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Vulcans Part 2: Caring & (Dis)Pleasure

This is my second post about Vulcans: creatures that value and pursue goals, but do not have any feelings of pleasure or displeasure. In the first post I claimed that Vulcans cannot care about their goals in a morally significant way. That is, they cannot care about their goals in a way that gives them a reason to pursue those goals, or gives us a reason to avoid interfering with them. They do not have an interest in achieving their goals: do not benefit from achieving them, and they are not harmed when we interfere with them.

In this post I’m going to defend the connection between hedonic experiences (pleasures and displeasures) and genuine concerns. To do that, I want to return to the case of Asha, the woman who judges that she should press a button to feed the dog she’s promised to feed. Her detached moral judgment (“I should press the button”) is insufficient for genuinely caring about pressing the button. The question is: what can we “add” to Asha’s psychology, over and above her detached moral judgment, to make it the case that she does genuinely care about whether the button gets pressed?

Here’s a little bit of stage setting. Let’s say a hedonic property is a property such that, if you have it, then necessarily you’re having a pleasant or unpleasant experience. All other properties are non-hedonic properties.

With the stage setting out of the way, the first point to make is that there are some hedonic properties such that Asha’s having those properties would suffice for her caring about pressing the button. Suppose that Asha regards the prospect of pressing the button with pleasure — she relishes the thought of the satisfying “click”. Or suppose that she regards the prospect of not pressing it with dread — she is anxious or frustrated by the thought that she may fail to press it. Either way, it seems clear that she thereby genuinely cares about pressing the button. She has an interest in pressing it; she has a reason to press it; and all else being equal it would be better for her to press it.

The point isn’t merely that she has an interest in feeling pleasure and not feeling displeasure. She does, but my point is that her pleasure and displeasure also have another kind of significance: having these feelings is sufficient for genuinely caring whether the button gets pressed. Relishing the thought of pressing the button, and feeling anxious about not pressing the button, are ways of genuinely caring about pressing the button. So Asha’s having these experiences is sufficient for her genuinely caring — in the morally significant sense — whether she presses the button. So pleasure and displeasure can bridge the gap between a mere dispassionate moral judgment, and a genuine concern. But can anything else bridge the gap?

I think not. This is my much more contentious claim about Asha and the button:

Only (Dis)pleasure: Only hedonic properties are such that necessarily, if Asha has that property, then she genuinely cares about pressing the button.

Or equivalently:

Nothing But (Dis)pleasure: There is no non-hedonic property such that necessarily, if Asha has it, then she genuinely cares about pressing the button.

Why accept NB(D)P? For me, at least, the main reason is that I simply can’t think of any counterexamples. I can’t think of anything that could be “added” to Asha’s psychology such that (1) it doesn’t involve any pleasure or displeasure and (2) it’s sufficient for her genuinely caring whether the button gets pressed. I think this is probably the strongest reason to accept NB(D)P. But that means, to consider the strongest case for NB(D)P, we have to simply go through the list of possible counterexamples.

I can’t consider all the potential counterexamples here, but we can start with an obvious one: Asha would genuinely care about pressing the button if she desired to press it. The problem is that there are many different views about the nature of desire: functionalist views, representationalist views, phenomenological views, etc. To evaluate the claim that desire is sufficient for genuine caring, we would have to consider these various views about the nature of desire. But at that point we might as well cut out the middle man. Rather than asking whether certain functional properties, representational properties, or phenomenal properties are sufficient for a kind of desire which is itself sufficient for caring, we can simply ask whether those kinds of properties are themselves sufficient for genuine caring.

My sense is that these three kinds of property — functional, representational, and phenomenological — are mutually exhaustive of the plausible possible counterexamples to NB(D)P. Having a functional property is a matter of being in a state that is caused by certain things and causes certain things. For example, Asha might be in a certain brain state that is caused by seeing a button, and which causes her to try to press it. Having a representational property is a matter of representing or taking the world to be a certain way. For example, when Asha sees the button she represents it as being at a certain distance from her, being a certain color, etc. And when she believes that it would be good to press it, she represents pressing it as good. Finally, having a phenomenal property is a matter of feeling a certain way, or having certain experiences.

I am just going to consider the final, phenomenal option here. If it’s presented as a counterexample to NB(D)P, then the idea has to be that there is some kind of non-hedonic experience which is sufficient for genuine concern. In other words, there’s some way that Asha could feel such that (i) in feeling that way she would not be feeling pleasure or displeasure but (ii) she would genuinely care about pressing the button.

A popular thought is it is not hedonic experiences but rather affective experiences that are closely connected to morally-significant concern. The former are pleasant or unpleasant, the latter are positively or negatively valenced but not necessarily pleasant or unpleasant. Declan Smithies and Jeremy Weiss give a particularly thorough and instructive treatment of this idea. My response can’t be nearly as thorough, but the basic idea is simple: I think that pretty much all the purported examples of non-hedonic affective experiences are in fact hedonic — either pleasant or unpleasant.

