Last week, a post I made called Evanescent on the Meaning of Life left me with two related tasks for this week.
I need to answer emu sam question about how we can have rights without suggesting some sort of 'rights particle' or some other strange ontological invention. At the same time, I need to demonstrate to Evanescent that the proposition, "Life is the ultimate value," is false.
I am going to start with refuting Evanescent's thesis.
Life is necessarily the ultimate value, because IF it wasn't, you would act with death as your objective! IF that was the case, you should up and die as soon as possible, in which case you wouldn't need a guide to how to live your life, because you wouldn't have life as your goal!
This is a classic example of a false dichotomy. There are many things in the universe other than life and death. The 'ultimate value' (if there is such a thing) could be a third thing, such as happiness or the absence of pain. In these cases, life would be useful insofar as life is conducive to happiness, or death would be useful insofar as death provides the only way to obtain the absence of pain.
Elsewhere, evanescent seems to acknowledge the possibility of a ‘third thing’ as an ultimate value when he challenges me to:
Name a value higher than life.
Okay, I will. Or, rather, I claim that we have a set of ultimate values (which are sometimes in conflict with each other). I am going to do so by bringing forth the classic distinction between "value as a means" and "value as an end". I am going to equate "value as an end" with "ultimate value", and show that we have a number of these ends.
A hammer has value. However, the value that a hammer has is merely its value as a tool. A hammer can be used to build a house. A house has value because it separates the outside environment from the inside environment. We have the ability to regulate the inside environment and to keep it (for example) at a more comfortable temperature than the outside environment.
Why does a comfortable temperature have value?
It might have some value as a tool. However, ultimately, a 'comfortable temperature' has value independent of its usefulness. In addition to any value it may have as a means to something else of value, it is an end – a goal that agents reach for its own sake, and not (solely) for the sake of something else.
"I like it." That’s all that needs to be said.
Nature has given us a number of 'values as ends' (or 'ultimate values') – not just life. Our 'values as ends' include happiness, pleasure, the absence of pain, eating, sex, and a few others.
Now, I want to look at the value of something as an end and 'side effects'.
Nature did not give us an 'ultimate end' of procreation. That would have been far too difficult. Instead, nature gave us a natural ‘ultimate value’ of having sex. Procreation is an unintended (and often, even, undesired) side-effect of a desire for sex. We can see this in the fact that people seek sex even in the absence of procreation – even while actively taking steps to prevent procreation. If procreation were the 'ultimate end' of sex, then we would never see people having sex except as a means (a chore) useful for bringing about procreation.
The same is true of eating. Eating is an 'ultimate value'. Nature has made us so that we tend to prefer those foods that keep us alive (at least long enough to procreate). However, survival is not the 'ultimate end' of eating. If it were, then we would only eat those foods that were good for us, and only in th quantity that maximized survival. Eating would be a chore – a job to do that had no value for us other than as something useful in reaching the 'end' of survival.
I capture these elements in a phrase that is almost a cliché in this blog: The antelope does not run from the lion because he is afraid of being killed and eaten. The antelope runs from the lion because he is afraid of lions. This aversion to the presence of lions has the effect of preventing the antelope from being killed and eaten, which then helped the genetic predispositions for lion-aversion to spread throughout the antelope population. But, for the antelope, lion-avoidance has value for its own sake. It also has some evolutionarily useful side effects.
As I said, nature has given us a number of natural ends (eating, drinking, sex, absence of pain, various forms of comfort). Nature has also given us a malleable brain, which then causes us to acquire new ultimate ends through experience. One of the most basic ways of learning new desires is through conditioning. Associate an action with a 'natural end' so that the agent is rewarded, and that action goes from being a means to that end to something that is valued for its own sake. It becomes something the agent will pursue even when the agent is fully aware of the fact that it has been disconnected from its former end.
Thus, a child learns to tell the truth and not to take things that belong to others as a way of fulfilling a natural aversion to parental wrath. Eventually, however, these become desired for their own sake – such that the child will come to see dishonesty and theft as something to be avoided for its own sake, and not just as a means for avoiding parental wrath.
Evanescent mentions this distinction between means and ends in his own defense of life as an 'ultimate value':
In order to even ask whether life is the ultimate value or not, you are in effect asking “how do you know that life is the standard for right or wrong?” – but what you have missed is that UNLESS YOU WERE ALIVE, and unless you were a rational being with needs and desires, and things that were objectively positive or negative for your existence, you couldn't even ask the question! The words "good" and "bad" would be meaningless. What ever else could they relate to, if NOT your own life??
However, please note that in offering this defense of life as an ‘ultimate value’, Evanescent is really only defending the value of life as a means. Life is valuable, in this sense, only insofar as life is a useful tool – useful for bringing about other things that have value. However, if this is the type of value that life has, then life is a means, and the things that one can do with a life are the true ends – the true ultimate values. Because, if there was nothing that one could do with a life, if a life was not useful, it would have no value.
These points are not inconsistent with the possibility that life also has value is one of our 'ultimate values'. It is possible for something to have value both as a means and as an end. However, its value as an end (as an 'ultimate value') is distinct from its value as a means, and cannot be defended by pointing out its value as a means. It has to be demonstrated that it is something (like the absence of pain) that we pursue for its own sake – independent of its usefulness in realizing other ends.
However, this fact that life is a very useful means (or tool) for the fulfillment of other desires suggests that people have many and strong reason to promote an aversion to killing in others. This relationship is straight forward. To the degree that others have an aversion to killing, then to that degree that have an aversion to depriving us of this very useful tool for the fulfillment of our desires. Our desires are our reasons for action, so they are reasons to establish this aversion to killing in others. And their desires are their reasons for action for instilling an aversion to killing in us.
The reason to promote an aversion to killing is that this makes 'not killing' itself one of the agent's reasons for action – one of the ends that the agent is acting to fulfill at all instances. An individual with a sufficiently strong aversion to killing will not kill others even when it would otherwise be profitable to do so and even when he could get away with it. This is true in the same sense that a person with an aversion to pain will not stick his hand into a bed of hot coals even when it would otherwise be profitable to do so (e.g., "I will pay you $100") and he could get away with it.
More precisely, we have reason to set up an aversion to killing an innocent person. We have much less of a reason to establish an aversion to killing an aggressor – so that we may kill in self defense, and others (e.g., police, neighbors) may kill in our defense. This, however, is still justified in virtue of the fact that an aversion to killing others except aggressors better secures a very useful tool (means, not end) for the fulfillment of our desires – our lives.