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Hedonic Tone and the Heterogeneity of Pleasure

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 May 2012

University of


Some philosophers have claimed that pleasures and pains are characterized by their particular ‘feel’ or ‘hedonic tone’. Most contemporary writers reject this view: they hold that hedonic states have nothing in common except being liked or disliked (alternatively: pursued or avoided) for their own sake. In this article, I argue that the hedonic tone view has been dismissed too quickly: there is no clear introspective or scientific evidence that pleasures do not share a phenomenal quality. I also argue that analysing hedonic states in terms of liking or wanting is implausible. If it is correct that pleasures and pains are not united by any particular hedonic tone, we should instead simply conclude that there are several different hedonic tones. This pluralistic understanding of the hedonic tone view has generally been overlooked in the literature, but appears to be fairly plausible as a philosophical account of pleasure and pain.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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1 See Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica (Cambridge: 1993, reprint of the 1903 edition), p. 64Google Scholar; Broad, C. D., Five Types of Ethical Theory (London, 2000, first published in 1930), pp. 229–33Google Scholar; Schlick, Moritz, Problems of Ethics (New York, 1939), ch. 2Google Scholar; Duncker, Karl, ‘On Pleasure, Emotion, and Striving’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 1 (1941), pp. 391430CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sprigge, T. L. S., The Rational Foundations of Ethics (London, 1988), ch. 5Google Scholar; Tännsjö, Torbjörn, Hedonistic Utilitarianism (Edinburgh, 1998), pp. 84–6Google Scholar; Crisp, Roger, Reasons and the Good (Oxford, 2006), pp. 108–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mendola, Joseph, ‘Intuitive Hedonism’, Philosophical Studies 128 (2006), pp. 441–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 443–4; Tännsjö, Torbjörn, ‘Narrow Hedonism’, Journal of Happiness Studies 7 (2007), pp. 7998CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 84–6; Smuts, Aaron, ‘The Feels Good Theory of Pleasure’, Philosophical Studies 155 (2011), pp. 241–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 See Alston, William, ‘Pleasure’, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edwards, Paul (New York, 1967)Google Scholar; Brandt, Richard B., A Theory of the Good and the Right (Oxford, 1979), ch. 2Google Scholar; Korsgaard, Christine, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 145–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sumner, L. W., Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics (Oxford, 1996), ch. 4Google Scholar; Feldman, Fred, Pleasure and the Good Life (Oxford, 2004), ch. 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Heathwood, Chris, ‘The Reduction of Sensory Pleasure to Desire’, Philosophical Studies 133 (2007), pp. 2344CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Swenson, Adam, ‘Pain's Evils’, Utilitas 21 (2009), pp. 197216CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Henry Sidgwick is often considered the originator of this view (see e.g. Feldman, Fred, ‘On the Intrinsic Value of Pleasures’, Ethics 107 (1997), pp. 448–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 448–50; Andrew Moore, ‘Hedonism’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, <> (2011), sect. 2), but it is somewhat unclear whether he actually held it (see Sidgwick, Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn. (London, 1907), pp. 127–31Google Scholar; Crisp, Roger, ‘Sidgwick's Hedonism’, Proceedings of the World Congress on Henry Sidgwick, ed. Bucolo, Placido, Crisp, Roger and Schultz, Bart (Catania, 2007)Google Scholar, sect. 3).

3 For instance, Sidgwick makes it clear that he intends his concept of pleasure to apply to ‘every species of “delight”, “enjoyment” or “satisfaction” . . ., the most refined and subtle intellectual and emotional gratifications, no less than the coarser and more definite sensual enjoyments’ (Sidgwick, Methods, pp. 93, 127).

