In Defense of Radical Value Pluralism

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 16, 2010 in Ethics

Theories of morality can be value monistic or value pluralistic. That is, they may claim that there is one thing that has moral value, or they can claim that many things have moral value.

Let’s focus on consequentialism. Consequentialists have often been value monists. They have claimed that only one thing has moral value, and this one thing should be maximized. Perhaps the one thing of moral value is:

  • Pleasure (Bentham)
  • Happiness (Mill)
  • Preference Satisfaction (Singer)
  • Human flourishing (Pigliucci)
  • The well-being of conscious creatures (Harris)

For value monists, lots of things have value (friendship, sex, career success, etc.), but they only have instrumental value insofar as they help to maximize the one thing of super value.

Other consequentialists propose a short list of things that have moral value.

  • Happiness, loving personal relationships, appreciation of beauty, and a few other things (Moore)
  • Happiness, well-being, health, and a few other things (Clifton)

Value monism has been attacked by Williams (“Ethical Consistency”), Stocker (Plural and Conflicting Values), Wiggins (“Weakness of Will, Commensurability, and the Objects of Deliberation and Desire”), Nussbaum (The Fragility of Goodness), and Swanton (Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View).

But these arguments on this subject depend on trusting our intuitions about whether certain things are right or wrong or rational, which is not the kind of argument that persuades someone like me. My brain did not evolve to have accurate intuitions about what is morally right or wrong or rational. My brain evolved to eat and fuck. So I have no reason to trust my intuitions about “right” or “wrong” or “rational.”

I offer a different kind of argument against value monism and against short list theories of value.

First, consider the arguments in favor of value monism.

One argument is that moral value must come from intrinsic value, and only one thing (happiness, perhaps) has intrinsic value, and all other things do not. But whenever I ask for evidence of this claim, people can only point to their own intuitions. I am always amazed at how quickly people who call themselves evidentialists suddenly become intuitionists when it comes to morality.

Another argument for value monism comes from the notion that that morality is (by definition) action-guiding. Morality must have a definitive answer for “what should I do?” But if many things have value, there might not always be a definitive moral answer to that question, so value monism must be true. I resist this argument because (1) I don’t think that morality must always have an answer to the “what should I do?” question; there are genuine moral dilemmas, and (2) even if many things have value, there may still be a way to weigh them against each other.

A third argument for value monism comes from those who, like me, think that moral value can only arise from things that are valued by valuing beings. Such people reject intrinsic value, and insist that something has value only if some being values it. For example, here is Richard Carrier:

On close analysis, I believe there is only one core value: in agreement with Aristotle and Richard Taylor, I find this to be a desire for happiness. I believe that all other values are derived from this, in conjunction with other facts of the universe, and that all normative values are what they are because they must be held and acted upon in order for any human being to have the best chance of achieving a genuine, enduring happiness.

The claim is that the only thing that is valued is happiness, and all other things are valued instrumentally: they are valued because they contribute to happiness.

I think that claim is false.

That claim misunderstands how valuing happens, at least in humans.

Things have value to us when we desire them. A cup of coffee has value when I desire it. Sunshine has value when I desire it. Sex has value because you desire it. Spinach has value to some people because they desire it.

A desire is what philosophers call a “propositional attitude.” It is an attitude toward a proposition. In particular, a desire is an attitude that a proposition be made or kept true. When I desire that my mother be happy, my desire is an attitude that the proposition “Luke’s mother is happy” be made or kept true.

Here, the (happiness) value monist wants to claim that the only proposition to which my desire can be attached is the proposition “Luke is happy.” But this is false. I can desire that pretty much any proposition be made or kept true. I can have an attitude that “The sun exists” be made or kept true. I can have an attitude that “I am running through flowers” be made or kept true. I can even have an attitude that “My future child is compassionate” be made or kept true.

These are two different theories about value. For convenience, let’s call the value monist’s theory “Happiness Theory.”

Alonzo Fyfe illustrates the difference between the two in this way:

Assume that you and somebody you care about (e.g., your child) are kidnapped by a mad scientist. This scientist gives you two options:

Option 1: Your child will be taken away and tortured. However, you will be made to believe that your child is living a happy and healthy life. You will receive regular reports and even correspondence explaining how great your child’s life is. Except, they will all be fake. In fact, we will take your child to another location and spend every day peeling off his skin while soaking him in a vat of salt water, among other things.

Option 2: Your child will be taken away, provided with paid medical insurance, an endowment to complete an education, will be hired into a good job, and will be caused to live a healthy and happy life. However, you will be made to believe that your child is suffering excruciating torture. You will be able to hear what you think are your child’s screams coming down the hallway. We will show you video of the torture. It will all be fake, of course, but you will be convinced it is real.

Of course, after you make your choice, we will make you forget that you even had these options presented to you.

What do you choose?

