Value and Objectivity

by Daniel A. Kaufman


Recent exchanges with Robert Gressis and Spencer Case have led me to think a lot about obligation and objectivity.  My focus thus far has been on the question of force, and my main goal has been to show that accounting for it is not made easier – or facilitated in any way, really – by obligation being objective.

This has left me wondering about value and objectivity more generally, beyond the question of obligation and force. For just as I see no good reason to think that our account of force benefits in any way by conceiving of obligation as objective, I don’t see any good reason to think that value is better explained or understood by conceiving it as objective either, and that’s what I want to explore here.

Up until now, the discussion has focused entirely on morality, but I want to shift gears to aesthetics for two reasons. First, since most people think artistic values are subjective, we can ask ourselves whether we would understand them better if they were objective. Second, the reasons for thinking objectivity adds nothing to our understanding of artistic value can be transferred quite straightforwardly to the question of ethical values.

But first I want to say a few words about conceiving of something as being objective versus being a Realist about it. If one is a Realist about X, then one believes X is objective, but one might reasonably think that someone could believe X is objective and yet not be a Realist about it. If by “Realist/Realism,” one means something along the lines of “mind independent” or “independent of any conceptual scheme or frame of reference,” then one might think that the rules of chess or tennis are objective, while not being “Real” in the philosophical sense. (I will capitalize ‘Real’ to indicate that I am using the term in its philosophical, rather than its ordinary sense.) Indeed, every aspect of social reality is objective but not Real insofar as it is a human creation. What something’s being objective comes down to, then, is its not being variable by way of personal inclination, perception, or opinion.

There was a point in my dialogue with Spencer, when he insisted that the Real need not be characterized in terms of mind independence or independence from any conceptual scheme or frame of reference, and I wondered whether he was just collapsing the Real into the objective and engaging in an argument by way of stipulated definition, viz: “Given that what I mean by ‘Real’ is this, I don’t need to worry about all those arguments against Realism.” I hope he will elaborate further.

Massimo Pigliucci and I have discussed this question of ‘Real’ vs. ‘objective’ as it applies to ethics, over the course of multiple dialogues, and his inclination is to take values and obligations as being objective, though not Real. [1] In these conversations, I expressed uncertainty as to what I thought (of course, I haven’t been a moral Realist since I was in my early twenties, when I was essentially a Kantian), but I remained open to the idea of moral objectivity, partly out of my love for Aristotle for whom virtues are objective facts about people. At this point, however, I’m pretty committed not just to anti-Realism with respect to values, but subjectivism as well.

My early work in aesthetics and the philosophy of art was devoted to the question of artistic value and whether there was a way one could construe it as being objective. [2] The dominant view in aesthetics, greatly influenced by Hume and Kant, is that artistic values are subjective, so the question that remains is whether we can retain or recover any sense of the normativity of evaluative judgments pertaining to the arts, in spite of their subjectivity. I was convinced that one could not, and as I thought at the time that at least some critical evaluations must be normative, I set myself to the task of finding some variety of artistic value that could be plausibly deemed objective.

What I settled upon were judgments pertaining to the fulfillment (or lack thereof) of demonstrable artistic purposes or functions. That audiences widely find The Producers (1967) funny entails that it is good, given that the The Producers is a comedy and the purpose of comedies is to offer audiences humorous experiences, and it would be quite strange for someone to suggest that it is bad, nevertheless. Of course, The Producers may fail with respect to other artistic aims, but that does not alter the point that qua comedy, The Producers is objectively good.

What I didn’t see at the time (and do see now) is that artistic value in this objective sense doesn’t matter. For one thing, whether something is funny or not remains entirely subjective (in my sense of “variable by way of personal inclination, perception, or opinion”), so the objective fact that “this funny comedy [The Producers] is good” is itself dependent upon The Producers being funny, which is subjective. For another, even if The Producers is funny, in that that large numbers of people find it so, and is thus objectively good, what difference does this make if I dislike it nonetheless? Imagine, indeed, that I find no humor in it at all. Does the fact that its goodness is objective matter as far as I am concerned? Would there be any point in telling me that I “ought” to like it, because it is objectively good? If unanimity on the subject mattered enough societally, people might decide to silence me, shun me, or prevent me from participating in discussions of the film, but the fact that The Producer’s goodness is objective would have no significance with regard to the question of what to do about my comedic heresy.  What would matter is only that it mattered.