Here are some examples from the Smithies and Weiss paper. They describe what they take to be a few different kinds of affective experience, with only one of these kinds being pleasant/unpleasant. Another kind is “bodily appetites, such as hunger, thirst, or sexual arousal” (2019 p.29). To me, these bodily appetites seem to clearly involve pleasure, displeasure, or a mixture of the two. When we feel hungry or thirsty, for example, the feeling is unpleasant, but it is often mixed with the pleasure of imagining eating or drinking. There’s a reason that cooking shows are so much more engrossing when we’re hungry — under such conditions, the thought of eating is much more pleasant. These vicarious pleasures are accompanied by unpleasant feelings of hunger, but they are no less pleasant for that.

Another example given by Smithies and Weiss are emotional experiences: “such as fear, anger, and disgust, although similar points extend to more complex feelings, such as guilt, shame, and pride” (2019 p.29). But again, it seems to me that these experiences are pretty clearly pleasant or unpleasant. It’s certainly unpleasant to feel afraid or disgusted, for example. People do seek out these experiences under certain controlled conditions (by going to horror movies and gross-out teen comedies) but these are the exceptions rather than the rule, and even the exceptions famously cry out for explanation. Similarly, although complex emotions involve more complex patterns of experience, it certainly seems as though there are some hedonic experiences in the mix. Being wracked with guilt and shame is unpleasant; to be glowing with pride is pleasant. These are among the most profoundly unpleasant and pleasant experiences we can have; they’re the sorts of things I would list as examples of unpleasant or unpleasant experiences.

A last example I’ll consider from the Smithies and Weiss paper are feelings of desire: “When you feel the desire to spend time with someone, for example, you feel attracted to the prospect of spending time with them (2019.p.29).” And “...feelings of attraction themselves are not always pleasurable; for example, bodily cravings and feelings of unrequited love can be intensely painful” (2019 p.44). I think these are just more cases in which we feel some pleasure and much displeasure. In cases of unrequited love, one does get pleasure from imagining being with the person one loves. Daydreaming about loving and being loved by them is pleasant. But these pleasant imaginings tend to render salient that one is not loved by them, and that thought causes sadness and anguish — displeasures which perhaps far outweigh the pleasures of the daydream. In this and many other cases of strong desire, one is both (pleasantly) attracted to something (e.g. being loved by one’s love), and (unpleasantly) averse to its absence (e.g. being unloved by one’s love).

Again, this isn’t a totally thorough treatment of the cases from the Smithies and Weiss paper, but I hope the trend is clear enough. In almost every purported case of a non-hedonic affective experience, it seems as though it’s not hard to find some pleasure or displeasure. This might even be a verbal dispute about the words “pleasure” and “displeasure”. Philosophers sometimes write as though pleasant and unpleasant experiences are by definition sensations, in which case the experiences associated with emotions, daydreams, and attitudes may not quality as pleasures at all.

But I don’t think we should reserve “pleasure” and “displeasure” merely for sensations. Everyone is familiar with the idea of a pleasant daydream, but daydreams — while experienced — are not sensations in any ordinary sense. Perhaps more importantly, the words “pleasure” and “displeasure” have a job to do in philosophical contexts. For one thing, they’re supposed to denote the experiences which, according to hedonists, are all that is good or bad for us respectively. And surely it’s no part of hedonism that only sensations can be good for you. Hedonism alone shouldn’t rule out that a life spent daydreaming could be good for you; in fact I think hedonists are much more likely than non-hedonists to say that such a life could be good for you.

More generally, we should not unduly restrict the notions of pleasure and displeasure. We should not think of them as experiences we only have a few times per day. Our days are suffused with many small moments of pleasant and unpleasant experience — for example, getting slightly frustrated over a difficult sentence of an email, then feeling slightly gratified about getting it right, then getting distracted by something entertaining online, then being mildly surprised and stressed when one sees how much time has passed, and on and on and on. A more expansive, less restricted conception of (dis)pleasure will capture all these small moments. And if we adopt the expansive conception of (dis)pleasure — as we should, because it captures the phenomenon of philosophical interest — then we will avoid making it overly easy to produce counterexamples to NB(D)P.

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1 Comment

Tim Smith
Tim Smith
Jun 21, 2023


Tuvok disapproves.

The concept of (dis)pleasure being the only factor that leads to genuine caring is a strong claim. Not strong enough, however, to ignore experiences that don’t always neatly fit into the binary of pleasure and displeasure. Emotions, like awe, confusion, or curiosity may not always result in pleasure or displeasure, but they can still incite concern and interest. The importance of your concept of hedonic and non-hedonic properties seems to lean heavily on our human-centric perception of consciousness. The anthropocentric framing of such a discussion may inherently limit the scope of what we can consider, especially when we think about beings as different from us as philosophical Vulcans or AI.

If we think of pVs as AI,…

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