Now, we are not going to kidnap people and make them choose. However, both theories need to explain the fact that the vast majority of parents, for example, report that, in such a situation, they would choose Option 2.

Happiness theory seems to suggest that the agent should choose Option 1. After all, the agent will be happier receiving news (that she believes) that says that her child is living a happy and healthy life. So, if happiness is what she is after, and Option1 delivers more happiness, then Option 1 is the rational choice.

Why do people choose Option 2?

Because happiness theory is wrong. In fact, people do not choose happiness. They choose “making or keeping true the propositions that are the objects of our desires.” In this case, the desire in question is the desire that one’s child be healthy and happy. A person with a desire that “my child is healthy and happy” will select that option that will make or keep the proposition, “my child is healthy and happy” true. That is Option 2.

People do not value just one thing. Nor do they value just a short list of things. Their desires can have a vast array of propositions as their objects. Radical value pluralism, I think, is true.

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{ 51 comments… read them below or add one }

Taranu October 16, 2010 at 6:12 am

catch of the day: “My brain evolved to eat and fuck”

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lukeprog October 16, 2010 at 7:19 am

heh

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Joel October 16, 2010 at 7:33 am

This post seems to lean heavily on examples of consequentialist and utilitarian constructions of value.

But of cous deontologists have differing ideas of what ought to be done – of what has intrinsic value. And there are of course monists (like Kant) and pluralists (W. D. Ross).

Just wanted to add some examples to the ranks of value pluralists.

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g October 16, 2010 at 9:27 am

Fyfe’s example shows that most people are not their-own-happiness theorists when they make decisions. It doesn’t show that they aren’t happiness theorists, since it’s plausible that total happiness, or total happiness weighted by how much they care about different people, is higher if they choose option 2 than if they choose option 1.

(I agree with you, however, that it is much nearer the mark to say that food and fun and sex and learning and so forth make people happy because they value them, than that people value them because they make them happy.)

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Rob October 16, 2010 at 9:45 am

“My brain evolved to eat and fuck”

Nearly right. Your brain evolved to get your genes into the next generation. Eating and fucking certainly go a long way to getting that done. But other things as well. Like getting along with your tribe mates.

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Steven October 16, 2010 at 10:59 am

“Because happiness theory is wrong. In fact, people do not choose happiness. They choose ‘making or keeping true the propositions that are the objects of our desires.’”

Here is were I lost you. Are we basing the truth of morality (and in this case, intrinsic values) based on people’s preexisting conceptions of what should be done, and use that to determine what is morally good and wrong? If so, I don’t think this refutes or actually criticizes monists; you’re just proving that people like to act with more values than what the Monist proposes, but not that happiness is the only thing with intrinsic value. Thing is, if happiness is the only moral way to act, regardless of what people choose, Option 2 would have to be the correct one.

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tmp October 16, 2010 at 11:55 am

“Happiness theory seems to suggest that the agent should choose Option 1. After all, the agent will be happier receiving news (that she believes) that says that her child is living a happy and healthy life.”

But the agent knows the truth before deciding. She knows that her future happiness will be false, and that may make her very unhappy indeed at the moment of decision.

The same thing can be constructed for Desirism; if someone kidnaps you, and gives you the option to have all your desires replaced with a desire to be hit in the face, and then promises to hold you and beat you for the rest of your life, Desirism clearly indicates that agreeing is the right thing to do. Or not. But the same goes for happiness theory, no?

Also, is it not reasonably accurate to define “I’m happy” as “my desires are being fullfilled”?

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demiurge October 16, 2010 at 12:09 pm

I take issue with both the experiment and the interpretation of the results. The experiment is riddled with possible interpretations for its results. An example, Is it not highly likely that the parent would think much less of him/herself if they choose option 1. If this is the case then the experiment is measuring the parent’s happiness derived from their sense of honor and duty to their child and displayed by their choice of option 2.

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Garren October 16, 2010 at 12:17 pm

@lukeprog

But these arguments on this subject depend on trusting our intuitions about whether certain things are right or wrong or rational

Why can’t consequentialism depend on identifying what people mean when they use moral terms? If I notice that most people use moral “good” and “bad” to describe overall positive or negative consequences (of a certain kind), it seems I can conclude that moral terms are generally used to sum up that sort of calculation.

I see the various consequentialist theories as attempts to capture the widest range of moral term usage. As you pointed out, Luke, some consequentialists gave up on capturing all moral usage with one fundamental evaluation and went to a “short list” approach. Either way, there’s no intuition involved about the properties of some spooky “goodness” entity. I don’t think your analogy to questioning God belief holds if moral terms are simply truth-apt evaluations of particular non-moral elements.

So far as I can tell, Desirism is a consequentialist theory of this kind, even if it’s not a consequentialist theory in the way you characterize them. There’s no need to say happiness or desire fulfillment have intrinsic value in order to use happiness or desire fulfillment in an consequence-evaluation process and summing things up with a moral term.

