Thursday, February 11, 2016

Objective Values, External Reasons, and the Implications of their Non-Existence

As I go through my studies on J.L. Mackies “Ethics”, I am trying to keep each post its own independent entity. I do not want to write posts where readers are required to go through 20 previous posts to understand what was written.

So, let me state in this one post the major take-away from the previous discussions on Williams “Internal and External Reasons” and Mackie’s “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong”.

Mackie asserts, “There are no objective values” – by which he means that there is no intrinsic prescriptivity. Williams asserts, in effect, “There are no external reasons”. As I see it, both authors are addressing substantially the same concern expressed in two different ways. Both are saying that value, or the reasons for performing some act, come from subjective motivational sets and nothing else.

As it turns out, I agree with both of them. There are no objective values of the type that Mackie is talking about – that is to say, there is no ‘objective intrinsic prescriptivity’. Similarly, there are no external reasons in the sense that an agent has no reason to perform some action or refrain from some other action that does not come from her subjective motivational set.

However, I would like to argue for a type of objective value – a type of external reason – that neither Mackie nor Williams should have any trouble with. It is a type of objective value or external reason to which the authors would likely respond, “Well, yeah, of course."

These alternatives are important because, even though neither Mackie or Williams will disagree with these claims, I think many who are aware of their claims draw unjustified conclusions that contradict these implications. If they agree with Mackie and Williams, they end up using their arguments to support conclusions that Mackie and Williams may not agree with. If they disagree with Mackie and Williams they use these conclusions as a basis for launching their objections.

In the realm of objective values, it is true that objective, intrinsic prescriptivity does not exist. However, relationships between objects of evaluation and interests or desire do exist. They are as much a part of the real world as the distance between objects or their relative ages. Relational properties are real, and can be (and are) the subject of investigation even in the hardest and most objective of sciences.

In the realm of external reasons, it is true that the reasons an agent has are those that come from her subjective motivational states. However, the reasons an agent has are not the only reasons that exist. Clearly, the subjective motivational states an agent has are not all of the subjective motivational states that exist. Other agents have their own subjective motivational states – their own reasons – and those reasons are external to those that the agent has and they exist.

Mackie explicitly stated in “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong” that relationships between objects of evaluation and desires or interests are objective, but that this was not the type of objectivity he was talking about when he said that there were no intrinsic values. Williams did not explicitly state that “of course the reasons an agent has are not all of the reasons that exist; other agents exist and they have reasons as well.” However, in Williams case, I think he would say that this implication is too obvious to mention and not relevant to the discussion.

However, I think that a great many people who read Mackie interpret him as saying that objectively true value statements are impossible – and that the only thing that an agent can report is what he or she likes. They take the claim that there are no objective values, and they make a wild (and unjustified) leap to the conclusion that moral claims can be nothing more than statements of personal preference. That simply is not the case.

Similarly, people take Williams’ denial of external values as reason to believe that the interests of others can be ignore as utterly irrelevant the desires and interests of other people. This is true while we limit the discussion to the reasons that a person has. However, it would be a mistake to make a while (and unjustified) leap to the conclusion that the reasons that the agent has are all of the reasons that exist.

Making either of these wild and unjustified leaps is to draw conclusions from Mackie and Williams (or from the conclusions they defend – that there is no intrinsic prescriptivity and an agent has no reason to act that does not come from a subjective motivational state) that neither author actually defends.

Or, at the very least, I do not mean to draw the conclusion that moral claims are expressions of mere personal preference when I say that objective values do not exist. Nor do I mean to deny that other agents have reasons for action that are external to our hypothetical agent and exist. the reasons that other agents have are , and no reasons for action exist .

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