. . . the prevailing thought of the second decade of the 21st century is not like the mid-to late-20th century. Law, virtue, and a shame culture have risen to prominence in recent years, signaling that moral relativism may be going the way of the buggy whip.
[. . .]
In The New York Times last week, David Brooks argued that while American college campuses were “awash in moral relativism” as late as the 1980s, a “shame culture” has now taken its place. The subjective morality of yesterday has been replaced by an ethical code that, if violated, results in unmerciful moral crusades on social media.
A culture of shame cannot be a culture of total relativism. One must have some moral criteria for which to decide if someone is worth shaming.
I find the article confused, but in an instructive way. What is dying is not moral relativism but moral fallibilism. And what is on the rise is not moral absolutism but moral dogmatism. People are becoming more dogmatic in their moral commitments. But this is consistent with being a moral relativist. Or so I shall argue. There are two distinction-pairs in play and they 'cut perpendicular' to each other. Absolute-relative is one pair; dogmatic-fallible the other. This makes for four combinations.
A. Dogmatic moral absolutism. Moral values and disvalues and the truths that record them are absolute: not relative to individuals, cultures, historical epochs, social classes, racial or ethnic groups, or any other index. So if slavery is morally wrong, it is wrong period, which implies that it is wrong always and everywhere and for everyone. What makes one dogmatic in one's moral absolutism, however, is the further claim to know these values and truths with certainty, and/or the readiness to act upon them uncompromisingly, by say shouting down opponents.
B. Fallibilistic moral absolutism. Moral values are absolute, but the fallibilist admits that moral judgments are fallible or subject to error. Consider the claim that a pre-natal human being is greater in value than a healthy adult dolphin. An absolutist will hold that this claim, if true, is absolutely true. But if the absolutist is a fallibilist he will admit that he could be wrong about whether it is true. The fallibilist can be expected to tolerate those who disagree while the dogmatist can be expected to be intolerant.
C. Dogmatic moral relativism. Presumably everyone reading this will agree that slavery is a great moral evil. It is a fact, however, that it was not held to be a great evil at all times and in all places. This fact inclines some to maintain that moral values are relative, to historical epochs, say. Suppose Tom is an historical relativist about moral values, but Tim is not any sort of moral relativist. They can both be uncompromisingly committed to opposing slavery even unto shaming and shunning those who think otherwise. This shows, I think, that a moral relativist can be just as dogmatic (non-fallibilist) as a moral absolutist.
I conclude from this that a rise in moral dogmatism should not be confused with a decline in moral relativism. Moral relativism may be on the decline; but this cannot be shown by citing a rise in moral dogmatism.
D. Fallibilistic moral relativism. This is a consistent position. One might hold that that moral values are culturally relative while also holding that one could be wrong about which putative values within one's culture are the binding values within one's culture, or without agreeing how to rank order competing values within one's culture. For example, liberty and equality are both values. Suppose they are not absolute but relative to Western culture. One can still have doubts about whether liberty trumps equality or vice versa. If Tom says that liberty trumps equality, and Tom is a fallibilist, then Tom will be open to arguments to the contrary.
Commenting on a recent post of mine, Malcolm Pollack takes issue with the notion that values are objective. While granting that there are objective truths, he denies that there are objective values because of a theory of value that he holds according to which values have their origin in valuing beings and merely reflect the needs and interests of these valuing beings.
The wider context of the debate is the assault upon Western values by those who would infiltrate our societies and foist Islamic values upon us. I had made the claim that in defending the values of the West we should insist that these are not just values for us in the West but are values for all. In this sense these values are universal and valid for all human beings even though not universally recognized as valid for all human beings, and even though they were first 'sighted' in the West. I pointed out that values could be universal without being universally recognized. That is indisputably true. What is not indisputably true, however, is the claim that there are objective values. If there are objective values, then these values are universal, i.e., valid for all. Does the converse also hold? Is it also true that if there are universal values, then they are objective? I don't think so. It may well be that some values are universal despite their being non-objective.
What I am going to argue is that, even if one were to concede what I don't concede, namely, that there are no objective values, it still would not follow that that there are no universal values. But first we need to discuss the question of the objectivity of values and give some examples of the values that we are concerned with.
I claim that there are some objective values. Malcolm claims that there are no objective values. He doesn't deny that are values, and I am confident that he and I agree on what some of the Western values are; what he denies is that these values are objective values. But first some examples of Western values.
Open inquiry I take to be an example of a Western value. Inquiry is open to the extent that it is not interfered with by religious or political authorities. The value of open inquiry presupposes the values of knowledge and truth. Inquiry is a value because knowledge is a value, and knowledge is a value because truth is a value. But the pursuit of truth via inquiry requires the free exchange of ideas. So freedom of expression is a value, whether in speech or in writing. Connected with this is the value of toleration. We tolerate other voices and opposing points of view because their consideration is truth-conducive. There are of course other values championed in the West such as equality of rights. But I will take as my central example the value of truth.
When I say that truth is a value I mean that truth is something that has value. I mean that truth is a valuable item. In general we ought to distinguish between an item that has value and its property of being valuable. And neither is to be confused with an act of valuation or with a disposition to evaluate.
The question, however, is whether truth is objectively valuable or else valuable only relative to beings having interests and needs.
In this discussion 'truth' is to be taken extensionally as referring to truths (the propositions, beliefs, judgments . . . that are true) and not intensionally as referring to that property in virtue of which truths are true. Now on to Malcolm's axiological theory.
Where do values come from? In general values represent some interest of their owner, and such interests range from such hard-wired preferences as biological survival and the survival of our offspring, to whether one roots for the Yankees or the Red Sox. In particular, many of the most important valuations humans make have a social context; in addition to valuing such obvious things as food, pleasure, comfort, sex, and shelter, humans tend to value those things that elevate their status in their group, and that help their group compete with other groups. Indeed, for creatures like us, social values can often trump more personal interests — because if your group is wiped out, you are too. Humans will make tremendous personal sacrifices both for the well-being of the group, and to attain and signal high status in whatever way it is acquired and displayed.
[. . .]
Let me put this another way: for a fish, a pre-eminent “value” is to be, at all times, fully immersed in water. This is not the case for a cat. Human groups may not differ from each other as much as fishes and cats do — but they differ enough, I think, that one group’s cherished value can be another’s damnable sin.
Let's examine this admittedly plausible view. The idea is that nothing is valuable or the opposite, in itself or intrinsically. If a thing is valuable, it is valuable only relative to a being who wants, needs, or desires it. If a thing lacks value, it lacks value only relative to a being who shuns it or is averse to it. In a world in which there are no conative/desiderative beings, nothing has or lacks value. Such a world would be value-neutral. This is plausible, is it not? How could an object or state of affairs have value or disvalue apart from a valuer with specific needs and interests? (As Malcolm might rhetorically ask.)
Imagine a world in which there is nothing but inanimate objects and processes, a world in which nothing is alive, willing, striving, wanting, needing, desiring, competing for space or scarce resources. In such a world nothing would be either good or bad, valuable or the opposite. A sun in a lifeless world goes supernova incinerating a nearby planet. A disaster? Hardly. Just another value-neutral event. A re-arrangement of particles and fields. But if our sun went supernova, that would be a calamity beyond compare -- but only for us and any other caring observers hanging around. For we are averse to such an event -- to put it mildly -- and this aversion is the ground of the disvalue of our sun's going supernova, just as our need for light and a certain range of temperatures is what confers value upon our sun's doing its normal thing.
An axiological theory like this involves two steps. The first step relativizes value claims. The second step provides a naturalistic reduction of them.
First, sentences of the form 'X is good (evil)' are construed as elliptical for sentences of the form 'X is good (evil) for Y.' Accordingly, to say that X is good (evil) but X is not good (evil) for some Y would then be like saying that Tom is married but there is no one to whom Tom is married.
The second step is to cash out axiological predicates in naturalistic terms. Thus,
D1. X has value for Y =df X satisfies Y's actual wants (needs, desires)
D2. X has disvalue for Y =df X frustrates Y's actual wants (needs, desires).
It is clear that on this theory value and disvalue are not being made relative to what anyone says or opines, but to certain hard facts, objective facts, about the wants, needs, and desires of living beings. That we need water to live is an objective fact about us, a fact independent of what anyone says or believes. Water cannot have value except for beings who need or want it; but that it does have value for such beings is an objective fact.
The needs of fish and the needs of cats are objective facts about fish and cats respectively; but the value of being totally immersed in water at all times is a value only for fish, not for cats. It follows on the axiological theory we are considering that values are relative: they are relative to the needs and interests of evaluators.
Does it follow from this that no value is universal? No. (Recall that 'universal' in this discussion of Western values in the context of the civilizational struggle between the West and the Islamic world means 'valid for all human beings.' It does not mean 'universally recognized.') It doesn't follow because a value could be non-objective in that it is necessarily tied to the needs/interests of evaluating beings and thus relative to beings having these needs/interests while also being universal. This will be the case with respect to all values that originate from needs that all humans possess. Thus being fully immersed in water at all times (without special breathing apparatus) is a universal disvalue for all human beings. And ingesting a certain amount of protein per week is a universal value.
There are also universal values for all living things, or at least for all terrestrial living things. For they all need our sun's light and a certain range of temperatures. The corresponding value is a value for all terrestrial biota despite the fact that this value is not universally recognized by these organisms. So once again a value can be non-objective, universal, and not universally recognized. Indeed, not even universally recognizable. For there is no possibility that an amoeba recognize the value of what it needs to exist.
As for the fish and the cats, they both need oxygen and they both get oxygen, but in different ways via gills and lungs respectively. So getting oxygen is a universal value for the union of the set of fish and the set of cats, and this despite the fact that this value is not only not universally recognized by these critters, but not recognized by them at all. The point I have just made is of course consistent with the fact that being fully immersed in water at all times is a value for fish but not for cats on the axiological theory under examination. (Note that it is not only not a value for cats, but a disvalue for them.)
As for truth, we presumably agree as to the first-order claim that truth has value. And I hope we can agree also on the first-order claim that truth trumps human feelings, that truth is of higher value than that no injury to human feelings occur, though I cannot expect any contemporary liberal to perceive this. The dispute occurs at the meta level: given that X (e.g. truth) has value, what is it for X to have value?
Suppose that values are non-objective: they merely reflect the interests and needs of evaluators. Given that truth is a value, the ground of truth's being valuable is that we need truth. And we do need it, and not only for the life of the mind. We need it to live well as animals. Truth is conducive to human flourishing, indeed, to a human existence that is not nasty, brutish, and short. Since we all need truth, truth is a universal value. Thus it is a value even for those who do not value it: it is a value even for those who are unwilling or unable to recognize its value for us.
