Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The "Intrinsic Value" of Genetic Integrity

In my class on environmental philosophy, we entered a discussion on the preservation of species.

A part of the discussion concerned the value of preserving "pure" species. For example, one article mentioned the fact that many of the bison alive today have some genes as a result of breeding with cattle. Thus, they are not pure-bread bison. Some authors argue that genetically pure bison have more intrinsic value than these mongrel bison.

I objected to that view. I began with the claim that genetic purity has no intrinsic value. It is a learned sentiment. Furthermore, it is a learned sentiment we have no reason to encourage people to adopt.

There is no such thing as intrinsic value.

Consequently, all claims in defense of a policy that say that the policy will protect or realize something of intrinsic value are false. Intrinsic value claims cannot justify any policy. 

These comments concern the article, “Is There a Prima Facie Duty to Preserve Genetic Integrity in Conservation Biology?” By Yasha Rohwer and Emma Morris. Rohwer and Morris entertain the idea that genetic integrity may have intrinsic value.

They reject this claim. However, they do so in a way that allows for the possibility of intrinsic value. They simply deny that any of that intrinsic value can be found here.

This might be a prudent tactic. It is sometimes efficient to simply accept premises that one's opponent asserts without debate, arguing that even if those premises were true it would not support the opponent's conclusion.

However, it may still be a good idea to address the truth of the premise. "Oh, and by the way, they're also not true, but that's just icing on the cake."

In discussing intrinsic value, Rohwer and Morris mention G.E. Moore’s isolation test. 

Another argument against the idea that genetic integrity is intrinsically valuable is to use G. E. Moore’s (1903) method for determining whether or not something is intrinsically valuable that he put forth in his Principia Ethica. Moore’s thought experiment is supposed to give evidence that something is intrinsically valuable. The thought experiment goes like this: imagine that there exists a possible world and that the only thing that exists in that world is that which supposedly is intrinsically valuable. Once the thing is isolated thusly, we ask ourselves: is it good? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then that is evidence that the thing has intrinsic value; if ‘no,’ then that is evidence that the thing does not have intrinsic value.
This test is not a test for intrinsic value. Moore’s test would work even if intrinsic value did not exist – if, instead, all value depended on individual likes and dislikes, but among the things liked or disliked are things in themselves – that certain situations be realized. 

Take Moore's most famous example: 

Let us imagine one world exceedingly beautiful....And then imagine the ugliest world you can possibly conceive. Imagine it as simply one heap of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting to us, for whatever reason, and the whole, as far as may be, without one redeeming feature. The only thing we are not entitled to imagine is that any human being ever has or ever, by any possibility, can, live in either, can ever see and enjoy the beauty of the one or hate the foulness of the other.... [S]till, is it irrational to hold that it is better that the beautiful world should exist than the one which is ugly? Would it not be well, in any case, to do what we could to produce it rather than the other? Certainly I cannot help thinking that it would; and I hope that some may agree with me in this extreme instance.
Let us grant that we would choose to have the beautiful world exist, even if nobody were to experience it and derive any pleasure from the experience. 

Now, ask this question of somebody who is an intelligent descendent of the dung beetle. She, too, may tell us that she would choose to have the beautiful world exist.

Then ask her, “Which world is the beautiful world?” 

We should not be surprised if, being a dung beetle, she would choose the world that is, “one heap of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting to us” – a big ball of dung – that the dung beetle has evolved a disposition to value as we value green meadows, rainbows, flowers, and flowing streams. 

The value, in each case, depends not on its intrinsic qualities, but on the preferences of the observer. Those preferences just happen to include a preference that the world one counts as beautiful exist independent of anybody experiencing it. 

Applying this to genetic integrity, then, we get the conclusion that genetic integrity has no intrinsic value. Instead, we there are people who value genetic integrity for its own sake. They prefer that genetically pure individuals exist and genetically mixed individuals do not exist, even if it has no impact on what people experience. 

