Thursday, August 16, 2018

RoME 2018 11: Ultimate Meaning

Ultimate Meaning: We Don't Have It, We Can't Get It, and WE Should Be Very, Very Sad
Rivka Weinberg

Commentator: Chris Heathwood (University of Colorado Boulder)

Chair: Daniel Muñoz (MIT)

Abstract: Life is pointless. That's not okay. I will show that. I argue that a point is a valued end and that, as agents, it makes sense for us to want our efforts and enterprises to have a point. Valued ends provide justifying reasons for our acts, efforts, and projects. I further argue that ends lie separate from the acts and enterprises for which they provide a point. Since there can be no end external to one's entire life since one's life includes all of one's ends, life as a whole cannot have a point. Finally, I argue that since we live our lives and structure our living-a-human-life efforts both in parts and as a whole, it is fitting to be sad to recognize that bothering to live is pointless. My discussion helps make sense of the literature that frequently talks around this topic, but often does so vaguely and indirectly.

This paper defends the conceptual possibility and utility of permissible-wrong action. Permissible-wrong action is a moral assessment according to which agents sometimes perform wrong actions that are nonetheless permissible. Initially, this will sound like a mistake. An action cannot be both wrong and permissible, since we take wrongness and impermissibility to be interchangeable, and an action cannot be both permissible and impermissible without a straightforward contradiction. The apparent inconsistency hangs on the assumption that all morally wrong actions are morally impermissible. Driving a wedge between “impermissibility” and “wrongness” and arguing they are different types of moral assessments about actions reveals the possibility of permissible-wrong action. Permissible-wrong action helps to provide solutions to many of moral theory’s other most challenging puzzles. I focus on genuine moral dilemmas and asymmetrical assessments of permissibility in Doctrine of Double Effect cases in this paper.

It is with regret that I report that Weinberg spoke extremely quickly, prohibiting me from any hope of taking notes without fear of getting hopelessly lost in a torrent of words . . . when, in fact, I ended up getting hopelessly lost anyway.

Best made plans and all of that.

First lesson: When I give a presentation, it is my duty to communicate with the audience. This means making sure that I ask myself not only if my ideas make sense, but if I am presenting them in a way that is useful to the listener. I truly think that Weinberg's mode of presentation is a fault.

Be that as it may, let me try to see if I can reconstruct something that sounds like an argument - though I cannot guarantee that this can be attributed to the speaker.

WEinberg's goal seems to be to determine whether a whole life can have value.

To have value in the sense that she is interested in is to serve a purpose, that it aims at a valued end. This valued end has to be external or beyond that which is serving it. A hammer serves an end of constructing a house - where the construction of the house is external to the hammer. For a life to have value it, too, must serve an end.

She admits that a part of a life can have value. One can dedicate a portion of a life to some purpose - e.g., getting a law passed to provide health care to everybody in a community regardless of ability to pay. However, the question that Weinberg takes herself to be addressing is the question of whether a whole life can serve an end. However, once the project ends, then what? What end does that serve? Now, there is nothing. No purpose. Indeed, there is no purpose that serves as an end for a whole life, only as an end to a part of a life.

Desirism holds that all value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires. Consequently, a life is good to the degree that the propositions p that are true of a life are those which are an object of the desires of the people who lived it. This makes it possible that an agent can desire "that I have a life with qualities Q1, Q2, Q3, . . . Qn" and discover at the end that she has lived a life with qualities Q1, Q2, Q3, . . . Qn. It is a good position to be in. I wish to have a life where I have made some contribution to the overall understanding of morality. If my life has that property, then it would have fulfilled the desires in question, which would have given it value.

If, as Weinberg argues, life has no point, what does that matter? This only matters if an agent has a desire that life have a point. In this case, the fact that life does not have a point would thwart his desire. His desire attaches some value to this not being the case. The same line of reasoning applies to a person who has a desire to serve God. If he has this desire, and there is no God, then this desire must remain unfulfilled. However, if he does not have this desire, then the fact that his life does not serve God ends up being unimportant. There is no reason to care unless there is a desire that would be served by that which the object of one's thought.

There are people who care greatly that their life serves some end that has intrinsic moral worth. We can imagine a person who desires that he live his life in service to God. He discovers that there is no God. Therefore, his life is meaningless . . . pointless . . . a waste of effort. One should not casually dismiss the severe pain that this type of revelation can have on an individual. It can be painful to the point of suicide. Having a life with meaning in this sense is that important to them.

The fact that it is extremely important to some people does not change the fact that this importance is contingent. It is not necessary that a person desires that his life serve God. This is something he was taught within an environment that praised and promoted an interest in that which can never be obtained. Somebody else can be quite content with a life that does not serve God or some sort of intrinsic good or not have a point. That person is not mistaken, just somebody with different interests.

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