Value Theory

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.


Read more

By In Value Theory Comments (8)

Failing the Envy Test

Ronald Dworkin argues, in two lengthy papers (“What is Equality? Parts 1 and 2”, P&PA 1981), that, if we care about equality at all, then we should care about equality of resources — as opposed to, in particular, equality of welfare. Central to his argument is a principle that he calls the Envy Test, which may be stated as follows.

Envy Test: A division of resources is equal if and only if, under that division, no person prefers another’s bundle of resource’s to her own.

Notice that this is intended as a purely descriptive principle. As Dworkin puts it, the Envy Test provides a “metric” of equality: it purports to determine whether equality, in fact, obtains in a particular division of resources. But it leaves open whether or not such equality is good, or fair, or just, or something that we ought to promote. However, as I shall argue, the Envy Test is inadequate for that descriptive purpose.


Read more

By In Value Theory Comments (10)

The Importance of What’s Appropriate

A common picture of value determination with respect to pains, pleasures and other such mental states seems to be the following: the intrinsic value of such states is determined by their phenomenological character. Thus, some people hold that all pleasures are intrinsically good, and all pains intrinsically bad. (Call this the straightforward theory.) Of course, straightforward theorists can allow that some pleasures are extrinsically bad, and some pains extrinsically good. The enjoyment of another’s suffering can lead the malicious to harm others in the course of seeking out such pleasure; the pain of punishment, on the other hand, may prompt the wicked to reform. Straightforward theorists will insist, though, that the phenomenological character of the mental state is the fundamental, if not the only, determinant of its intrinsic value.

Certain sorts of ethical baggage tend to come along with such views. For instance, many people think that since pain is always intrinsically bad, there is always at least some moral reason to eliminate it. Similarly, some people think that there is always at least some moral reason to promote or increase any particular (potential or actual) pleasure.

Some people accept a slightly more complex axiological theory than this, allowing that at least some pleasures (pleasure in another’s suffering, for instance) might be intrinsically bad. A few are even willing to say that some pains (like the deserved punishments of the wicked) are intrinsically good, though my sense is that it is far more common to hold that these pains are bad in themselves, but extrinsically justified.

I think that the proponents of more complex theories are moving in the right direction, but that we must go still further. We must recognize that there is a greater variety of counter-examples to the straightforward theory than is commonly appreciated (I’ll describe a couple in a moment), and that the landscape of value is thus significantly more complex than has been realized. And more fundamentally, we must reject the idea that the phenomenological character of a mental state is the primary determinant of its intrinsic value.


Read more

By In Normative Ethics, Value Theory Comments (23)

Supererogation for Maximisers

It’s widely believed that maximising consequentialism implies that supererogatory action is impossible. And many philosophers, finding the idea of supererogation intuitively plausible, regard this as a reason to reject maximising consequentialism (and perhaps to adopt some form of “satisficing” consequentialism instead). As I shall argue, however, supererogation — properly uderstood — is perfectly compatible with maximising consequentialism.


Read more

By In Value Theory Comments (13)

Fitting Pro-attitudes and Value

According to the fitting-attitudes analysis of value (the FA analysis), to be valuable is to be a fitting object of a pro-attitude. For instance, on one version of the FA analysis, what it is for an object to be valuable for its own sake is for there to be reasons to desire the object for it own sake. However, as Rabinowicz and Ronnow-Rasmussen (R & R-R) point out in their recent paper in Ethics entitled “The Strike of the Demon: On Fitting Pro-attitudes and Value,” there is a problem with this sort of analysis, for it appears that in some situations one can have reasons to desire an object for its own sake even though the object it is not valuable for its own sake. Imagine, for instance, the following situation: an evil demon will inflict severe pain on me unless I desire a saucer of mud for its own sake. In this case, there is a certainly a reason for me to desire the saucer of mud for its own sake, for adopting this attitude toward the saucer of mud will shield me from punishment by the evil demon. Yet it is implausible to suppose, as the FA analysis would seen to entail, that the saucer of mud is valuable for its own sake. This problem for the FA analysis is what R & R-R call the wrong-kind-of-reasons problem (or WKR problem for short). Now in their paper, R & R-R consider a number of possible attempts to salvage the FA analysis in light of the WKR problem, but they all fail. Now here’s a solution that I’ve thought of that involves revising the original formulation of the FA analysis. The revised FA analysis (or RFA analysis) goes as follows: X is valuable for its own sake if and only if there are reasons to desire X (for its own sake) apart from those stemming from the effects that having such a desire would have. Unlike the FA analysis, the RFA analysis doesn’t fall prey to the evil-demon counterexample, for there are no reasons to desire the saucer of mud apart from the effects that desiring the saucer of mud would have. In fact, the only reason to desire the saucer of mud is that doing so will have the effect of shielding oneself from punishment by the evil demon. Thus the saucer of mud has no final value on the RFA analysis, as it should be. This seems to me to be an adequate solution to the WKR problem, but I would be interested in what others think.

Read more