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Ethics Discussion at PEA Soup: Nandi Theunissen’s “Must We Be Just Plain Good? On Regress Arguments for the Value of Humanity,” with a critical précis by Richard Kraut

Welcome to what we expect will be a very interesting and productive discussion of Nandi Theunissen‘s “Must We Be Just Plain Good? On Regress Arguments for the Value of Humanity.” The paper is published in the most recent edition of Ethics and is available through open access hereRichard Kraut kindly agreed to contribute a critical précis and it appears immediately below. Please join in the discussion!

Précis by Richard Kraut:

Nandi Theunissen’s goal is to reject a regress argument often used by Kantian philosophers for the conclusion that for anything to have relational value, there must exist beings who have non-relational value – who are “ends in themselves” – and that human persons are among those who are such ends.  Her method is to survey a variety of ways in which the regress argument might be formulated, and to pose problems for each of them. In the end, she arrives at a positive conclusion: we can make good sense of the idea that we are ends in ourselves by recognizing that we have relational value. We matter not because we are “just plain good” (as her title puts it) but because we are good for someone.  Good for whom?  Quite often, for other human beings; but above all, she holds, one’s status as an end rests on the fact that one is good for oneself: one is “at the center” of one’s own life, which has the potential to be a good life for oneself.

Her discussion begins with a reminder of Christine Korsgaard’s formulation of the regress argument, which seemed to rest on the metaphysical premise that value must have a first cause; but which she later reformulated to read that we cannot be agents unless we confer value on ourselves. This is a transcendental move, not a regress argument, and so, in search of the latter, Theunissen turns next to regress arguments formulated by David Velleman and Joseph Raz. Here the basic idea is that being good for (being advantageous or beneficial) is not necessarily of normative significance. Washing plates is good for having clean ones, and clean plates serve some further purpose, and so on – but there would be no value in seeking these goods unless there is a different kind of value: not good for, but good in itself. Persons (valuers) might have instrumental value, but what puts an end to the regress is that, because they are valuers, they also have non-relational value.

This claim must be distinguished from the thesis that for anything to be instrumentally beneficial, there must be at least one good that is good for someone by being a component of that individual’s well-being and in that sense non-instrumentally beneficial. That thesis was affirmed by Plato and Aristotle; but what is at issue for Theunissen is whether a regress argument can show that not only are there relational values (the components of well-being and the means of achieving it), but a property human beings have in virtue of which their well-being takes on normative significance.

In Section 3, she schematizes the regress argument into five premises and a conclusion. The main idea is that there are chains of value-dependence that must come to an end with something whose “value does not depend on being good for other things.” Valuers meet this description and therefore “they can be the final node in a chain of dependence.” (I was surprised by “can be,” which seems weaker than what Kantians typically have in mind. Don’t they generally hold that it is only rational willing that supplies the condition for anything having value?)

Theunissen surveys, in Section 4, several ways of casting doubt on the regress argument formulated in Section III. They prove unsuccessful,  but there is one that brings her close to her final analysis of where the argument goes astray. In  Section 4.5, she suggests that chains of value-dependence might have a circular structure. As she puts the idea, “relational goods are valuable because they can be good for valuers, and valuers are valuable because they are good for other valuers.”  The “structure of value” (as she calls it) allows X to have value by being valuable-to-Y and Y to have value by being valuable-to-X.

In Section 5, she notes that this circular structure is at odds with what she calls the “metaphysical principle” that the world must contain something positively and non-relationally valuable (something that is good period), if anything is to have relational value. Against this, she adapts an idea of Earl Connee, who notes that instrumental means might all borrow their value from their making the world less bad; nothing need be good, for that to happen. Theunissen transforms this idea into a challenge to the Kantian regress argument, by pointing out that human beings might be valuable to each other simply by diminishing each other’s suffering. In a world where we all are good for each other in this way, value would be entirely relational. People need not have positive non-relational value for there to be duties to aid others.

