Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Book Review Preview: The Feeling of Value by Sharon Hewitt Rawlette

See also the main review.

I got The Feeling of Value, by Sharon Hewitt Rawlette, in the mail yesterday. The subtitle is Moral Realism Grounded in Phenomenal Consciousness. It basically says "you know value/disvalue" (e.g. right/wrong) "through your direct experience of phenomena" or maybe it's more like "value/disvalue is in the experience itself" -- I'm not sure which yet. This leads her to defend a kind of hedonic utilitarianism. Her goal is to go against moral antirealism, and to support moral realism.

I plan to read it twice before reviewing. A philosophy professor I was acquainted with once said "read a book once, give it a light read" ("light read" is an interesting concept when applied to some philosophy books) "and then read it again more seriously". It's a good idea to take notes, at least on the second reading, I think. Also it can be better to understand the big picture before trying to make more detailed arguments.

I hope to compare Rawlette's approach to that of MSLN, especially legitimism and simantism. She may show me ways to make those accounts more specific/explicit/developed. I expect to be critical of her approach to ethics.

Here are some criticisms I have of hedonic utilitarianism which she may address:

1. How do we know what ought to give us pain or pleasure?

a. This is relevant when thinking about artificial superintelligence (ASI). An ASI programmed to be a hedonist might want to change human nature so that it is trivially easy to cause us pleasure, and to avoid giving us pain. We would say "No, I don't want to be a blob of pleasure", but why not be one?

There's some risk (similar or essentially the same as what a past version of me said here) that we find pleasure easy to consent to, and the removal of pain, so there's an incentive for civilization (including ASI) to drift in the direction of giving us more and more pleasure, less and less pain, until we have gradually simplified ourselves into blobs of pleasure. I think hedonism is not just an explicit philosophical position, but also a powerful psychological tendency.

Some people might bite the bullet and say "No, being a blob of pleasure sounds good to me". Who can say what's wrong or right? If it feels good, it's good. But what if God disagrees? You might look at your child and hope that they don't get hooked on heroin. Technically, they're happy when they're on heroin. Maybe technically we're happy when we're living painless, rich, godless lives, or when we are blobs of pleasure. But God might disagree.

b. Another point of relevance is when people construct scripts of what a life is supposed to be. When a life event is "bad" then "you are in a pity-worthy, deplorable state" -- the script wants you to feel depressed. Should you feel depressed? Maybe the script comes from other people, and is there to discourage you from doing things that are unpopular.

2. What about other goods that aren't captured well by hedonism?

a. Pleasure could be bad, if it takes us away from God, or some other reality. In an upcoming short story about the future of beauty, that I plan to release relatively soon, you may see a tension between deeper good and surface good. It may take some pain to have deeper good, and unbroken pleasure may prevent things like coming to value people apart from how they or their life realities give a person pleasure.

b. Pain could be good. Two more easily dismissed examples of this are found in the concept of purgatory (pain, in itself, purges us of sin or the guilt of sin) and the phrase "pain is weakness leaving the body". (Dismissed because you could say "what you really want is improved strength, or heaven, in the end, and both those states are basically pleasurable.") A less easily dismissed example is found when we ask "what if God doesn't care if we suffer, as long as we can bear it and connect with reality?" In other words, what if there is pain in heaven after all -- our real reward is God himself, not the pleasure or freedom from pain he might be able to give us? The pain is good because it is real, and experiencing it is part of being receptive to reality. An overall receptiveness to reality (perhaps) is the only way to really connect with God.

c. I am adding this section in later in the editing process, and don't want to make this point long so that it gives me yet more to edit, but basically I can mention fiducialism as a replacement for hedonism.

3. Why should we think that "ought" has anything to do with our feelings, or even our judgments?

a. Maybe "ought" is more like "I want something to be a certain way (if it's not that way), or that want is satisfied by that thing being that certain way (if it is), and that exact wanting is something that deserves to be true". (I suspect that it's hard to define "deserves" without basically using "ought" -- circularity. Maybe "ought" is a primitive of language and psychology?) Someone who ought to be able to define things is the one who can define things, and can say "pain is not necessarily bad, and pleasure is not necessarily good". The athlete who says "pain is weakness leaving the body", or the believer who says "I will accept this bitter cup" are basically exercising their ability to claim that some thing ought to be. To say that something that is, ought to be, is something that in a sense no one can argue with. But maybe some persons can even say that what is ought not to be? So in this way, good and bad come out of our taste, more so than out of our pure experience. (Out of opinion rather than feeling.) Maybe pain biases us to call it bad. But we don't have to -- we can see through that sometimes.