Isn’t this how you end up labeling a desire as a “good desire” even if no desire is intrinsically good or bad?

***

Regarding the mad scientist thought experiment, that only shows how people don’t always seek to maximize their own happiness.

Even if we do assume what people seek to do is equivalent to their moral evaluations (and that’s a big “if”), it still only show that people consider more than their own happiness when making moral evaluations. If being tortured is a greater blow to happiness than believing a loved one is being tortured, happiness consequentialism would actually predict the given results.

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Silas October 16, 2010 at 1:45 pm

The same thing can be constructed for Desirism; if someone kidnaps you, and gives you the option to have all your desires replaced with a desire to be hit in the face, and then promises to hold you and beat you for the rest of your life, Desirism clearly indicates that agreeing is the right thing to do. Or not. But the same goes for happiness theory, no?

You don’t know a thing about desirism, do you?

That is so absurdly wrong that… I’m speechless. Holy crap. That’s beyond fail. It’s not even funny.

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Silas October 16, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Our brains are physical. So is there only one type of brain state that is associated with happiness? Our are there several? Why is it that one configuration of atoms is better than the other? Why is it “good” if, for example, 100 neurons fire to the right instead of to the left?

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Garren October 16, 2010 at 2:07 pm

@ Silas

It’s not necessary for happiness itself to evaluate as “morally good” for us to measure moral goodness in terms of happiness.

Same deal with measuring moral goodness in terms of desire fulfillment without needing to claim that desire fulfillment itself is morally good.

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cl October 16, 2010 at 4:52 pm

FWIW, I’ve responded to this post here.

Luke,

One argument is that moral value must come from intrinsic value, and only one thing (happiness, perhaps) has intrinsic value, and all other things do not. But whenever I ask for evidence of this claim, people can only point to their own intuitions.

I don’t have a problem with you asking for evidence beyond intuition, I just wonder what type of evidence might persuade you. Do scientists have a “morality tester” that can identify the “one true morality” without appealing to human intuition? It would seem that could only be possible if intrinsic value actually did exist. As opposed to, say, the behavior of non-conscious objects bound by the laws of physics, isn’t morality inextricably intertwined to human intuitions?

Here, the (happiness) value monist wants to claim that the only proposition to which my desire can be attached is the proposition “Luke is happy.” But this is false. I can desire that pretty much any proposition be made or kept true. I can have an attitude that “The sun exists” be made or kept true. I can have an attitude that “I am running through flowers” be made or kept true. I can even have an attitude that “My future child is compassionate” be made or kept true.

Why would you desire to run through flowers, unless of course running through flowers was instrumental in making yourself or somebody else happier? Why would you desire to have a compassionate child, unless of course it was instrumental in contributing to your child’s happiness, or the happiness of other sentient creatures?

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cl October 16, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Weird. I didn’t send that pingback. Does Wordpress have some kind of code that sniffs other Wordpress blogs for related links or something?

g,

Fyfe’s example shows that most people are not their-own-happiness theorists when they make decisions. It doesn’t show that they aren’t happiness theorists, since it’s plausible that total happiness, or total happiness weighted by how much they care about different people, is higher if they choose option 2 than if they choose option 1.

I agree. That’s why that particular argument of Fyfe’s seems to be a bit of a straw man to me.

Steven,

Are we basing the truth of morality (and in this case, intrinsic values) based on people’s preexisting conceptions of what should be done, and use that to determine what is morally good and wrong?

Though Luke and Fyfe will emphatically deny that this is what they are doing, I believe this is essentially what they are doing. From everything I’ve seen so far, Luke and Fyfe base moral truths on the relation of desires to other desires, but – much like intuitions – desires are subjective and arbitrary. So, the desirist bases moral claims on the dynamics of subjective, arbitrary entities.

tmp,

…is it not reasonably accurate to define “I’m happy” as “my desires are being fullfilled”?

I would say yes for the most part, which is why I think Luke and Fyfe split hairs in their arguments against value monism.

Garren,

So far as I can tell, Desirism is a consequentialist theory of this kind, even if it’s not a consequentialist theory in the way you characterize them. There’s no need to say happiness or desire fulfillment have intrinsic value in order to use happiness or desire fulfillment in an consequence-evaluation process and summing things up with a moral term.

Yes, thank you for that. This is part of what I mean when I say that even though Luke and Fyfe claim that desirism doesn’t maximize desire fulfillment, their claims as stated thus far suggest otherwise. Hopefully I’ll get the time to expand on this in an upcoming post.

Regarding the mad scientist thought experiment, that only shows how people don’t always seek to maximize their own happiness.

Correct. That’s why I find Fyfe’s objection unpersuasive, if not a straw man. Happiness value monists don’t necessarily require that people only be concerned with their own happiness.

Silas,

You don’t know a thing about desirism, do you?

