Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Ben Bradley

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Philosophy


My dissertation is about the nature and value of those conscious experiences which feel good or bad to us, and which I call ‘valent’ experiences. When an experience is positively valent, I call it ‘pleasure’; when it is negatively valent, I call it ‘pain’. The dissertation consists of three chapters; they are interrelated, but they can also be read as independent papers. In the first chapter, I discuss emotional experience and its relation to sensory experience. First, I draw on Plato to set some conditions on what counts as sensory experience. Then, I present two arguments against the claim that emotional experience is wholly sensory: my first argument is based on the possibility of knowledge of emotion by acquaintance; my second argument is based on the non-sensory nature of valence. I argue that emotional valence is experientially felt, but that the experiential quality of its positive and negative character cannot be accounted for merely by appeal to the experiential qualities of perception and bodily sensation. My conclusion is that not all experience is sensory experience, and that valent experience is an example of non-sensory experience. In the second chapter, I discuss a classic objection against experientialist accounts of valence called ‘the heterogeneity objection’. In short, the objection says that the valence of a mental state – in other words, the painfulness of pain and the pleasurability of pleasure, where ‘pain’ and ‘pleasure’ are understood most broadly – cannot itself be experientially felt, because the experiential profile of similarly valent mental states is too varied and diverse for it to be plausible that they have any experiential features in common. I argue that valence is a non-sensory feature of experience, and that the nature of non-sensory experience is such that, independently of whether positively and negatively valent mental states share any common sensory experiential qualities, they are experientially unified in a non-sensory way. In the third chapter, I discuss an objection to experientialist accounts of well-being known as ‘the experience-machine objection’. In a nutshell, the objection says that if it were true that a person’s well-being is entirely determined by the quality of her experience – as the experientist claims – then a person could spend her whole life plugged into a simulation, or some other sort of ‘experience machine’, which completely alienates her from reality and the rest of society, and, as long as the experiences induced by the simulation were sufficiently positive, it would follow that this person is living a perfectly good life. But this implication seems wrong, and thus we should conclude that experientialism about well-being is false. I respond to this objection by appeal to a genealogical account of the intrinsic values of justice and truth. I argue that, although there is a primitive notion of well-being, or self-interest, which experientialism can aptly capture, the human condition is such that cooperation requires us to bind our own self-interest to shared values of justice and truth. Once these shared values are established, they rightfully shape our conception of the good life from the outside, so to speak, by limiting it. This, I submit, is what explains why a life in the experience machine cannot be perfectly good from the perspective of the person living it.


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Available for download on Friday, January 17, 2025

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