After establishing this as a preference, we can then ask whether people generally have reasons to universally encourage or discourage the development of this preference.

Let me illustrate what I mean by this. Assume that we had a community of individuals all with an aversion to personal pain. They would each have a reason to promote in all others (universally) an aversion to causing pain to others. They may do so by praising those who refrain from causing pain and condemning those who do not refrain. 

There may be a similar reason to promote in others a desire to preserve nature for its own sake (and not merely for the sake of the instrumental value of nature). It would certainly be better than having all that has successfully sustained and supported life for millions of years vanish. So there may be a reason to promote a nearly universal interest in preserving nature.

However, the preference for genetic purity is a preference we have a great many and strong reasons to discourage, and not to encourage. We need only look at this love of genetic purity - this aversion to mixed breeding - has had on human society. We have reason to worry that this love of genetic purity among animals is too closely related to a quest for the same type of genetic purity among humans. 

The situations are quite similar. Rohwer and Morris wrote about cases where parts of a population became isolated, began to form genetic differences, then came back together again and began to interbreed, thus reducing the genetic purity of each sub-species. I want to make sure the reader understands that they did not share this value, but they wrote about a great many people who thought it was obviously the case that pure-blood specimens had more intrinsic value than mixed-blood specimens. 

The story of humanity is also a story about a population that spread out to the point that different populations became genetically isolated to the point that they began to genetically differentiate. Then technology brought them back into contact with each other – allowing interbreeding. If we apply the intrinsic value claims that Rohwer and Morris criticized to human interbreeding, we would end up with arguments calling for genetically pure Europeans, Africans, Asians, and Native Americans, and the elimination of any type of corrupted impure genetic specimens. 

One might argue that these “oughts” do not apply to human populations. I suspect that the authors may be surprised - even offended - at the claim that they could defend such attitudes among humans. However, their offense aside, we need a real-world reason as to why there is a difference between the two types of cases. Otherwise, regardless of the degree of protest, the intrinsic value of genetically pure specimens of subspecies applies to humans as well. 

These sentiments do not, in fact, realize anything of intrinsic value. They are learned – and we really don’t have any good reason for people to learn them. In fact, we have reason to discourage people from this lesson, and discourage the fondness for genetically pure members of any species

Monday, October 09, 2017

Actual Valuation Theory

In my environmental philosophy class, our readings for today concerned the harms of climate change and, more specifically, what counts as harm or damage.

I hold to a valued-dependent theory of value. There is no value without a valued. So, ther is no harm without a person harmed. There is no damage without a change that sets back somebody’s interests - no being who has a reason to care about the change.

Two of the articles we read contained common misapprehensions of the actual valuation theory. One confused value grounded on belief with value grounded on desire (independent of belief). The other confused actual value with felt value.

In my summary of the readings, I described these mistakes, why they are mistakes, and how actual valuation theory handles the concerns these authors raised.

The shorter version:

Katie McShane in “Values and Harms in Loss and Damage,” and Christopher Preston in “Challenges and Opportunities for Understanding Non economic Loss and Damage,” each make a mistake in understanding actual violation view, which impacts their accounts of harm – this making mistakes on what counts as harm.

Specifically, McShane equates “actual valuation” with anything an agent thinks might be good, then uses the possibility of false beliefs to reject this account. She then invents values (and, thereby, harms) independent of those that an actual valuation theory would defend.

There are actual valuation theories that deny a link between actual valuation and beliefs. One of these recognizes a distinction between beliefs and desires. It links value to actual desires – as distinct from beliefs. A change in beliefs simply is a change in recognizing the effective means to that which one actually desires, or a change in recognizing whether what one actually recognizes has been realized.

Preston assumes a false dichotomy between felt satisfaction theories of value and intrinsic prescriptivity. He reports shortcomings which the felt satisfaction theories. From this, he asserts that there must be some intrinsic values.

