Tuesday, January 15, 2019

British Ethical Theorists 0014: The Values of Parts and Wholes

I, and others, typically speak as if there are two major types of value - means and ends. Within desirism, desires themselves provide the ends. If Agent1 has a desire that P (e.g., a desire that "I am not in pain"), then states of affairs where P is true (e.g., where "I am not in pain" is true) are states that have value to Agent1. That is to say, Agent1 has a reason to prefer states where "I am not in pain" is true over those where "I am not in pain" is false.

Other states, objects, actions, laws, institutions, and the like have value insofar as they can contribute to realizing such a state. So, if I have a headache (that is to say, I am in a state where "I am not in pain" is false), and I take some aspirin, I can realize a state in which "I am not in pain" is true. As a result, taking aspirin has value.

Some philosophers refer to those states that fulfill our desires directly as "intrinsically desired". I do not like this term since it implies that the state has value "intrinsically" rather than in virtue of the fact that somebody has a desire that is fulfilled in that state. I prefer to call such a state as being "directly desired", while anything that is valued as a means is "indirectly desired."

However, as Hurka points out in British Ethical Theorists, this is an oversimplification. If we look at this situation in a bit more detail, there are more relationships between objects of evaluation and ends than the ends themselves and the means towards those ends.

For example, G.E. Moore devoted a great deal of effort to understanding the relationship between parts and wholes. This is his famous "principle of organic unities".

The standard example that I use to discuss this is: take any part of the Mona Lisa painting (10cm by 10cm) and ask, "What is its value?" If we assume that the Mona Lisa painting has value, then that section has value. However, it is not valued for its own sake. Remove it from the painting and set it aside and it would have little value on its own. It may have value as a historical artifact, but not as a painting. It also does not have value as a means to an end. That is to say, it is not being used as a tool for realizing something else that has value. It's value is, instead, as a part of a whole.

Elsewhere, I have called this "contributory value". Hurka reports that W.D. Ross called it "contributive goodness." However, since it is also possible for something to contribute to something bad, I prefer "value" to "goodness".

For another example, consider each individual word in this tremendously valuable blog posting. Each word alone has no value. Furthermore, the value of the blog posting cannot be determined by adding up the value of each particular word. In fact, if we determined the value of the blog posting that way, then it would still end up with 0 value because the sum of the all of the 0 value words would be 0. It is only when all of those 0-value entities come together - and are put together in a particular structure - that you have value.

Speaking of which, we can go back to the Mona Lisa painting and consider the value of each atom - which is 0, except insofar as it is a part of the painting.

This illustrates an important fact - one that Moore focused on heavily - the value of a whole is not the same as the value of the sum of its parts.

I often speak about fulfilling the most and strongest of an agent's desires. However, if Agent1 has two desires - a desire that P and a desire that Q - then it is a bit simplistic to think that a state of affairs in which P and Q are both true satisfies those those desires. Agent1 may want to listen to some classical music. He might also be in the mood to listen to his Johnny Cash album. However, a state of affairs in which both Johnny Cash and Beethoven are playing at the same time will not likely fulfill either desire. (Though, in this case, when we combine the sound waves of both pieces of music we get a collection of sound waves that, we can say, is neither "classical music" nor "Johnny Cash", so - in a sense, neither P nor Q are realized in that state of affairs.)

Another example that I use involves putting butterscotch topping on a casserole. One may like a salad. One may like butterscotch topping. But butterscotch topping on a casserole is a state of affairs in which neither "I am having butterscotch topping" or "I am having a casserole" is true. One is, instead, eating a strange concoction that cannot be truly described - at least for desire-fulfillment concerns - as both "having casserole and having butterscotch topping".

Hurka describes Moore's position as follows: "[Moore] 30) assumed a ‘holistic’ interpretation, on which if a whole’s value differs from the sum of the values of its parts, that is because alongside the unchanged values in those parts there is a further value in the whole ‘as a whole’ that must be added to the values in its parts to determine its value ‘on the whole’ (PE 213–22)."

Restating this principle in desire-relative terms, if an agent has a desire that P and a desire that Q, and the state "P & Q" has a value that is different from the value that P and the value that Q, then there must be a third desire that R that explains that change in value. Though it could be, as is the case when playing two songs at the same time, that a state that may, in one sense, be described as one in which both P and Q are true (Beethoven and Johnny Cash music is playing), in fact, for desire-fulfillment purposes, the combination of sound waves is neither Beethoven nor Johnny Cash.

When the value of wholes is different from the value of parts, these two options seem to be required to explain it. Either there is some additional "desire that R" that is true in the state P & Q, or either P or Q or both cease to be true in the state that - in one sense - may be described in terms of a whole made up of those parts.

Note that, in writing on this topic, Moore was writing about intrinsic goodness as its own non-naturalistic property, not goodness in terms of being such as to fulfill (directly) the desires in question. So, he took himself to be talking about a thing in the world independent of desire and was trying to figure out what was true of that thing. Consequently, Moore needed to explain changes in value in terms of the emergence or destruction of this intrinsic property when parts united into wholes. Perhaps we should take a look at how Moore's intrinsic value might differ from "is such as to fulfill the desires in question."

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