4 See e.g. Crisp, Reasons, pp. 101–2.

5 See Grahek, Nikola, Feeling Pain and Being in Pain (Cambridge, Mass., 2001), ch. 7Google Scholar. Similar distinctions are drawn in Aydede, Murat, ‘An Analysis of Pleasure Vis-à-Vis Pain’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 69 (2000), pp. 537–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 546–52; Clark, Austen, ‘Painfulness is not a Quale’, Pain, ed. Aydede, Murat (Cambridge, Mass., 2005), pp. 177–98Google ScholarPubMed.

6 The so-called representational theory of pain, according to which pain is just a way of representing actual or potential bodily damage, is probably best understood as an account of painn rather than pains (see e.g. Tye, Michael, ‘Another Look at Representationalism about Pain’, Pain, ed. Aydede, , p. 112Google Scholar). If it is intended as an analysis of pains, it seems very implausible (see Rachels, Stuart, ‘Is Unpleasantness Intrinsic to Unpleasant Experiences?’, Philosophical Studies 99 (2000), pp. 187210CrossRefGoogle Scholar, in sect. 2). There is more to suffering than the representation of some fact about the organism.

7 See Moore, Principia, p. 64; Broad, Five Types, pp. 229–32; Schlick, Problems, ch. 2; Duncker, ‘On Pleasure’; Tännsjö, Hedonistic Utilitarianism, pp. 64–7; Mendola, ‘Intuitive Hedonism’, pp. 84–6; Smuts, ‘The Feels Good Theory’.

8 Tännsjö, Hedonistic Utilitarianism, p. 67; see also Broad, Five Types, pp. 229–31; Crisp, Reasons, pp. 108–9; Tännsjö, ‘Narrow Hedonism’, pp. 84–6.

9 Duncker, ‘On Pleasure’, pp. 399–400.

10 Broad, Five Types, p. 229.

11 Fred Feldman seems to think that if hedonic states are to be characterized by the way they feel, one would have to hold that all pleasure and pain is sensory. Thus, he takes the fact that a person who is paralysed could still experience pleasure to show that pleasure is not (merely) something that is felt (Feldman, Pleasure, pp. 56–7). Feldman offers no argument for the claim that there cannot be non-sensory feels, and I see no reason to accept it.

12 Duncker, ‘On Pleasure’, pp. 399–400; see also Smuts, ‘The Feels Good Theory’, sect. 4.

13 Supporters of the pluralist version of the hedonic tone view, which I discuss in section IV, could actually adopt a compromise between the two understandings of hedonic tone: some hedonic tones are mere aspects of non-hedonic states while others have a more independent existence.

14 See Aydede, ‘Analysis’; Grahek, Feeling Pain, ch. 7; Berridge, Kent C., ‘Pleasures of the Brain’, Brain & Cognition 52 (2003), pp. 106–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Russell, James A., ‘Core Affect and the Psychological Construction of Emotion’, Psychological Review 110 (2003), pp. 145–72CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

15 Feldman, Fred, ‘Hedonism’, Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. Becker, Lawrence C. and Becker, Charlotte B. (New York, 2001), p. 663Google Scholar.

16 See e.g. Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford, 1984), p. 501Google Scholar.

17 Berridge, Kent C., ‘Motivation Concepts in Behavioral Neuroscience’, Physiology & Behavior 81 (2004), pp. 179209CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; see also Katz, Leonard, ‘Hedonic Reasons as Ultimately Justifying and the Relevance of Neuroscience’, Moral Psychology, ed. Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter (Cambridge, Mass., 2008), pp. 409–18Google Scholar.

18 Doing so may also make preferentialism about value or reasons seem more plausible than it is.

19 Sobel, David, ‘Pain for Objectivists: The Case of Matters of Mere Taste’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 8 (2005), pp. 437–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 444–6.

20 Sidgwick, Methods, p. 127; Alston, ‘Pleasure’, p. 344; Parfit, Reasons, p. 493; Griffin, James, Well-being (Oxford, 1986), p. 8Google Scholar; Sprigge, Rational Foundations, ch. 5; Feldman, ‘On the Intrinsic Value of Pleasures’, pp. 461–4; Sobel, ‘Pain for Objectivists’; Heathwood, ‘Sensory Pleasure’, p. 26.