Now take any assertion that X is good, around which there is a sufficiently wide consensus such that the claims “X is good” and “You ought to value X” are credibly deemed objectively true. Imagine a person who does not believe that X is good and does not value X. Does the fact that X’s goodness and status of being deservedly valued are objective rather than subjective make any difference to him? Would pointing that objectivity out affect what he believed about it or whether he valued it? And suppose unanimity on the matter is sufficiently important to a sufficient number of us that we collectively decide to remove this person from our company. Would it matter to this decision whether the goodness of X was objective or not?  I don’t see why it would or should.

Value judgments are essentially motivational in both their meaning and performative force. Their purpose is to point our actions and affections in various directions. Empirical judgments and the sorts of a priori statements one finds in logic and mathematics, in contrast, are essentially descriptive and epistemic – the purpose of making them is so that someone might come to know something – and whatever motivational role they play is secondary and is always mediated by a valuation or set of valuations. Knowing that exercise and a diet rich in vitamins and minerals is necessary for one’s physical health, for example, will only motivate a person to exercise and pursue such a diet if he values – i.e. cares about – his physical health.

Notice, here, that we are talking about the kinds of facts that are uncontroversially, obviously objective – what could be more objective than “calcium is necessary for maintaining healthy bones” or “ 3+5=8”? – and their objectivity still doesn’t matter with respect to whatever motivational effects they may have when entertained or stated.

This is why in my discussion with Spencer and elsewhere, I have repeatedly maintained that one does not engage in ethical theorizing or discourse, ultimately, in order to come to know something, and I would broaden the point to include theorizing and discourse about value more generally. We theorize and talk about value in order to develop and direct our affections and actions with regard to various persons, things, and states of affairs, and whether or not value is objective or Real is irrelevant to that aim.





154 responses to “Value and Objectivity”

  1. Love this discussion!

    I think the point you conclude with, that motivation is different than knowledge, splits things very much the same way Wittgenstein did in On Certainty. Perhaps at one step removed, but definitely in his ballpark, I think. His concern was the difference between our certainties and what we know. Our certainties are the things that are unquestioned, not through a lack of diligence on our part, but because their nature is to inhabit a role that is not subject to scrutiny or doubt. What we can know is what there is some question about. The distinction you are making is that our motivations are unlike the things we question. They simply ARE.

    For me the missing step is making better sense of what motivations and other values actually do. Wittgenstein says a whole lot, but the crystallization of his point seems to be what he called hinges. That has sent far too many Wittgensteinians off on goose chases trying to define the right version of hinges. If anything should be clear it is that Wittgenstein was fundamentally pluralistic in how things fell out. How could so many Wittgesteinians fail to see that hinges were a family resemblance term?

    So for me motivation is a part of understanding what lies on the other side from what we know and can doubt. The role of motivation is that it acts in what I’d prefer to call a measuring capacity. When we are motivated we measure the world in those terms. The motivation is not (at that moment) in question. If it comes into question sometimes it deserves to be, but we cannot treat everything that CAN be measured as naturally fulfilling that role. Sometimes the measure is only understood properly in the role it has AS a measure. Procrustes is so objectionable because he confuses the roles. And that is the danger that lurks if we stop looking at things like motivations as their own source of value and instead as things needing to be justified through some outside source of evaluation (measurement).

    The only other thing I’d add to the discussion is that we often make a mistake (not you) of confusing the value of the particular instances with what they are in general. The battle I’ve been fighting in the arts advocacy world is the temptation to believe that the proof of some benefit a specific art experience has to some other end is likewise proof that art as such has this value. But you cannot either damn or justify art itself by its instances. You end up with equal measures of both distaste and praise. Some is not the same as all.

    What I’d point to instead is that you can’t get to being human in the absence of art. That is, if you are going to rest any value in the fact of our humanity, on any level, then you cannot ignore that art is a part of that. It is as indispensable as language and culture. There simply is no such thing as a human life that did not spring from a world in which art had a formative role to play. We learn what it means to be human through art. We explore new ways of our humanity in and by art.