The values of the West areuniversal values. They are not Western values or Caucasian values except per accidens. They are universal, not in that they are recognized by all, but in that they are valid for all. If a proposition is true, it is true for all including those who are unwilling or unable to recognize its truth. If a value is valid or binding or normative it is these things for all including those who are unwilling or unable to recognize its validity.
What I didn't realize at the time I wrote this was that the quoted paragraph is consistent both with my view that values are objective and with those views according to which values reflect the interests and needs of evaluators.
On my view, the universality and intersubjective validity of values is secured by their objectivity. On a view like that of Malcolm's, the universality of (some) values is secured by the objective fact that all the members of a class of evaluators share the need that is 'father' to the value. Thus all human beings, and indeed all intelligent beings, need truth to flourish, whence it follows that this value is universal even if non-objective.
What is crucial here is the distinction between a value's being universal and a value's being universally recognized. This distinction 'cuts perpendicular' to the distinction between objective and non-objective values. The Islamic world, benighted and backward as it is, either will not or cannot recognize certain values that are conducive to human flourishing, all human flourishing, including the flourishing of Muslims.
The message we need to convey to the Muslims and to the leftists who will listen is not that Western values are superior because they are Western but that they are best conducive to everyone's flourishing even that of Muslims and leftists. We have to convince them that we are not out to foist 'our' values on them, but to get them to recognize values that are valid for all.
In the hot days immediately after the fatwa, with Salman [Rushdie] himself on the run and the TV screens filled with images of burning books and writhing mustaches, I was stopped by a female Muslim interviewer and her camera crew and asked an ancient question: “Is nothing sacred?” I can’t remember quite what I answered then, but I know what I would say now. “No, nothing is sacred. And even if there were to be something called sacred, we mere primates wouldn’t be able to decide which book or which idol or which city was the truly holy one. Thus, the only thing that should be upheld at all costs and without qualification is the right of free expression, because if that goes, then so do all other claims of right as well.”
Hitchens makes four claims in this passage. The first is that nothing is sacred. This ontological claim is followed by an epistemological one: if there were some sacred object, we would not be able to identify it as such. The third claim, signaled by 'thus,' appears to be an inference from the first two: free expression is the only thing that should be upheld at all costs and without qualification. (If it is an inference it is a non sequitur.) The fourth claim is that all rights depend on the absolute right of free speech.
One obvious problem with Hitchens' view is that it borders on self-refutation. If nothing is sacred, then nothing should be upheld at all costs and without qualification. Nothing is worthy of unconditional respect. And that of course includes the right to free expression. For Hitchens, however, free expression is an absolute value, one subject to no restriction or limitation. It is thus a secular substitute for a religious object. A more consistent secularism ought to eschew all absolutes, not just the religious ones. If nothing is venerable or worthy of reverence, then surely free expression isn't either. If nothing is sacred, then surely human beings and their autonomy are not sacred either.
In any case, is it not preposterous to maintain that there is an absolute right to free expression? No one has the right to spout obvious falsehoods that could be expected to incite violence. Truth is a high value and so is social order. These competing values show that free expression cannot be an absolute value.
Hitchens claims that we cannot know which religious objects are truly sacred. He may well be right about that. But then how does he know that free expression among all other values has absolute status and trumping power?
Finally, since there cannot be an absolute right to free expression, all other rights cannot depend on this supposedly absolute right. But even if there were this absolute right, how would the right to life, say, depend on it?
I think it would be better for Hitchens and Co. to make a clean sweep: if there are no transcendent absolutes such as God, then there are no immanent ones either. Free expression is just another value among values, in competition with some of these other values and limited by them.
Brian Kennedy, A Passion to Oppose: John Anderson, Philosopher, Melbourne University Press, 1995, p. 141:
Melbourne intellectuals came to regard [John] Anderson 'as the man who had betrayed the Left, a man who had gone over to the other side. Melburnians wanted Anderson to answer a simple question: was he or was he not interested in the fact that some were very rich and some were very poor?' To this question Anderson replied that 'we are all bothered by different things. That finished him with the Melburnians'. [Kennedy quotes Manning Clark, The Quest for Grace, Melbourne, 1991, p. 193]
"We are all bothered by different things." And even when we are bothered by the same things, we prioritize the objects of botherment differently. Now suppose you and I are bothered by exactly the same things in exactly the same order. There is still room for disagreement and possibly even bitter contention: we are bothered to different degrees by the things that bother us.
"It angers me that that doesn't anger you!" "It angers me that you are insufficiently angered by what angers both of us."
Here then is one root of political disagreement. It is a deep root, perhaps ineradicable. And it is a root of other sorts of disagreement as well. We are bothered by different things.
Are conservatives bothered by gun violence? Yes, of course. But they are bothered more by the violation of the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens. Liberals, even if they are slightly bothered by the violation of these rights, assuming they admit them in the first place, are much more bothered by gun violence. Now there are factual questions here concerning which agreement is in principle possible, though exceedingly unlikely. For example there is the question whether more guns in the hands of citizens leads to less crime. That is a factual question, but one that is not going to be resolved to the satisfaction of all. Conservatives and liberals disagree about the facts. Each side sees the other as having its own 'facts.'
But deeper than facts lie values. Here the problem becomes truly intractable. We are bothered by different things because we differ about values and their ordering. Conservatives and presumably most liberals value self-reliance but conservatives locate it much higher up in the axiological hierarchy. This probably explains why liberals are more inclined to rely on professional law enforcement for protection against the criminal element even while they bash cops as a bunch of racists eager to hunt down and murder "unarmed black teenagers" such as Michael Brown of Ferguson fame.
As for what finished Anderson with the Melburnians, he was apparently not sufficiently exercised by (material) inequality for the tastes of the latter despite his being a man of the Left, though not reliably so due to his iconoclasm.
Does it bother conservatives that there is wealth inequality? To some extent. But for a(n American) conservative liberty trumps equality in the scale of values. With liberals it is the other way around. Liberals of course cherish their brand of rights and liberties and will go to absurd extremes in defending them even when the right to free expression, a big deal with them, spills over into incitement to violence and includes the pollution of the culture with pornography. Of course, this extremism in defense of free expression bangs up against the liberals' own self-imposed limit of political correctness. The trashers of Christianity suddenly become chickenshits when it comes to the trashing of Islam. That takes more courage than they command. And they are easily cowed by events such as the recent terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Liberals are also absurdly eager to spread the right to vote even at the expense of making the polling places safe for voter fraud. How else do you explain their mindless opposition to photo ID? But not a peep from liberals about 'real' liberties and rights such as gun rights, the right to private property, and the right to freedom from excessive and punitive taxation.
Is material inequality a problem? Not as such. Why should it be?
As I recall John Rawls' Difference Principle, the gist of it is this: Social and economic inequality is justified ONLY IF the inequality makes the worse off better than they would have been without the inequality. Why exactly? If I'm smarter than you, work harder, practice the ancient virtues, avoid the vices, while you are a slacker and a screw-up who nevertheless has what he needs, why is my having more justified ONLY IF it makes you better off than you would have been without the inequality? (Yes, I know all about the Original Position and the Veil of Ignorance, but I don't consider that an argument.)
At the root of our difference are value differences and those, at bottom, are irreconcilable.
Here is the penultimate paragraph of John Lach's In Love with Life: Reflections on the Joy of Living and Why We Hate to Die (Vanderbilt UP, 1998):
When the time comes [to die], we must surround ourselves with life. In a bustling hospital or a loving home, let everyone get on with their [sic] activities. To die in the midst of energy is not to die at all, but to transfer one's life and hopes to those who carry on. The continuity of our lives and our personalities makes the death of any one individual an event of little moment: the great celebration of existence goes on. (p. 123)
This is an example of one sort of self-deception secularists fall into when they attempt to affirm the value of life. If this is it, it is at least a serious question whether this life can be ascribed a positive value. One doesn't have to go all the way with Schopenhauer to appreciate that this life with its manifold miseries and horrors and injustices is of dubious value. It is certainly not obvious that "Life is good" as one sees emblazoned on the spare tire covers of SUVs in the tonier neighborhoods.
One response to the evils of the world is denial of such facts as are adduced by Schopenhauer:
The truth is, we ought to be wretched and we are so. The chief source of the serious evils which affect men is man himself: homo homini lupus. Whoever keeps this last fact clearly in view beholds the world as a hell, which surpasses that of Dante in this respect, that one man must be the devil of another. (The Will to Live, p. 204)
Judging from the above passage, Lachs appears to be in denial. Surely the following is a silly and well-nigh meaningless assurance: " To die in the midst of energy is not to die at all, but to transfer one's life and hopes to those who carry on." So if I die in the midst of energetic people I haven't died? That is false to the point of being delusional, a flat denial of the fact of death. It is an evasion of the fact and finality of death. And it is nonsense to say that at death "one's life" is transferred to others. One's life is one's individual life; on a secular understanding it ceases to exist at death. It is nontransferrable. As for the "celebration of existence," try explaining that to Syrian refugees or to those who at this very moment are being tortured to death.
Other secularists such as Adorno deny value in a manner most extreme to this present life, but look to the future of this life for redemption. This too is delusional in my judgment. See After Auschwitz.
Secularists need to face the problem of evil. This is not a problem for theists only. It is a problem for anyone who affirms the value of life. If the fact of evil is evidence (whether demonstrative or inductive) of the nonexistence of God, then it is also evidence of the nonaffirmability of this life.
This is an old post from the Powerblogs site, written a few years ago. The points made still seem correct.
Peter Lupu's version of the logical argument from evil (LAFE) is committed to a principle that I formulate as follows:
P. Necessarily, agent A ought to X iff A is morally obligated to X.
This principle initially appealed to me, but then I came to the conclusion (with the help of the enigmatic Phil Philologos or was it Seldom Seen Slim?) that the biconditional (P) is correct only in the right-to-left direction. That is, I came to the view that there are moral uses of 'ought' that do not impute moral obligations. But so far I have not convinced Peter. So now I will try a new argument, one that explores the connection between the obligatory-supererogatory distinction and the thesis that there are two moral senses of 'ought.' Here is the gist of the argument:
1. There are supererogatory actions 2. Whatever is good to do ought to be done --- 3. There are two moral senses of 'ought,' one prescriptive the other commendatory.
Ad (1). I am using 'supererogatory' in a wide sense. Accordingly, an action can be supererogatory (roughly: above and beyond the call of duty) even if it is not heroic or particularly costly (financially or otherwise) to the agent. It can be something as trifling as leaving a 50% tip in a restaurant. (Not that hard to do given dives I frequent.) If an action is obligatory, then it is good to do, and bad to leave undone. If an action is supererogatory, then it is good to do, but NOT bad to leave undone. Suppose I have lunch in a restaurant in which the food is good and the service adequate. Then
a. I am legally and morally obligated to pay the bill. b. I am morally but not legally obligated to leave a 15% tip. (Or so I would argue.) c. I am neither legally nor morally obligated to leave a 50% tip.