21 For a similar claim, see Smuts, ‘The Feels Good Theory’, sect. 5.

22 See e.g. Sidgwick, Methods, p. 127; Parfit, Reasons, p. 493; Mendola, ‘Intuitive Hedonism’, pp. 443–4.

23 Feldman, Fred, ‘Two Questions about Pleasure’, Philosophical Analysis: A Defense by Example, ed. Austin, David F. (Dordrecht, 1988)Google Scholar. Feldman's argument is only meant to apply to what he calls the distinctive feeling view. On Duncker's view, we could presumably compare the pleasantness of the two activities directly, since the hedonic tone generated by them would be aspects of different sensations and therefore introspectively distinguishable.

24 See Russell, ‘Core Affect’.

25 For discussions, see Berridge, ‘Pleasures’, sect. 5; Kringelbach, Morten, ‘The Human Orbitofrontal Cortex: Linking Reward to Hedonic Experience’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience 6 (2005), pp. 679712CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Leknes, Siri and Tracey, Irene, ‘A Common Neurobiology for Pain and Pleasure’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9 (2008), pp. 314–20CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Leonard Katz, ‘Pleasure’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, <> (2009), sect. 3.3.

26 Fred Feldman and L. W. Sumner analyse hedonic states in terms of a kind of liking or pro-attitude (Feldman, Pleasure, ch. 4; Sumner, Welfare, ch. 4); Richard B. Brandt, Christine Korsgaard and Chris Heathwood in terms of motivation (Brandt, Theory, ch. 2; Korsgaard, Sources, pp. 145–55; Heathwood, ‘Sensory Pleasure’). Some authors do not seem to distinguish clearly between liking and motivation (see e.g. Alston, ‘Pleasure’). Adam Swenson claims that the negative reaction that generates pain contains both an attitudinal and a motivational component (Swenson, ‘Pain's Evils’, sect. 2.2). It is not necessary for my purposes to discuss the differences between the liking and motivational accounts in any detail. For some criticisms specifically targeting each of them, see Rachels, ‘Unpleasantness’, sects. 3–4.

27 See Sumner, Welfare, pp. 87–91; Rachels, ‘Unpleasantness’; Crisp, Reasons, sect. 4.3; A. Moore, ‘Hedonism’.

28 Feldman, ‘Pleasure’, ch. 4.

29 Guy Kahane defends an account of pain according to which hedonic dislike is hedonically bad ‘because of how it intrinsically feels’ (Kahane, Guy, ‘Pain, Dislike and Experience’, Utilitas 21 (2009), pp. 327–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar). He never explains exactly what sort of thing hedonic dislike is supposed to be, but what he has in mind seems to be very similar to what I referred to as negative hedonic tone. Elinor Mason suggests that ‘the attitude of “taking pleasure in” does itself have a feel to it, and the feel is a primitive – the feel is pleasure’ (Mason, Elinor, ‘The Nature of Pleasure: A Critique of Feldman’, Utilitas 19 (2007), pp. 379–87, at 382CrossRefGoogle Scholar). Her view seems to be a version of the hedonic tone view according to which hedonic tone always occurs together with or as an aspect of a propositional attitude.

30 Feldman, Pleasure, pp. 55–6.

31 This point is also made in Crisp, Reasons, p. 107.

32 T. L. S. Sprigge makes a similar point when he says that Gilbert Ryle's motivational account of hedonic states ‘gives a strikingly joyless picture of pleasure’ (Sprigge, Foundations, pp. 131–2). See also Goldstein, Irwin, ‘Why People Prefer Pleasure to Pain’, Philosophy 55 (1980), pp. 349–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rachels, ‘Unpleasantness’, p. 196; Mason, ‘The Nature of Pleasure’; A. Moore, ‘Hedonism’, sect. 2.2.

