review of Sharon Hewitt Rawlette's book The Feeling of Value

To me and many others, the question of what (if anything) ultimately makes an action right or wrong matters a lot. This is my new favorite book on the subject because I more or less completely agree with the view it presents. Rawlette provides a thoughtful discussion of why the question even matters, a careful defense of her view, and a good exploration of its implications.

The heart of the theory is basically:

This is a realist (as opposed to anti-realist) theory of meta-ethics. Rawlette defines realism as a belief in “judgment-independent” moral facts: in a realist theory,

there is a moral fact to the effect that pain is pro tanto bad, and this fact—this badness—exists independently of whether anyone judges it to be there.

(Don’t take the word “pain” too literally. She’s aware that some drugs, for example, allow you to experience physical pain in a neutral way. The negative quality that those drugs eliminate is precisely the aspect of conscious experience that she’s referring to as “pain”.)

In my experience, anti-realists tend to think such claims are incoherent or meaningless. After you list all the concrete facts about a situation, you can still imagine one person considering those facts and saying this is good while another person considers those facts and says this is bad; what does it mean to say one of those people is incorrect? To understand Rawlette’s (and my) view, keep in mind that a full description of a situation must include a description of what it feels like to be each person involved in the situation. Such a description requires a large vocabulary of words for different sensations and feelings, and many of those words can only be defined by demonstration (e.g., you can’t know what an orange tastes like until you taste one—or do something else that stimulates your brain in exactly the same way).

Now try to describe a situation where Aaron is happy, Beth is content, and Carlos is bored. You need a word for what the feelings of happy and content have in common with each other but not with bored. Words like good or desirable or valuable or pleasant or positive get the point across; words that avoid any evaluative connotation would be leaving something out.

…certain of our phenomenal experiences are such that an accurate description of them must be normative.

To see this, imagine that you are a scientist taking an inventory of all the phenomenology present in human experience. You’ve written down the qualities of experiencing various colors, sounds, and smells. But there are two distinct phenomenal qualities that you can’t quite figure out how to describe. In the end, you realize that the only way to describe the one is to say that it is “good,” and that you can only describe the other by saying it is “bad.” You have to mention the normativity of the phenomenology simply in order to describe it accurately.

When I experience something which has this felt quality of “goodness” or “badness”, it’s immediately obvious that I should want to have respectively more or less of it. I don’t need any further justification for seeking/avoiding such feelings; their desirability/undesirability is imprinted on them, inherent to them.

Of course, there’s a big leap from I should try to have good experiences to I should try to make sure everyone has good experiences. Rawlette gives a few arguments for making that jump; my favorite, and the one I’ve generally given in the past, relies on a Derek Parfit-style reductionism about personal identity. I don’t think any of these are strong enough to establish the conclusion with total confidence, but I do think they make it more likely to be true than not.

One new insight I got from the book has to do with what specific version of consequentialism this meta-ethical view implies. I already agreed that all value/disvalue ultimately derives from happiness (broadly construed) and suffering, but that still leaves open the question of how you weigh different good and bad experiences—and experiences had by different people—against each other. Rawlette argues that her view demands a basic, additive form of utilitarianism: we should do whatever will lead to the highest net quantity after adding up the value of all the good experiences across all people and subtracting the value of the bad. Any other form of consequentialism—such as one that optimized for average happiness among individuals, or one that judged additional instances of an already-common pleasure to be inherently less valuable than additional instances of a rare pleasure—would fail to treat the goodness/badness of experiences as intrinsic (which is the foundation of her meta-ethical view):

…the model of changing marginal value does not work for one class of goods: purely intrinsic goods. This is because, in order for the marginal value of a good to fall (or rise), some of its value must be understood in terms of the value of some other good.

Rawlette’s argument for utilitarianism also relies on all good and bad experiences being (at least in principle) commensurable. I’m not sure the book gives that assumption as much attention as it needs. It’s hard to reject the assumption without generating really implausible implications, but at the same time, joy and suffering feel very different and it seems a little suspicious to map them onto a single number line.