Nevertheless it is a good thing to leave a large tip (other things being equal), but not bad if I fail to leave a large tip. So the action is supererogatory in the wide sense here in play.
Ad (2). The principle that whatever is good to do ought to be done is theoretically attractive. It is attractive because it forges a partial link between the axiological and the deontic which are two aspects of the normative. Axiological terms include 'good,' 'evil',' 'value,' 'disvalue,' 'ideal.' Deontic terms include 'obligation,' 'prohibition,' 'permission,' 'right,' 'duty.'
Note the difference between (2) and
4. Whatever is good ought to be done.
(2) is about the good-to-do; (4) is about the good-to-be, which is a wider category. (4) says that everything which would be good were it to exist ought to be brought about by someone. It suffices to refute (4) to adduce a state of affairs that would be good if realized, but is not in the power of any finite agent to realize. Well, it would be good if none of us had to to die; but the immortality of human beings is not a state of affairs that can be brought about by any finite agent or agents.
Much more needs to be said about the principle (2) but let's assume that one accepts it.
Now under what conditions can it be true both that (1) there are supererogatory actions, and (2) whatever is good to do ought to be done? On the face of it, these seem contradictory. The supererogatory is that which it is good to do but not obligatory. But if what is good to do ought to be done, then it seems to follow that what is good to do is obligatory — which contradicts (1).
The contradiction is avoided if we distinguish between two moral senses of 'ought.' In the prescriptive sense, what one ought to do is what one is obligated to do. In the commendatory sense, what one ought to do is good to do but not obligatory.
But are there any sentences that feature moral uses of 'ought' that do not impute obligations? Suppose my wife says to me, 'We ought to give more of our income to charity.' Suppose further that there is an obligatory percentage and that we are already giving that percentage. In saying what she says, my wife is not imputing an obligation to us; she is recommending that we do more than we are obligated to do. Since the context is moral, this seems to be a moral use of 'ought' that does not impute an obligation. This seems to be a clear counterexample to (P) above.
Suppose instead she had said to me, 'We ought to check out the Roy Orbison exhibit at the Tempe Center for the Arts before it is too late.' Visiting such an exhibit is a morally indifferent action: neither prohibited, nor obligatory, nor supererogatory. The use of 'ought' in this example is nonmoral. It like the 'ought' in 'If you want to get to Tempe from Gold Canyon by freeway, then you ought to head east on the Superstition Freeway.'
Robert Merrihew Adams (Finite and Infinite Goods, Oxford 1999, p. 235) offers this example: "The religious leaders of the world ought to launch an appeal to protect the physical environment in which humanity must live." Someone who says this is not saying that the leaders are under an obligation; he is saying that it would be a good idea were they to act as recommended.
To sum up. There are nonmoral and moral uses of 'ought,' but not every moral use is an obligation-imputing use. So the biconditional (P) is false. What is true is the conditional,
P*. If agent A is morally obligated to X, then A ought to X.
This follows up on yesterday's discussion. Thanks to Hodges for getting me started on this, to Milos for reminding me of MacIntyre, and to Peter for agreeing with me so far.
Are there any valid arguments that satisfy the following conditions: (i) The premises are all factual in the sense of purporting to state only what is the case; (ii) the conclusion is normative/evaluative? Alasdair MacIntyre gives the following example (After Virtue, U. of Notre Dame Press, 1981, p. 55):
1. This watch is inaccurate.
2. This is a bad watch.
MacIntyre claims that the premise is factual, the conclusion evaluative, and the argument valid. The validity is supposed to hinge on the functional character of the concept watch. A watch is an artifact created by an artificer for a specific purpose: to tell time accurately. It therefore has a proper function, one assigned by the artificer. (Serving as a paperweight being an example of an improper function.) A good watch does its job, serves its purpose, fulfills its proper function. MacIntyre tells us that "the concept of a watch cannot be defined independently of the concept of a good watch . . ." and that "the criterion of something's being a watch and something's being a good watch . . . are not independent of each other." (Ibid.) MacIntyre goes on to say that both sets of criteria are factual and that for this reason arguments like the one above validly move from a factual premise to an evaluative conclusion.
Speaking as someone who has been more influenced by the moderns than by the ancients, I don't see it. It is not the case that both sets of criteria are factual in the sense defined above. The criteria of something's being a good watch already contains evaluative criteria. For if a good watch is one that tells time accurately, then that criterion of chronometric goodness involves a standard of evaluation. If I say of a watch that it is inaccurate, I am not merely describing it, but also evaluating it. MacIntyre is playing the following game, to put it somewhat uncharitably.
He smuggles the evaluative attribute good into his definition of 'watch,' forgets that he has done so thereby generating the illusion that his definition is purely factual, and then pulls the evaluative rabbit out of the hat in his conclusion. It is an illusion since the rabbit was already there in the premise. In other words, both (1) and (2) are evaluative. So, while the argument is valid, it is not a valid argument from a purely factual premise to an evaluative conclusion.
So if the precise question is whether one can validly move from a purely factual or descriptive premise to an evaluative conclusion, then MacIntyre's example fails to show that this is possible.
But I am being tendentious on purpose for didactic reasons. I grant that it is not perfectly evident that values and facts are mutually exclusive. I think what MacIntyre needs is the idea that some statements are both factual and evaluative. If (1) is both, the MacIntyre gets what he wants.
Is Man a Functional Concept?
But suppose one would be wrong to reject the (1)-(2) counterexample and that, with respect to functional concepts, the move from fact to value is logically kosher. Then this discussion is relevant to ethics, the normative study of human action, only if man is a functional concept. Aristotle maintains as much: man qua man has a proper function, a proper role, a proper 'work' (ergon). This is a proper function he has essentially, by his very nature, regardless of whatever contingent roles a particular human may instantiate, wife, father, sea captain. Thus, " 'man' stands to 'good man' as 'watch' stands to 'good watch' . . . ." (56) Now if man qua man has a proper and essential function, then to say of a particular man that he is good or bad is to imply that he has a proper and essential function. But then to call a man good is also to make a factual statement. (57)
The idea is that being human is a role that includes certain norms, a role that each of us necessarily instantiates whether like it or not. There is a sort of coalescence of factual individual and norm in the case of each human being just as, in Aristotle's ontoloogy, there is a sort of coalescence of individual and nature in each primary substance.
But does man qua man have a proper role or function? The moderns fight shy of this notion. They tend to think of all roles, jobs, and functions as freely adopted and contingent. Modern man likes to think of himself as a free and autonomous individual who exists prior to and apart from all roles. This is what Sartre means when he says that existence precedes essence: Man qua man has no pre-assigned nature or essence or proper function: man as existing individual makes himself what ever he becomes. Man is not God's artifact, hence has no function other than one he freely adopts.
Although Aristotle did not believe in a creator God, it is an important question whether an Aristotle-style healing of the fact-value rift requires classical theism as underpinning. MacIntyre seems to think so. (Cf. p. 57)
If the precise question is whether one can validly move from a purely factual or descriptive premise to an evaluative conclusion, I have yet to see a clear example of this. But one ought to question the strict bifurcation of fact and value. The failure of entailment is perhaps no surprise given the bifurcation. The Aristotelian view, despite its murkiness, remains a contender.
We should distinguish between an extreme and a moderate version of the thesis that the meaning of life is subjective. They can be referred to as extreme and moderate subjectivism about existential meaning. ‘Subjective’ in my thesis covers both. The thesis, agaiin, is that if life has a meaning, then it cannot be subjective.
Note that the subjectivist theory in either version is intended to be identitarian as opposed to eliminativist. The subjectivist claim is not that there is no meaning, which would amount to nihilism. The claim is that there is meaning but it is subjective by its very nature. Nevertheless, despite its identitarian intentions, both extreme and moderate subjectivism collapse into nihilism as will be argued below. As here used, ‘nihilism’ is just eliminativism about objective meaning. So if human life has a meaning, in the sense of ‘meaning’ relevant to the philosophical question about the meaning of life, then it cannot be subjective.
On extreme subjectivism any meaning or purpose your life has is one you give it. Meaning is conferred or bestowed on a life by the agent of the life. In themselves, lives lack meaning, and they acquire meaning only when and if the agents of the lives impart meaning to them. That a life has meaning and what that meaning is are both up to the agent. This goes well beyond the notion that the agent’s appropriation of existential meaning is up to the agent. For on any theory it is up to the agent whether he realize or live out the meaning that he takes to be the meaning of his life. Extreme subjectivism involves the further notion that the meaning the agent takes to be the meaning of his life is a meaning he takes from himself: it is a meaning he invents for himself. On extreme subjectivism, then, the agent freely decides (i) whether or not his life will have meaning, (ii) what meaning it will have, and (iii) whether and to what extent he will live out this meaning day by day.
Since a meaningful life cannot be merely purpose-driven but must also have positive value at least for the agent, one route to subjectivism is via the subjectivity of value: the value of the goals one pursues —— the goals in terms of which one's life assumes point and purpose —— is due to the individual's valuations, and these valuations are irremediably subjective and thus potentially different for different individuals. Accordingly, no goal is objectively worth pursuing or objectively more worth pursuing than any other goal. By freely selecting which goals will constitute the point and purpose of his life, the individual freely creates and maintains his own meaning and he freely creates it out of nothing or out of himself. This endogenous theory of meaning implies that there are no exogenous or objective constraints on existential meaning. A life has meaning if and only if the agent of the life is sincerely convinced that it does: your conviction that your life has meaning is both necessary and sufficient for its having meaning.
The extreme subjectivist view of existential meaning is deeply incoherent. To be blunt, anyone who answers the meaning question by saying ‘The meaning of one’s life is the meaning one gives it’ simply has not understood the question. The question arises concretely when one begins to doubt the value of the dominant projects and purposes one has been pursuing. A novelist, a stockbroker, a philosopher, a professional chess player, even if successful, can come to doubt the point of being a novelist, a stockbroker, a philosopher, a professional chess player. ‘Have I wasted my life helping the rich get richer?’ ‘Have I dribbled my life away among bloodless abstractions in an illusory quest for an unattainable knowledge?’ ‘Am I squandering my life’s energies on a mere game?’ These are possible questions. Even if one has been entirely successful in achieving one’s life-goals, these questions can and do arise. They are not questions about success or failure within a life-plan but questions about the success or failure of a life-plan as a whole. Anyone who sincerely asks himself whether he is wasting or has wasted his life presupposes by his very posing of the question that there are objective factors that bear on the question of the meaning of life. To raise the question is to presuppose that existential meaning cannot be identified with agent-conferred meaning. One who wonders whether he is wasting his life perhaps does not thereby presuppose that there is exactly one recipe for a meaningful life applicable to all, but he does presuppose that there are one or more objectively meaningful uses of a human life. He presupposes that one can throw away one’s life, waste one’s time, fail to live a meaningful life. But if the meaning of one’s life is the meaning one gives it, then one cannot fail to live a meaningful life since any meaning is as good as any other. To tell such a person that it suffices for his life to have meaning that he invest it with meaning shows a failure to understand the question. The person can respond with an analog of G. E. Moore’s Open Question Argument: “You tell me that the meaning of my life is identical to the style of life I choose as meaningful. But is this style of life truly meaningful?” The fact that the question remains open even after the subjectivist answer has been proffered shows that the subjectivist answer is no answer at all.
