Value Theory
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By In Value Theory Comments (34)

States of affairs are all you need

Some philosophers opposed to consequentialism think that one of the basic mistakes that consequentialists make is to think that all value is located in states of affairs. (E.g., there are remarks to this effect in T. M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other; in R. M. Adams’s Finite and Infinite Goods; in Philippa Foot’s "Utilitarianism and the Virtues"; in Bernard Williams’s Utilitarianism: For and Against; and so on.)

Now, I am no friend of consequentialism (au contraire, in fact …), but this attack on the idea that the locus of value is states of affairs seems to me a hopeless manoeuvre for the opponents of consequentialism to make. As I shall argue below the fold, locating all the values that one proposes to talk about in states of affairs is a completely harmless "housekeeping" move which makes no substantive difference to one’s overall ethical theory.

As I intend to argue on another occasion, the crucial issue that really divides consequentialists and their opponents is whether the only appropriate response to values is to promote them, or whether other responses are sometimes more important — such as honouring or respecting values, not harming them, acting in a way that expresses one’s cherishing of them, and so on.

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By In Value Theory Comments (64)

A life worth living

Update (13 August, 2007). I’ve now written a very short paper on this issue: How to Live a Life Worth Living. As you’ll see, it was significantly influenced by useful comments I received here.

The recent discussion of McTaggart initiated by Kris has been very interesting. Among other things, it has got me thinking about the notion of “a life worth living”. Although ubiquitous in population ethics, this notion resists easy analysis. One wants to say that a life is worth living just in case it would be better to live it rather than live no life at all. But on reflection, that seems mysterious. How does one live no life at all? It seems like one of the relata of the “better than” relation has gone missing. We’re trying to compare something, a life, with nothing.

Here I shall propose an analysis that avoids such mysterious comparisons. On my proposal, whether a life is worth living depends solely on whether it is better than certain other lives.

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By In Metaethics, Value Theory Comments (138)

The Buck-Passing Account of Value and a False Dichotomy

Consider the
following passage from Scanlon:

 

[B]eing
good, or valuable, is not a property that itself provides a reason to respond
to a thing in certain ways. Rather, to be good or valuable is to have other
properties that constitute such reasons. (Scanlon 1998, 97)

 

Thus Scanlon is a proponent of the buck-passing
account of value (BPV) who accepts both the following negative thesis and the
following positive thesis:

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By In Value Theory Comments (69)

The Irrelevance of Harm

In Mike Almeida’s recent post, this topic came up:  what is it for a
person to harm someone?  I’m interested in a more general question:
what is it for an event or state of affairs to harm someone?  Here’s
the view I like best:

(H) X harms S iff X makes S worse off than S would have been had X not occurred or obtained.

Below the fold I defend the following disjunction:  either (H) is the
correct account of harm, or harm is irrelevant (or maybe both).

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By In Value Theory Comments (37)

Parfit’s “Argument from Below” vs. Johnston’s “Argument from Above”

First, a sort of apology: this post is a bit lengthy, and it may be a bit more “metaphysicsy” than the usual on PEA Soup, but it’s on a topic that has an important bearing on the ongoing debates over the role metaphysics, and in particular personal identity theory, has on our practical concerns, in particular our future-directed self-concern.  It has to do with an exchange between Derek Parfit and Mark Johnston, stemming from Johnston’s argument (in, among other places, “Human Concerns Without Superlative Selves,” from the Dancy collection Reading Parfit) that personal identity can still have non-derivative importance, even on Parfit’s reductionist view, according to which the facts about personal identity just consist in more particular facts about brains, bodies, and mental/physical continuity, and even where those more particular facts themselves don’t have non-derivative importance.  In “The Unimportance of Personal Identity,” Parfit replies to Johnston’s objection.  Here I simply want to try and track the dialectic between Johnston and Parfit, and I’ll explain why I think that Parfit’s response doesn’t adequately meet Johnston’s concern.  (Because I want to keep the post as short as possible, though, what I say here will be quite compressed and will assume knowledge of Parfitian reductionism, so readers not familiar with the basics of the debate may not want to read any further.)

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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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