33 Rachels, ‘Unpleasantness’, p. 196.

34 See e.g. Ross, David, The Right and the Good (Oxford, 1930), ch. 5Google Scholar; Nagel, Thomas, The View from Nowhere (Oxford, 1986), pp. 156–8Google Scholar.

35 Feldman, Pleasure, ch. 4.

36 Parfit, Derek, On What Matters (Oxford, 2011)Google Scholar, sect. 2.6. It should be mentioned that Parfit at one point suggests that sensations may be bad in themselves ‘when their quality is affected in certain ways by our disliking them’ (Parfit, On What Matters, p. 86). This would actually be a version of the hedonic tone view, though perhaps not a particularly plausible one.

37 In fact, Parfit explicitly denies that there are phenomenal feels that deserve to be hedonically liked (Parfit, On What Matters, sect. 2.6).

38 See Sobel, ‘Pain for Objectivists’ for a more elaborate discussion of Parfit's view.

39 Stuart Rachels also thinks that accepting a preferential analysis of pleasure supports preferentialism about value (Rachels, ‘Unpleasantness’, pp. 187–8). He does not, however, present this as an independent reason to question the preferential analysis of pleasure. His point is, rather, that if this analysis is, for other reasons, mistaken (and he goes on to argue that it is), value preferentialists are deprived of a potentially strong argument for their position.

40 See e.g. Quinn, Warren, Morality and Action (Cambridge, 1993), ch. 12Google Scholar; Scanlon, Thomas, What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, Mass., 1998)Google Scholar, sect. 1.9–1.10, Parfit, On What Matters, chs. 2–4.

41 The monistic hedonic tone view seems, on the other hand, congenial to both preferentialism and objectivism about value. One could hold that positive hedonic tone is valuable simply in virtue of what it is (indeed, I cannot imagine a more plausible candidate for having this status). But one could also hold that the value of pleasant experiences is conditional on their being desired or liked. Of course the pleasantness would not be conditional in this sense; it would be determined by the hedonic tone. There is nothing paradoxical about this, however. Something similar could, for instance, be said about the value of truth: our likes or desires do not determine what is true, but they do determine whether truth is valuable. The pluralistic version of the hedonic tone view outlined in the next section is not compatible with preferentialism about hedonic value, since it claims that pleasant states are united by their intrinsic, preference-independent goodness. However, it is, of course, compatible with preferentialism about other kinds of value.

42 See Alston, ‘Pleasure’, pp. 344–5; Parfit, Reasons, pp. 493–4; Sumner, Welfare, pp. 92–4; Feldman, ‘On the Intrinsic Value of Pleasures’, sect. VII; Sobel, ‘Pain for Objectivists’; Heathwood, ‘Sensory Pleasure’. Aaron Smuts is not convinced by the heterogeneity objection, but still accepts the assumption that if pleasures are heterogeneous, the hedonic tone view is thereby undermined (Smuts, ‘The Feels Good Theory’).

43 Heathwood, ‘Sensory Pleasure’, pp. 38–40.

44 Broad, Five Types, pp. 232–3; Sprigge, Foundations, ch. 5; Crisp, Reasons, pp. 103–9; see also Kahane, ‘Pain’, p. 336. Broad's suggestion is not meant as a response to the heterogeneity objection, but as a way of making Mill's qualitative hedonism intelligible. Of course there is nothing forcing a supporter of the pluralist hedonic tone view to try to defend Mill's notoriously problematic doctrine. Hedonic pluralism does, however, make room for another modification of traditional hedonism that may be more promising. If pleasure is the only thing that has intrinsic value, it should not matter where it comes from. If there is only one kind of pleasure, this means that a life filled with, say, eighty years of enjoying a warm bath should be just as valuable as a life filled with the same amount of enjoyment stemming from a large variety of activities. This might seem implausible. However, if there are several irreducibly different pleasures, it can with some plausibility be claimed that variation or some balance between these pleasures is intrinsically valuable. It certainly does not follow from hedonic pluralism that this must be so, and the claim that hedonic variation has intrinsic value may be hard to justify. But at least the pluralist has a possibility that the monist lacks. Sprigge puts great emphasis on this in his defence of hedonic pluralism.