So my first argument against extreme subjectivism may be summed up as follows. The extreme subjectivist answers the question, What is the meaning of human life? by identifying existential meaning with agent-conferred meaning. This answer, however, negates the presupposition of the question, namely, that one can waste one’s life and fail to live meaningfully. Since the question obviously makes sense, but the answer negates the presupposition of the question, a presupposition essential to the very sense of the question, the answer is mistaken.
My second argument is that extreme subjectivism collapses into nihilism or eliminativism about existential meaning. For if the meaning of my life is the meaning I give it, then my life has no meaning in the sense of ‘meaning’ that gave rise both to the question and the extreme subjectivist answer. There is no real or nonverbal difference between ‘Human life is meaningless’ and ‘Human life has the meanings that agents give it.’ A conferred meaning is no meaning. Intellectual honesty demands that the subjectivist speak plainly and say ’Life has no meaning’ rather than obfuscate the issue by saying ‘Life has the meaning one gives it.’
My third argument is that extreme subjectivism entails a vicious infinite regress. If the activities of my life have only the meaning that I give them, then this would have to hold also for the acts of meaning-bestowal whereby certain goals and activities become meaningful for me. These acts, which are integral to my life, must be meaningful if my life is to be meaningful. But the acts of meaning-bestowal cannot be intrinsically meaningful on the subjectivist theory: nothing is intrinsically meaningful on the subjectivist theory, but meaningful only in relation to one who confers meaning. So I must be the source of the meaning of my acts of meaning-bestowal if these acts are to have meaning. And this seems to lead to an infinite vicious regress. Suppose we spell this out.
Let A be an act of meaning-bestowal. A is either meaningful, meaningless, or neither. Those are the only three possibilities worth considering. If A is meaningful, and no meaning is intrinsic as per the extreme subjectivist theory, then A can acquire meaning only if the agent freely bestows meaning on A by means of a distinct act of meaning-bestowal A*. Now if A* is meaningful, then its meaning must derive from a third act of meaning-bestowal A**. And so on into an infinite regress. The regress is vicious because every A is in need of a meaning that it cannot itself provide.
If, on the other hand, A is meaningless, then the life of which A is a part is meaningless. For if a life is meaningful due to acts of meaning-bestowal, and these latter are meaningless, then the life as a whole is meaningless. Consider a person who organizes his life around the central goal of the alleviation of animal suffering. On subjectivism, this goal is worthwhile, not intrinsically, but only in relation to a free decision on the part of the agent to give it meaning and value. But if this free donation of meaning and value is itself meaningless, then it is difficult to see how the person's life can be said to be meaningful. As soon as the agent reflects that the bestowal of meaning on his chosen purpose is not a response to any objective value such as the elimination of unnecessary suffering, he should see that his meaning-bestowal is a gratuitous and arbitrary and meaningless act. A meaningful life, one wants to protest, is one in response to objective values, where one's responding is itself an objective value. But the objectivity of value is precisely what the subjectivist will not countenance.
Could it be said that the acts of meaning-bestowal are themselves neither meaningful nor meaningless inasmuch as they are at the foundation of all existential meaning? It is difficult to attach any sense to this. These acts of meaning-projection are integral to a life as meaningful. It is difficult to see how they could fail to be meaningful if the life of which they are parts is meaningful. So in the end the subjectivist appears to be astride the horns of a dilemma. Either the acts of meaning-bestowal are meaningful or they are meaningless. If the former, then a vicious infinite regress ensues. If the latter, then the life of which they are essential parts is meaningless.
On moderate subjectivism about existential meaning there is due recognition of the fact that the satisfaction of certain objective conditions is necessary for a life to be meaningful, but this is held in tandem with the thesis that there is no general answer to the meaning-of-life question applicable to every life. So moderate subjectivism is midway between extreme subjectivism and objectivism. On extreme subjectivism, the sincere conviction that one’s life has meaning is both necessary and sufficient for it to have meaning. On moderate subjectivism, the sincere conviction that one’s life has meaning is necessary but not sufficient for the life’s having meaning: consideration of objective factors, factors not in the control of the agent, are also relevant for assessing the meaningfulness of a life. A moderate subjectivist will point out, for example, that not having one’s wants manipulated from the outside by other people, the media or the gods is a necessary condition of a meaningful life, and that this absence of manipulation is an objective factor. Other objective considerations are whether one’s chosen goal is achievable and not self-destructive. If one’s central goal is to get drunk and stay drunk, then this goal is achievable but self-destructive, and meaningless because self-destructive. The goal’s being achievable is an objective matter as is also its being self-destructive. Despite these objective factors, there is on the moderate subjectivist approach no such thing as the meaning of life. But on objectivism there is. For the objectivist, human life has meaning only if it has an objective purpose, the same for all, which is nevertheless subjectively appropriable by each, albeit in different ways.
It is undeniable that moderate subjectivism is superior to extreme subjectivism. It cannot be that the meaning of a life depends entirely on the agent of the life. Objective factors, factors outside of the control of the agent, come into consideration. But it doesn’t follow straightaway that there is one objective meaning-conferring requirement that applies equally to all lives. It may be that the blank in ‘The meaning of life is _____’ cannot be filled. This is John Kekes’ pluralistic view: “. . . there is no such thing as the meaning of life.” The philosophical problem of the meaning of life “. . . has a general form, but it does not have a general solution.” (John Kekes, Pluralism in Philosophy: Changing the Subject (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000, p. 83 et passim.)
Although there is no general solution, individuals can “resolve the problem for themselves.” (Ibid.) So although there is no general answer to the meaning question, it is possible to list conditions individually necessary and jointly sufficient for a life’s being meaningful. I won’t reproduce Kekes’ entire list but it includes such constraints as that the life not be pointless, misdirected, trivial, futile or vitiated by the belief that all human projects are absurd. Crucial to his list are that the objective conditions of a meaningful life be located in the natural world, and that the projects one pursues be either morally good, immoral, or nonmoral. Kekes thereby rules out a general solution applicable to all in terms of religion or morality. Irreligious and immoral lives can be just as meaningful as any life. The life of a mass murder such as Stalin fulfills all of Kekes’ conditions for a meaningful life. Kekes allows that religious and moral lives may be meaningful; what he disallows is that only religious and moral lives are meaningful.
The main problem with Kekes’ moderate subjectivism is that he changes the subject. Since “Changing the Subject” is the subtitle of his book, Kekes is unlikely to see this as a problem. But it seems to me that it is since he substitutes the psychological problem of the meaning of life for the philosophical problem while at the same time seeming to be grappling with the philosophical problem. He tells us that the problem of the meaning of life “. . . has a general form but it does not have a general solution.” He also tells us that individuals can “resolve the problem for themselves.” But is there one problem that both lacks a general solution and can yet be resolved in many different particular ways (though not all particular ways given that certain objective constraints must be satisfied)? What would that one problem be? It cannot be the philosophical problem of the meaning of life. The philosophical problem is a completely general problem, and is not to be conflated with any psychological problem about the meaning of a life. The distinction was esplained above near the end of section II. If the philosophical problem has a solution, then it has a general solution. For it is a general problem.
If an individual “resolves the problem of life for himself” in a sense that allows the resolutions to be different for different people, the problem he has resolved is not the impersonal philosophical problem but a personal psychological problem. Suppose a twenty year old doesn’t know what to do with himself. His life lacks direction. But gradually he comes to ‘find himself.’ He manages to choose an attainable nontrivial nondestructive goal, one right for him, that satisfies all of Kekes’ constraints. Our young man has surmounted his identity crisis and has installed himself in a subjectively meaningful mode of existence. He has solved a psychological problem, a problem of adjustment and motivation, but it cannot be said that he has “resolved for himself” the philosophical problem of the meaning of life. The latter might not be a problem for him at all. He may be firmly convinced that the purpose of human life is to serve God in this world and be happy with him in the next. But he cannot decide which line of work to choose, or he doubts his abilities, or he cannot muster the motivation to persevere in anything, or ‘life throws him a curve ball’ in the form of ill-health or unrequited love or financial trouble.
My conclusion, then, is that moderate subjectivism as exemplified by Kekes’ position changes the subject: it does not address the philosophical problem of the meaning of life but diverts attention to a related but distinct psychological problem. Once the two questions are cleanly distinguished one sees that Kekes’ view is just as eliminativist about objective meaning as is the view of an extreme subjectivist like Richard Taylor. What I am opposing in both is the identification of existential meaning with agent-conferred meaning, without the concomitant admission that such an identification collapses into an elimination of existential meaning. This concludes my defense of the thesis that If life has a meaning in the sense of ‘meaning’ relevant to the impersonal philosophical question about the meaning of life, then this meaning cannot be subjective, whether Taylor-subjective or Kekes-subjective. It must be objective in the sense of being the same for all and applicable to all.
Like you, I think meaning is bestowed, or endowed, by agents. However, I may hold a stronger view, which is captured by what I call the Endowment Thesis:
(ET) Any object x has meaning iff x has meaning by virtue of being endowed meaning by one or more agents.
BV: In the post in question I did not endorse the thesis that meaning is bestowed by agents; I made the conditional claim that if existential meaning is bestowed by each upon himself, then the identification of existential meaning with subjectively bestowed meaning collapses into an elimination of existential meaning. But your (ET) is plausible and its consequences are worth exploring.
(In fact, I normally state ET as true of value, not meaning. But I think ET holds for both value and meaning. But I’ll follow your post and state the puzzle with meaning instead of value).
BV: I think existential meaning has both a teleological and an axiological side. Thus a meaningful life is a purpose-driven life, but not every purpose-driven life is meaningful: the purpose must have positive intrinsic value. If someone sets himself as the central task of his life the parsing of every sentence in Moby Dick, his life has purpose; but since the value of such an accomplishment is questionable, the same goes for the meaningfulness of a life consecrated to such a task. See Teleological and Axiological Aspects of Existential Meaning.
The puzzle arises when we stipulate that x is God, God has meaning (or is a meaningful being, has a meaningful existence), and that God is the sole inhabitant of a world. So: God has meaning iff God has meaning by virtue of being endowed meaning by one or more agents.
