What possible reason can there be for spending time and effort on theories of value?
At the end of the Infidel Guy radio show on Ethics without God, one of the things that both participants seemed to agree on was the insignificance of value theory. They pointed out that philosophers have puzzled over these issues for centuries without a resolution, and the vast majority of people make value judgments every day without benefit of a theory. So, it would seem, studying value theory is a waste of time.
I can explain how I got into value theory, and I would argue that it shows why value theory is important.
I have written before about the time when I was sitting in a history class in high school - the time that I swore that I would leave the world better than it would have otherwise been.
But, what is 'better'?
If somebody wants to know the answer to this question, that person has to study value theory. Even the view that what is 'better' is subjective is one of the proposed answers that we will find in that field of study called 'value theory'.
The person who does not give some thought to this question is, when he makes assertions about one option (politician, law, system of government, family structure, etc.) being better than another is, to be honest, assuming that he already knows the answer. They are often acting on this knowledge - and acting in ways that affect the lives of others.
To find the problem with this way of thinking, look back at the number of times in history that people have asserted perfect knowledge of what a 'better' world would be like, but who ended up making the world worse. I am confident that slave owners were confident that they knew the answer to this question. Inquisitors, jihadists, crusaders, tyrants, fascist, all were so very confident that they knew the difference between 'better' and 'worse', yet were most proficient at making the world worse.
A great many people might have had better lives if there had just been a bit more thought given to an honest attempt to answering the question, 'What is 'better'?"
I have no confidence that I have the ability to pluck the right answer to this question out of the air. Knowing how many people have been wrong in the past (and in the present), I can well respect the possibility of being wrong. Even though I cannot escape the possibility of error, I can at least respect the obligation to always wonder - and to always ask, "Am I really advocating something that will make the world 'better'?"
People who read this blog know that I have some proposed answers to that question. Value consists of relationships between desires and states of affairs; terms like 'would' and 'should' are claims that there are reasons for action for doing something; desires are the only reasons for action that exist; desires motivate an agent to make or keep true a proposition that is the object of the desire; we mold the desires of others through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, etc.
When I read or listen to another person's value claims, I listen for clues as to the desires that would be fulfilled if we accepted the conclusion.
When I find the desires that will be fulfilled, I ask if people generally have reason to promote or inhibit those types of desires. The torture of a child may fulfill certain desires, but people generally have good reason to inhibit those desires through condemnation and punishment. Charity fulfills desires that people generally have reason to promote.
If the individual makes reference to reasons for action that do not exist, I dismiss them. Reasons for action that do not exist are not relevant to real-world choices. This includes claims that certain states have an intrinsic value. (Nothing has intrinsic value.) I dismiss claims that say that claim that we evolved certain dispositions and whatever serves those evolved dispositions is ‘good’. (We have certainly evolved certain desires, but we can still ask whether it is a good or a bad thing that we have evolved such desires.) I have no place for assertions that particular actions will create states that please God. (No such God exists and, even if there were such a creature, his desires would be one set of desires among many, with no legitimate claim to more weight or consideration than those of any other being.)
Usually somebody asserting a value claim is arguing for a state that will fulfill certain desires – his own. The religious fundamentalist attributes his own anti-gay bigotry to God in order to give it legitimacy. Intrinsic value and evolved dispositions are often put to the same purpose. The fact that the agent desires a particular state is seldom seen as good enough reason to compel others to act in particular ways. However, if that state is described as recognition of something having intrinsic merit or tied to ‘what it means to be human’ – this seems to be more effective, even though the premises are false.
God, evolutionary ethics, intrinsic value, are all inventions that are used to give the speaker’s personal preferences more weight than they have in fact. In fact, their desires are one person’s desires among many. They do not identify ‘God’s will’ or ‘intrinsic merit’. They only identify what the agent wants. Even if that ‘want’ has been influenced by evolutionary pressure, this does not imply that there is any ‘special merit’ to keeping that trait around.
On the other side, there are those that hold that because desires do not reflect any intrinsic right or wrong that all desires are of equal value. We cannot criticize other peoples’ desires, in the same way that we can criticize their beliefs, because desires cannot be ‘mistaken.’
While it is true that a desire cannot be mistaken, desires can still be good or bad. We can evaluate a tool or a movie according to how well it fulfills certain desires. Nothing prevents us from doing the same to desires – evaluating them according to the degree to which they tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. Desires identify certain states of affairs (those in which the proposition that is the object of the desire are true) as ‘ends’. However, desires are also tools that aid in the fulfillment, or get in the way of the fulfillment of still other desires. So, contrary to the beliefs of many subjectivists, the evaluation of desires is not impossible. We can evaluate a desire to cause suffering to others as a desire that others generally have reason to inhibit.
All of this ties into the value of value theory. The value of value theory is that it clues you in on ends that don’t matter, and on rhetorical tricks that others might use to get people to do things that people really have no reason to do. Value theory is the best way to clear the wheat from the chafe when it comes to discovering whether the claims that others make – claims about the ‘reasons for action that exist’ for choosing one option over another – are really ‘reasons for action that exist’.
It may be true that philosophers have pursued these questions for a considerable amount of time without success. However, this does not imply that the answers are not worth finding. The cost of not having answers to these questions is that we stumble around, often making choices on the basis of reasons for action that do not exist, or failing to properly consider the reasons for action that does exist.
A person in a dark cave may well be able to stumble around in the darkness without killing himself. However, this does not imply that he would not be far better off if only he could discover a little bit of light.