Unfortunately, this seems to have become a stock response to objections lately. I wish people like you who belittle other commenters’ understanding of the theory would devote that same energy to a cogent defense of the theory, but – do what thou wilt.

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lukeprog October 16, 2010 at 5:10 pm

cl, in response to your article:

1. ‘value’ as a noun refers to a relation between desires and states of affairs.
2. I can desire something but not act on it because desires can be outweighed by other desires.
3. You ask what kind of evidence would show me that something has intrinsic value. I don’t know. Not my problem. If you think intrinsic value exists, then explain what you mean by that, what predictions your theory makes, and show me that the predictions turn out to be correct.

That’s all for now.

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tmp October 16, 2010 at 5:18 pm

@Silas

“You don’t know a thing about desirism, do you?

That is so absurdly wrong that… I’m speechless. Holy crap. That’s beyond fail. It’s not even funny.”

I think it’s absurd too, but I meant it as an objection to the happiness utilitarianism example. If you are allowed to magically alter memories, you can construct odd cases for happiness utilitiarism.

If you are allowed to magically alter desires, you can construct odd cases for desirism. Agreeing, in my silly example, will create a situation where no desires are being thwarted(since there is only the one) and all desires(well, the on desire) is being fullfilled. Isn’t this exactly the state that Desirism prescribes for?

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Steven October 16, 2010 at 5:53 pm

What I find curious about Silas’ objection is that it presupposes that hitting someone is inherently wrong, and, therefore, if Desirism reaches the conclusion that hitting someone can be morally permissible if they desire it, then Desirism must be wrong. We must avoid this sort of thinking because, unless you can PROVE that hitting someone, regardless of context, desires, etc. is wrong, your objection is meaningless, since we’re talking within the context of Desirism, which defines good and bad, and your own preconceptions become irrelevant. Truly, this means that if for whatever reason, Desirism were to justify murder, under its terms, murder would be good.

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tmp October 16, 2010 at 5:59 pm

@Silas

Now that I think about it, I was wrong. Eradicating or forcibly altering desires obviously counts as thwarting.

However, I still don’t think Luke’s example is quite correct. The agent in question obviously loves her child, so the child’s happiness makes her happy. At the moment of decision, there is two happinesses against one misery.
After the memory erasure, there is, in either case, one misery and one happiness.

And wouldn’t desirism face the same problem, if we use the situation after memory erasure to make our decision. The agent desires that the child is healthy and happy, and by choosing the child to be tortured, the agent will THINK that the child is healthy and happy. The desire will be fullfilled.

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cl October 16, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Luke,

Well thanks for the change of pace. I find your earnest participation refreshing, and encouraging. I’m actually feeling a bit optimistic here.

1) I agree, I just think your language invites confusion amongst the philosophically uninitiated. No big deal if you disagree, and I’d rather not devote any more time to it.

2) Fair enough, at least for now.

3) Allow me to use value as a noun for the sake of brevity here. When I say that I believe certain acts have intrinsic value, that means I believe certain acts are right or wrong regardless of any human opinions about them. For example, rape and murder. What predictions does my theory make? Well, to begin, it predicts that in every instance where an otherwise psychologically healthy individual rapes or murders, all other psychologically healthy individuals will react with some degree of repugnance. I include the caveat “otherwise psychologically healthy” to temporarily avoid discussion of psychopaths, who generally do not share the reaction of repugnance to such acts.

However, when I hear you and Alonzo argue against intrinsic value, you appear to be arguing against some mystical force or entity that I’ve never argued for in the first place, so it seems we’re talking about two different things.

So, now that I’ve clarified exactly what I mean when I say I believe that certain acts have intrinsic value, what exactly do you mean when you say you deny that intrinsic value exists?

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cl October 16, 2010 at 6:09 pm

tmp,

Personally, I would like to see Alonzo make his case against happiness theory using a real-world example.

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Hermes October 16, 2010 at 7:51 pm

Cl: So, now that I’ve clarified exactly what I mean when I say I believe that certain acts have intrinsic value, what exactly do you mean when you say you deny that intrinsic value exists?

Cl, I’m not necessarily against your point of view. I don’t think that you have made a good case for it yet, and it would be good to see your best possible attempt.

If you are saying that humans in general find some values to be shared, that could be an example of collective subjectivity not necessarily intrinsic value.

1. If you mean a shared general subjective sense, then stating that would be informative and may allow others to move with you in a different direction.

2. If you do not mean that, I request that you expand on your case and provide more details so as to show what you mean by intrinsic value and why it is not just a common subjective sense.

Continuing (if #2)…

The explanation you provided seemed to state some values were intrinsic, but did not actually state why they are with any specificity.

As noted, if you make a stronger case by expanding on your point of view with the addition of details, it would make it more likely that people would see your point of view. Right now, it’s not clear what you are saying beyond asserting that intrinsic values just are.

I realize that you must have those details or you would not have just asserted something for no reason. As such, I am only requesting that you share those details so that others can see and appreciate your point of view.