There are two ways this could work: Either God, as a single agent, endows himself meaning, or God is in some way more than one agent (God is whole of which agents are parts—as agents, the parts can endow each other value, and God has meaning by virtue of each of the parts having meaning).
Now, both possibilities seem to require us to say that God does not have meaning logically prior to being endowed meaning (which leads me to think you may reject ET).
BV: Yes. Neither God nor Socrates can bootstrap himself into existence. And it seems that the same goes for meaningfulness: neither can bootstrap his existence into meaningfulness. So what I argued in my post with respect to finite agents like us holds also for God. It cannot be the case that God gives his existence meaning. Not even God can be a subjectivist about existential meaning!
But the former possibility—where God has meaning by virtue of endowing himself meaning—requires making sense of endowing oneself meaning, which you—as well as I—find problematic. I have my own objections to this possibility, but I’m curious to what you think of it. Assuming (ET) is true, can God sans creation endow himself meaning (or value)? Would your arguments in the post apply to God with equal force here?
BV: Yes, it seems to me that the arguments apply to God with equal probative force.
Also, I hope we can bracket divine simplicity for the sake of the argument. Thoughts?
BV: These considerations seem to add up to an argument against your (ET). The universal quantifier 'any' causes trouble. But surely some (many, most) objects are such that their meaning, value, and purpose are not had by them intrinsically but are bestowed upon them by one or more agents acting individually or collectively. I may assign a rock the purpose of being a paper weight, a purpose that it does not have intrinsically, and to a book that has collectively been assigned a purpose I can add an idiosyncratic purpose such as serving as a door stop or to fuel a fire. I can use a topographical map to swat a fly, and a flyswatter to scratch my back or direct an orchestra. Or consider the value of water. That value, it seems, is not intrinsic to water, but it is also not assigned by me or you or all of us collectively. But it is relative to our physical need for the stuff. Water is not intrinsically valuable, else it would be good for electronic gear, paper, and fires.
So it seems safe to say that some purposes, values, and meanings are relative to agents even if those agents don't have the power to assign them arbitrarily.
As for God, he is a counterexample to (ET). God does not have a purpose because he assigns himself one; he is intrinsically purposive, intrinsically good, intrinsically valuable, intrinsically meaningful. This intrinsicality would be nicely underpinned by the divine simplicity, but it is not clear that one needs that doctrine to underpin it.
Now suppose there is no God. Then human existence is ultimately (as opposed to proximately) meaningless, purposeless, and valueless. But we have the sense that it is none of these. This sense gives us reason to seek God, even though it does not furnish materials for a compelling proof of the existence of God.
I have gone out on a limb here, which will afford you an opportunity to practice your sawing skills.
Is the way you interpret Voltaire's saying the way it was originally intended? I'm probably wrong here, but I always took the saying to mean this: a willingness to settle for what is "better" makes it likely that one won't acquire what is "good".
Good, better, best. Positive, comparative, superlative. "The best/better is the enemy of the good" means that oftentimes, not always, the pursuit of the best/better will prevent one from attaining the good. The point is that if one is not, oftentimes, willing to settle for what is merely good, one won't get anything of value. So I suggest that my reader has not understood Monsieur Voltaire's aperçu.
Example.It will come down to Romney versus Obama. If libertarians and conservatives fail to vote for Romney, on account of his manifold defects, then they run the risk of four more years of the worthless Obama. Those libertarians and conservatives will have let the better/best become the enemy of the good. They will have shown a failure to understand the human predicament and the politics pertaining to it. He who holds out for perfection in an imperfect world may end up with nothing.
You give the example of a spouse: try to hold out for a perfect wife, and you'll never marry at all. An example that would fit my reading would be, if one settles for a wife who's merely better than most of the available options, then one's apt to settle for a wife who isn't good. Sometimes it's better to refuse all the available options.
I agree that it is sometimes better to refuse all the available options. If the choice is between Hitler and Stalin, then one ought to abstain!
Maybe a better example would be, imagine I need to install plumbing in my house. Crappy plumbing is almost always going to be better than no plumbing. But should I (say, out of laziness) really settle for that, on the grounds that 'well, it's better than the nothing I had'?
Of course not. Voltaire's point is not that one should settle for what is inferior when something better is available. The point is that one should not allow the pursuit of unattainable perfection to prevent the attainment of something good but within reach. Suppose someone were to say: I won't have any faucets or fixtures in my house unless they are all made of solid gold! You will agree that such an attitude would be eminently unreasonable.
The Voltairean principle as I read it is exceedingly important in both personal life and in politics.
Perhaps you know some perfectionists. These types never accomplish anything because they are stymied by the conceit that anything less than perfection is worthless. I knew a guy in graduate school who thought that a dissertation had to be a magnum opus. He never finished and dropped out of sight.
In politics there are 'all or nothing' types who demand the whole enchilada or none. Some years back, when it looked as if it would be Giuliani versus Hillary, some conservative extremists said they would withhold their support from the former on the ground that he is soft on abortion. But that makes no bloody sense given that under Hillary things would have been worse.
The 'all or nothing' mentality is typical of adolescents of all ages. "We want the world and we want it . . NOW!"
The value of a whole is not determined merely by the values of the parts of the whole; the order of the parts also plays a role in determining the value of the whole. One of several order principles governing the value of a whole is the bonum progressionis. Glossing Franz Brentano, R. M. Chisholm (Brentano and Intrinsic Value, Cambridge, 1986, p. 71) writes:
The principle of the 'bonum progressionis' or the 'malum regressus' might be put by saying: 'If A is a situation in which a certain amount of value x is increased to a larger amount y, and if B is like A except that in B there is a decrease from the larger amount of value y to the smaller amount x, then A is preferable to B.' Thus Brentano writes: "Let us think of a process which goes from good to bad or from a great good to a lesser good;then compare it to one which goes in the opposite direction. The latter shows itself as the one to be preferred. This holds even if the sum of the goods in the one process is equal to that in the other. And our preference in this case is one that we experience as being correct." (Foundation, pp. 196-197) (In comparing the two processes, A and B, we must assume that each is the mirror image of the other. Hence the one should not include any pleasures of anticipation unless the other includes a coresponding pleasure of recollection.)The bonum progressionis, then, would be a good situation corresponding to A, in our formulation above, and the malum regressus would be a bad situation corresponding to B.
Now let's see if we can apply this insight of Brentano to the question of the value of one's life. A human life can be thought of as a whole the parts of which are its periods or phases. It seems obvious that the value of the whole will depend on the values of the parts.
But order comes into it as well. Suppose lives L1 and L2 are such that the sums of the values of their constituent phases (however you care to individuate them) are the same quantity of value, however this may be measured. (There is also the serious question, which I set aside, of whether it even makes sense to speak of an objective measure of the value of a human life.) But whereas L1 begins well in childhood and adolescence but then deteriorates in quality, L2 begins poorly in childhood and adolescence and gets better.
If Brentano's bonum progressionis principle applies here, and I would say it does, then L2 is a more valuable life than L1 despite the fact that the sums of the values of their constituent phases are equal in value. So we can say that the value of a life is more than the sum of the values of its parts when the life is ascending in value, but less than the sum of the values of its parts when the life is descending in value.
This may shed some light on why some people in old age (which I define as beginning at age 60), feel their lives to be not very valuable or satisfying while others in the same age cohort from similar backgrounds find their lives to be valuable and satisfying despite the obvious limitations that old age imposes.
The above analysis of course only scratches the surface. Another thing to consider is that what is real and important to us is primarily what is real and important now. The memories of past satisfactions are no match for the perceptions of present miseries. So if the whole of one's life up to the present has been excellent while the present is miserable, the balance of good over evil cuts little or no ice. But to explore this further is for another time.
Our old friend Vlastimil Vohanka from the Czech Republic asked me if moral objectivism is a respectable metaethical position. It depends on what exactly moral objectivism is. Let's first of all see if we can locate it on the metaethical map. Then I take a quick look at Mackie's 'argument from queerness.'
Let's think about sentences like
1. Slavery is a great moral evil.
Presumably anyone reading this blog will assent to (1) and also hold that everyone ought to assent to it. So our question does not concern the ground-level acceptability of (1) which is here simply taken for granted. Our concern is metaethical.
(1) is a grammatically indicative sentence that appears to predicate the property of being evil of an action-type or an institution-type. If it puzzles you how an action-type can be evil, I say: an action-type is evil just in case actual or possible tokens (instances) of the type are evil.
But is (1) a fact-stating piece of discourse? If yes, then it has a truth-value. But note that if sentences like (1) are truth-valued, it does not follow that some are true and others false. It might be that they are all false, as on J. L. Mackie's Error Theory, which I won't discuss in this entry. Now let's introduce some terminology.
Is there any justification for talk of the ought-to-be in cases where they are not cases of the ought-to-do?
Let's begin by noting that if I ought to do X (pay my debts, feed my kids, keep my hands off my neighbor's wife, etc.) then my doing X ought to be. For example, given that I ought to pay my debts, then my paying a certain debt on a certain date is a state of affairs that ought to be, ought to exist, ought to obtain. So it is not as if the ought-to-do and the ought-to-be form disjoint classes. For every act X that an agent A ought to do, there is a state of affairs, A's doing X, that ought to be, and a state of affairs, A's failing to do X, that ought not be. The ought-to-do, therefore, is a case of the ought-to-be.
My question, however, is whether there are states of affairs that ought to be even in situations in which there are no moral agents with power sufficient to bring them about, and states of affairs that ought not be even in situations in which there are no moral agents with power sufficient to prevent them. In other words, are there non-agential oughts? Does it make sense, and is it true, to say things like 'There ought to be fewer diseases than there are' or 'There ought to be no natural disasters' or 'There ought to be morally perfect people'? Or consider
1. I ought to be a better man that I am, indeed, I ought to be morally perfect.
(1) expresses an axiological requirement but (arguably) not a moral obligation because it is simply not in my power to perfect myself, nor is it in any finite person's power or any group of finite person's power to perfect me. Now consider the following aporetic triad:
1. I ought to be morally perfect or at least better than I am in ways over which I have no control.
2. I lack the power to be what I ought to be, and this impotence is due to no specific fault of my own. (My impotence is 'original,' part and parcel of the 'fallen' human condition, not derived from any particular act or act-omission of mine.)
3. 'Ought' implies 'Can': one can be obliged to do X only if one has an effective choice as to whether to do X.
The triad is inconsistent in that (1) & (3) entails ~(2). Indeed, any two limbs, taken together, entail the negation of the remaining one. How can the inconsistency be removed?
