Monday, April 28, 2008

Life as The Ultimate Value

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.


Anonymous said...

I, probably like yourself, think that Objectivists suffer from a severe confusion regarding the value of an individual's life. They say that one's life is an ultimate value, yet they'll say that, for example, dying if your Objectivist-like mate dies is justifiable, because then life would not be worth living. In saying that, they are saying that being in a relationship with such a person is of more value than living.

But I suppose that when this contradiction is pointed out, they'll equivocate from "life" to life as defined as "man qua man", a term which denotes Rand's subjectively-chosen values. However, when this definition is inserted in place of the word "life" in other Objectivist declarations of fact, the arguments fall flat, as Mike Huemer (I think) has shown.

Or they could show that intrinsic value is not necessary for something to be an ultimate value. But if it is not intrinsic, it is instrumental, which they tend to balk at as well. Pure confusion, as I said.

Good job, Alonzo.

Anonymous said...

And before an Objectivist jumps on me about the example I used in my first paragraph above, let me say that I'm certain I've seen Objectivists, either ones online or Rand herself in Atlas Shrugged, say that dying if your Objectivist-like mate dies is justifiable via the philosophy, although I can not currently provide a source.

Anonymous said...

Very well put, once more Alonzo.

As an aside, you 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.

I would like to ask you, what is your opinion on considering "the absence of pain" as the only true ultimate value. This is obviously a more Epicurean take on values and it seems to make sense (to me).

I will assume that you are familiar with the philosophy of Epicurus so I won't attempt to explain the complete reasoning behind this. I would like to see what, if any, your objections are to it.

Eric said...

"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."

I'm not sure I see how it has value independent of its usefulness. You say that a 'comfortable temperature' may be a means to something else of value. Clearly, the value of a comfortable temperature is the fact that it is life sustaining, no? In which case, life is still the end value. I'm not sure how this refutes Evanescent's argument.

Mark C., I think you're right that Rand did say something along the lines that a person might be rationally justified in sacrificing his life for a loved one, if life would be of no value to him (or other values would be meaningless?) without that person in it. I was looking for it in TVOS last night but could not find it.

I'd be curious to hear what Evanescent thinks of it.

Anonymous said...

Clearly, the value of a comfortable temperature is the fact that it is life sustaining, no?

One could look at it that way, but more generally, we value a comfortable temperature because we seek comfort and want to get away from discomfort. Consciously, we value comfortable temperatures because they are comfortable, not because they sustain life. Sustaining life is, however, what results (ceterus paribus) from living in a place with a comfortable temperature.

Anonymous said...

Eric, this is what was argued against in this article.

We like warmth, not because it sustains life but because it is comfortable.
We like food, not because it sustains life, but because it tastes nice
We life sex, not because it procreates the species, but because it feels nice

The end means, for us, is the comfort, happiness, pleasure. The fact that it sustains life, makes babies, etc is just a consequence.

The value that "comfortable temperature" may have as a tool, is not to sustain life. Perhaps as a tool to allow us to have comfortable sleep, or create an atmosphere that allows sex etc.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

By "comfortable temperature" I am referring to "temperature around 70 degrees" that we desire for its own sake. It is the comfort that we value. Not the sustaining of life. That it happens to sustain life is because evolution has caused us to be comfortable in temperatures that tend to sustain life. However, it sustains life as a side effect. We continue to prefer a temperature around 70 degrees F even when a higher or lower temperature would do a better job of sustaining life.

A useful (though imperfect) way of determining ends is to look at the reasons people offer for chaning or maintaining a state of affairs. In a dipute with family members over the temperature in a house, people almost never bring up life sustainability. They bring up comfort . . . and expense. Comfort is an end, not life-sustainability. Expense relates comfort to other ends (that can be realized with the money spent for comfort).

Alonzo Fyfe said...

"Abence of pain" also suffers from a set of problems.

First, "absence of pain" is ill-defined and can typically be used to refer to all goods only if we expand its meaning beyond all usefulness. There is a clear difference between physical pain and sexual pleasure or the enjoyment of eating chocolate ice cream, for example. I can demonstrate that all animals are cows. They all have something in common with cows in that they are multi-celled life forms, they obtain energy by consuming other things, and they are self-mobile. But to use this to argue that all animals are cows requires a significant equivocation on the standard definition of 'cow'.

Second, it requires too much cognition. The antelope with an aversion to pain will either also need to have some mental programming where the perception of lion-presence is painful, or would need some way to realize that avoiding lion-presence is a way of avoiding future pain. It is simply far easier to program an antelope to avoid lion-presence, then to program it to avoid pain and then, on top of that, to make the presence of lion-presence alone painful.

Third, any attempt to reduce value to a single psychological state suffers from the fact that where psychological states deviate from truth, value follows truth. "Avoidance of pain theory" predicts that if a person must choose between "I believe that my child is healthy and safe, but she is being tortured," and "I believe that my child is being tortured, but my child is healthy and safe," she would choose the former. It is the less painful option.

