Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Desirism Book - Part 0014 - The Truth About Value

Is value subjective, or objective?

From what I have said so far, many would conclude that this is a subjectivist account of value. After all, for our one agent, Alph, gathering stones has value because he desires it. It is not the case that he desires it because it has value. (Or, it may be more accurate to say that the claim that Alph values gathering stones and Alph desires to gather stones simply report the same thing.)

However, the terms "objective" and "subjective" are ambiguous. People often confuse these distinctions and, because of this, draw implications that are not accurate.

The two definitions of "objective" that cause the most problems are:

(1) Independent of mental states such as belief and desire.

(2) True, regardless of whether the agent wants or believes it to be true.

Reading quickly over these two claims - it is easy to think that they say the same thing. However, they are different. The nature of this difference makes it the case that value is subjective in the first sense (dependent on desire), but objective in the second sense (value propositions are true independent of whether agents believe or want them to be true).

If we look at our imaginary universe containing it's one agent (Alph) and his one desire (to gather stones), the value that Alph finds in gathering stones is fully dependent on his desire. If Alph were to desire to scatter stones instead, then scattering stones would have value to Alph.

However, none of the propositions that we have been using to talk about this world are true because Alph believes them to be true, or because Alph wants them to be true. Every proposition is objectively true or false - as objective as any claim in any science.

Specifically, The statement "Alph has a desire to gather stones" is objectively true (within this imaginary universe). It is as objective as the statement, "Alph has a scar on his left arm" or "Alph has a temperature of 99.1 degrees". While the first says something about the structure of Alph's wrist, and the second says something about Alph's body overall, the proposition "Alph has a desire to gather stones" reports a fact about the way his brain is structured.

It is not the case that "Alph is gathering stones has value to Alph" is true because Alph either believes or wants it to be true.

From our initial description of the world, it is simply not true that Alph has a desire that Alph values gathering stones. A desire that the proposition be true is not a part of the description. Yet, the proposition is true, and its truth is independent of Alph's desire that it be true.

Similarly, we made no claims about what Alph believes other than that he has those beliefs that allow him to make true the proposition, "I am gathering stones". There is no need for a belief that Alph values the gathering of stones. Alph need not have ever thought about the question of whether he values gathering stones. He simply goes about the chore.

Because people confuse these two concepts, they slip from the fact that values are subjective (depending on desires) to the fiction that value claims are subjective (true because the agent either believes or wants them to be true). They then use this second claim to argue that values are beyond debate or scientific inquiry - that an investigation into the facts of the world cannot tell us anything about what has value and what does not.

However, the former, though true, does not imply the latter. It no more rules out the objectivity of value than it rules out the objectivity of scars and body temperature.

What are we going to say, then, if we are asked the question of whether value is objective?

If we say that value is objective, we are likely to be taken as meaning that values exist independent of belief and desire, which is not the case.

If we say that value is subjective, we are likely to be taken as meaning that value claims are true or false depending on whether or not agents believe them or want them to be true or false - which is not the case either.

It may be best to answer this question by saying that people are generally confused about the concepts of "objective" and "subjective" such that nobody can answer this question without spending a considerable amount of time explaining their answer. If one is pressed for an answer, the fact of the matter is that value claims can be investigated scientifically in the same way that claims about body temperature and scars can be investigated scientifically.

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