In  Section 6, she moves to her favored response to the Kantian regress argument for the non-relational value of persons. She agrees that there is something to be said for the circular structure proposed in Section 5: The thought might be expressed by saying: “I am because we are,” “a person is a person through other people.” But Theunissen proposes that we should be not only for others – we should also be for ourselves. Simply by being a benefactor of oneself one can bring the chain of justification and the threatened regress to an end. As she puts it, “we should relate to people always with a view to their being a center of a life to which they bear a special relation.” Moral philosophy, she insists, is not confined to the study of duties owed to others; Kant himself insists upon duties to oneself. She adds: “in order to benefit another we must truly have something to give … Who is the good person?  She is the person who benefits … Who does she benefit? Others, of course, but also, and importantly, herself.  She has something to offer another because she is a master of one – she has knowledge of how to be well in her own life.” Contrary to the Kantian idea endorsed by Velleman and Raz, the chain of dependence of relational goods can come to an end with a reflexive relation. There need be no non-relative value.

These are some of the main currents of thought in this remarkably rich and provocative exploration of the structure of value. I look forward to their further elaboration in her forthcoming book, The Value of Humanity. In what remains, I raise a few questions for discussion.

First, what is wrong with a regress? Simply from the premiss that A has value only if B does, and B has value only if C does, and so on without end, it does not follow that nothing has value. Theunissen notes in Section 4.4: “It is something of a reflex to find infinite regresses intolerable, though what is amiss is not always fully made out.” She replies: “it seems implausible for the existence of value to depend on there being infinitely many things.” True – but after all, there are infinitely many things (e.g. numbers), and so we could accept this as a condition on the existence of value.  Surely the important point is that if the value of everything we did were merely instrumental, there would no reason to do anything. If there is any value at all in the world, some of it must be non-instrumental.

Second, Theunissen seems to set aside an issue that some philosophers would put at the center of her topic. In Section 5, she notes that for the Kantian, the value of alleviating pain is dependent on the value of the individual who is experiencing the pain. By contrast, for a follower of Bentham or Moore, pain is always a bad thing, to whomever it occurs, and so there is always a reason, from an impartial perspective, for anyone to wish that it not occur. Theunissen remarks: “To my mind each side should permit the other their basic foundational assumptions, and the positions evaluated on their own terms.” But can she remain neutral in this way? She seems to help herself to the assumption that the well-being of human beings (or persons or valuers) – particularly one’s own well-being – has normative significance even if it might be the case that the well-being of animals has less or none. But that seem to leave unanswered a legitimate question: what gives your own well-being this special status (or what gives human beings a higher status than that of other creatures)?

A third question concerns a hypothetical individual who is near death and suffering a great deal. He is, in his present condition, good for no one – not for others, and not for himself. Having sunk into passivity, the only question that remains is how much he will suffer. Surely he ought to be comforted and his pain diminished, even though he is good for no one.

Fourth, I take Theunissen to be defending the idea that well-being ought to occupy a central role in moral philosophy and in ordinary practical thought – and doing so without entering into the debate about what exactly well-being consists in. She holds that what is good for oneself should matter to oneself. But might there be important goals (for example, personal perfection, manifested in artistic or intellectual accomplishment) that are not in one’s interest (or anyone else’s) but should be pursued nonetheless? That question, I suggest, cannot be satisfactorily answered in the absence of a theory about what well-being is. We cannot be sure how much it matters without knowing what it includes.

2 Responses to Ethics Discussion at PEA Soup: Nandi Theunissen’s “Must We Be Just Plain Good? On Regress Arguments for the Value of Humanity,” with a critical précis by Richard Kraut

  1. My thanks to the PEA soup team, and to Richard Kraut! I am exceedingly grateful to Richard for his thoughtful commentary and questions. If I may, I’ll respond to these in turn.