Desire fulfillment, on the other hand, follows truth. A "desire that P" is a state that motivates the agent to act so as to realize a state in which P is true. A desire that one's child is healthy and safe motivates the agent to realize a state in which 'my child is healthy and safe is true'. Which explains the phenomenon described in the third case above.

It's also simpler. You're programming an antelope to live in the wild. You give it a cliff-aversion where the aversion gets stronger as it gets closer to the cliff, and food-desire. At the point where cliff-aversion is stronger than food-desire, the creature gets no closer to the cliff. The hungrier the creature is, the stronger its food desire, the closer it will get to the edge of the cliff. Give it a desire for food A that is stronger than its desire for food B. If food A is present, it will eat food A. If not, it will settle for food B. Rather than tying the aversion to pain and then pain to the state to avoid, simply tie the aversion to the state directly and cut out the middle man.

Finally, a set of desires, each identifying a separate end, accounts for our experience much better than the idea that everything is only tied to one end. There is a perceived difference between sexual pleasure and physical pain because there is a real difference - the desire for sex and aversion to pain are separate mental states.

Anonymous said...

I probably created undue confusion here :)

I was talking about the "absence of pain" as a human-only, consciously selected ultimate value. A value that we select to strive for in order to live a better life.

This will be very confusing unless you are, as I said, familiar with the Epicurean philosophy. If you're not there is not point discussing this until I get a chance to explain it a bit ;)

Anonymous said...

Ha, I posted my thoughts on life as the ultimate value (where value is as defined by Objectivism) over on evanescent's blog. Ergo then came in and produced an absolute non-rebuttal that completely skipped over my argumentation. Can they never address what's given to them?

Martin Freedman said...

My comment at Ultimate Value and Morality

Evanescent and Ergo

As far as I can see that has been zero progress on the key questions here

Life is the only ultimate value.

1. You have failed to explain what this ultimate value is if it is not intrinsic

2. You have failed to show why it is the only ultimate value

3. You have failed to show that life is not just mostly an instrumental value. (I say mostly becuase there are situations where one could operate in terms specifically of saving one’s life - as an end in itself - but these are rare)

You have been shown a number of “ultimate values” and you beg the question by showing how these can all be derived from the ultimate value of life. It is granted that this can be done but is an additional requirement over just having multiple ultimate values - desires-as-ends. The same argument could be made against other singular ultimate values such as avoidance of pain, or seeking happiness. What they all have in common is that they are desires-as-ends and the simpler answer is that there are multiple desires-as-ends.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

As an addition to Martino's comments, the claim that we have multiple ends is also 'simplest' in terms of compatibility with evolutionary theory.

We evolved an aversion to pain where pain is a reliable but imperfect indicator of threats to our life. Still, it is pain that we avoid, not threats to our life.

We evolved a desire for sex, not a desire for procreation.

We evolved hunger and thirst that tends to preserve our life, yet we do not eat that which tends to best preserve our lives.

Somehow, the idea that life is the ultimate end needs to be fit into the fact that we have this evolutionary history. If it doesn't fit, points go to the theory that does fit.

Martin Freedman said...

My latest comment at Ultimate Value and Morality

Evanescent you are repeating yourself, saying nothing new and failing to answer the questions and avoiding them instead. I will analyze your last comment one more time and list the question for actual answer rather than avoidance.

“Life is not an intrinsic value - there are no such things are intrinsic values. Values cannot exist without a valuer.”
Yea well we all agree with that. This is not in dispute.

“Life is the ultimate value because there is none higher - life makes value possible.”
This is the genetic fallacy. Just because life is the cause of value does not mean it is value. Alonzo made an equivalent argument over the existence of value versus the value of value.
Q1: Now please answer and try to refute either what I or Alonzo said.

“There is only one “ultimate” value, by definition, and because life is an end in itself.”
If a value is an end in itself - the other meaning of intrinsic BTW, (versus a value that is a means instrumental), then there is no “by definition” that there is only one such value. Q2: Where is your argument that this is singular? Q3: What is the meaning of an ultimate value if it is not intrinsic? Do you just mean an end in itself?

“Nothing else is an end in itself. Further up, I challenged anyone to disagree with this by providing an example of something else that IS an end in itself. This challenge remains unmet.”
This challenge has been repeatedly met. A desire to avoid pain, a desire for happiness, a desire to avoid predators, a desire for food, a desire for drink, a desire for sex. These are all ends in themselves. They are all relational values the value is in the relation between the desire and its fulfillment. Q4: Your “stealing the concept ” argument is invalid. How can you show these are not ends in themselves without breaking Occam’s Razor?

“There are no rational “multiple ends” - this is logically self-evident.”
Empty rhetoric. Q5: Where is your argument that this is self-evident.

“All values (or subvalues I should say in this context) as pursued because they ULTIMATELY either benefit your life or detract from your life.”
This is a beneficial side effect. We have evolved to have the desire-as-ends that we do as they enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce and we are the result. No animal reasons nor is able to reason this way. As humans we can go further but only need to replace this as needed. Q6: The same argument is made by genetic biologists that the ultimate goal is successful reproduction. As far as I can see these are both abstractions. How can you refute the geneticists and show your is better than theirs?