45 Crisp, Reasons, p. 109.

46 See Sidgwick, Methods, p. 127; Alston, ‘Pleasure’, p. 344; Parfit, Reasons, p. 493; Griffin, Well-being, p. 8; Sprigge, Foundations, ch. 5; Feldman, ‘On the Intrinsic Value of Pleasures’, pp. 461–4; Sobel, ‘Pain for Objectivists’; Heathwood, ‘Sensory Pleasure’, p. 26. It should be noted that some of the authors do not distinguish clearly between these alternatives, but it seems unlikely from the context that they only want to defend the weaker claim.

47 Sidgwick, Methods, p. 127, see also p. 129.

48 Rachels, ‘Unpleasantness’, p. 198. Rachels is discussing unpleasantness, but he presumably intends the suggestion to apply to positive hedonic states as well.

49 See e.g. Feldman, Pleasure, ch. 1; Crisp, Reasons, ch. 4.

50 Scanlon, What We Owe, pp. 95–100.

51 For a somewhat similar discussion of Sidgwick's view, see Crisp, ‘Sidgwick's Hedonism’, sect. 3. Crisp interprets Sidgwick as, at heart, a supporter of the hedonic tone view, but not in its strongly pluralistic form.

52 Some think that this kind of normative property is objectionably strange and mysterious. I return to this potential problem in the next section.

53 Scanlon, What We Owe, p. 96.

54 Lewis, Clarence Irving, An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation (La Salle, Ill., 1946), p. 402Google Scholar.

55 Mendola, Joseph, ‘Objective Value and Subjective States’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 50 (1990), pp. 695713, at 702CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

56 Korsgaard, Sources, p. 146.

57 See e.g. Thomson, J. J., ‘The Right and the Good’, Journal of Philosophy 94 (1997), pp. 273–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

58 Kraut, Richard, ‘Desire and the Human Good’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 68 (1994), pp. 3954, at 46CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see also Korsgaard, Sources, pp. 145–55; Goldman, Alan H., ‘The Case Against Objective Values’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 11 (2008), pp. 507–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar, in sect. 5.

59 See e.g. Mackie, John, Ethics (Harmondsworth, 1977), ch. 1Google Scholar.

60 In fact, the only attempt to do so that I am aware of is Sharon Street's claim that there is an evolutionary explanation of why we think that certain mental qualities are intrinsically good or bad (Street, Sharon, ‘A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value’, Philosophical Studies 127 (2006), pp. 109–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar). Street is no doubt right that a hedonic normative illusion, once it comes into existence, might spread in the population. However, she never explains how the illusion is supposed to work in the first place (let alone provides any evidence that our minds actually work this way). How is the overwhelming appearance that there is something intrinsically bad with the way it typically feels to have intense toothache generated if there are no intrinsic hedonic values and all phenomenal qualities are neutral? To say that an evolutionary story makes this intelligible is a bit like saying that one can explain how time travel works by pointing out that it is conducive to reproduction.

61 Crisp, Reasons, pp. 108–9.

62 Crisp, Reasons, pp. 108–9. What Crisp calls monism is what I referred to above as moderate pluralism.

63 Presumably many actual pleasures would contain elements of more than one positive hedonic tone. This would explain, to some extent at least, why the different tones are extremely difficult to identify through introspection.

64 von Wright, G. H., The Varieties of Goodness (London, 1963), pp. 64–5Google Scholar.

65 I would like to thank Erik Brown, Roger Crisp and Stuart Rachels for useful comments on earlier versions of this article.