Phenomenal introspection and hedonism
Bentham’s bulldog (BB) is a blog dedicated to promoting utilitarianism and effective altruism, though it sometimes also addresses moral realism. Recently, this article sought to summarize Sinhababu’s case for moral realism. This summary is as follows::
Premise 1: Phenomenal introspection is the only reliable way of forming moral beliefs.
Premise 2: Phenomenal introspection informs us of only hedonism
Conclusion: Hedonism is true…and pleasure is the only good.
I have a lot of concerns with (1), given that I don’t know what is meant by a “moral belief” and doubt phenomenal inspection is a reliable way of forming moral beliefs (much less the only one). I’d also note that it’s strange to frame P1 as a claim about a reliable way to form moral beliefs, since “reliable” doesn’t seem connected to whether the beliefs in question are true or not. After all, one can have a system that “reliably” (in some sense) produces false beliefs. This premise might be rephrased as something like “Phenomenal introspection is the only way to reliably form true moral beliefs” or something like that. I’m not sure; perhaps Bentham’s bulldog could update or refine the premises in a future post or in a response to this post.
However, my initial reaction is to reject (2) because it seems like Sinhababu overestimates what kinds of information is available via introspection on one’s phenomenology, at least not without bringing in substantial background assumptions that aren't themselves part of the experience or that might have a causal influence on the nature of the experience. It’s possible, for instance, that a commitment to or sympathy towards moral realism can influence one’s experiences in such a way that those experiences seem to confirm or support one’s realist views, when in fact it’s one’s realist views causing the experience. Since people lack adequate introspective access to their unconscious psychological processes, introspection may be an extraordinarily unreliable tool for doing philosophy. Philosophers may think that they can appeal to theoretically neutral “seemings” to build philosophical theories, but not appreciate that the causal linkages cut both ways, and that their philosophical inclinations, built up over years of studying academic philosophy, can influence how they interpret their experiences, and do so in a way that isn’t introspectively accessible. If this does occur (and I suspect it not only does, but is ubiquitous), philosophers who appeal to how things seem to support their philosophical views are, effectively, appealing to their commitment to their philosophical positions as evidence in support of their commitment to their philosophical positions. Without a better understanding of the psychological processes at play in philosophical account-building, philosophers strike me as being in an epistemically questionable situation when they so confidently appeal to their philosophical intuitions and seemings.
Phenomenology involves access to what your experiences are like, but it is not constituted by any substantive philosophical inferences about those experiences. That is, if I have, say, an experience of something seeming red, it isn’t (and I think it couldn’t) be a feature of that experience that the redness of the red is, e.g., of such a kind so as to be directly (perhaps “non-inferentially”) inconsistent with a particular model of perception or consciousness. For instance, I don’t think substance dualism could be something one has phenomenal access to, but rather it would be an inference, or position one takes, that explains one’s experiences or may be inferred from one’s experiences.
When I have good or enjoyable experiences, my phenomenology involves what I’d call positive affective states. I don’t think anything about these states includes, as a feature of the experience itself, that the experience itself involves stance-independence or stance-independence about the goodness of the experience. That doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that could be a feature of one’s phenomenology. The notion that phenomenal introspection informs us of hedonism thus strikes me almost as a kind of category error. Substantive metaphysical theses don’t seem like the sorts of things one can experience. And thus the notion that hedonism is true in a stance-independent way just isn’t the kind of thing that I think one could experience, since it’s a metaphysical thesis, not e.g., a phenomenal property (though as an aside I don’t even think there are phenomenal properties, but that’s a separate issue).
Another way to put this is that I don’t think there’d be any experiential difference between a realist and an antirealist about their positive and negative affective states. I experience “hedonic value,” myself, but it isn’t part of the experience that its stance-independently true that it’s good. This is a conclusion I could reach about my experiences, but it isn’t part of them.
Second, nothing about the phenomenology of my positive affective states is distinctively moral. If I eat my favorite food or listen to music I like, I enjoy these experiences, but they aren’t moral experiences. As such, I see no reason to think that my good and bad experiences reflect any kind of distinctively moral reality. It’s not a feature of my positive experiences that they are morally good. I don’t even know what that means, and I am confident no compelling account from any philosopher will be forthcoming.
Note the conclusion: “Therefore, hedonism is true — pleasure is the only good.”
Even if pleasure were “good,” and I do think positive experiences are good (in an antirealist sense), nothing about these experiences strikes me as morally good. I don’t think there is any principled distinction between moral and nonmoral norms. I think the very notion of morality is a culturally constructed pseudocategory, not a legitimate category in which normative and evaluative concepts could subsist independent of the idiosyncratic tendency for certain linguistic communities to refer to them as “moral.” So it’s not clear to me how my positive experiences relate in any meaningful way to the culturally constructed notion of moral good that persists in contemporary analytic philosophy.
