Thursday, June 28, 2018

On Desires 2018 - Supplemental: "Actual Value"

The top of my list of things to dislike about academic philosophy is . . .

They choose a language that gets in the way of philosophers talking to real people.

For the past few postings as I have discussed Peter Railton's thesis that desires are like beliefs about the actual value of things I have had to make the claim that "there are no actual values".

This phrase, "there are no actual values," means one thing in the language of philosophers and something quite different among real people. Among real people, saying this is like saying that nothing has real value. It is like telling people, "You might think that your child's health, service to your community, or your own freedom from pain has value, but you are wrong. Nothing has value. Everything is worthless. Literally, everything is worth nothing because there is no such thing as value."

Which, by the way, is not at all true.

Put your hand in a bed of hot coals and tell me that the pain that results doesn't matter.

In writing this post for real people rather than philosophers, let me say that value is quite real. Things really do matter.

What I am saying against Railton is not that "nothing matters" but that "things matter in virtue of the fact that we value them, and not for any other reason." That is to say, pain is bad because we hate pain. The well-being of our children is important because it matters to us. The suffering of people from poverty and disease or from injustice and violence is real suffering. You cannot say, accurately, "nothing bad has ever happened in the world and nothing good can happen." Of course suffering exists. Of course good things are possible. Suffering exists and good things can happen because we are people who care.

So, who is it that decided that "value" that exists independent of desire is "actual value," while value that exists in virtue of the fact that we care about things is something other than "actual value"?

In all honesty, the terminology may have well been adopted by people who wanted their theory of desire-independent value to appear in a positive light and to give opponents to their theory a label that would instantly make it unpopular - as something that nobody would want to accept. We see this tactic used constantly in politics. It is the difference between an "inheritance tax" and a "death tax". Between an "undocumented immigrant" and an "illegal immigrant". Philosophers, after all, are human beings and are just as prone to be protective of their favorite ideas and denigrating of the ideas of others as real people.

Be that as it may, I have regrets over having used the term "actual value" in the posts that I have just written on Railton, and wanted to make a note of this issue. I do not want to be taken as saying that desire-dependent value isn't real. Desires are real, and the values that depend on desires are just as real. We really do care. There are things that are important to us and things that are important for us to avoid. All of this is just as real, just as "actual" as any other real and actual thing we find in the world.

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