I want to do further damage to the idea that value can be reduced to happiness. In fact, I want to present a couple of arguments against the idea that value can be reduced to any single thing – happiness, pleasure, well-being, preference satisfaction.
In recent posts, I have argued that moral theories should be judged by their ability to account morality (“Evaluating Moral Theories”). It needs to account for such things as mens rea, excuse, supererogatory actions, moral dilemmas, moral argument, and the like.
I further argued that Richard Dawkins fails to do this (“Richard Dawkins: Morality and the Selfish Gene”). He has some important insights into the possibility of altruism, but doesn’t say much of anything about elements like those listed above.
I also argued that Sam Harris’ reduction to ‘happiness’ and ‘freedom from suffering’ fails to account for reports of unwillingness to live in an experience chamber (“Sam Harris: Morality and Religion”).
The Experience Machine argument applies to any attempt to reduce issues of value to the intrinsic value of some psychological state such as happiness. Today, I wish to add another argument against the idea that value can be reduced to a single commodity.
The Incommensurability of Value
That objection comes from the inability that single or small-number value theories have in accounting for the incommensurability of different values. If there is only one value, then there can be no incommensurability of value. There cannot be two incompatible things if there is only one thing.
Commensurable values are substitutable. To understand commensurable value, imagine an investor with a number of investment options. Assume that one option pays 6 percent, and another pays 5 percent. The term of the investment (e.g., 1 year) and risk (insured by the FDIC) are the same.
When the investor chooses the 6% option there is no sense of regret for having not selected the 5% option. He took the best option available, and the options not chosen are simply dismissed as irrelevant – as not good enough.
Incommensurable values, then, are values that cannot serve as a substitute for each other. Consider the case of a Montana kid who got accepted to Harvard University. He could go to Harvard and get his degree, opening up a number of future career opportunities. However, if he goes to Harvard, he will have to leave his girl friend behind. He also wants to be with her. He wants never to be parted from her.
If these were commensurable goods, then, even if both options had equal value to the agent, it would be like choosing one container holding $50,000 and another container also holding $50,000. He can only pick one container. He would just shrug his shoulders and grab one. It does not matter which. There is no loss or sacrifice here that comes from the fact that grabbing both is not an option.
However, in the choice between college and staying with his girlfriend, there are regrets. There is a loss. These are incommensurable goods. College is not a substitute for staying with his girlfriend, and staying with his girlfriend is not a substitute for going to college. Even if both options have equal value, he cannot look on the choice as one of casual indifference. “Six of one, half dozen of the other, it doesn’t really matter.”
Any attempt to reduce value to a single entity – pleasure, happiness, freedom from suffering – has a problem with the incommensurability of value. “I will get 50,000 units of happiness if I go to Harvard. I will get 50,000 units of happiness if I stay with my girlfriend. One is as good as the other. It really doesn’t matter which I choose.”
However, this is not what happens when a person makes a choice like this. His competing desires pull him in both directions at once. If he chooses one, it is not like picking one of the suitcases full of money. No matter what the agent chooses, something is lost – something is given up – some sacrifice has to be made.
Every example such as this is further evidence that humans act on more than one value.
Desire Utilitarianism and the Incommensurability of Values
Desire fulfillment theory handles the incommensurability of value because each desire generates its own value.
Here is a mistake that a lot of people make when I talk about desire fulfillment. They think that I say that where a person desires that P (for some proposition P), where there is a state of affairs S, and P is true in S, a special property emerges that is called ‘desire fulfillment”, and it is this special property that holds all of the value intrinsic to that state of affairs.
There is no ‘special property’ that holds the value in these states of affairs. There is nothing in this state other than the desires, the state of affairs, and the relationship between them.
If I were to claim that desire fulfillment were emergent property that holds all of the value of a given state of affairs, then desire utilitarianism would fall into the same pit with all of the other forms of utilitarianism I mentioned above. Here, we would have to describe the agent as making a choice between 50,000 units of desire fulfillment vs. 50,000 units of desire fulfillment. There would be no incommensurability problem because there would be only one type of value.
Desire utilitarianism does not face the problem of incommensurable values because it holds that each “desire that P” generates its own value in states of affairs in which P is true. Whatever may fulfill a desire that P does not necessarily fulfill a desire that Q. So, a person who acts so as to realize P may well have to sacrifice or give up on Q. He would certainly want to create a state of affairs in which both P and Q are true. Failing that, he must give up one of his values in order to pursue the other one. This is a real sacrifice – quite unlike giving up $50,000 to get $50,000.
The Force Metaphor
To explain how desires work I sometimes draw on a metaphor that uses the way that forces act on a physical body flying through space.
Whenever a body is acted on two or more forces, the total effect on the body is determined by the vector sum of the forces. If one force pushes to the right at 5 ft/s^2, and another pushes to the left at 4 ft/s^2, the object will move to the right at 1 ft/s^2.
Similarly, if the desire to go to Harvard is stronger than the desire to stay with his girlfriend, then he will go to Harvard. If the desires are nearly equal, and both desires are strong, he will go with the stronger desire, but he will do so with regret. The desire that he cannot fulfill is still there pushing with all of its strength.
There is one more consideration that is relevant when we consider that value is grounded on desire, which is a propositional attitude like belief. As I wrote in a comment to one of the earlier discussions, there is no more reason to insist on reducing all desires to a single desire, than there is to insist on reducing all beliefs to a single belief. Just as we can each believe a wide array of propositions, we can each desire a broad array of propositions as well.
The only difference is that, whenever a belief does not conform to the real world, this is a reason to change one’s belief. Whenever a desire does not conform to the real world, this is a reason to change the world.