jml's notebook

Review: The Feeling of Value

I just finished reading The Feeling of Value by Sharon Hewitt Rawlette.

It was lent to me months ago by Matthias, my boss. It's a PhD thesis arguing for "moral realism grounded in phenomenal consciousness". Roughly, that there is an objective ("judgement-independent") good and evil, and these are found in the experience of pleasantness or unpleasantness. The disgust you feel when eating burnt toast is intrinsically bad.

Rawlette argues for why moral realism is worth pursuing, why pleasure and pain are the sole objective grounds for such, and why this means that we should pursue a hedonistic utilitarian ethic.

This might be damning with faint praise, but for a serious work of philosophy it is very readable. I'm far from a philosopher and was able to follow along once I started to tune into which words and phrases were terms of art. Rawlette often labours the point, making explicit things you should have been able to figure out from the proceeding sentences. This is a very good thing. It is a complicated, subtle topic, and the extra help is an encouragement. It's like having an expert looking over your shoulder saying "Yep, you got that right".

Overall, I find her argument very plausible. While I would not call myself a utilitarian, it's a very interesting hat to try on every now and then—perhaps especially so in business or management contexts.

One thing that came up time & again for me while reading this book is how much management and business practice more or less assumes a utilitarian perspective without considering its grounding. At a very practical level, engineers ask "how will the benefit for doing this outweigh the cost?" and to do this regularly is considered a mark of a mature engineer. Perhaps a better sign of maturity would be to have a well-informed sense of duty that shortcuts the expensive evaluation process altogether.

I think we (engineers) also discount the pain experienced by our end users when they encounter fiddly or slow user interfaces. We justify this to ourselves as a business decision—"trade-offs!"—and don't consider that it's also an ethical decision.

The book doesn't talk about either of these things. Instead, it's a solid, rigorous work on ethics that's approachable by someone who's not a philosopher and hasn't done much reading on the subject. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in ethics, or who wants to sound clever at dinner parties.