Value Theory

By In Normative Ethics, Value Theory Comments (9)

Actualist Utilitarianism and Practical Impotence

Actualist Utilitarianism (AU) is, roughly stated, the view that we ought to act so as to maximise the sum total of actual people’s utilities. (By utility is here meant a numerical representation of a person’s level of wellbeing, or welfare.) It is distinguished from regular utilitarianism in that it excludes the utilities of “merely possible people” from figuring in our moral judgements. And, for this reason, it might be motivated by various “person-affecting” intuitions to the effect that merely possible people are morally insignificant. I shall not, however, try to develop that line of motivation here. Rather, I want to focus on an objection to AU advanced by John Broome in his recent book Weighing Lives. (Although Broome doesn’t consider the case of AU in particular, he does object to “actualist axiologies” more generally, and his objection is applicable to AU. With that clarification noted, I shall for simplicity proceed as though Broome’s objection is aimed specifically at AU.)

The objection, in short, is that AU is incapable of giving practical adivice. As Broome understands AU, it implies that what the agent ought to do in a given situation of choice may sometimes depend on what he actually does in that situation. Thus, if the agent were to ask “ought I to do X?”, then the best practical advice that AU could give him would be prefaced with “well, that all depends on whehter or not you actually do X.” But that would be no practical advice at all; usually we want to know whether or not it’s permissible to do something in advance of our having done or not having done it. Understood in this way, then, AU will be practically impotent — of no use at all in deciding what to do.

As I shall argue, however, AU need not be understood in this way. Below I suggest two formulations of AU, and show that only one of these is vulnerable to Broome’s objection.


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By In Normative Ethics, Value Theory Comments (16)

More Supererogation for Maximisers

In an earlier post, Supererogation for Maximisers, I tried to reconcile two apparently irreconcilable claims: first, that maximising consequentialism is true; and, second, that supererogatory action is possible. Subsequently, the same topic has received significant attention in the comments to another post, Favourite Objections to Consequentialism, prompting me to revise my position. In this post I shall (1) briefly review my old position, (2) show why I’m no longer inclined to accept it, and (3) propose something new.


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By In Practical Rationality, Value Theory Comments (12)

Harry Frankfurt, Value Objectivist

Value objectivists like myself tend to think of practical reasoning as the process by which an agent forms beliefs about what things have value, and then organizes those beliefs in order to act in a way that makes sense in light of them.  But suppose you are skeptical about objective value – how, in that case, do you understand practical reasoning?

We find one way of understanding it in Harry Frankfurt’s recent work (especially in The Reasons of Love). On Frankfurt’s view, the roots of practical reason are not cognitive but volitional: rather than detecting things’ pre-existing values, we give them value by caring about them.  Love, which represents the deepest form of caring, sets the limits to practical reasoning; it is in light of what one loves that one’s actions must make sense.  Love, then, has a special importance for human agency.  It also has a special value for human beings: for according for Frankfurt, loving things makes a person’s life better, by making it meaningful.

The claim that practical reason may be grounded in love, or caring, might be an attractive picture for people whose sympathies are broadly Humean.  And the claim that love enhances the value and meaningfulness of one’s life might be attractive to many objectivists (including myself).  The question though, is: can Frankfurt have both?  In fact there is, I think, a conflict between Frankfurt’s views about what makes a person’s life better, and his claims about the value of love.


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By In Value Theory Comments (43)

Paradoxes of Desire Satisfactionism and Hedonism

Fred Feldman (Pleasure and the Good Life) and Chris
Heathwood (“The Problem of Defective Desires”) point out the following paradox
for desire satisfaction theory, which seems to have been first suggested by Richard
Kraut. People sometimes desire to be
badly off. Desire satisfactionists say
that A’s desire to be badly off is satisfied iff A’s desires are on the whole
not satisfied. This leads to paradox, at least in certain cases. If having a desire satisfied is good for
you, then satisfying the desire to be badly off makes you better off; and in
some cases, the result will be that you are not badly off; which means that the
desire is not satisfied after all, so you are badly off. Paradox. (For a clearer formulation of the paradox, read Chris’ paper.)


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By In Value Theory Comments (40)

Patching up a regress argument for intrinsic value

    Proponents of intrinsic value have sometimes attempted to argue for its existence via the following sort of regress argument:

Something is valuable; but if it is valuable, it must be valuable either as a means to something else that is valuable, or else valuable in itself.  If all valuable things were good merely as a means, there must be an infinite chain of instrumental goods extending into the future, without ever leading to any intrinsic good.  Such a chain is impossible.  Therefore, something is intrinsically good.

    Both friends and foes of intrinsic value have found this line of argument problematic.  It is possible, they say, for there to be an infinite chain of merely instrumental goods extending into the future.  This objection gains strength from the obvious parallels between the regress argument and first-cause arguments for the existence of God.  Many philosophers have found it reasonable to reject first-cause arguments for God in light of the possibility of an infinite chain of cause and effect stretching into the past; why, then, should we not reject the regress argument for intrinsic value as well?
    I think a little tinkering can make the regress argument fairly plausible.   I wonder if anyone will agree, and if anyone will think the argument is interesting at all.


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By In Value Theory Comments (35)

Death revisited

A couple of months ago, on Orangephilosophy, I posted descriptions of the following two lives:

Baby. A three-week-old baby, Baby, dies in an accident. Had Baby not died then, he would have enjoyed a happy childhood and adolescence, gone to college, entered a PhD program in philosophy, become a professional philosopher, and lived an enjoyable life until dying at age 80.

Student. A 23-year-old philosophy graduate student, Student, dies in an accident after a happy childhood and adolescence. Had Student not died then, he would have become a professional philosopher and lived an enjoyable life until dying at age 80.

I asked for opinions about whose death was worse for him (and therefore who I should murder, but that was really beside the point). Lots of people responded, and the responses were all over the map. Many people thought Student’s death was worse; many thought Baby’s death was worse; some thought they were equally bad. I think the view that Baby’s death is worse is the only plausible view, and at the risk of boring those who think this is obvious, I have some arguments.


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By In Normative Ethics, Value Theory Comments (30)

Drowning and the Primacy of the Virtues

In a recent review essay, “Morality and Virtue: An Assessment of Some Recent Work in Virtue Ethics“, David Copp and PEA Soup’s own David Sobel present what I take to be a common understanding of the relationship between right action and virtuous people:

It is facts about the alternatives a person must decide among, including such things as the impact the alternatives will have on people’s ability to meet their needs, that determine what a person ought to do. It is not facts about what a virtuous person would want her to do, or facts about the motives that the person would actually be acting from if she were to do the various alternatives. If someone is drowning, for example, and if you can save her at no risk and at negligible cost to yourself, you ought to save her because otherwise her life will be wasted. It is because a life would otherwise be wasted that a virtuous person would want you to save her (552).

Virtuous people are disposed to perform or approve of actions that are antecedently right (perhaps those that maximize happiness, or which are in accordance with some prior set of duties). Here I wish to argue in defence of an alternative embraced by many (but certainly not all) virtue theorists: that it is the approvals of the virtuous that determine which actions are right (and which states of affairs have various values). In particular, I aim to undercut the main intuitions which appear to support the position of Copp and Sobel with respect to the drowning case.


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