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thepowerofmeow October 16, 2010 at 8:52 pm

Yeah, I agree with the idea that the parent chooses option 2 because it contributes to his/her greater sense of well-being now, when the decision is made.

This is because if there are values, there must be a reason why they are valued. If there is right and wrong, why should I choose right? And if I see no reason to choose right, then why is it right?

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lukeprog October 16, 2010 at 10:12 pm

cl,

You define “intrinsic value” as a property possessed by acts that are right or wrong regardless of human opinion, and then you cite an example of an act that is “wrong” because human opinion is against it. I am confused.

Moreover, ‘intrinsic value’ usually means something quite different. Intrinsic value usually refers to value that a thing has in itself – that is, it would have value even if no beings valued it. It would have value if it was all alone by itself in some universe.

Luke

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Yair October 17, 2010 at 1:52 am

People do not value just one thing. Nor do they value just a short list of things. Their desires can have a vast array of propositions as their objects. Radical value pluralism, I think, is true.

This is an empirical claim about human nature. Where is the science to back it up?

Clearly, people do as a matter of fact value different things, but equally clearly they desire at least some things as means to something else, as secondary desires. The Happiness Theory is not that people don’t value lots of things, but rather that happiness is the Final End, that all the various desires of people are derived from it – with errors along the way, of course. Fyfe’s thought experiment is compatible with desiring to maximize global happiness, as noted above. Where is the science against it?

Now, I do think value monism is eminently implausible given our evolutionary past. But at the same time, I think radical value pluralism is just as implausible. It strikes me as most plausible that we have a certain basic structure of instinctive basic desires. And this implies a more modest value pluralism.

Then again, perhaps this basic instinctive structure of desires serves only as the basis on which we construct our desire-structure through our life-experience. Perhaps desires only beat each other out by brute intensity, not by being more “basic”. If “secondary” desires become independent and can drive out “primary” ones, the distinction loses its meaning and all we’re left with are desires. Even then, however, as a matter of fact it is likely that our shared genetic and cultural heritage will lead to only a few overriding desires, so we again end up with a more modest pluralism – albeit a wider one.

Both of these options are mere hypotheses. Where is the data?

Finally, if we are to make decisions at all we need to compare different desires, which is an algorithm of maximizing desire fulfillment (not the emotion, but the value to us of their fulfillment and/or curtailment in the real world). So by definition what every agent seeks is an inner harmony, a state which minimizes collision between different desires. Which just is the Greek eudaimonia, that which is poorly translated as “happiness”. So in a sense the fact that we all seek happiness is a tautology. This “happiness”, however, is not the external objective happiness that Happiness Theory talks about. And it is not a thing we seek for itself, but rather the sum total of what we seek; we don’t seek the feeling of tranquility, but rather achieving what we want leads to tranquility.

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cl October 17, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Hermes,

I appreciate your earnest participation for once. I’ve taken your comments into consideration, and, as I explain below, I will spend some time fleshing out my thoughts on intrinsic value. Please, stay tuned.

Luke,

You define “intrinsic value” as a property possessed by acts that are right or wrong regardless of human opinion,

No I didn’t. I said, “When I say that I believe certain acts have intrinsic value, that means I believe certain acts are right or wrong regardless of any human opinions about them.” I did not say anything about any “property possessed” because I am not sure that such is even possible. At the moment, I’m leaning towards the position that such a thing is not possible. At the same time, I question whether “possession of a property” must be intrinsic to the definition of intrinsic value.

Intrinsic value usually refers to value that a thing has in itself – that is, it would have value even if no beings valued it. It would have value if it was all alone by itself in some universe.

Is that your official definition of intrinsic value, at least for the time being? If so, as I said, I’m leaning towards the position that such a claim is nonsensical. Nothing “has” or “possesses” value, with or without a valuer. Rather, humans value objects, emotions, and states of affairs that are instrumental in allowing them to fulfill their desires. This is why I have recently decided that using value as a verb is more precise.

Respond if you wish, but know that I’m going to take the time to draft a more thorough response to these questions. In the meantime, I would prefer that you temporarily forego my comments in favor of Yair’s request for evidence supporting your claim that,

People do not value just one thing. Nor do they value just a short list of things. Their desires can have a vast array of propositions as their objects. Radical value pluralism, I think, is true.

It seems to me that when you say you “think” radical value pluralism is true, you are actually saying you “intuit” radical value pluralism to be true. If this is not the case, then, by all means, where is the empirical, scientific evidence for your claim?

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Steven October 17, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Cl, I do believe you are getting yourself very confused. Here’s what Luke was saying (and I shall paraphrase your posts):

Cl: I believe inherent values are things that are wrong, irrespective of human opinion, such as murder and rape. To prove this claim, I shall cite how psychologically sane people are repulsed by murder and rape.