b. It could be that it seems like hedonism is a real view of things, that pleasure ought to be and pain ought not to be, because these are popular judgments. (One way to cash out the popular defining of human well-being.) (You could also say that this is why preferentialism seems to be a real view, because of course everyone likes preferences.) These might seem to be real things, because of our humanism. But why should real "ought" have anything to do with human judgments? You could say that human judgments do have something to do with it, if what we're exploring is "our strongest moral convictions" rather than something outside that. (Rawlette, p. 3: "The version of realism I present actually provides a robust metaethical justification for many of our strongest moral convictions."). But what do our strongest moral convictions have to do with real "ought"? If there is a God (in this case, in the sense of a most-authoritative being), then we might hope to be in line with his preferences, or perhaps rather with his truth, which is similar to preference but which is unlike ours for some kind of lack of "falsehood" (we call both self-justifiying explanations and lies "B.S.") or lack of partiality. If there is no God, then how are "our strongest moral convictions" anything other than "what is popular in a certain way"? (I mean this both as a rhetorical and a real question, if that makes sense.) And then I'm not sure that Rawlette's project is really realist after all. Her ultimate criterion is (may be? not sure yet) "our strongest moral convictions", not any objective truth. In other words, realism is supposedly about some grounding in reality through an argument of justification, while antirealism doesn't bother with that. "Our strongest moral convictions" sounds like the same criterion moral antirealists would use. Why not just observe the criterion, rather than adding some conceptual layer, some kind of logical justification? Unless, what we are doing (with both realist and antirealist ethics) is bending the criterion, democratically, by presenting an argument that sounds (and in a sense, is) logical, and is thus persuasive in shifting "our strongest moral convictions"? If you want to change other people's values to be like yours, you use logic, even if the real foundation of values is just values -- we can be dazzled by logic.

Or maybe she really could be a moral realist (the appeal to strongest moral convictions doesn't rule that out), one who just says "our strongest moral convictions are real and we should act on them", as opposed to the antirealist, who says "our strongest moral convictions are fictions and we should act on them". (I think I do not yet understand moral realism vs. antirealism, especially moral antirealism, and hope the book will help me understand.) Can you act on something as much as you should if you don't feel it is real? Maybe that's the essence of Rawlette's project, to say "No, so since we know we ought to act on certain things, we need to figure out a way to see them as real". I know that there is a kind of quixotic task that philosophers take up (and scientists, I think), which is the search for truth but which is actually really wanting something to be true and figuring out a way to find out that it is true (if possible). If it's true that we just know that certain things are good, and we have to change our perspective on reality so as to fully pursue those goods, then maybe reality is most deeply known not by whatever science or philosophy says, but in those things we know we have to think are good, and have to pursue as good. We want things to be true, but in a way, that could be that they just are true.

Or maybe Rawlette would be willing to say "No, those deep things aren't true since they don't line up with philosophy" -- philosophy is the real authority after all -- but doesn't happen to have to say that because of the book she wrote, showing how they do line up.

(If "our strongest moral convictions" can be modified with rhetorical or logical force, then does it become "what is right is what psychologically strong, motivated people reprogram people to see as right"? -- something that the coming powers of AI and genetic engineering can intensify. So then such convictions might not be some kind of immutable standard.)

One could say that the deep things, and hedonic utilitarianism, are two different aspects of the same being, the latter being the former's expression in the world of ethical philosophy. That doesn't feel intuitively correct to me, though. I could see maybe fiducial utilitarianism getting closer to that function than hedonic utilitarianism, but even that doesn't feel right. Maybe because ethical philosophy itself is a such a strange shard.

Still, we are left with "should it be true that deep human convictions are reliable judges or creators of 'ought'?" -- a philosophical question. And philosophy, as a whole, the general pursuit, has some grounding in deep human convictions, comes from the outworking of them. We might wonder if philosophy suggests that we should consider God's point of view, either that God shares our convictions, or that his differ from ours and that we should align ourselves with his -- in other words, it's ultimately his convictions as the founder of reality (or as most-authoritative for some other reason than founding things) that are truth, while ours are feelings or opinions.

c. I mentioned "truth" in the previous section. We might say that truth is inherently something that is indifferent to popularity. In fact, Rawlette's project is to use truth to change people's minds (fellow philosophers who are moral antirealists, for instance). So why shouldn't "ought" be indifferent to popularity as well? Ought could be a form of truth.

d. Some of the above might boil down to: "we want truth, independent of popularity -- does it come from God, or from qualia?" I would want to defend "God", and Rawlette "qualia" or something in the neighborhood of "qualia". I would say "if ought is -- and I think it has to be -- then it is an opinion", while Rawlette might say "if ought is, then it is a feeling" -- not "we know it through feelings", because then what is it in itself if not an opinion? (Mostly not a rhetorical question.)


One thing I am thinking of addressing in the review (maybe more than I am about to here), is the question of "What does this matter?" Certainly the truth matters in itself. But how much money can we devote to understanding the truth? Is there a way that an altruist could benefit from a book like Rawlette's?