    1. Kraut very helpfully states a classic fear about infinite regress. In a formulation that recalls Aristotle, if everything we did were for the sake of something else, and so on ad infinitum, then nothing would seem worth doing. As we know, for Aristotle the regress must come to an end, not merely with something non-instrumentally valuable, but with an end that is most complete and self-sufficient. That sets the bar rather high for what would make a more particular venture seem worthwhile. In the context of the regress argument that is under discussion, it is worth noticing that the nodes in the chain of dependence include instrumental and non-instrumental goods for a person. For example, a nail is instrumentally valuable because it allows a person to hang the painting, and hanging the painting is of value because it permits a person to engage with it, and engaging with the painting is non-instrumentally good for a person, and a person is of value because she is good for something or someone, and that something or someone is of value because. . . The question is what is wrong with an indefinite continuation of this series. The worry cannot be that there would be so many value-less causes; a lot of functionality but no value. For as here envisaged, there are non-instrumental goods for people. I put the worry by saying that, if the series were to continue indefinitely then the existence of value would depend on there being infinitely many things (infinitely many people if the explanation of the value of one person depends on her being good for another, though at this stage in the argument I have left it open who or what a person is good for). As Kraut points out, we have no problem conceiving of indefinite extension in the case of, say, a numeric series (though how numbers would figure in the relevant kind of evaluative explanation would take some showing). What I find peculiar is the thought that the existence of value depends on numbers (or whatever) extending indefinitely. Why should the existence of value, a most ordinary and ubiquitous thing, have so extraneous a condition?

    2. Kraut rightfully points out that I am not addressing the question of how our value compares with that of other animals in this paper. For some theorists this is the center of a discussion of the value of humanity because humanity is thought to mark the limits of special moral concern. Being a human being (or a person) is thought to be what it takes to enjoy the relevant forms of moral standing—-equality, respect, rights, or whatever. As I explain in my book, while I have misgivings about a familiar objection to this style of proposal (i.e. that it is a form of human prejudice), I think the objector make a legitimate point. We should not begin ethical theory by asking what is owed to human beings. We should situate concern for human beings in a more general account of practical concern. I take the view that human beings make forms of ethical behavior appropriate because they instantiate something that is shared with other beings, objects, and activities—-they are bearers of value. I follow Joseph Raz in suggesting that whatever is of value generates the minimal but stringent reason to preserve and protect it—-to see to it that it is allowed to play its role, and to be realized, as the valuable thing it is. In the case of animals, the fact that this creature can exercise the capacities that are part of its form of life imposes constraints on our responses to it. We should protect its ability to exercise those powers. In the case of animals with complex social relationships, or desires for the future, this will extend to a duty not to kill. In the case of animals with no sense of the future, it may not. The suggestion is that we attend to the particularities of an individual’s reality—-to the needs and the powers of the being who is before us. In my view, not to do so is to fail to respond adequately to their situation in the world.

    3. I hesitate in accepting your premise that the person you envisage is (or as I would prefer, can be) good for no one. You describe the individual as having sunk into passivity in the face of his pain. Could he be active in the face of his experience? There are traditions, admittedly not so well represented in our culture, in which the badness of pain does not have to do with the sensation itself but with the fear or avoidance of it. On this way of thinking, we may be quite active in our cognitive and emotional responses to sensations of pain, and this form of activity may make a very large difference to how our life goes at the end, or I might rather say, how well we are able to die. But it is very possible that for the individual you envisage there is no live possibility of exercising this form of activity in relation to experiences of pain. Does it remain true that he is the center of a life to which she bears a special relation? As I understand your description of this particular case, it does. We should attend to his wishes for how his life goes at the end. Dying in the way he wishes to die is what it is for this person to be good for himself—-to have his last days unfold in one way rather than another.

    4. Right! As I hope, my discussion of the value of humanity has implications for a range of topics in the theory of value, including the nature of the value of pursuits, and the good for human beings. In my book I develop the view that understanding the nature of a kind takes us far in understanding what is good for members of that kind. The good for a being centrally involves engaging appropriately in the activities that are characteristic of that being. If what is characteristic of people is a capacity to value, as I find plausible, then faring well for people involves valuing in the appropriate ways. To simplify, I develop the proposal that what is typically good for a person is to pursue projects, interests, relationships and self-ideals that are appropriate to her given her sensibility, aptitude, experience, and so on. In that case, the value of intellectual or artistic pursuits is explained in terms of their propensity to benefit beings, though I would add that the explanation of their propensity to do this must take account of the features of the pursuits in virtue of which they do so. I would emphasize this second dimension of evaluative explanation as part of a response to theorists who contend that works of art, say, are good for us because they are good.

  2. lper says:

    Image copyrightAFP Image caption On the same day, a relieved miner waves out of the window of a moving bus after more than 900 miners were trapped underground after a power cut in Theunissen, South Africa.

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