    This is another way to look at value as motivational, or as a hinge, or as a measure. It is constitutive of the conditions for what in our example is the case. The world is a question mark, except that we navigate it. Part of the world is that we DO make sense, and making sense only happens by caring about things, by being motivated by things, by having the tools to take measurements, and by locating the hinges in our lives around which the rest moves. Value isn’t simply found out there somewhere hidden in the world. We BRING value out into the world in the form of our lives.

    And in the case of our humanity and the things it is constituted by there is no fact of the matter that will later come out to disprove that humanity, after all, didn’t matter. Like Bernard Williams said in The Human Prejudice, whose side are you on? Only Procrustes thinks we need to be measured by beds rather than humans being the measure of how a bed fits. Art, like humanity, language, or culture, is not itself a conditional value but something formative, constitutive. There would be no ‘us’ in its absence.

    Or so it seems…..

  2. Oops! Meant to say that no fact of the matter would later disprove that humanity DID matter. Yikes!!!!!

  3. Charles Justice

    “This is why in my discussion with Spencer and elsewhere, I have repeatedly observed that one does not engage in ethical theorizing or discourse, ultimately, in order to come to know something, and I would broaden the point to include theorizing and discourse about value more generally. We theorize and talk about value in order to develop and direct our affections and actions with regard to various persons, things, and states of affairs, and whether or not value is objective or Real is irrelevant to that task.”

    Therefore meta-ethics is a huge mistake and it’s always been about normativity. We should be focusing our theories on the nature of normativity.

    To “develop and direct our affections and actions” is not a job for philosophical analysis. That is the job of religion, education and politics. After GE Moore, we still have not come to a general understanding of what morality is. And it’s evident that all along the nature of normativity was the sticking point. Moral and normative systems are like games because they are made possible by a system of rules and the agreement to play. Moral systems are more “real” than games because the choice whether to play is the choice between being a part of society or being excluded by society. There is a reality about the normative that needs to be understood. How are human normative systems different from other animals? It takes a philosophical anthropology to answer this question.

  4. Charles Justice

    “We theorize and talk about value in order to develop and direct our affections and actions with regard to various persons, things, and states of affairs, and whether or not value is objective or Real is irrelevant to that task”

    – Living organisms survive and reproduce. In order to maintain themselves and reproduce they need to value certain things. “Value” isn’t a thing for non-living objects. Values reflect the things that we need in order to live and move and have our being. The value of a move in chess does not have the “reality” that a decision to get married has. One is a means to win a game and the other is a means to survive and prosper. What you are saying would make sense if everything was like playing a game. But living means surviving, reproducing, and dying – which are largely inescapable. One can decide whether or not to play a game and the consequences are not in the same league.

  5. davidlduffy

    “…objectively good, what difference does this make if I dislike it nonetheless?” – Agnes Callard is one of many who has discussed this as a reason for one to aspire to change one’s preferences. Ethical applications are obvious.

  6. Is this supposed to be a response of some kind? I don’t see any. What is the argument?

  7. Seth Leon

    I was also thinking of Agnes Callard and her theory of aspiration as I read this piece. She uses examples from the arts, such as aspiring to acquire an appreciation for classical music. She describes this as a value acquisition. She also uses health/exercise as an example. In the latter example you can have the knowledge of a certain lifestyle as being good for you, but she wouldn’t say you have acquired the value until you actually incorporate the practice into your life over a period of time. It leads me then to think of Ryle, knowing that & knowing how. So aspiration is a particular type of motivation that as her subtitle ‘agency of becoming’ suggests involves a type of goal directed cultivation of the self.

    I don’t think any of this is in specific tension with your essay. I just think the ideas rub against each other in interesting ways.

  8. Hi Dan; terrifically interesting article, as usual. I want to offer an argument in the spirit of Aristotle and ask why you no longer find something like its conclusion plausible and have moved instead to full subjectivism about values.

    First premise: realms of what you call the objective but non-Real have the following property: the rules, norms, and facts involved are what they are in virtue of acts of human deliberation and decision. There are publicly accessible facts concerning the rules of tennis, for example, but they are subject to revision by us: should a governing body, or sufficient numbers of people, decide that there are new rules, then there are new rules.