A. One solution is simply to deny (1) by claiming that there is no sense of 'ought' in which one ought to be morally perfect or better than one is in ways over which one has no control. This strikes me as counterintuitive. For there does seems to me to be some sense in which I ought to be perfect. I feel the force of the NT verse, "Be ye perfect as your heavenly father is perfect." I have the strong intuition that I ought to be, if not perfect, at least better in respects where I simply lack the power to bring about the improvement.
B. A second solution is to distinguish between agential and non-agential oughts. We can then maintain (1) as true by maintaining that the 'ought' in (1) is non-agential and expresses an axiological requirement as opposed to a moral obligation. So interpreted, (1) is consistent with (2) and (3).
We can then transform the above triad into an argument:
4. (1)-(3) are all true. 5. (1)-(3) would not all be true if there were no distinction between agential and non-agential oughts. Therefore 6. There is a distinction between agential and non-agential oughts.
C. A third solution is to maintain the truth of (1)-(3) while also maintaining that all oughts are agential. But then how avoid inconsistency? One might maintain that, when restricted to my own resources, I lack the power to do what I ought to do; yet I am morally obliged to perfect myself; and since 'ought' implies 'can,' the power that I need must be supplied in part from a Source external to myself. "And this all men call God." So God exists!
In short, the inconsistency is avoided by bringing God into the picture as one who supplies individuals with the supplemental power to do what they are morally obliged to do when that power is insufficient from their own resources. This gives rise to an argument for the existence of an external source of moral assistance:
7. I am morally obliged (ought) to do things that I cannot do on my own. 8. 'Ought' implies 'can'. Therefore
9. I can do things that I cannot do on my own. Therefore 10. There is an external source of moral assistance that makes up the difference between what I can do on my own and what I cannot.
I have sketched two arguments which need closer scrutiny. The one based on the (B) response to the triad gives some, though not a conclusive, reason for accepting a distinction between agential and non-agential oughts.
Steven, Peter, et al.: This paper has been languishing on my hard drive for some time. Comments appreciated.
Abstract. Modal ontological arguments for the existence of God require a possibility premise to the effect that a maximally perfect being is possible. Admitting the possibility of such a being may appear to be a minimal concession, but it is not given that the admission, together with the uncontroversial premise that a necessary being is one whose possibility entails its actuality, straightaway entails the actual existence of a maximally perfect being. The suspicion thus arises that the modal ontological argument begs the question at its possibility premise. So various philosophers, including J. N. Findlay, A.C. Ewing, John Leslie and Carl Kordig have attempted to support the possibility premise by broadly deontic considerations concerning what ought-to-be, where this ought-to-be subsists independently of the powers of any agent. The basic idea is that God, conceived as a maximally perfect being, is possible because (i) he ought to exist, and (ii) whatever ought to exist is possible. The basic idea is that the non-agential oughtness or axiological requiredness of the divine existence certifies the possibility and in turn the actuality of the divine existence. The overall argument could be described as a broadly deontic God proof along modal ontological lines. This article sets forth and defends the argument before explaining why it is not ultimately compelling.
Let us consider a person whose life is going well, and who has a reasonable expectation that it will continue to go well in the near term at least. For such a person
1. A longer being-alive is better than a shorter being-alive.
2. A longer being-dead is not worse than a shorter being-dead. (Equivalently: A shorter being-dead is not better than a longer being-dead.
3. If a longer being F is better than a shorter being F, then a shorter being non-F is better than a longer being non-F.
I claim that each limb of the triad has a strong claim on our acceptance. And yet they cannot all be true: (1) and (3) taken together entail the negation of (2). Indeed, the conjunction of any two limbs entails the negation of the remaining one. To solve the problem, then, one of the limbs must be rejected. But which one? Each is exceedingly plausible.
Consider (1). Surely a longer life is better than a shorter one assuming that (i) one's life is on balance good, and (ii) one has a reasonable expectation that the future will be like the past at least for the near future. Suppose you are young, healthy, and happy. It is obvious that five more years of youth, health, and happiness is better than dying tomorrow. (In these discussions, unless otherwise stated, the assumption is the Epicurean one that that bodily death is annihilation of the self or person -- an assumption that is by no means obvous.)
From discussions with Peter Lupu, I gather that he would grant (1) even without the two assumptions. He digs being alive and consciousness whether or not the contents of his life/consciousness are good or evil: just being alive/conscious is for him a good thing. My life affirmation doesn't go quite that far. Whereas his life affirmation is unconditional, mine is conditional upon the contents of my experience.
Now consider (2). John Lennon has been dead for 30 years. Is it worse for him now than it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago? Does it get worse year by year? I mean for him alone, not for Yoko Ono or anyone else. Intuitively, no. Ceteris paribus, the longer we live the better; but it is not the case that the longer we are dead, the worse. (Note that the second independent clause needs no ceteris paribus qualification.)
John F. Kennedy has been dead longer than Richard M. Nixon. But Kennedy is no worse off than Nixon in precise point of being dead. (2), then, seems intuitively evident.
As for (3), it too seems intuitively evident. If being respected (treated fairly, loved, provided with food, etc.) for a longer time is better than being respected (treated fairly, etc.) for a shorter time -- and surely it is -- then being disrespected (treated unfairly, etc.) for a shorter time is better than being disrespected for a longer time. And so if being-alive longer is better than being-alive shorter, then being non-alive shorter is better than being non-alive longer -- in contradiction to (2).
One solution would be to reject (2), not by affirming its negation, but by maintaining that neither it nor its negation are either true or false. If there is no subject of being dead, as presumably there is not assuming that death is anihilation, then one cannot answer the question whether it is worse to be dead for a longer time than for a shorter.
Again we are brought back to the 'problem of the subject.'
I am as big an enemy of relativism in all its manifestations as you are. However, I think you were a bit too quick in your recent post on the supposed difficulties of standing resolutely for things you value only relatively. For instance, consider the following passage:
Now here's the question. Given that the two [the conservative and the libertarian]maintain contradictory value-prioritization theses [with respect to the prioritizaqtion of liberty and security] , how can either "stand unflinchingly" for his thesis given that each recognizes that each thesis is true only from his orientation, an orientation which rests crucially on his value-prioritization, a value-prioritization that he has no objective reason to prefer over that of his opponent?
You seem here and throughout your piece, to be operating on the assumption that there is a foundation of absolute values upon which our relative values are grounded, so that we should be troubled to find our deepest, sincerest values are not "any better than" contradictory values in ultimate terms. Maybe that's fine in the context of a discussion of Berlin's thought (with which I am not familiar). However, if the discussion is supposed to be a general discussion about absolute versus relative values, than it betrays the fact that you have insufficiently internalized the mindset of a truly radical subjectivist like Simon Blackburn.
Suppose, like Blackburn, you hold that all values are relative, that values simply are non-cognitive expressions of subjective yays! and boos! In that case, what's wrong with standing unflinchingly for what is only subjectively valued? What else could we possibly stand unflinchingly in favor of than those things to which we are most deeply committed, albeit with commitment understood in a non-cognitive way? Your mistake, Blackburn would say, is that you seem to think your deepest subjective commitments require absolute grounding, and in so doing sell your own commitments short. To misquote Wittgenstein, just as nothing holds up the world, nothing holds up your deepest subjective values.
On one point I think we are in agreement. If one adopts a noncognitivist theory according to which values are nothing more than purely subjective expressions of preferences and aversions, then there cannot be any reason of an axiological sort not to stand unflinchingly in favor of one's commitments. This is a point that is often not appreciated. If values are subjective and relative in this way, and it is one of the values of our group to dominate and subjugate other groups, then there cannot be any reason of an axiological sort to prevent us from doing so. So relativists fool themselves if they think that relativism necessarily breeds tolerance. It is a non sequitur to reason, "Because all values are relative, one must respect the values of other cultures." After all, if all values are relative, then the value of respecting the values of other cultures cannot be absolute but must itself be relative. A commitment to the relativity of values is logically consistent with obliterating other value-systems and their proponents.
So far, then, agreement!
But I am not assuming that values are relative; indeed I am presupposing that they are not. For example, I was in earlier posts presupposing that liberty, equality, and security are nonrelative values, and that the propositions which express their ordering (e.g., 'Liberty is a higher value than security') are objectively true if true.
The point I was making was about justification. Even if liberty and security are objective values, and it is objectively the case that one trumps the other, it can still be the case that one will not be able to show that one is right and one's opponent wrong. I claim that this is the predicament we are in with respect to some value conflicts. Now suppose that is the case. Then, contra Berlin-quoting-Schumpeter, I ought to be bothered by the fact that my opponent -- who, we are assuming, is a sincere truth-seeker, possessing all the moral and intellectual virtues, well-informed of all the relevant empirical facts, etc. -- disagrees with me. I ought to flinch! Otherwise I am privileging my own point of view simply because it is mine -- which is irrational.
Right now I'm Manas, Kyrgyzstan about to fly back to Fort Lewis, Washington for stateside outprocessing, so this will be the last email you get from me on this deployment (in a non-sinister way). Take care and thanks for all the correspondence over the months!
You're welcome. Have a safe trip back, and thank you for your service to our country.
Isaiah Berlin's great essay "Two Concepts of Liberty" concludes as follows:
'To realise the relative validity of one's convictions', said an admirable writer of our time, ' and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.' To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one's practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity. (Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford 1969, p. 172.)
A marginalium of mine from 1994 reads, "If I think my convictions merely relatively valid, how can I stand for them unflinchingly? Even if this is psychologically possible, it seems to be something we ought not do."
To expand upon my 1994 thought. The liberty of the individual to be free from coercion and obstruction -- "negative liberty (freedom)" in Berlin's terminology -- obviously comes into conflict with other things we deem valuable such as equality, security, and public order.
Consider how liberty and security are related. Liberty worth having is liberty within a context of security, and security is security worth having only if it makes possible a robust exercise of liberty. For example, my liberty to leave my house at any time of the day or night is worth very little if the probability is high that I will be accosted by muggers and other unsavory types when I step out my door. The security of a police state would prevent that but at a cost too high to pay.
So liberty and security, though both values, are competing values. Does one rank higher than the other such that we ought to prefer one to the other? In a concrete situation in which they come into conflict, one must choose. Consider for example a sobriety checkpoint on New Year's Eve when by custom booze intake is high. Such checkpoints involve a clear violation of the (negative) liberty of the individual, and yet they are arguably justifiable in the interests of security and public order.
Now suppose you have a conservative and a libertarian. In conflict situations, the conservative tends to rank security over liberty, while the libertarian does the opposite. They both agree that the values in play are indeed values, but they differ as to their prioritization. Suppose further something that seems obviously true, namely, that this value difference that divides them cannot be objectively resolved to the satisfaction of both parties by appeal to any empirical fact or by any reasoning or by any combination of the two.
