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Unconscious Pleasures and Attitudinal Theories of Pleasure


This article responds to a new objection, due to Ben Bramble, against attitudinal theories of sensory pleasure and pain: the objection from unconscious pleasures and pains. According to the objection, attitudinal theories are unable to accommodate the fact that sometimes we experience pleasures and pains of which we are, at the time, unaware. In response, I distinguish two kinds of unawareness and argue that the subjects in the examples that support the objection are unaware of their sensations in only a weak sense, and this weak sort of unawareness of a sensation does not preclude its being an object of one's attitudes.

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1 Heathwood, Chris, ‘The Reduction of Sensory Pleasure to Desire’, Philosophical Studies 133 (2007), pp. 2344.

2 Feldman, Fred, ‘Two Questions about Pleasure’, Philosophical Analysis: A Defense by Example, ed. Austin, D. (Dordrecht, 1988), pp. 5981.

3 Hall, Richard J., ‘Are Pains Necessarily Unpleasant?’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 49 (1989), pp. 643–59.

4 In what follows, to avoid stilted language, sometimes I say ‘pain’ when it might be more accurate to say ‘unpleasantness’. At other times I talk only about pleasure when the point would apply to unpleasantness as well.

5 Bramble, Ben, ‘The Distinctive Feeling Theory of Pleasure’, Philosophical Studies 162 (2013), pp. 201–17, at 203–4. One such competitor is the distinctive feeling theory, on which sensations like the smell of freshly baked bread or the taste of a peach cause a further, distinct sensation, the sensation of pleasure itself (Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica (Cambridge, 1903), §12; Bramble, ‘Distinctive Feeling Theory’). Another non-attitudinal theory of sensory pleasure is the hedonic tone theory, on which pleasurableness is an abstract sensory determinable of which certain determinate sensations, such as the smell of freshly baked bread or the taste of a peach, are instances (Broad, C. D., Five Types of Ethical Theory (London, 1930), pp. 229–37).

6 Bramble, ‘Distinctive Feeling Theory’, p. 204, italics removed.

7 Haybron, Daniel M., The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (Oxford, 2008), p. 205.

8 Sacks, Oliver, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales (New York, 1987), p. 159.

9 Rachels, Stuart, ‘Six Theses about Pleasure’, Philosophical Perspectives 18 (2004), pp. 247–67, at 254–6.

10 Rachels, ‘Six Theses’, p. 255, quoting from Mill, J. S., Utilitarianism (London, 1863), ch. 2, §12.

11 Bramble, ‘Distinctive Feeling Theory’, p. 204, italics mine.

12 My own attitudinal theory explicitly requires the attitude to be de re (Heathwood, ‘Reduction of Sensory Pleasure’, pp. 31–2).

13 Or at least they would not easily come to believe this. Since this notion of ease comes in degrees, weak unawareness lies on a spectrum. Perhaps the relevant dimension is how much attention-paying would be required on one's part to come to believe that one is experiencing the sensation (if it is even possible, in a given case, for one to come to believe this). At one end of the spectrum is the case in which one does not occurrently believe that one is experiencing the sensation but would come to believe it after just a little reflection if one were to consider the question. At the other end of the spectrum is the case in which not only does one not believe that one is experiencing the sensation, but one would continue to fail to believe it no matter how much one attended to the matter and how hard one tried to notice the sensation.

14 I am grateful to Joshua Watson here. A related kind of case involves distracted subjects. A subject might be weakly aware of a sensation even though, were it to cease, the subject would fail to notice that, due to the fact that, were it to cease, the subject would happen to be distracted at the moment of cessation.

15 My opponent may want to insist that there are these strongly unconscious sensations, that some of them are pleasant or unpleasant, and that attitudinal theories cannot accommodate this second fact. I agree that attitudinal theories may not be able to accommodate this (though see the next footnote), but because it is so unclear whether there are any such sensations and also, if there are some, whether any of them are pleasant or unpleasant, an objection founded on them lacks dialectical force.

16 Though perhaps not undeniable. Perhaps we can be unconsciously aware of strongly unconscious sensations, and thus have unconscious attitudes towards them. Attitudinal theories of sensory pleasure and unpleasantness would then imply that there can be strongly unconscious sensory pleasure and unpleasantness. It would be a further question whether such sensations make our lives better or worse.

17 Haybron, Pursuit of Unhappiness, p. 205.

18 I am grateful to audiences at the Affective Experience: Pain and Pleasure Workshop at York University in 2015; at the Fifth Annual Tennessee Value and Agency Conference: Pleasure and Pain at the University of Tennessee in 2016; and at the Center for Values and Social Policy at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2016. For extensive feedback, special thanks to Ben Bramble, Anthony Kelley, Eden Lin, and Rob Rupert.

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  • ISSN: 0953-8208
  • EISSN: 1741-6183
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