    Second: in order for there to be realms whose rules/norms/facts are determined, at least in part, by human deliberation and decision, then human beings must be the kind of creatures who can deliberate, and that requires that we have a certain kind of structure, for the truly structureless cannot give rise to anything, let alone deliberation. The nature of this structure cannot be determined by acts of deliberation, for the latter depend on that structure for their existence.

    Conclusion: there is structure to human beings that is Real, i.e. mind-independent. Let us assume for now that this structure is biological.

    Here is a neo-Aristotelian take on all this. It is plausible to suppose that biological structure leads to objective facts about human beings, and so can determine, for many aspects of being a human, that there are some conditions or states (the virtues) that lead to flourishing and some (the vices) that diminish flourishing: some things promote health, for example, whether we like it or not (eat your vegetables). So, in reasoning about moral matters, i.e. how to live best as a human being, the realm of the Real will be a factor – not necessarily the only factor, but one nonetheless. Hence, we can conclude that moral reasoning must be at least partly Realistic.

    This seems rather persuasive to me. All the same, I in fact lean toward subjectivism when it comes to most of what is contained in actually existing moral codes, which generally strike me as the attempted universalization of local, contingent, and historically conditioned preference-sets. People who argue about morality often seem to think that their own success can be attributed to the specifics of their moral or cultural or social code – which are, therefore, projected outwards – but it seems more likely that, since most systems include some people who flourish, it is something that is common to all systems that grounds well-being, and that is what contributes to flourishing given our nature. Put another way, most moral argumentation seems to be conducted without considering human nature, and so is like arguing over Einstein’s Field Equations without considering physics or math.

    So I guess I would say that I lean toward *theoretical* Realism about values but, in most cases, *practical* subjectivism. This is, admittedly, a strange position (though perhaps something not too far from Plato).

    Anyway, if you have any interest in formulating a response I would be interested in it, but I found your essay interesting and though-provoking regardless.

  9. I think I understand this, but what I don’t get is why it’s responsive. I didn’t deny that one can find/recover a sense in which things are objectively valuable, but rather, suggested that this kind of objectivity doesn’t matter, in the sense of not making a difference one way or another, given the aim of the relevant inquiry/discourse.

    Am I missing something?

  10. There are two senses in which goodness is both objective and Real.

    Following Kaufman I take “objective” to mean not variable by way of personal inclination, perception, or opinion; and I take “Real” to mean independent of any conceptual scheme or frame of reference. For example, that 3+5=8 is both objective and Real, as is the fact that liquid water, when heated sufficiently, boils. That stealing is morally wrong is objective but not Real. It’s objective in that a great many people in our society view it as wrong, and your own opinion that it’s not wrong does not change their view and doesn’t protect you from punishment if you are caught stealing. But it is not Real because the wrongness of stealing is dependent on the frame of reference of members of the society in a way that the boiling point of water is not.

    OK, fine. But what about the claim that X is good? (I will address the claim that one ought to value X presently.) There are two senses in which “X is good” can be taken as true both objectively and Really: X can be good _for_ something, and X can be good _at_ something.

    Goodness-for has to do with benefits. Something that benefits something or someone is called good for that thing or person. We can think of this instrumentally or biologically. Instrumentally, a hammer is good for pounding nails, and what is good for the hammer is what enables it to do so well. Biologically, air, water, food and shelter are good for living beings.

    Instrumentally, what is good for a thing enables that thing to serve its purpose. To make sense, an instrumental usage of the term “good” requires reference to somebody’s purpose or intention. Thus, a hammer is good for pounding nails, and nails are good for building things such as furniture or housing, and we build furniture and housing because we want the comfort and utility they afford us. The instrumental usage is expressed in terms of usefulness, of utility for achieving a purpose or intention. Some hammers are better than others in that they have better heft or weight or balance and thus can be used to pound nails more effectively.

    The instrumental usage leads to the biological usage. Why is it good for human beings to have comfort and utility? Because comfort and utility nourish us and keep us alive. Unlike the instrumental usage, the biological usage does not require reference to conscious purpose or intention.

