Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Against Any Intrinsic Life-Value

Welcome to another episode of "Moral Philosophers Wasting Their Time".

Okay . . . that's too harsh and condescending.

But, it is the case that a lot of work being done in moral philosophy seems to be grounded on false assumptions, meaning that a great deal of work is being done to no useful end.

I spent all day Monday attending a workshop on "Formal Value Theory". Two of the presentations concerned moral theories that are built on false assumptions of intrinsic value.

One of the two presentations concerned another version of what, in moral philosophy, is known as The Repugnant Conclusion.

For all practical purposes, the argument goes as follows:

Assume that you have a population of, say, 100 entities each of them are having a quality of life that we shall arbitrarily assign a value of 100 units. Such a life is going twice as well as a life that has 50 units of value. These numbers are merely for illustrative purposes. All we really need to know is that one life can go batter than another. The life of a person in constant pain is better than the life of a person who only infrequently experiences pain. If you imagine your own future, I am confident that you see some possible futures as being better than their alternatives.

So, we have our community of 100 people each with a life that has 100 unites of value.

If we lower the value and add numbers of people, we can create a community that has more overall value than the one we have. So, let us say that we cut the value of each life in half (to 50 units), but we add another 101 people. Where the previous world had 10,000 units of value, this new world has 10,050 units of value. The latter is better. On the hypothesis that we should maximize total life-value, we should bring about the latter world.

Now, let us cut the value of each life in half again - to 25 units. And, again, we double the number of people in the world and add one. Now, we have a world with 10,075 total units of value. This is a better world still.

If we keep doing this - if we keep reducing the quality of life but increasing the number of people experiencing life at that level of quality, so long as the overall value remains positive, we can make the world a better and better place. One billion people with a quality of life of 0.000011 will have 11,000 total life value units - or 10% more than that of the world with 100 people experiencing 100 life-value units each.

Of course, all of this is premised on the idea that life-value units are to be maximized.

Desirism denies that there is any type of intrinsic value to be maximized. Value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. And the value of the state of affairs in which people have particular desires is evaluated according to its relationship to other desires. The Repugnant Conclusion gives us reason to reject the idea that there is an intrinsically good "life value" to be maximized and, in so doing, gives us a reason to reject alternatives to desirism.

How does desirism see this problem?

Ask people, what type of future do they desire for their - say - great grandchildren. If they had to choose between a society in which their great grandchild were 1 of 100 people with a life value of 100, or one of 1 billion people having a life value of 0.000011, which would they choose?

I strongly suspect that few would select the repugnant conclusion. Indeed, people will tend to find that option repugnant.

Yet, a lot of moral philosophers are still pushing this idea that there is something like a life value to be maximized - the assumptions that lead to this type of conclusion. Usually, they are talking about maximizing happiness, or well-being, or pleasure over pain. There is even a desire satisfaction version that argues that desire satisfaction has intrinsic value to that the goal of morality is to maximize desire satisfaction. This means creating more people with more desires to be satisfied. This is supposed to be an intrinsically good thing.

These moral philosophers could spend their time more productively if they could accept that arguments such as these refuse the thesis that there is an intrinsic value to be maximized and, instead, looked at value not as an intrinsic property, but as a relational property. Value relates states of affairs and desires. The repugnant conclusion is simply not a conclusion that people have many (if any) reason to desire.


Doug S. said...

You can still reject intrinsic value and get things like the repugnant conclusion. What word, if not moral philosophy, would you use to describe the study of what people actually do value and their logical consequences?

Martin Freedman said...


Alonzo Fyfe said...

In theory, it is possible to get something like the Repugnant Conclusion without postulating intrinsic value. It only requires an “outcome maximizing” theory of value. However, in practice, those who call for “maximizing X” generally do so on the grounds that X has an intrinsic ought-to-be-ness.

And I did not intend my posting to be a condemnation of all of moral philosophy. Only if a view in moral philosophy.

The study of the descriptive fact of what people do value exists across several disciplines . . . psychology, sociology, economics.

champ said...

Great post.