Value Theory

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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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.


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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.


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