    The biological usage is expressed in terms of health and well-being. Biologically, what is good for an organism is what helps it survive and thrive, what nourishes it. Some things are better for us than others in this respect. For instance, a diet of whole grains and vegetables is better, in the sense of providing better health for humans, than a diet of simple carbohydrates and fats. Another example: some plants need full sunlight to thrive, and others need shade; thus, full sunlight is good for the former, and shade is good for the latter. The good, in this sense, is that which enables a thing to function well.

    The instrumental usage intersects the biological when we consider what is good for something that is itself good for a purpose or intention. For instance, keeping a hammer clean and sheltered from the elements is good for the hammer; if it gets too dirty to handle easily or too rusty to provide a good impact on a nail, it is not useful as a hammer. So we can talk about what is good for the hammer in a way that is analogous to what is good for a living being. The good, in this sense also, is that which enables a thing to function well.[1]

    All of these examples of goodness-for are objective. It is not a matter of personal opinion that a balanced diet is good for human health, nor is a matter of personal opinion that keeping your tools clean is good for them. And these examples of goodness-for are Real. A balanced diet was good for humans (or proto-humans) before anyone had enough cranial capacity to form a concept of it. I suppose you could argue that if no one had any concept of what a tool is, then what’s good for a tool would make no sense and is thus not independent of a conceptual frame of reference. But even if no one used hammers, a hammer _could_ be used to pound stuff and keeping it clean would enable it to do better than letting it get all rusty. So its goodness-for is also Real.

    Goodness-at is also objective and Real. Some horses run faster than others; they are better at running than the slower ones. Some athletes, the ones who win competitions, are better at their sports than the ones who lose. Some people are good at philosophical analysis; others are good at making music; others are good at being social and chatting people up. None of these examples depend on personal inclination or opinion. It’s not a matter of opinion who won the race, it’s an objective fact. Nor is the skill of a musician dependent on a conceptual scheme or frame of reference. The novice plays slowly and hesitantly, whereas the master plays rapidly and confidently. A Martian with no appreciation of human music at all could see that.

    I expect that Kaufman will agree with all this and still assert that the point of value talk is practical rather than theoretical. He speaks of the claims “X is good” and “You ought to value X” as if the former somehow entails the latter and argues against that entailment. In this I quite agree. The move from “X is good” to “You ought to value X” depends on what a person already values. The move from “A balanced diet is good for your health” to “You ought eat a balanced diet” is valid only with the addition of a premise: that you want to be healthy. The imperative is hypothetical: If you want to be healthy, then you ought to eat a balanced diet. Without that premise one in effect hypostatizes goodness illegitimately, treating it as without context. In fact goodness is always contextual. To understand what is meant by “X is good” you have to ask what the speaker thinks X is good for or good at.

    Kaufman says that we don’t engage in theorizing or discourse about value, ultimately, in order to come to know something, but rather to to develop and direct our affections and actions. I think his point is good, but a bit overstated. In order to direct our affections and actions concerning X effectively, we need to know the facts about what X is good for or good at.

    [1] These remarks are adapted from my book _How To Be An Excellent Human_, available at

  11. How could any statement of mathematics be true independently of any frame of reference or conceptual scheme?

  12. Suppose I feel that beating my partner is wrong; suppose as well that the couple living next door thinks beating the partner is OK.

    “It’s not allowed to beat your partner” doesn’t describe something Real. It’s not like a mathematical formula that describes gravitational attraction. After all the couple next door thinks it’s perfectly OK and does it regularly.

    However, I can’t help feeling that my moral conviction is objective and not “variable by way of personal inclination, perception, or opinion”. I am convinced that the couple next door is wrong, notwithstanding their inclinations, perceptions or opinions. I am fully aware of the fact that they perhaps come from another culture, have another background etc., but that doesn’t change the fact that they are, to me, objectively wrong.
    My moral conviction would lose much of its motivational force if I believed that there was no objectivity involved. In other words: I have no choice, I condemn my neighbors.

    I’m not saying that moral objectivity exists. But I do think that morality, by its specific nature, *needs* the idea that moral objectivity exists. Even the way moral prescriptions are formulated, suggests this. “I don’t beat my partner” is a description of a particular person; “thou shall not beat your partner” suggests a universality that becomes meaningless if you believe it all depends on inclinations, perceptions or opinions. Fundamental moral convictions automatically come with the belief that they’re morally objective.

