In his paper, “Desire-Based Theories of Reasons, Pleasure, and Welfare”, Chris Heathwood impugns the hedonic tone theory of pleasure in favour of an attitude-based approach. According to the former, what makes an experience count as pleasurable is the fact that it exhibits a certain distinctive felt quality. According to the latter, what makes an experience count as pleasurable is the fact that we desire to continue having the experience as we are experiencing it. I find Heathwood’s overall case against the hedonic-tone theory compelling. However, in this post, I wish to focus on his very first argument against hedonic tone theory, which I found to be less than compelling. Here is the argument in Heathwood’s own words:
I believe the attitudinal approach to be more plausible. The cases that most clearly support it over the hedonic tone theory (the superior version of the felt-quality approach) involve sensations that some people like and others don’t, and sensations that bother some people but not others. The sound of fingernails scratching on a chalkboard is extremely unpleasant to many people, but not at all unpleasant to others. If unpleasantness is intrinsic to unpleasant sensations, as is maintained by the hedonic tone theory, then one of these groups of people has to be mistaken. If this sound really is intrinsically unpleasant, then those whom it doesn’t bother and who therefore judge it to be not at all unpleasant, are wrong. That is hard to swallow (Heathwood (2010: 91).
Let's call the argument limned in the preceding passage the "Disagreement Argument". We may reconstruct Heathwood’s Disagreement Argument as follows:
[P1]: The hedonic tone theory is committed to the claim that if a sensation, S, is pleasant, then S is intrinsically pleasant, and if S is unpleasant, then S is intrinsically unpleasant.
[P2]: Some sensation, S, may be found to be pleasant by some people and not found to be pleasant by others, or found to be unpleasant by some people and not found to be unpleasant by others.
[C]: The hedonic theory is committed to saying that if some sensation, S, is found to be unpleasant by some person, X, and not found to be unpleasant by some other person, Y, then either X or Y must be mistaken.
Given that it is not plausible that X or Y must be mistaken if they disagree about the unpleasantness of some sensation, S, it follows that the hedonic tone theory has implausible consequences.
However, the defender of the hedonic tone theory may plausibly deny [P2]. Recall, Heathwood describes the hedonic tone theory as “the superior version of the felt quality approach”. This suggests that the notion of a sensation at play in the preceding argument may be identified with the felt quality of an experience. Moreover, if anything qualifies as subjective, then the felt quality of an experience certainly does. However, by treating a sensation (i.e., the felt quality of an experience) as something shared between different people, the preceding argument fails to take seriously their subjective quality. Once we do, then a straightforward response to Heathwood’s argument immediately becomes apparent. Heathwood assumes that the person who finds fingernails scratching on a chalkboard unpleasant, and one who does not, share an experience with the same felt quality. But this is controversial, to say the least. It seems to me that the hedonic tone theorist may consistently hold that while the felt quality of X’s experience of fingernails being dragging on a chalk board is intrinsically unpleasant, the same is not true of the felt quality of Y’s experience of fingernails being dragged on a chalk board, since the felt quality of X’s and Y’s experience are different. This is just part of what it means to say that the felt quality of an experience is subjective. Moreover, saying that the felt quality of an experience is subjective is not at odds with saying that it has intrinsic properties. For example, if I see a red after-image as a result of a flashbulb going off, the redness associated with the after-image is an intrinsic property of my experience, despite the fact that there is no objective red spot present and my experience of the red after-image is entirely subjective. Hence, saying that an experience has a certain intrinsic property is consistent with saying that it is subjective. If this is right, then the hedonic tone theorist may consistently accept [P1] and yet reject [P2].
Furthermore, if we take the subjective character of an experience’s felt quality seriously, then [P1] should be reworded along the following lines:
[P1*]: The hedonic tone theory is committed to the claim that if a sensation, S, is pleasant for some person, X, then S is intrinsically pleasant for X, and if S is unpleasant for X, then S is intrinsically unpleasant for X.
In short, given that the felt quality of an experience is subjective, it should always be understood as being relative to an experiencing subject.