Moral Evaluations and the Subjectivity of Experience

monfreremonfrere - [original thread]

Typically a culture war battle involves a grievance of the form “X has wronged Y by doing such-and-such! Injustice!” Sometimes, though, it goes further: “You are ignorant - you just don’t know what that feels like for Y!” Or: “You are devaluing the subjective experience of Y!” This may be followed by some lecturing on what it feels like to be Y. (Occasionally it goes even further: “You are not Y and will NEVER know what it’s like to be Y. Therefore you must listen to Y. And anything you say on this topic is invalid, unless you are just affirming Y!” As far as I know only the woke faction goes this far, but I’m curious to hear other examples.)

To me, the subjectivity of experience poses serious philosophical problems that I hope y’all can help me resolve. But first, some examples:

  • From the manosphere: Consider what it’s like to be a man. No one cares about male stress, male loneliness, male suffering. Men are treated as disposable. Hence stoicism, etc. (Here I’m less interested in the object-level claims about workplace injuries and college enrollment and so forth, and more interested in claims about the valuation of subjective experience.)
  • From the neurodiverse: Consider what it’s like to be neuroatypical. Social conventions that are obvious to you are not obvious to us, or are very difficult to follow. Don't misinterpret a neuroatypical person’s failure to abide by social norms as rudeness or ill intent.
  • From animal rights activists: Consider what it’s like to be a pig or a chicken. Certain animals have a long-underappreciated capacity for suffering comparable to that of humans. We must avoid causing such animal suffering, for example by going vegan.
  • From the woke: Consider what it's like to be a woman, or a minority, or trans, etc. The subjective experience of these groups must never be “invalidated”. (Again, my focus is on claims relating to subjectivity and not more material grievances.) Etc.
    • Doctors apparently take women’s pain less seriously. This seems to show up in my feeds with some regularity; some random sources are here and here and here and here. I find this potentially rather frightening. Think of the untold pain experienced by women or any other group that happens to not be very convincing at expressing pain for some reason.
    • Women take on the lion’s share of emotional labor, which is ignored and unappreciated by men.
    • Microaggressions, which may appear trivial to you, add up over time and create an intolerable burden for women and minorities (and we must believe this subjective account).
    • Forms of sexual harassment that may seem trivial to you make women feel unsafe, which we know because they say so.
    • Gay people know subjectively that it’s not a choice and it’s not a phase; other people have no say in the matter.
    • Trans people know inside which gender they are; other people have no say in the matter.

Now, how in hell can any moral evaluations be made, given the subjectivity of experience? I mean, they’ve got a point. I will never know precisely what it’s like to be black trans woman. I can't possibly counter a claim that something I said made black trans women feel unsafe. But then we’re stuck, because any group can make any claim. Who do we listen to?

I think this is a problem for pretty much any moral framework. It’s hard to see how to implement principles like “Do no harm” or the Golden Rule if our qualia are incommensurable. For utilitarians, this is one aspect of the problem of the aggregation of preferences.

There are the easy cases, where even though you can’t explain the qualia, you can just explain the situation.

I recall a thread in this forum discussing a news article about black women protesting workplace standards for hair styles. And the OP was livid that these black women would not accept equal rules for everyone. This got lots of upvotes. Then someone came and explained how ridiculously difficult and cumbersome for some black people to style their hair in “professional” styles. Sadly this did not get as many upvotes. I do think this is a case of pure ignorance leading to an incorrect conclusion about fairness.

But then there are the purely subjective cases, in which someone says they feel great pain or fear or lack of safety. It’s harder to bridge the gap here.

One approach is to reason by analogy. But of course there are many pitfalls.

I like to think that as a gay man I have greater insight than most straight men into certain aspects of womanhood. For example, I know what it’s like to feel used sexually, or to question yourself afterward after certain acts are sprung upon you despite your protestations. (“I guess I sort of consented in the end, implicitly.”) I know what it’s like to say no to someone 20 times, and still have them follow you to your door and refuse to leave. I know what it’s like to have your butt grabbed, rather aggressively and penetratingly, by a random dude at a bar. The problem is that my takeaway from these experiences is mostly that … they aren’t that bad, and people who are sexually harassed should just get over it or be more assertive. (And I don’t think I’m a psychopath or a trauma victim.) I guess it’s true I was never truly concerned about my physical safety the way a woman might be, but then again I really don’t think women are generally in danger of physical injury when they are harassed in public. But of course the real problem is that I don’t have the psychology of the average woman. The only way I know that things that seem minor to me are apparently very very bad is that women say so.

Maybe actually straight men are in a better position to understand women’s fears. What’s the line? Imagine you’re surrounded by NFL linemen trying to fuck you?

(Notably, the other line, “imagine if it were your sister/mother”, tries to step around the problem of empathy altogether.)

Other famous hypothetical analogies are the violinist argument in defense of abortion and “imagine you wake up in the wrong body” for trans people. But of course these will still get all kinds of objections, to which the response is, again, “OK, the analogy may be imperfect, but you just don’t get it since you’re not trans.” This is, in fact, trivially true. And we’re back to square one.

Compounding the problem are a few more difficulties:

  • It’s in each group’s interest to exaggerate their pain and suffering. Woke people don’t seem to acknowledge this at all; the anti-woke see this as driving everything.
  • Some groups may be naturally more inclined to work to empathize with another group’s suffering. This would lead to the sort of unfairness bemoaned by the neat freak who has to clean up everyone else’s mess in the house because they’re the only one who cares. But again, the claims conflict. Women say they do all the empathizing - they’ll watch movies with only male leads, but men don’t watch movies with only female leads. But Scott Aaronson and Scott Alexander bemoan feminists who won’t even try to empathize with male nerds. Trump country seethes at the condescension from coastal elites, but Democrats on Twitter say they’re the tribe that has more cross-aisle empathy — when, they ask, will conservative media publish their searching post-2020-election media profiles of random city folk trying to understand why they voted for Biden, the way journalists did for Trump voters?

All of this just seems insoluble. An assumption of liberalism is that we can work everything out through civil discourse, but I just don’t see how any amount of speech can bridge the chasm between my subjective experience and yours. If our theory of justice depends at all on people’s mental states, then I don’t see how we can ever even know what that justice is.