Luke: That doesn’t make any sense because you just used subjective human judgment to prove that rape is wrong irrespective of human judgment.

For your initial claim that “I believe certain acts have intrinsic value, that means I believe certain acts are right or wrong regardless of any human opinions about them”, you’d have to provide an example of HOW something is wrong irrespective of human perception.

And, if I may add, I don’t think that’s possible. The more I think about it, the more I’m starting to think Mackie may have been onto something with his Argument of Queerness. If morals exist objectively, then they would either be observable natural moral facts OR they would have to supercede natural laws and then become strange properties, which probably wouldn’t be understood by humanity, or require that humans have a special faculty for understanding these queer properties and facts.

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Steven October 17, 2010 at 5:42 pm

The following thought just struck me:

1. If objective values exist, then they are unalterable and irrespective of human judgment, criticism, and perception
2. For humans to determine whether they accept something is true, it requires human judgment
3. Therefore, objective morality can never be determined by humans

Now to place an example for this:

Moral System A claims slavery is right. Moral System B claims slavery is wrong. For Steve to choose a Moral System, he must consider the merits of each system, but in judging which one is best, he must necessarily bring his own biases into the table, thus making objective morals subject to his own perception. Therefore, Steve (or any other human being) cannot determine what objective morality is.

I feel that although it can be worded better, this conveys my point well. It needs refinement, no doubt…

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Hermes October 17, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Cl, I’m always earnest. I am exceedingly patient as well.

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Hermes October 17, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Steven, good comments. A joy to read.

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Patrick October 17, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Steven- I’m not sure that argument works. You could make the same argument about objective morality (some do), and it would hold equally well… but it seems that the actual conclusion of the argument should be that we can’t objectively know objective reality or morality, but that we can subjectively interpret objective reality or morality with greater or lesser degrees of certainty.

For myself, I’m rather of the opinion that the phrase “objective morality” is incoherent. Moral claims seem to always be subject to the question, “Why?” which is then answered with a new, foundational moral claim, or possibly a subjective preference statement. Every allegedly objective moral claim has been similarly subject to that question. It seems to me that any moral claim alleged to be objective would have to be immune to the Why? question. I can’t even imagine how that could be so. I’ve certainly never seen any demonstration of such a moral claim, except for people who answer “just because” and assert that this is adequate.

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Patrick October 17, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Last post should read “objective reality” in line two, not “objective morality.” Sorry.

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Garren October 17, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Can’t we just identify what people mean by moral terms and say, “Well, that’s what moral terms mean”? Wouldn’t that get around an infinite regress of “why?”

Linguistic terms can be arbitrary mappings of word to concept yet carry a more-or-less definite meaning by convention. In English, “green” refers to roughly this band of the visible spectrum. Why? It just does! Any person in the universe who declares, “This is a green ball” can be right or wrong even if there isn’t an objective green.

What if speakers of another language use color terms but they don’t match up well with English terms? In that case, we’d know not to directly translate their terms to our terms. But we shouldn’t give up on the truth-apt nature of color evaluations. A green ball is still green in a country which doesn’t use the term “green.”

This is why I’m so keen on figuring out whether people do mean the same thing fundamentally by moral terms, or not. If not, we should stop using identical terms for different meanings. That would be like all languages using the same color terms, then disputing who is right about the nature of “green.”

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lukeprog October 17, 2010 at 7:33 pm

Garren,

The problem is that moral terms, like art terms, are essentially contested concepts, and so if we go out and measure what people mean by moral terms, we’ll get contradictory answers, and even within just one person, moral concepts may often be incoherent.

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Steven October 17, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Patrick, I realized that the same argument could be used for objective reality. The difference, I think, is that nothing about objective reality (except objective morals) would require obligations, whereas objective reality is not. In this way, even if we can’t quite determine the real nature of objective reality, to a certain degree, it doesn’t quite matter. On the other hand, not being able to get a clear reading on objective morals pretty much makes the whole concept worthless or impractical to humanity. That’s my take so far though.

Thanks Hermes, I enjoy your comments too (especially the one about not taking claims like “God caused AIDs” very seriously).

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Steven October 17, 2010 at 8:08 pm

>_> I should really start triple-reading my posts. The second sentence should end with “require obligations” (“whereas objective reality is not” was part of a different train of thought that I decided to discard, but thanks to my semi-laggy internet, I didn’t quite erase all of it. Sorry for the bother).

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Garren October 17, 2010 at 9:18 pm

@lukeprog

“The problem is that moral terms, like art terms, are essentially contested concepts, and so if we go out and measure what people mean by moral terms, we’ll get contradictory answers, and even within just one person, moral concepts may often be incoherent.”

That was a good episode of CPBD, by the way. It took me a while to realize the phrase broke down to mean something like “concepts with contested essences.”