    I don’t think it’s possible to hold the following two beliefs at the same time:

    – beating you partner is wrong;
    – beating your partner is OK when you happen to come from a culture in which beating your partner is OK.

    Morality only works if you believe in moral objectivity – although one can accept that morality is not Real in the sense that it’s independent of any conceptual scheme or frame of reference.

  13. Again, this seems to miss the point of the essay. I am willing to grant that it is objective. The point of the essay, is that I don’t see how its being objective makes any difference, and I gave very explicit reasons why I think that.

  14. As usual, I wasn’t very clear. You write:

    “Does the fact that its goodness is objective matter as far as I am concerned? Would there be any point in telling me that I “ought” to like it, because it is objectively good?”

    I wasn’t discussion the relevance of moral objectivity for *you*.
    Obviously, it doesn’t make a difference for my neighbors if I feel that my moral convictions are morally objective. They would shrug and say “Yeah, whatever” and go on beating the partner. They can do that because my moral prescriptions are not Real (shrugging away gravitation wouldn’t be so easy).

    I wanted to point out the importance of moral objectivity for *me*. I don’t believe one can have fundamental moral convictions without assuming moral objectivity.

  15. But I addressed this as well. This is the relevant part:

    “suppose unanimity on the matter is sufficiently important to a sufficient number of us that we collectively decide to remove this person from our company. Would it matter to this decision whether the goodness of X was objective or not? I don’t see why it would or should.”

  16. One can remove a person because he doesn’t share the opinions etc. of the group, but that wouldn’t be a moral action. It becomes a moral action if the person is removed because he is morally *wrong* – believes beating partners is OK etc.

    But that presupposes that the members of the group have moral convictions, and these aren’t possible without the members of the group, individually believing in moral objectivity. So yes, it would matter to this decision whether the goodness of X was objective or not.

  17. Why does that matter? Exactly the same thing results.

  18. “Why does that matter? Exactly the same thing results.”

    It matters because you’re not removing someone from the group because you disagree. You’re removing him because you think he is morally wrong. The result may be the same – obviously, there’s disagreement – but the reasons of the removal are different.

    Do you really believe that avoiding someone because he thinks Dostoyevsky is a great writer and a deep thinker (something Dostoyevsky isn’t) is more or less the same as avoiding him because he thinks wife-beating is OK?

    (I hope this ends up in the right place …)

  19. (Sorry in advance for the very long comment. I didn’t have time to make it short!)

    I’m trying to understand this. So, as is my wont, I’m going to describe what I think the view is before I try to criticize it. If I’m wrong in my description, then please let me know. And if I’m right, please let me know.

    Let’s start with the distinction between X is real and X is objective.

    Imagine I’m a non-naturalist moral realist. I think it’s the case that there are non-natural moral facts. I conceive of these facts as abstract objects — timeless, spaceless, entities — that ground the truth of moral statements. So, if it’s a fact that “racism is always immoral”, then this fact is what makes it the case that the statement “racism is wrong” is true. Moreover, this statement would be true even if everyone thought racism were morally permissible. If everyone thought racism were morally permissible, but it was a fact that it’s wrong, then everyone would be wrong.

    Imagine I’m not a non-naturalist moral realist. Instead, imagine I’m a moral relativist. I think it’s the case that what makes an action wrong is if a society treats it as though it’s wrong. So, imagine I live in a society that treats racism as immoral. In this society, it’s objectively true that racism is wrong (because enough of the right members of society hold it to be wrong), but it’s not really true that racism is wrong, because the objective standard determining racism’s wrongness is mind-dependent.

    if non-naturalistic moral realism were correct, then immoral actions would be really wrong and also objectively wrong (the latter because a mind-independent standard that is part of the fabric of reality says that they’re wrong).

    If moral relativism were correct, then actions a society deemed immoral wouldn’t really be wrong, but they would objectively be wrong.

    Finally, there is the view according to which actions can neither be really wrong nor objectively wrong. The most you can say about an action is that it’s subjectively wrong.

    I’m not sure I have a good understanding of what the last view would be, but I’ll give it a whirl.