As an (amateur) philosopher myself, I share the dilemma of Rawlette (as I currently guess it to be, not having yet read her book). I want to get some truth that makes a difference in the world. But the expression of that truth, in the way I know how to express it, is only going to be heard by philosophically-inclined people -- maybe not a lot of them, only some of whom will change what they do as a result. A project like Rawlette's (which, I see from p. 1, involves the term "motivational structure", a term I also use) might hope to get people to feel and thus behave differently -- maybe causing a release of cultural energy to cause more work or more deeply felt caring (or the metaphor might be one of putting people to work to build up cultural structures and institutions of caring). But are philosophers or the philosophically-inclined the right people to try to motivate to care more and work harder? Or is it better to speak to people in general, there being so many more of them?

Francis Schaeffer was disheartened at how philosophy trickled down to the masses. But to me it seems like philosophy may not have much potential to undo the undermining of moral realism (part of what Schaeffer lamented) through the same process. That is, it doesn't seem as clear to me that philosophy trickles down to the average person, the way it used to in Schaeffer's day. I hope to be proved (or help prove myself) wrong some day, in some way, but it seems to me that the default assumption is that philosophy is a game for philosophers, and few others pay attention. Schaeffer thought that the artists could communicate philosophy-derived truths, but it seems to me that most artists are either roughly as obscure as philosophers, or not concerned with philosophy themselves. And what can art do that is fresh? Where are the new philosophies that are different from all the old ones that have already influenced art? Again, I can hope that somehow I could find or create ideas or approaches to things that are fresh, in some way, which inspire artists (or myself) to create philosophically-informed art. But my default assumption remains that philosophy doesn't affect the average person, that there isn't a trickling-down through art into the average person's culture.

(Maybe a counterpoint is: nihilism as evinced in recent TV.)

While I might hope to someday, somehow, reach average people with philosophically-derived ideas or spirits, I can see right now a group of people who take philosophy seriously, and perhaps would take Rawlette's philosophy seriously, who put philosophy into action, or at least generally aspire to. These are the effective altruists (EAs). Would effective altruists be the kind of people who need to be motivated to work harder and care more? Maybe some of them? There's a term they use: "value drift", the way that a person's priorities change and they no longer work as hard for the cause, save as much money to give, etc. Could something like Rawlette's philosophy, a bolsterer of motivational structure, be something that could prevent value drift in some individuals? It sounds plausible. The effective altruists are already aware of the possibility of being moral realists. (Many of them already are.) Maybe her book would cause some of those who are moral antirealists to become moral realists, causing them to stick with their first love.

Would it be possible to cause people on the margins of effective altruist ideology to shift into being effective altruists, or EA-aligned? For instance, a moral antirealist might think "Yeah, giving money to help people is good... I should do that... but, then, morality is kind of a social construct, right? Yeah, whatever." and not do it. This person being driven by self-interest and logic, if they had better beliefs, they might say "Giving money to help people is good... and what is good really is good... I should do that..." and do it. A very self-interested person might shy away from accepting what Rawlette said in the first place, or use some kind of self-deception in order to both hold Rawlette's views and not act on them. They would not be on the margin of EA-aligned behavior. But there might be a lot of people who are on the margin, who can be philosophically literate, or are as much as EAs are, who just haven't heard of Rawlette's argument. They might even have heard the EAs' pitch (Singer's Drowning Child Argument, perhaps), and yet vitiated it with moral antirealism. But an effective argument for moral realism might make a difference. One would think that EAs would be looking for new ideologies to prevent value drift and aid in recruiting people from social spaces adjacent to them. From a few months' reading of the EA Forum, I don't get the impression that this is something they seriously pursue to a great extent. (I might be wrong -- but something that was a particularly burning issue, I wouldn't have missed.) This might be because they know better than to be into ideology (it's something they're past, as individuals, and something they don't expect enough people to really be changed by), or it might be that many EAs are not really into human resource questions, and this is essentially a human resource question -- or some other reason.

I remember a philosophy professor saying something like "people aren't bad, it's just that the system is bad". So maybe Rawlette can't do much good, since everyone is already moral and good, and we're just in horribly ill-coordinated systems. I hope to discuss this in the future at some point, show a way that if you really care, you can do something about systemic problems, so as to provide benefit from improved motivational structures. (This already has some other ideas that might apply.) I have (and I think Rawlette may possibly also have) the sense that it is required of us to do what is best, not just a socially-acceptable half-effort. It is wrong of us to not be heroes or "anointed ones", at whatever scale we can and should be. Perhaps that is a message which could resonate with the average person. In other words, with the right support beliefs and ideas, Rawlette's may be able to function as one might intend them to.

One thing I don't know from not having read Rawlette's book yet is how possible it is to convert her book into a form which can be adopted by people who don't read academic philosophy.

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