Now here's the question. Given that the two maintain contradictory value-prioritization theses, how can either "stand unflinchingly" for his thesis given that each recognizes that each thesis is true only from his orientation, an orientation which rests crucially on his value-prioritization, a value-prioritization that he has no objective reason to prefer over that of his opponent?
I am suggesting that a truly civilized man, one who fully appreciates this predicament he is in, must give up his unflinchingness. He ought to flinch! After all, his opponent has all the same intellectual and moral virtues as he has --let us assume -- is equally capable of reasoning cogently above whatever are the facts, and is equally well apprised of all empirical facts that bear on the issue. Isn't there something "barbaric" about insisting on one's own position assuming that all of these conditions have been met?
I agree with Berlin that it would be "dangerous and immature" to claim absolute truth for convictions that rest on value judgments that cannot be objectvely established. But once we get this far, then unflinchingness must also go by the board: what I recognize as true only from my point of view, I cannot hold in an unflinching manner.
And yet I must act, hold opinions, vote, take a stand, smite my enemies. Suspension of judgment and retreat from the political sphere does not seem to be a viable option -- especially not in the face of a bunch of leftist totalitarians who want to so extend the public /political sphere so as to destroy the private. A hell of a bind we are in: we are essentially agents, hence must act, hence must stand fast, be resolute and smite our dangblasted political opponents -- all the while realizing that we have no justification for our unflinchingness.
It would be neat if all actions could be sorted into three jointly exhaustive classes: the permissible, the impermissible, and the obligatory. These deontic modes would then be analogous to the alethic modes of possibility, impossibility, and necessity. Intuitively, the permissible is the morally possible, that which we may do; the impermissible is the morally impossible, that which we may not do; and the obligatory is the morally necessary, that which we must do.
Pursuing the analogy, we note that the following two alethic modal principles each has a deontic analog, where 'p' ranges over propositions and 'A' over actions:
1A. If p is necessary, then p is possible, but not conversely. 1D. If A is obligatory, then A is permissible, though not conversely.
2A. P is impossible iff ~p is necessary. 2D. A is impermissible iff ~A is obligatory. (e.g. Sexually molesting children is impermissible iff not sexually molesting children is obligatory.)
But of course the following ab esse ad posse principle has no deontic analog:
3A. If p is true, then it is possible that p is true. 3D. If A is done, then A is permissible.
This is not surprising since the deontic is a species of the normative.
Now let's try to characterize (not define) the deontic concepts of the permissible, the impermissible, and the obligatory in terms of the axiological concepts of good and bad:
4. If A is impermissible, then A is bad to do and good to leave undone. 5. If A is obligatory, then A is good to do and bad to leave undone. 6. If A is permissible then A is axiologically indifferent: neither bad to do and good to leave undone, nor good to do and bad to leave undone.
These characterizations seems to leave conceptual room for two other sorts of actions, actions that are good to do but NOT bad to leave undone, and actions that are bad to do but NOT good to leave undone. The former are supererogatory in a wide sense of the term, and the latter are suberogatory.
For example, paying one's bill in a restaurant is (legally and morally) obligatory: it is good to pay the bill and bad to leave without paying. But tipping is (legally, though perhaps not morally) supererogatory: it is good to tip but not legally required, and in this sense not bad to leave no tip. If this is unclear, consider tipping in excess of 20%. Surely this would be supererogatory: good to do (ceteris paribus) but not bad to leave undone. One could plausibly argue that restaurant patrons are morally obligated to tip in the amount of 15-20% of the tab given that waiters and waitresses work for minimum wage and rely on tips for a livable wage; but surely no one is obligated to leave a 50% tip, say. And yet it would be a very nice thing to do for that pretty waitress working her way through school. It would be good to do but not bad to leave undone.
Do you balk at calling such trifling actions supererogatory because they are not grand or heroic like throwing oneself on a grenade to save one's buddies? Well then, I will accommodate your point by distinguishing between wide and narrow senses of 'supererogation.' Or I might just give you the word as long as you grant me a category of actions an example of which I have just provided.
Now for some examples of suberogation. A supererogatory act is a good act that is in excess of what is morally or legally required. A suberogatory act is then one that is bad but not so bad as to be impermissible. The following might be examples: talking too much, public displays of affection, breaking wind in public, picking one's nose in front of others. The practitioner of public rhinotillexis does nothing legally or morally impermissible, but it is something bad, and not just aesthetically. I want to say that it is a morally bad action that not impermissible. So I say it is suberogatory.
More needs to be said. I am not sure that in the end the sub- and supererogatory don't collapse into the permissible thus obviating the need for two further categories of actions. Further reading: the SEP article, Supererogation.
Richard Taylor, Good and Evil: A New Direction (Prometheus 1984), p. 134:
Goodness . . . is simply the satisfaction of needs and desires . . . the fulfillment of purposes. The greatest good for any individual can accordingly be nothing but the total satisfaction of his needs, whatever these may be.
There seems to be a tension in this passage, between the first sentence and the second, and I want to see if I can bring it into the open.
Taylor plausibly maintains that nothing is good or evil in itself or intrinsically. If a thing is good, it is good only relative to a being who wants, needs, or desires it. If a thing is evil, it is evil only relative to a being who shuns it or is averse to it. In a world in which there are no conative/desiderative beings, nothing is good or evil. This is plausible, is it not?
Imagine a world in which there is nothing but inanimate objects and processes, a world in which nothing is alive, willing, striving, wanting, needing, desiring. In such a world nothing would be either good or evil. A sun in a lifeless world goes supernova incinerating a nearby planet. A disaster? Hardly. Just another value-neutral event. A rearrangement of particles and fields. But if our sun went supernova, that would be a calamity beyond compare -- but only for us and any other caring observers hanging around.
Taylor's point is, first, that sentences of the form 'X is good (evil)' are elliptical for sentences of the form 'X is good for Y.' To say that X is good (evil) but X is not good (evil) for some Y would then be like saying that Tom is married but there is no one to whom Tom is married. Taylor's point, second, is that these axiological predicates can be cashed out in naturalistic terms. Thus,
D1. X is good for Y =df X satisfies Y's actual wants (needs, desires)
D2. X is evil for Y =df X frustrates Y's actual wants (needs, desires).
It is clear that good and evil are not being made relative to what anyone says or opines, but to certain hard facts about the wants, needs, and desires of living beings. That we need water to live is an objective fact about us, a fact independent of what anyone says or believes. Water cannot have value except for beings who need or want it; but that it does have value for such beings is an objective fact.
Taylor's view implies that there is no standard of good and evil apart from the actual wants, needs, desires, and aversions of conative/desiderative beings. Goodness consists in satisfaction, evil in frustration. But satisfaction and frustration can exist only if there are indigent beings such as ourselves. It follows that nothing that satisfies a desire or fulfills a need or want can be bad. (p. 126) It also follows that no desire or purpose is either good or evil. (p. 136) For if good and evil emerge only upon the satisfaction or frustration of desires and purposes, then the desires and purposes themselves cannot be either good or evil. The rapist's desire to 'have his way' with his victim, qua desire, is not evil, and the satisfaction of desire via the commission of rape is not evil, but good, precisely because it satisfies desire! (Glance back at the above definitions.)
We now have a reason to toss Taylor's book out the window. But I want to point out a rather more subtle difficulty with his theory.
If goodness is relational in the manner explained, how can there be talk of the greatest good of an individual? Glance back at the quotation. Taylor tells us that the greatest good for an individual is nothing but the total satisfaction of his needs. This is a higher-order state of affairs distinct from a ground-level state of affairs such as the satisfaction of the desire for water by a cool drink. What need does this greatest good satisfy?
Suppose I satisfy all my needs, wants and desires. How can this higher-order state of satisfaction be called good if a thing is good only in relation to a needy being? There would have to be a higher-order need or want, a need or want for total satisfaction, and the goodness of the first-order satisfaction would have to consist in the satisfaction of this higher-order need. But this leads to a vicious infinite regress.
Taylor should say about the satisfaction of desire what he says about desire, namely, that it is neither good nor evil. Consider the desire to drink a beer. By Taylor's lights, drinking a beer is intrinsically neither good nor evil. It is good only insofar as it satisfies some desiderative being's desire. Thus the goodness of drinking a beer is nothing other than the satisfaction of the desire to drink beer. The desire itself, however, is neither good nor evil, and the same goes for the satisfaction or frustration of this desire.
My critical point is that Taylor is using 'good' in two senses, one relative, the other absolute, when his own theory entitles him to use it only in the relative sense. By his theory, a good X is a satisfactory X: one that satisfies some desiderative/indigent being's need, want, desire, for X. But then desire can't be said to be good or evil, as Taylor himself realizes on p. 136. Similarly, the satisfaction of desire cannot be said to be good or evil. Otherwise, the satisfaction of desire would have to be relative to a higher-order desire. Hence Taylor is not entitled to speak of the "greatest good for any individual" as he does in the passage quoted.
I fear that we are coming apart as a nation. We are disagreeing about things we ought not be disagreeing about, such as the need to secure the borders. The rifts are deep and nasty. Polarization and demonization of the opponent are the order of the day. Do you want more of this? Then give government more say in your life. The bigger the government, the more to fight over. Do you want less? Then support limited government and federalism. A return to federalism may be a way to ease the tensions, not that I am sanguine about any solution.
Federalism, roughly, is (i) a form of political organization in which governmental power is divided among a central government and various constituent governing entities such as states, counties, and cities; (ii) subject to the proviso that both the central and the constituent governments retain their separate identities and assigned duties. A government that is not a federation would allow for the central government to create and reorganize constituent governments at will and meddle in their affairs. Federalism is implied by the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited to it by the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Federalism would make for less contention, because people who support high taxes and liberal schemes could head for states like Massachusetts or California, while the conservatively inclined who support gun rights and capital punishment could gravitate toward states like Texas.
The fact of the matter is that we do not agree on a large number of divisive, passion-inspiring issues (abortion, gun rights, capital punishment, affirmative action, legal and illegal immigration, taxation, wealth redistribution, the purposes and limits, if any, of governmental power . . .) and we will never agree on them. These are not merely 'academic' issues since they directly affect the lives and livelihoods and liberties of people. And they are not easily resolved because they are deeply rooted in fundamental worldview differences. When you violate a man's liberty, or mock his moral sense, or threaten to destroy his way of life, you are spoiling for a fight and you will get it.
Worldview differences in turn reflect differences in values. Now values are not like tastes. Tastes cannot be reasonably discussed and disputed while values can. (De gustibus non est disputandum.) But value differences, though they can be fruitfully discussed, cannot be objectively resolved because any attempted resolution will end up relying on higher-order value judgments. There is no exit from the axiological circle. We can articulate and defend our values and clarify our value differences. What we cannot do is resolve our value differences to the satisfaction of all sincere, intelligent, and informed discussants.