The problem here is a failure to recognize that people can have preferences for more than felt satisfaction. A value can be based on a preference, where the preference is for something other than felt satisfaction. A parent may have a preference for the well-being of his children independent of felt satisfaction, and choose what is in the child’s interest even while finding it quite painful to do so.

These mistakes about the nature of actual valuation theories translate into mistakes about what such theories would identify as harms, and thus misidentifying the reasons for or against various climate policies.

The longer version:

Katie McShane, “Values and Harms in Loss and Damage”

Katie McShane provides a taxonomy of value theories which is , at best, incomplete.

What she leaves out is a type of actual valuation theory that grounds value on actual desires, and fully recognizes a distinction between desires and beliefs.

McShane defines “actual valuation” theories as follows:

Actual Valuation: Value is a matter of whatever is valued by valuers.

She then raises objections to this account based on the possibility of mistakes.

Actual Valuation allows flawed or mistaken valuations to confer value on things. Consider the example of a valuation based on a mistaken belief. If I were to value a local structure on the basis of an incorrect belief about its historical provenance, or if I were to value an environmental policy because I wrongly think that it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, these objects would nonetheless count as valuable on this view merely in virtue of the fact that I value.

However, this objection does not apply to actual value theories that distinguish between actual desires and beliefs.

For the sake of space, allow me to assume a Humean theory of motivation – which provides a useful foundation for these types of theories. A modernized version of the theory says that intentional action is motivated by desire. That is to say, desires identify the ends of intentional actions. Beliefs provide information useful in determining the means – the steps to take in reaching those ends. They are also relevant in determining if an actual-desire dependent end has been reached. But beliefs can be mistaken. Mistaken beliefs can prevent a person from obtaining her ends or recognizing that she has succeeded (or failed). However, they are not relevant in determining what those ends are. Failures in determining means or in recognizing if an end has been realized are not evidence against the thesis that value depends on actual desires.

So, a person who desires to eat chocolate cake and believes that there is chocolate cake in the kitchen has a motivating reason to go to the kitchen and get some chocolate cake.

As he gets up off the couch and heads to the kitchen, his wife may ask, “Where are you going?”

“I want some of that chocolate cake in the kitchen.”

“There is no chocolate cake in the kitchen,”she says.”You ate the last of it for breakfast.”

An actual valuation theorist need not say that our agent’s actual desire was “the chocolate cake in the kitchen.” His desire was to be eating chocolate cake. The fact that he had a false belief about where to find chocolate cake is irrelevant. He was not mistaken about what he valued. He was only mistaken about how to realize what he valued. Regardless of what he believes, what he values (to be eating chocolate cake) remains the same.

To use another example, imagine a person, after a long run, reaching for what she thinks is a glass of water. Another person in the room says, “You don’t want to drink that.” Indeed, she does not, since the glass contains cleaning fluid.

The person who wants to own a genuine Picasso painting may think that he wants the forgery above his fireplace. When he discovers that it is a forgery, his values do not suddenly change. It is not true that he wanted that painting yesterday and does not want it today. He never wanted that painting. He only thought that he did.

McShane contrasted actual valuation theories with idealized valuation theories – where value depends on what the agent would value if fully informed.

However, a Humean theory of motivation would argue the agent would have the same values after obtaining full information that he had when ignorant. He would become better able to fulfill those desires (more accurately determine means) and better able to realize when they are or are not fulfilled, but the information will have no impact on what those ends are.

We do not reason a person into a new desire. We use other tools such as praise, condemnation, or helping the person to experience the object in a new way or to develop new habits. John Stuart Mill would tell us how that which we start valuing as a means to happiness becomes a part of happiness – valued for its own sake. This is what Hume meant by the phrase that reason is the slave of the passions. The passions select the goals or objectives, then assigns to reason the subordinate task of determining how to get there.

Christopher Preston, “Challenges and Opportunities for Understanding Noneconomic Loss and Damage,”

Christopher Preston suggests another false dichotomy relevant to actual valuation theory of value.

