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tl;dr: I don’t think the concept of pain being intrinsically bad is intelligible, so I’m skeptical it could be a feature of someone’s phenomenology that pain seems intrinsically bad. In addition, I suspect the notion that pain is intrinsically bad is an inference or theory about the nature of reality given one’s phenomenology, but is not a part of the phenomenology itself. As such, people who think that badness “seems” essential to experience suffering may be confused about what constitutes phenomenology. It seems to me that evolution is true, but that this “seems” to be the case isn’t part of my phenomenology; “seems” can be used to refer to non-experiential judgments.


(1) Premise 1 and the impossibility of detecting badness

P1 may be true, but I think these people are mistaken. I’m not convinced that people who claim that when they experience suffering, that they have any kind of direct phenomenological access to “badness” are even having such experiences. Rather, I think they have an experience that is not in itself an experience of badness, and are making an inference *about* that experience, then mistakenly thinking that their philosophical position about their experience is part of the phenomenology of the experience itself.

A simpler explanation is that one only has access to their evaluation of that suffering as bad; they do not have access to “badness,” as though badness is something independent of their evaluation of it being bad.

For instance, if someone eats a piece of cake, and find it tasty, then they may be justified in thinking that they’ve tasted something they consider tasty, but they are not justified in thinking that they have experienced tastiness as some kind of stance-independent evaluative property. That just isn’t something that could be part of one’s phenomenology, as it is a substantive philosophical position about the nature of one’s experiences, not an experiential state itself.

In short: introspection allows one to recognize one’s normative and evaluative judgments about things, which is consistent with antirealism. It does not allow direct access to intrinsic badness.

(2) Concerns about premise 2

Phenomenal conservatism is fine in principle, but it has (a) at least one serious limitation and (b) is vulnerable to misuse.

First, regarding the limitation: phenomenal conservatism may justify belief in realism to anyone who has the relevant phenomenology. But it does not provide significant evidence for anyone who does not share that phenomenology. So if the best moral realists can do is argue that they are justified in being moral realists, that’s a fairly toothless position to take, dialectically, since it has little power to persuade anyone who isn’t already a realist to be a realist.

You acknowledge this just before your conclusion, noting that the same principles could allow one to be justified in believing they’re the Queen of England. This seems to trivialize the position. Whatever defeaters there are for realism, the realist may be unaware of them, mistaken about their epistemic force, or consider them insufficient to overcome their prior for moral realism. If so, the realist is “justified” in being a realist only in the trivial sense that it’s a descriptive fact that they are a realist due to psychological facts about themselves. This adds little to the question of whether realism is, in fact, true.

This brings me to the second problem with phenomenal conservatism: it is easily abused.

I wrote a comment on this elsewhere, so I’ll deploy it here as well:

“[...] *any* belief based on appeal to one’s experiences, isn’t simply a “defeasible belief.” One assigns priors to these beliefs. And so long as one assigns a sufficiently high prior to their beliefs, there is no way to undermine these beliefs, no matter how preposterous they are. Suppose, for instance, I have a near-certain prior that everything is a hippopotamus. No matter what arguments or evidence you present to me, I could say “Yes, that is good evidence that everything is not a hippopotamus. However, my prior that everything is a hippopotamus has a power level over 9,000, so your arguments and evidence are just not adequate to override my confidence in omnihippotamism.”

Huemer explicitly assigns “near-100% prior probability” to a claim (“torturing babies for fun is wrong”) that would entail realism here:

“it seems extremely plausible that: the physical world exists, I have a mind, torturing babies for fun is wrong, 2+2=4, I exist, some people know things, and so on. Each of these propositions, I would say, I assign a near-100% prior probability.”


In practice, anyone relying on phenomenal conservatism can acknowledge that their beliefs are technically defeasible, while simultaneously functioning as though their beliefs are de facto infallible: nothing ever would or could defeat their beliefs, no matter how compelling, simply because of how high the realist’s prior is.

Thus, while phenomenal conservatism is a fine principle on paper, in practice it can serve to stifle substantive discussion, justify epistemic entrenchment, and result in what would be more aptly described as phenomenal dogmatism.”

(3) I reject “(S) suffering is intrinsically bad,” on the grounds that it appears to be unintelligible. I do not know what it means, and I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of what it could mean. I think the general response antirealists should have towards accounts of moral realism which hold that things can be stance-independently good or bad, right or wrong, etc. is not to appeal to metaphysical or epistemic claims, but to directly challenge realism on conceptual grounds: the notion of intrinsic badness may just be a conceptual confusion (which may or may not be due in part to linguistic confusions).

As such, I endorse a quietist position about the kinds of normativity and reasons realists appeal to: I don’t simply think there are no such things, I don’t even think the discourse is coherent, or that there is any subject matter to even talk about.

(4) Finally, you say: “However, I think that denial of (or skepticism about) (S) will have to go in tandem with denial (or skepticism about) many non-moral claims having to do with the general reliability of our perceptual and cognitive faculties and, in turn, the judgments these faculties produce.”

I don’t agree. I don’t think the problem is with P1, which is a descriptive claim about what some people report, or with P2, which I don’t reject. The main issues would be with P3, and the intelligibility of what it is people are reporting in P1.

I accept P1 for the same reason I’d accept it if lots of people said that they had the phenomenology that there were square circles. What I’m accepting is that people report this being the case. What I do not accept is that they actually have such phenomenology.

I think the mistake realists are making in claiming that pain is “intrinsically bad” is an intellectual mistake, not a phenomenological one. They are making the mistake of thinking that their philosophical position is part of their phenomenology. And I am denying this. So I’m not denying that people are mistaken about their phenomenology. I am denying that people are mistaken about what they think their phenomenology is.

I will close with an example. Many people would report that they have rich detail and color in their entire field of view. So if someone were to say “it seems like there is rich detail and color in my entire field of view,” that would be true. I’m not sure if (or how) someone could be wrong about their phenomenology. However, if they were to conclude that, as a matter of fact, there is rich detail and color in their entire field of view, this would be false. Phenomenological reports are a reliable indicator of how things seem, not how things are.

The problem with using phenomenal conservatism as a justification for the claim that things are intrinsically bad because they seem intrinsically bad is that things cannot “seem intrinsically bad,”: this is a substantive inference *about* one’s phenomenology, it isn’t part of the phenomenology itself. There’s a trick in using phenomenal conservatism to support substantive metaphysical theses: one simply smuggles the metaphysical thesis into the phenomenology, then concludes that because it seems like the metaphysical thesis is true, then one is justified in thinking it is true.

Or, as one of my colleagues put it: phenomenology cannot reveal that anything has “intrinsic” properties. This is a category mistake. Phenomenology can only reveal seemings, while claims about intrinsic qualities are inferences.

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