Consider religion. Is it a value or not? Conservatives, even those who are atheistic and irreligious, tend to view religion as a value, as conducive to human flourishing. Liberals and leftists tend to view it as a disvalue, as something that impedes human flourishing. The question is not whether religion, or rather some particular religion, is true. Nor is the question whether religion, or some particular religion, is rationally defensible. The question is whether the teaching and learning and practice of a religion contributes to our well-being, not just as individuals, but in our relations with others. For example, would we be better off as a society if every vestige of religion were removed from the public square? Does Bible study tend to make us better people?
For a conservative like Dennis Prager, the answer to both questions is obvious. As I recall, he gives an example something like the following. You are walking down the street in a bad part of town. On one side of the street people are leaving a Bible study class. On the other side, a bunch of Hells [sic] Angels are coming out of the PussyCat Lounge. Which side of the street do you want to be on? For a conservative the answer is obvious. People who study the Bible with its Ten Commandments, etc. are less likely to mug or injure you than drunken bikers who have been getting in touch with their inner demons for the last three hours. But of course this little thought experiment won't cut any ice with a dedicated leftist.
I won't spell out the leftist response. I will say only that you will enter a morass of consideration and counter-consideration that cannot be objectively adjudicated.
My thesis is that there can be no objective resolution, satisfactory to every sincere, intelligent, and well-informed discussant, of the question of the value of religion. And this is a special case of a general thesis about the objective insolubility of value questions with respect to the issues that most concern us.
Another sort of value difference concerns not what we count as values, but how we weight or prioritize them. Presumably both conservatives and liberals value both liberty and security. But they will differ bitterly over which trumps the other and in what circumstances. Here too it is naive to expect an objective resolution of the issue satisfactory to all participants, even those who meet the most stringent standards of moral probity, intellectual acuity, knowledgeability with respect to relevant empirical issues, etc.
Liberal and conservative, when locked in polemic, like to call each other stupid. But of course intelligence or the lack thereof has nothing to do with the intractability of the debates. The intractability is rooted in value differences about which consensus is impossible. On the abortion question, for example, there is no empirical evidence that can resolve the dispute. Empirical data from biology and other sciences are of course relevant to the correct formulation of the problem, but contribute nothing to its resolution. Nor can reason whose organon is logic resolve the dispute. You would have to be as naive as Ayn Rand to think that Reason dictates a solution.
Recognizing these facts, we must ask ourselves: How can we keep from tearing each other apart literally or figuratively? Guns, God, abortion, illegal immigration -- these are issues that get the blood up. I am floating the suggestion that federalism and severe limitations on the reach of the central government are what we need to lessen tensions.
Example: Suppose Roe v. Wade is overturned and the question of the legality of abortion is returned to the states. Some states will make it legal, others illegal. This would be a modest step in the direction of mitigating the tensions between the warring camps. If abortion is a question for the states, then no federal monies could be allocated to the support of abortion. People who want to live in abortion states can move there; people who don't can move to states in which abortion is illegal. Each can live with their own kind and avoid having their values and sensibilities disrespected.
I understand that my proposal will not be acceptable to either liberals or conservatives. Both want to use the power of the central government to enforce what they consider right. Both sides are convinced that they are right. But of course they cannot both be right. So how do they propose to heal the splits in the body politic?
Giles Fraser in his provocative Redeeming Nietzsche: On the Piety of Unbelief (Routledge 2002) maintains that "Nietzsche is obsessed with the question of human salvation" and that his work is "primarily soteriology." (p. 2) I don't disagree with this assessment, but there is a tension in Nietzsche that ought to be pointed out, one that Fraser, from what I have read of his book, does not address.
1. Talk of salvation presupposes, first, that there is some general state or condition, one in which we all find ourselves, from which we need salvation, and second, that this general condition is profoundly unsatisfactory. In The Birth of Tragedy, section 3, Nietzsche invokes "the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus" who, when asked by King Midas about that which is most desirable for man, replied that the best of all is utterly beyond human reach: not to be born. The second best, if one has had the misfortune of being born, is to die soon. Now it is clear that some such negative assessment of life, or of human life, is a precondition of any quest for salvation, no matter what form it might take, whether Buddhist, Stoic, Christian, whatever. The negative judgment on life as a whole need not be as harsh as the Silenian one, but without some negative judgment or other as to the value of life the question of salvation makes no sense. To take the question seriously one need not believe that salvation to some positive state is possible; but one has to believe that the general state of humanity (or of all sentient beings) is deeply unsatisfactory, to use a somewhat mild term.
2. But here's the rub. It is well known that Nietzsche maintains that the value of life is inestimable. As he puts it in Twilight of the Idols ("The Problem of Socrates," sec. 2) : der Wert des Lebens nicht abgeschaetzt werden kann. His point is that objective judgments about the value of life are impossible. Such judgments can never be true; they count only as symptoms. Saying nothing about life itself, they merely betray the health or decadence of those who make the judgments. Buddha, Socrates, and all those belonging to the consensus sapientium who purport to say something objective about this life when they pronounce a negative judgment upon it, as Buddha does in the First Noble Truth (sarvam dukkham: all is suffering) merely betray their own physiological decline. There is no fact of the matter as to the value or disvalue of life. There is only ascending and descending life with the value judgments being no more than symptoms either of life ascending or life descending. Thus spoke Nietzsche.
3. The tension, then, is between the following two Nietzschean commitments: (1) Man needs salvation from his present predicament in this life; (2) The value of life cannot be objectively assessed or evaluated. The claims cannot both be true. The need for salvation implies that our predicament in this life is of negative value, when this cannot be the case if there is no fact of the matter concerning the value of life.
4. Finding contradictions in Nietzsche is not very difficult, and one could even argue that the conflicting trends of his thought show its richness and its nearness to the bloody bone of the predicament in which we find ourselves; my present point, however, is that Fraser's essentially correct claim that Nietzsche's work is "primarily soteriology" needs to be qualified by his fundamental thesis about the inestimability of life's value, which thesis renders soteriology impossible.
5. Well, is the value of life objectively inestimable? A most vexing question. Life is always an individual life, mine for example. Heidegger spoke of the Jemeinigkeit des Daseins; I will speak of the Jemeinigkeit des Lebens. There is no living in general; it is always a particular affair. What's more, every individual life is stretched on the rack of time: one does not live one's individual life all at once but bit by bit. If there is a problem about how any given individual life can judge the value of life in general, then there will also be a problem about how any phase of an individual's life can judge the value of that individual's life as a whole.
I am tempted to give the gastroenterologist's answer to the question whether life is worth living. Itdepends on the liver. Joking aside, the point would be that there is just no objective fact of the matter as to whether or not life in general is worth living. You either experience your particular life as worth living or you don't. If you do then your particular life has value, at least for the moment. There is no standard apart from life, and indeed apart from the life of the individual, by which the value of life could be measured. No standard apart from life does not imply no standard: individual life is the standard. The value of life's being objectively inestimable therefore does not imply that its value is merely subjective. The implication seems to be that the individual life is an absolute standard of value in which subjective and objective coalesce.
6. "But aren't there certain general considerations that show that no life is worth living or that no life is worth very much?" And what would those be?
a) Well, there is the fact of impermanence or transience. In a letter to Franz Overbeck, Nietzsche himself complains, "I am grieved by the transitoriness of things." I feel your pain, Fritz. Doesn't universal impermanence show that nothing in this life is worth much? How important can anything be if it is here today and gone tomorrow? How can anyone find value in his doings and strivings if he faces up to the universality of impermanence? Does not the certainty of death mock the seriousness of our passions and plans? (Arguably, most do not honestly confront impermanence but vainly imagine that everything will remain hunky-dory indefinitely. They live in illusion until driven out of it by some such calamity as the sudden death of a loved one.) But on the other hand, how can impermanence be taken to be an argument against worth and importance if there is no possibility of permanence? As Nietzsche says in Twilight, if there is no real world, if there is no world of Platonic stasis, then there is no merely apparent world either. Is it an argument against this life that it fails to meet an impossible standard? And is not the postulation of such a world a mere reflex of weakness and world-weariness? Weltschmerz become creative conjures up spooks who preside over the denigration of the only world there is.
b) And then there is the fact of misery and affliction. (Simone Weil is one of the best writers on affliction, malheur.) Don't we all suffer, and doesn't this universal fact show that Silenus was right after all: better never to have been born, with second best being an early death? But again, and taking the side of Nietzsche, is it not the miserable who find life miserable, the afflicted who find it afflicting? The strong do not whine about pain and suffering; they take them as goads to richer and fuller living. Or is this just Nietzschean romanticism, a failure to fully face the true horror of life?
These questions are not easy to answer! Indeed, the very posing of them is a difficult and ticklish matter.
What do we mean by 'meaning' when we ask about the meaning of life? It is perhaps most natural to take the meaning of life or of a life to be its purpose, point, end, goal, or telos. Accordingly, (human) life is meaningful only if it has a central organizing purpose. Existential of life meaning bears a teleological aspect in that a meaningful life is a purpose-driven life.
Having a purpose, even if necessary for the meaningfulness of a life, is not sufficient. A meaningful life must also embody positive intrinsic value. The lives of terrorists and mass murderers can be purpose-driven, subjectively meaningful, and satisfying to their agents, but we ought to resist the notion that such lives are objectively meaningful. At best, such destructive lives are subjectively meaningful only. If so, existential meaning is not merely a teleological concept but a teleological-cum-axiological concept. An objectively meaning ful life must be both purpose-driven and such as to realize positive objective intrinsic value.
The following argument is sometimes heard. "Because values are relative, it is wrong to impose one's values on others."
But if values are relative, and among my values is the value of instructing others in the right way to live, then surely I am justified in imposing my values on others. What better justification could I have? If values are relative, then there is simply no objective basis for a critique or rejection of the values I happen to hold. For it to be wrong for me to impose my values, value-imposition would have to be a nonrelative disvalue. But this is precisely what is ruled out by the premise 'values are relative.'
Either values are relative or they are not. If they are relative then no one can be faulted for living in accordance with his values even if among his values is the value of imposing one's values on others. If, on the other hand, values are not relative, then one will be in a position to condemn some forms of value-imposition. The second alternative, however, is not available to one who affirms the relativity of all values.
Persons who give the above argument are trying to have it both ways at once, and in so doing fall into self-contradiction. They want the supposed benefits of believing that values are relative -- such benefits as toleration -- while at the same time committing themselves to the contradictory proposition that some values are not relative by their condemnation of value-imposition.
One sees from this how difficult it is for relativists to be consistent. A consistent relativist cannot make any such pronouncement as that it is wrong to impose one's values on others; all he can say is that from within his value-scheme it is wrong to impose one's values on others. But then he allows the possibility that there others for whom value-imposition is the right thing to do.