towards pleasure doesn’t have to arise merely from emotional perception. On Augustine’s account, God himself is truth; pleasure is problematic because it pulls us away from this truth. I don’t buy Augustine’s arguments here, but as with Kant, the claim for such an asceticism rests on something beyond either emotional perception or phenomenal introspection.

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5 Comments for this entry

  • Justin Whitaker

    Hmm… Interesting. Does Neil discuss “truth” in the paper? The whole thing reminded me of Emotivism, which brought me to this article:

    I’m not familiar with this particular debate other than from the perspective of philosophy of mind and the failure of logical positivism, at least in its stronger sense.

    I’m in agreement that truth is intrinsic good; but I wonder if some, such as Neil, might like to reduce so-called truth claims to phenomenal introspection. My sense is that truth could not be reduced to emotional perception. This is because truth-claims are typically made in contrast to our emotional reactions to the world. Is that right? If you deny this, you seem to fall into the self-contradiction trap you mentioned above.

    Or perhaps we *could* rank ethical goods by accepting truth as a sort of ‘unwavering’ pleasure-maker, while other pleasure-makers waver (sex and chocolate ice cream give us pleasure, but it just doesn’t last in the way that a good philosophical insight does…).

  • Neil the Ethical Werewolf

    Hi Amod! Thanks for giving so much attention to my paper.

    First let me just repeat what I say in the paper in response to this point you raise: “What are pleasure and displeasure, first of all, if not emotions?” This is on page 33:

    “It might be said here that pleasure itself is an emotion, or a component of our emotions. This is no objection to the view that we know the goodness of pleasure through a reliable process that does not share the likely unreliability of our epistemic practice of emotional perception. We should distinguish the goodness of pleasure being part of an emotion from its being something that can only be detected by using a further emotion. Only the latter would undermine our justification for believing that pleasure is good. Even if emotional perception is an unreliable way of forming moral beliefs about the things to which we have emotional responses, we still may have reliable processes for knowing things about our emotions themselves. The point of the attack on emotional perception is just that we cannot discover moral facts by seeing the world through our emotions.”

    I’m just trying to say that viewing things through the lens of emotion makes us less reliable in forming beliefs about these things. I don’t want to say that any beliefs formed while we have emotions are unreliably produced.

    Now let me address the issues you raise about truth. I’m pretty sure that truth has a certain kind of intrinsic value. But I don’t think that this is the kind of intrinsic value that’s relevant to morality. Rather, it’s a specifically epistemic kind of value. The value of truth is the sort of thing that should go into our theories about justified belief and rational inference. But it’s not clear that it has any directly moral import, and that it should thus go into our theories about good states of affairs and right action. To say it should, I think, would require some emotional perception.

    • Amod Lele

      Thanks for the reply, Neil – good to see you here! I enjoyed the paper and found it quite stimulating, so I wanted to say a few things about it here.

      The truth point seems to me to involve the juiciest problems. I’m not convinced we should separate moral or ethical value from other kinds of intrinsic value. At the very least, it seems to me that the epistemic value of truth implies that something is ethically wrong with lying and promise-breaking, ceteris paribus. Again this isn’t to go the full Kanty and say it overrides all other goods – I certainly don’t believe that – but merely that, given that truth is a good, lies are a bad. It doesn’t seem to me to depend on emotional perception, if we have already established the goodness of truth independently through logical reasoning.

      On emotion, I should have referred back to the paragraph you quote. But I nevertheless think there remains an important problem here: it’s still not clear what the difference between emotional perception and phenomenal introspection actually is. We have this definition that “a process of looking inward at one’s subjective experience, or phenomenology, and determining what it is like”; we don’t have a similar definition for emotional perception. It’s hard to tell the degree of overlap between emotional perception and phenomenal introspection. Since phenomenal introspection (according to the paper) says nothing about “the world outside subjective experience” (21), clearly emotional perception of things in the world outside subjective experience cannot be a form of phenomenal introspection. But what about emotional perception of things within subjective experience?

      Let’s consider the case of a Christian ascetic who believes in self-mortification, like the female mystics of the Middle Ages, or perhaps like the way Opus Dei is characterized in The Da Vinci Code – a person for whom displeasure or pain makes them feel closer to God. Such a person may very well be able to say: “When I consider a situation of increasing piety, in which I feel less and less pleasure, and ask myself whether things are now better than they were before, it seems to me that they clearly are, just as things are brighter as black is replaced by yellow in my visual field.” This is, of course, your own argument for the phenomenal introspection of pleasure – but turned in the opposite direction. Is this case an example of emotional perception? Of course it is. But it seems to be an example of phenomenal introspection too. Like the goodness of pleasure, it’s perceived both through emotional perception and phenomenal introspection. Some people’s phenomenal introspection, here, would seem to lead them away from believing in the goodness of pleasure. One could perhaps say that they are masochists and therefore actually feeling pleasure in their displeasure, but then we seem to be returning to a tautology problem, where pleasure must be good only because it is defined in terms of goodness.

  • Neil the Ethical Werewolf

    Justin, I’m not an emotivist or any other kind of noncognitivist. I think that moral judgments are beliefs, not emotions. As such, they are apt for truth and falsity.

    In the paper I draw an analogy between color perception which leads us to color beliefs, and the kind of emotional perception that leads us to moral beliefs. They are the states that lead us to form judgments about morality and color, and these judgments are beliefs. Just as our judgments about the colors of objects can be true or false, so can our moral judgments.

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