Preston draws a false dichotomy between theories that look only at the felt psychological states of agents and objective, intrinsic prescriptivity. In objecting to the UN method of computing harms, Preston states:

In the language of meta-ethics, this means that the technical paper has decided to consider all non-economic losses (including the subset of these that are moral losses) as simply a diminished psychological state or a preference dissatisfied. Even the loss of non-use items, valued intrinsically for what they are—a category of loss that the technical paper claims to want to accommodate)—end up counting as losses only because their destruction causes psychological harm to some individual. Intrinsic moral values, in other words, are rejected. . . [T]he method trivializes some important discussions in ethics by reducing all “ethical frameworks” to psychology. In so doing, it evacuates of any deeper philosophical significance the idea of an objective intrinsic value, an absolute right, or an inviolable principle.

So, we have two options – the subjective felt effect of a loss or objective, intrinsic value. The possibility of agents valuing things other than their own feelings is not considered as one of the options.

There are forms of actual evaluation theory that are not limited to these types of values.

Consider a parent who desires that his child be healthy and happy. If this is what he values, then he has a motivating reason to realize any state of affairs in which the proposition, “My child is healthy and happy” is true. It has nothing to do with the agent’s pleasure or satisfaction. In fact, the agent who truly cares about the well-being of his child may well prefer the grief of falsely believing that his child is being tortured over the satisfaction f falsely believing that his child is healthy and happy. This is the difference between valuing the child’s well-being and valuing a sense of satisfaction.

Yet, this interest in the well-being of the child can still reside in the parent’s preference – the parent’s actual desire that the child be healthy and happy.

Similarly, if somebody values that the Siberian tiger thrives in the wild, he has a motivating reason to make it the case that the Siberian tiger thrives. He may will prefer the grief of falsely believing that the Siberian Tiger is extinct over the felt satisfaction of the false belief that the Siberian tiger thrives. This is the difference between having a preference for the thriving of the Siberian tiger and a preference for a particular feeling of satisfaction.

Desires vs. "Ought to Desire"

I expect that some readers would come up with another objection to actual valuation theories – that it cannot accommodate the possibility of bad desires. On this account, the person who likes to torture young children has a preference that gives the torturing of young children value, in the same way that the preference of the parent that his children are healthy and happy gives the happiness and health of his children value.

However, valuations influence actions, and actions influence whether other valuations are realized. The parent who values the health and happiness of his children has a reason to promote in others sentiments compatible with that end and to discourage the development of sentiments in others that would threaten the health and safety of his children. Similarly, the agent with the desire that the Siberian tiger thrives, has a reason to promote sentiments in others that will help to realize a state where the Siberian tiger thrives and to discourage the development of sentiments that would threaten the Siberian tiger.

Returning to Hume, we can evaluate character traits/desires/motives according to the degree to which they are pleasing/useful to the agent/others. A population with an aversion to pain has reasons to discourage the development of interests that will tend to put people in a state of pain, and people having reasons to plan have reasons to promote desires to repay debts and keep promises.

Consequently, even within an actual valuation theory, it is possible to make sense of the distinction between what people desire and what they ought (ought not) to desire. It is the distinction between the desires they have and the desires that people generally have reasons to promote (discourage).


The question at issue concerns the implications that such a theory has for the issue of loss or damage – the costs of climate change (or any other policy, action, or event). Only beings with a capacity for actual valuation can ultimately be harmed. Other types of things – a house, a work of art, an institution, a relationship – can be harmed only in the sense that it can be changed in ways that set back the interests that beings capable of valuation have in it.

An untrammeled wilderness has no value for its own sake, but it may still have an important relationship to interests, such as the interests of the value-capable animals that live there, the interests of those who may visit and experience it, and the interests of those who simply desire that untrammeled wilderness exists.

Actual valuation theories are not as limited as these authors imagine.