Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Objectivity of Value

What does it mean to say that values are objective?

This actually has a couple of different meanings – and this illustrates where discussions fall into problems. Many people who enter into these discussions jump back and forth between these two types of objectivity as if there is no difference between them. In fact, these types of objectivity are quite distinct such that it is possible (in fact, I would argue that it is true) that, even though morality is not objective in the first sense, it is fully objective in the second.

What, then, are these two senses?

Objective(1) Value: Objective(1) value is what we might call intrinsic value. An object, event, or state of affairs has objective(1) value if its value is dependent entirely on its intrinsic properties. It's relationship to other things in the world – particularly to the beliefs and desires of intentional agents – are irrelevant. It is simply the case that when matter gets organized in a particular way – as a matter of brute fact – it has value.

Objective(2) Value: Objective(2) value is not about objects of evaluation – it is not about actions, or states of affairs, or paintings, or virtue. It is a term that refers to statements – to propositions – and identifies them as objectively true or false. If, for example, I were to say that Jim is taller than Sally, the proposition is either objectively true or objectively false. Whether it is true or false depends on whether Jim is, in fact, taller than Sally.

Before we apply these concepts to value, let us take a look at them as applied to something that is value neutral.

Take, for example, the claim, "Jim is tall."

The statement, "Jim is tall," is not an objective(1) truth. That is to say, no person has a property of 'tallness' entirely in virtue of its intrinsic properties. 'Tallness' depends on a relationship to something else – compared, for example, to the average height of males who are as old as Jim, for example. If the universe consisted only of Jim, alone, floating through empty space, the claim, "Jim is tall" would not even make any sense.

However, the statement, "Jim is tall" meaning "Jim is taller than the average male of his age" is an objective(2) truth. The proposition is objectively true. Its truth does not, in any way, depend on anybody believing that Jim is taller than the average person his age. It does not depend on how anybody feels about Jim being taller than an average person his age. All that matters is whether or not Jim is, in fact, taller than the average person of his age. And there is the fact of the matter.

Location provides another example of something that lacks objectivity in the first sense but has objectivity in the second sense.
Nothing has an objective(1) location. You cannot tell me the location of anything without referencing some other thing. If I ask you where the keys are, you may say that they are in your coat pocket, or on the table, or you left them in the car, or Jim has them, but you must always refer to something else.

When it comes to picking this "something else", that is determined by the interests of the participants at the time. If I am looking for the keys so that I can drive to town and pick up some lunch, then your answer should refer to something that will help me to find the keys efficiently. However, if the context of our discussion is one in which I wanted to know that they keys are safe, then an answer that says, "They are in the safe deposit box" or "Jim has them" - even if I cannot get to the safe deposit box or contact Jim – is the better answer.

Assume that we are working on a farm and you want the keys to the car so that you could drive into town and pick us up some lunch. You ask, "Where are the keys?" If I answer, "Earth," that would be taken as a joke. At least, I would hope so. It would be better than being punched (though there is a possibility of both).

So, if we are going to argue about whether there are objective values, the first thing we need to do is to determine whether we are talking about whether values are objective in the first sense – whether there are objective(1) values; or whether statements about the value of things are objective in the second sense – whether a proposition of the form "X is good" can be objectively true or false.

Remember, as is the case with "taller than" in the example above, a proposition of the form "Jim is tall" (meaning "Jim is taller than the average person") can be objectively true without it being the case that the claim, "Jim is true" refers to an intrinsic property. We must keep these types of objectivity separate.

The mistake that comes from confusing these two types of objectivity appear when somebody argues that values are not objective in the first sense, and concludes from this that values are not objective in the second sense.

This is comparable to arguing from the fact that since tallness is not an absolute, intrinsic property that we cannot make objectively true claims about whether one person is taller than another or whether Jim is taller than the average male of his age.
It is comparable to arguing that since we cannot give the location of something without referring to something else that the location of something is always merely a matter of opinion – and two people with different opinions cannot both be right.

The mistake can also go in the other direction. This happens when a person provides evidence that moral claims are taken to be objectively true – that they are treated as true or false propositions independent of whether people believe or how they feel about them – to the conclusion that value must be an intrinsic property.

This would be comparable to arguing from the fact that the statement, "Jim is taller than Sally" is objectively true to the conclusion that tallness must be an intrinsic property that Jim has independent of any relationship to Sally. It would be comparable to arguing from the fact that we can make objectively true claims about the location of things that everything has an objective(1), intrinsic location that is independent of its position in space and time relative to any other thing.

To prevent our debate on the objectivity of value from getting bogged down in these types of mistakes, we must take care to distinguish these two types of objectivity.

1 comment:

David Jacquemotte said...

I wish all people that weigh in on this subject would know this by now. Thanks, Alonzo.