Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Life: Universal Means and Ultimate Ends

I am back from a week off with my wife celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary.

I have a new project I am anxious to start - that I will start next week. It is a project that fits the fact that this is an election year.

However, before I start that project, I was informed of a posting where an atheist has presented a thesis on the nature of a naturalistic, realistic morality that I would like to comment on.

Those of us who tend to have a more scientific and analytical mindset are capable of taking a subject such as morality, laying theories side by side, and discussing the merits and demerits of each theory. We tend to consider it illegitimate to make assertions of the form, "You are just wrong, and that is all there is to it."

Whereas Daniel Fincke has presented a hypothesis concerning the nature of moral value, I wish to set his side by side with my own and offer just such a comparison.

(See Camels Without Hammers Deriving a Naturalistic, Realistic Account of Morality)

I will start with some common ground. Fincke reports:

I consider myself a form of moral realist, even on his specific definition of it as “the view that moral duties and values have an objective reality that does not depend on any person’s or group of persons’ opinions or beliefs about them”. But I reject his equation of this position with the ideas that (1) that there are “unchanging moral absolutes”, (2) that moral duties and values have always existed, or (3) that morality’s “essential principles are eternally unchanging”.

On all of this, I have nothing to do but nod my head in agreement.

He then proceeds to take on the question, "What is a moral value or duty?"

At this point, what I would want to see from a hypothesis that claims to provide a natural, real-world account of moral facts is something that ties morality to the real, natural world.

In Fincke's account, I do not see us. He goes on to make a claim about what HAS value.

Our primary value is simply to exist. This is the most fundamental value because it is the precondition of any other values whatsoever.

However, this is different from telling us what value IS. I can illustrate the distinction by pointing out the difference between telling us what HAS a liver, and what a liver IS.

Even as an account of what HAS value, this account contains a serious problem. It confuses value as a means with value as an end

Why does life have value?

According to Fincke's account above, it has value because it is useful for everything else that we may seek to do. It has value as a means - it is a useful tool.

However, this does not assign to life any value for its own sake, any value that life has simply in virtue of the fact that it is life. The value of a tool depends entirely on the value of those ends for which it serves as a tool. If those ends should lose their value, then the means to those ends lose their value as well.

I use a rock to hold down some papers while I stand outside in the wind. The rock is a tool. It has no value in itself. It has value only in that it serves an end - the goal of preventing my papers from blowing away. Once I no longer value that end (I am ready to move on and so I put my papers back in my pocket), the rock itself becomes useless, and may be discarded.

The rock does not become valuable as an end - as a goal worthy of pursuing for its sake - simply because I find the rock useful.

The same is true of a life. If the only value that life has is that of a universal means, then life itself - life for its own sake - is worthless. It is a mere tool to be used to bring about other things that DO have value. To the degree that life has borrow, it borrows that value from the ends it is useful in bringing about.

But what are those ends? And how do those ends get the value that they have?

Fincke needs to answer these questions.

Elsewhere, he claims that it is a fundamental truth that it is better for something that it exist than that it not exist. However, I consider this to be a fundamental truth no different than it being a fundamental truth that God exists or that a life in service to a deity is better than one without. I hold that it is not true. More importantly, in virtue of creating a naturalistic moral realism, it does not link value to anything in the natural world. It tells us what HAS value without telling us what value IS.

(See The Intrinsic Connection Between Being and Goodness.)

I will have more to say on this question in my next post. For the moment, I will suffice it to say that I deny the existence of intrinsic value. It is as mythical as any deity.

Returning to the claim that life has value as a universal means, not only can we not get from this to the conclusion that life is the only legitimate end. It is false. There are many things that people value that do not require life - and that may even require death.

Freedom of pain is something that I value - and I am not alone in this. Yet, it is possible for me to find myself in a situation where freedom of pain does not require life at all - where the absence of life may be the only state compatible with the absence of pain. In this case, life has no value as a means. It may be a necessary tool for me to use in killing myself (I cannot end my life if I am no longer living). However, if I am no longer living, then I would have no interest in killing myself.

The same analysis applies to the person who wishes to keep a military secret. He, too, has more of a reason to cease to exist. Life may be a useful means for him to kill himself, but killing himself is not what he is after. If he were already dead, there is no sense in the claim that it would have been better if he were alive because then he could kill himself, and now that he is dead he can no longer do that.

Another value that I have is to leave a respectable amount of money to some socially worthwhile service. One of the things I do not want is for my money to go into changing my diapers as I am lying in a bed drooling and staring at the ceiling. Existence, at that time, has no value - precisely because it no longer serves as a means for fulfilling my desires. At that point, continuing to exist would thwart my desires and I would rather be rid of it.

So, Fincke's account of a naturalistic, real-world morality suffers from two mistakes at the start. The first mistake is that it confuses value as a means with value as an end. It makes an unwarranted leap from a premise that says that life has value as a universal means to the conclusion that life has value as the ultimate end. The second mistake is that the claim that life is a universal means is false. In many cases, life has no value - and can even have negative value - as a means, because sustaining life puts at risk or actively thwarts other things that the agent values.

Tomorrow, I will look at the issue of intrinsic value and answer the question of what value is.

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