Descriptive reality is not made the case by our take on it. Thinking that it is so or wanting it to be so does not determine the way things are, at least in descriptive matters. Are things different in the normative realm?
Normative “Stance-independence” maintains that normative reality, like descriptive reality, is never grounded in or made the case (even in part) by our stance towards it. Normative stance independence entails that normative facts are not made true by anyone’s conative or cognitive stance. Proponents of stance-independence maintain that truths in the relevant domain, in our case reasons for action or well-being, obtain, as Shafer-Landau said in the context of morality, “independently of any preferred perspective” and are “not make true by virtue of their ratification from within any given actual or hypothetical perspective.” Of course, our stances might causally be relevant to normative truths but they are not part of what makes them true on this view.
Perhaps some are attracted to such normative stance independence because they think the Euthyphro showed the problem with thinking stuff is valuable because we value it. Examples of people who want to count blades of grass might be thought to show, just as the Euthyphro showed in the context of morality, that it is quite unattractive to grant normative authority to arbitrary favorings. Desires seem to carry authority, such people might well say, only because they typically hit on sensible stuff. But when they do not, as in the grass counting case, we see the normative impotence of such attitudes.
I am quite interested to hear why folks are attracted to normative stance independence and would love to hear if I have captured what seems attractive about it. My sense is that a great number, perhaps half, of the leading ethicists of the day who are opinionated on this topic are strongly attracted to it.
I think such stance independence is severely challenged by what I have elsewhere called “matters of mere taste” such as the choice between flavors of ice cream. The challenge is to account for the value of pleasure without ceding ground to an agent’s stances. Pleasure, notoriously, can be understood in a way that does or does not cede such ground. Bentham, for example, understood pleasure to be a kind of “flavor of sensation” or group of such flavors with some sort of phenomenological commonality. His conception ceded no ground to anyone’s stance. On his conception, one might entirely fail to like or in any way favorably respond to the flavor of sensation of pleasure. On an alternative conception of pleasure, it must in some way find favor with the stance of the agent whose pleasure it is.
Seemingly the best hope for capturing the value of pleasure in a stance-independence way must embrace something like the former Benthamite picture. But I think this picture is severely unattractive. I think that the attempt to find a conception of pleasure that fits with normative stance independence is the reason so many are now investigating Benthamite hedonism—a view that was not nearly as actively championed 20 years ago. That is, people are turning to, or interested in, such a conception of pleasure not due to its intrinsic merits but due to needing such a picture to fit with other committments.
Here I only have time to in the briefest way outline why I find such a Benthaminte conception of pleasure uncompelling. I am hoping to draw out those who disagree. First, I do not think we have been given an adequate characterization of this understanding of pleasure. Famously there is no common tone to the full range of experiences that we think of as pleasurable. What do pleasures have in common on this view? Second, I do not think it plausible that there is a flavor of sensation that, just because of what it feels like, would benefit me or provide me with reasons, regardless of whether or not I like or hate it or find it in any way salient. Pleasure must favorably resonate with me if it is to play that sort of normative role.4