Let’s suppose you’re right that disputes over “this is moral” are highly analogous to disputes over “this is art.” That sounds like a legitimate metaethical account. We have some paradigm moral acts and some paradigm immoral acts and people just have different ideas about how to classify other acts, depending on which elements of the paradigm cases they take to be essential. The nature of moral discourse is understood. Case closed!

Even then, I would want to rescue people from this situation of thinking they’re debating common facts with each other when they’re really talking past each other. PersonA’s notion of what makes art art may be truth-apt and worth using to classify other works, even if PersonB has a different truth-apt notion and PersonC has a truth-inept notion of the essence of art. We’re not going to get anywhere if we all keep using the same term in different ways.

But how practical is it to divide out all these notions? When it comes to art, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were MANY such notions. When it comes to morality, I’m optimistic there are fewer fundamentally different “essences” people draw out from paradigm cases. Maybe Jonathan Haidt gets it close to right with his five categories (TED talk).

So long as we can at least capture most moral talk with one model (e.g. Desirism, Harris’ well-being utilitarianism, Kantian Deontology), or a manageably small number of models (e.g. Haidt’s categories or Clifton’s list), I think we can profitably try to draw those out and talk about them. Otherwise we may as well give up on this topic and get back to reading more novels.

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cl October 17, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Luke,

I’d like to at least sleep on my post regarding intrinsic value before we continue, but it’s pretty much done so it shouldn’t be too long.

Expanding on Yair’s hitherto unanswered request for the scientific evidence supporting your claim that “you think” value pluralism is true, allow me to point out that you wrote,

Value monism has been attacked by Williams (“Ethical Consistency”), Stocker (Plural and Conflicting Values), Wiggins (“Weakness of Will, Commensurability, and the Objects of Deliberation and Desire”), Nussbaum (The Fragility of Goodness), and Swanton (Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View).

But these arguments on this subject depend on trusting our intuitions about whether certain things are right or wrong or rational, which is not the kind of argument that persuades someone like me.

Then, surprisingly, you endorse Alonzo Fyfe’s objection to value monism. In particular,

…both theories need to explain the fact that the vast majority of parents, for example, report that, in such a situation, they would choose Option 2.

Happiness theory seems to suggest that the agent should choose Option 1. After all, the agent will be happier receiving news (that she believes) that says that her child is living a happy and healthy life. So, if happiness is what she is after, and Option1 delivers more happiness, then Option 1 is the rational choice.

Why do people choose Option 2?

Because happiness theory is wrong.

Yet, if critical thinkers shouldn’t trust intuitions about whether certain things are right or wrong or rational – as you consistently claim – why is it that you and Fyfe appear to be trusting said parents’ intuitions in the example provided? Do you have any evidence for your claim besides the intuitions of these parents that option 2 would be better?

If not, then can I use intuitions as evidence in my arguments, too?

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lukeprog October 17, 2010 at 11:39 pm

cl,

In the example I gave, I did not assume that what parents want is also moral.

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Leon October 18, 2010 at 2:25 am

My rule of thumb goes something like this: philosophy, theology, and (pop)psychology often try to define parts of human experience like “desires”, “preferences”, and “propositional attutides” in an axiomatic or dryly technical manner. This is cool if the author is building a model of some kind, or just talking about ideal types. But more often than not it’s a way of disguising inherent fuzziness (sometimes even pure BS) when the author ought to adopt more literary mode, which is at least straightforwardly vague.

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cl October 18, 2010 at 11:26 am

Luke,

I didn’t say anything about moral. You said arguments that depend on trusting our intuitions about whether certain things are right or wrong or rational aren’t the type of arguments that persuade you, and then, you offered an argument that invokes parents’ intuition to support your conclusion that “you think” value pluralism is right.

So, as Yair asked, where’s the hard evidence? Where is the science to back it up?

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Hermes October 18, 2010 at 11:52 am

Cl, I’m encouraged that you cite hard evidence in your response to Luke. I’m a very big proponent of that as well.

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lukeprog October 18, 2010 at 12:09 pm

cl,

I don’t even understand your objection. The example provided doesn’t depend on parents’ intuitions being correct about something. It just depends on them telling us what it is they want.

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cl October 18, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Luke,

It’s really quite simple: where is the evidence for your claim that “you think” radical value pluralism is right? You made an empirical claim about human nature. Where is the science to back it up?

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Hermes October 18, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Cl, I am deeply encouraged by your stance for empirical data to back claims — even to the point of adding in science as a measure of those claims! Please, continue.

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lukeprog October 18, 2010 at 2:47 pm

cl,

The evidence for radical value pluralism is that the belief-desire model of intentional action is, at the moment, the most successful predictive model of intentional action we have, and that model says that roughly any proposition at all may be the object of a desire, not just particular ones about happiness or well-being. There are also certain real-life cases of people who give their own lives for something other than happiness, any one instance of which is enough to refute the very strong claim that humans only act in the interests of happiness (or “well-being” or whatever).