“One cannot pursue rational values that conflict with this.”
Q7:Define rational values. I suggested means-end rationality but you appeared to reject this. Means-end rationality is about reasoning over means not ends.

“Even if you want to talk about “sub-ends”, the way we talk about subvalues, in other words, where one acheives or accomplishes something - even the acheival of this “end” is itself a means to another. The only way to avoid an infinite regress of “means” and “ends”, where all values and goals take place in a vacuum of arbitrary and random action - is to have an end that is an end in itself - something is not a means to anything else: life.”
Q8: Geneticists would disagree with this (see above). What do you say to them
Infinite regress can be also avoided with multiple desire-as-ends so this does not refute such a position.

“Objectivism posits LIFE. What do YOU posit? What is YOUR philosophical alternative?”
You are implicitly equivocating over life. I post life too but this does not lead to Objectivism, that is the whole point. I am not presenting an alternative as such, I am saying that everyone seeks to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires.

“The examples that you mention, such as pursuit of happiness or avoidance of pain are YOU begging the question - you steal the concept of value into YOUR argument, but these are concepts that are epistemologically dependant on and derived from LIFE.”
Confusing instrumental again. Your are imposing an ad hoc rationalization
Q10: where is your logical or empirical argument that your approach is correct?

“By even suggesting that you SHOULD desire to avoid pain, and SHOULD desire pleasure, you ASSUME that one already lives a life that makes such values or non-values possible, and that one is pursuing one’s life and happiness in such a way to avoid that which detracts from such life and seek that which benefits and aids such life! Which is exactly the Objectivism theory of rational values.”
There are no SHOULDS here. Once you have burned your hand in a flame you do not want to do so again. There is no should involved. Desires exist we are not arguing over having desire-as-ends people do not have have, only recognizing the desire-as-ends they do have and the implications of this. You are performing the same instrumental error as before. It does not matter how often you assert it this error will not just disappear without an argument.

“An ultimate value is actually philosophical necessary, and the fact that you would question this with “multiple desires-as-ends” is propesterous!”
Q11: How about making an argument as to why this is preposterous.

“Otherwise one would not act with any rational goals - one could eat healthy food one day and drink poison the next; why not, unless life was your value?”
Q12: What is a rational goal? This sounds very Kantian, I thought Rand did not like Kant.
Q13: What is the logic that leads one to eat poison one day, certainly not the desire-as-ends already listed.

“One could be obnoxious and vicious one day and pleasant and mild the next; why not, unless you had an ultimate goal?”
One always has “ultimate goals”, which ones are activated depends on the situation. When you are thirsty you seek to satiate that thirst. When you are not thirsty you do not.

“It should not even need to be spelled out that desires are NOT ends!”
To be accurate it is their fulfillments that are the ends.

“If they were, I could desire to chop off my big toe, as an end in itself.”
Q14: Why would you want to do this?

“I could desire to shoot you in the head, or eat the bark of a tree, or masturbate on the street corner, or eat nothing but chocolate all day, FOR NO OTHER REASON that the desire itself.”
All these desires are possible and people have had and acted on them. Who is going to recommend and encourage them, rather they are to be condemned and discouraged?

” But then we wouldn’t be talking about rational values! All desires are desires precisely because we believe we accomplish something by attaining them; by acheieving these values.”
Yea duh!. I am thirsty and I fulfill my desire for water by drinking water.

“But this assumes that they are of VALUE TO SOMETHING, and beneficial TO SOMETHING… but to what??”
When I drink this satisfies me.

“Objectivism answers: LIFE.”
Q15: So when you are thirsty you want a drink because it will save your life. If you don’t think it will save your life you will not drink?

“You answer: NOTHING! The absurdity of your position is staggering.”
Stop looking in the mirror! :-)

“A further example of the validity of the Objectivist philosophy is that it is impossible for you to provide two examples of rational values that one would pursue that ultimately conflict with each other.”
You need to define what a rational value is then we can see it is impossible or not. Certainly desires can conflict and this leads to dilemmas, a subject of much philosophical analysis, partly because there can be rational support to both sides of certain dilemmas.

“All your philosophical attacks and positions are premised on a foundation of air (because you reject the notion of ultimate ends in themselves, a contradiction);”
This is false, no-one here rejects ultimate ends, it is just we have defined what we mean and you have not.

” in fact, you have to assume Objectivist metaphysics and epistemology for yourself in order to attack it (the fallacy of concept stealing: because even your warped notion of values and ends presuppose Objectivism).”
This is a completely empty argument we have covered before. One does not need and can indeed reject Objectivist “metaphysics” and epistemology and make these arguments as we have all done here.

“You have shot yourself in the epistemological foot and don’t even realise it.”
Dare I mention that pesky mirror again ;-)