I don’t think any of my experiences involve any distinctively moral phenomenology, and such experiences are better explained in nonmoral terms. I’d note, however, that the notion that “hedonism is true” doesn’t make clear that hedonism is the true moral theory which isn’t explicitly stated here. I don’t know if Sinhababu (or BB, or anyone else) claims to have distinctively moral phenomenology, but I don’t think that I do, and I’m skeptical that anyone else does.
In any case, if this remark: “Therefore, hedonism is true — pleasure is the only good,” … is meant to convey the notion that hedonism is true in a way indicative of moral realism, I still I am very confident that it doesn’t mean anything; that is, I think this is literally unintelligible. I find my experiences to be good, in that I consider them good, but I don’t think this in any way indicates that they are good independent of me considering them as such, nor do I think this even makes any sense.
BB does just this practice of making inferences about BB’s own experiences when discussing the argument. BB says:
“Phenomenal introspection involves reflecting on experiences and forming beliefs about what they’re like (e.g. I conclude that my yellow wall is bright and that itching is uncomfortable).”
But the latter isn’t part of phenomenal introspection. Only the former is. Phenomenal introspection involves reflecting on your experiences such that you have the appearance of a bright yellow wall and the sense of an itch; the beliefs you form about these experiences aren’t part of the phenomenal introspection; they’re just standard philosophical reflection, or theory-building, that seeks to account for those experiences. And while we’re all welcome to engage in such theorizing, it’s a mistake to say that those beliefs are part of phenomenal introspection itself, or that you form beliefs about what those experiences are like; what you describe instead seem like inferences about what’s true given those experiences. And such inferences aren’t part of the phenomenology.
I could have the exact same phenomenology, and form the belief that moral antirealism is true, and that realist hedonism is false, without being mistaken or confused about what my experiences are like. This is why appealing to phenomenology as a straight move towards realism (and hedonism in particular) doesn’t work: that hedonism is true just isn’t the sort of thing that’s directly available via phenomenal introspection.
There are other difficulties with BB’s framing here:
Premise 2 is true — when we reflect on pleasure we conclude that it’s good and that pain is bad.
This is ambiguous. What does BB mean by ‘good’ and ‘bad’? Since I understand these in antirealist terms, if Premise 2 is taken to imply that they’re true in a realist sense, then I simply deny the premise. I find it odd and disappointing that BB would echo the common tendency for philosophers to engage in such ambiguous claims. BB knows as well as I do that one of the central disputes in metaethics is between realism and antirealism. So why would BB present a premise that only includes, on the surface, normative claims, without making the metaethical presuppositions in the claim explicit?
This is not a critique of the argument, but the way BB presenting it. If BB means good or bad in a realist sense, BB should make that explicit. Not doing so adds needless ambiguity and lack of clarity to BB’s arguments. It’s precisely the kind of hedging and ambiguity that allows bad philosophers to equivocate and mislead others. BB shouldn’t take up their bad habits, so I encourage BB to start making the substantive philosophical theses lurking behind the premises of arguments clearer.
This particular ambiguity is especially common in metaethics, and its proliferation has a clear and perfidious rhetorical value: moral realists often present normative claims, e.g., “x is good” or “it’s wrong to torture babies for fun,” without making their metaethical presuppositions explicit, e.g., “x is stance-independently good” or “it’s objectively wrong to torture babies for fun.” Yet these normative claims serve as the premises to arguments that presuppose realism, or that are intended as arguments for realism, or are intended to prompt intuitions against antirealism and in favor of realism. All of these uses are illegitimate, because they rely on the inappropriate pragmatic implicature that to reject the premise or the claim isn’t merely to reject its metaethical component (which has been concealed), but the normative claim itself.
I’m a moral antirealist, and I think happiness is good, that torture is wrong, and so on. I just don’t think things are stance-independently good or stance-independently bad. By playing fast and loose with metaethical claims masquerading as normative claims, moral realists have engaged in an ongoing campaign of misleadingly implying that they hold all the normative cards in disputes between realists and antirealists.
This isn’t merely philosophically questionable (since it involves a kind of presumption that is either false or question-begging), it creates a persistent atmosphere that the moral antirealist has poor normative moral standards, lacks an acceptable attitude of repugnance and opposition to things we agree are bad, doesn’t genuinely value the good things in life, and so on. I call this conflation between metaethics and normative ethics normative entanglement. And I think BB has inadvertently fallen into the habit of engaging in it in this post. I’d ask that BB consider my point about normative entanglement, and consider revising the way arguments for moral realism and against antirealism are framed so as not to engage in normative entanglement.
The other problem with this remark is the claim that when “we” reflect on pleasure we conclude that it’s good and that pain is bad. Who’s “we”? Not me, certainly. I don’t reach the same conclusions as BB does via introspection. BB echoes yet another bad habit of contemporary analytic philosophers: making empirical claims about how other people think without doing the requisite empirical work. BB does not have any direct access to what other people’s phenomenology is like, so there’s little justification in making claims about what things are like for other people in the absence of evidence. And there’s little empirical evidence most people claim to have phenomenology that lends itself to moral realism.