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cl October 18, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Luke,

There are also certain real-life cases of people who give their own lives for something other than happiness, any one instance of which is enough to refute the very strong claim that humans only act in the interests of happiness (or “well-being” or whatever).

You allude to “real-life cases” but you fail to cite any. How am I supposed to respond to that?

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Steven October 18, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Luke, I’m a bit confused. Is Monism and Pluralism to be judged merely on the way humans act? If so, I can’t help but think that any system based around such measures must inherently (regular usage of the word, btw) be subjective and sheds no light upon objective morals. I don’t think it’s problematic; if we’re trying to figure out human behavior towards morality, then being able to predict how people will act is very important, but it wont help when trying to find some basis for objective morality. And, if we’re just judging these theories on the basis that they apply to our current state of affairs, then I have to agree wholeheartedly that monism oversimplifies human nature. People can act just to be satisfied and not fully happy.

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cl October 18, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Luke,

The evidence for radical value pluralism is that the belief-desire model of intentional action is, at the moment, the most successful predictive model of intentional action we have, and that model says that roughly any proposition at all may be the object of a desire, not just particular ones about happiness or well-being.

Can you cite an example of a desire that is not motivated by an increase in either happiness or well-being for either the agent, or other agents? Also, can you answer my opening questions? Here they are again:

Why would you desire to run through flowers, unless of course running through flowers was instrumental in making yourself or somebody else happier? Why would you desire to have a compassionate child, unless of course it was instrumental in contributing to your child’s happiness, or the happiness of other sentient creatures?

Steven,

People can act just to be satisfied and not fully happy.

In your opinion, what’s the difference? Is the difference you allude to similar to me being “kinda happy” because I got a Tonka truck for Christmas, but not “fully happy” because I really wanted an RC car?

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lukeprog October 19, 2010 at 3:05 am

cl,

No more time. Will revisit in the podcast.

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Yair October 19, 2010 at 12:20 pm

cl,The evidence for radical value pluralism is that the belief-desire model of intentional action is, at the moment, the most successful predictive model of intentional action we have, and that model says that roughly any proposition at all may be the object of a desire, not just particular ones about happiness or well-being. There are also certain real-life cases of people who give their own lives for something other than happiness, any one instance of which is enough to refute the very strong claim that humans only act in the interests of happiness (or “well-being” or whatever).  

It appears you are confused on this issue, Luke.

The belief-desire model has virtually nothing to say about how desires are constructed and changed. It could be that all desires are derived in a primary-secondary structure, with a certain Prime Directive serving the role of the most primal and primary desire. And it could be that this Prime Directive is Happiness, in one form or another. Or – it could be that this isn’t the case. The belief-desire model works either way.

In all cases where a person gives his life for something other than happiness, two aspects arise. First, it is at least arguable whether the person, at the moment of choice, doesn’t choose the option that makes him happier. If you are sacrificing your life to save your child, for example, arguably you are doing this because the thought of you dying brings you less sorrow than the thought of your child dying. Secondly, in all such cases arguably the person’s concern is really happiness in some guise. If sacrificing your life for your child’s, for example, perhaps it is because your life would be miserable without him and saving his life can contribute to global happiness much more.

You are simply not addressing the alternative, you don’t bring in evidence on how people reason and set their desires. You don’t bring in evidence to address the venerable hypotheses that all human desire is directed to increasing (global or personal – two hypotheses) happiness, and the variety of desires in practice is due to the developments of these desires into secondary desires. I find the first hypothesis (psychological hedonism) likely true by tautology but quite meaningless, and the second likely untrue – but I’m not familiar with any good data on this subject. If anyone got good data – I’d be glad to be exposed to it.

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cl October 19, 2010 at 4:30 pm

Yair,

It appears you are confused on this issue, Luke.

I agree. He still hasn’t answered your request, and now, again, he complains that he doesn’t have time. Yet, he has enough time to frequently complain about not having time! Uh… okay, I guess.

Luke writes,

[the BDI model] says that roughly any proposition at all may be the object of a desire, not just particular ones about happiness or well-being.

Duh! Of course any proposition at all may be the object of a desire! The argument I’m making – and the argument I take traditional utilitarians to be making – is that no proposition will ever come to be the object of an agent’s desire, unless of course that agent believes that a state of affairs in which the proposition is true will lead to an increase in happiness, well-being, “better-offness,” etc.

Luke could falsify this quick-like if he could produce a single instance of a desire that is not motivated by an increase in happiness, well-being, “better-offness,” etc.

As I asked, why would Luke desire to run through flowers, unless of course running through flowers was instrumental in making him or somebody else happier? Why would he desire to have a compassionate child, unless of course it was instrumental in contributing to his child’s happiness and well-being, or the happiness and well-being of other sentient creatures? Why would a junkie desire to get a fix, unless of course it was instrumental in making them feel happier? Why would a suicidal agent desire to pull the trigger, unless of course they believed that they would be “better off” dead?

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