    If you’re a moral relativist, you think that it’s a mind-dependent fact that some actions are wrong. Why do you think this? Well, you’re trying to honor the appearances. If I say, “people say this $5 bill is worth $5, but I say it’s worth $1”, then I’d be wrong. Why? Because there are ways people treat money, these ways are predictable, and we can make what seem like factual statements about them. Admittedly, if enough people said the $5 bill were worth $1, then it would become worth $1; but unless that happened, you’d be simply wrong if you said it was worth $1.

    What would it take for money to not have an objective worth? It seems like you’d have to give one of two answers here. First, if no one ever agreed about what the value of money was, then it would not have an objective worth. Second, you could say something like, “even if everyone did agree that the $5 was worth $5, that doesn’t make it worth $5. All that does is mean that a lot of people are treating the $5 as worth $5.”

    I’m not sure the first answer works to explain what it would mean for moral obligation to be subjective. I mean, it might, but I’m not sure. Here’s why. Imagine that I thought racism was wrong and you thought it wasn’t. And imagine that there was just massive disagreement about whether racism was wrong, right, kinda wrong, etc. Would that mean that there’s no objective fact of the matter about racism’s wrongness? I’m not so sure. Imagine you had small communities of like-minded people arise. In that case, among them, racism’s wrongness might have that fact-like feel, so we’d just have moral relativism on a smaller scale. But additionally, as long as racism felt wrong to someone, then couldn’t we say that it’s objectively wrong for him to be racist (at least until he stops feeling it to be wrong)? Or is the thought that, for something to end up as objectively anything, there have to be at least two people, and maybe even more, to develop a practice around it so that it ends up as wrong?

    What about the second answer? I think what the second answer is doing is trying to bar the move from “a group of people socially constructs X” to “therefore, X is objective.” I don’t know what to say about this, exactly. I don’t know how to argue for “it’s perfectly proper to go from ‘a society socially constructs X’ to ‘therefore X is objective’,”, and I don’t know how to argue for “it’s a non sequitur to go from ‘a society socially constructs X’ to ‘therefore X is objective’.”

    Finally, I’ve been mixing around talk of obligation and talk of value. That might be making it harder for me to understand what’s going on.

  20. Again, this seems to entirely miss the point. I’m not denying that axiological facts might be objective. I’m suggesting it makes no difference whatsoever if they are.

    That would not be the case with a 5$ bill.

  21. “At this point, however, I’m pretty committed not just to anti-Realism with respect to values, but subjectivism as well.”

    Sorry, I took the above sentence to mean that you’re committed to the subjectivity of axiological facts. I was trying to understand what this means. I obviously misinterpreted you there, but you can at least see why!

    So let me try again: moral value is objective, but this doesn’t matter. Great! I just don’t know what it means to say that value is objective.

    Is the idea that lots of people accept a standard according to which they ought to find certain things valuable? And is the thought that the objectivity of moral value doesn’t matter because the only reason they accept the standard in the first place is that they find it personally fulfilling to accept that standard? So, ultimately even if moral values are objective, this only matters if you find the standard according to which they’re valuable personally attractive?

  22. davidlduffy

    “force…not made easier…by obligation being objective” – this starts drifting into justice. When a society sanctions your behaviour (in either sense ;)), or offers a norm of behaviour, this is justified to you *and* to everyone around you as being objectively fair.

    The more I think about the usual shorthand description given for “Real”, the less sense it makes. We can easily conceive of things being invariant over smaller or larger ranges of conceptual schemes ie less or more real, but as per transcendental arguments, it doesn’t seem coherent to me to conceive of X as completely independent.

  23. Well, I did give a definition of “objective”:

    “not being variable by way of personal inclination, perception, or opinion.”

    And I gave two accounts, one with regard to artistic value and the other with regard to ethical value, as to why it doesn’t matter.

  24. For example, that 3+5=8 is both objective and Real

    If I am doing arithmetic mod 7, then 3+5=1. And all I did there was change the conceptual scheme.

  25. Thanks, Dan. This was a good essay, and the discussion has also been good.

    I usually avoid commenting on moral philosophy, because I haven’t much studied it. But it often comes up in other topics (such as debates over evolution vs creationism). And, time and time again, I see the same kinds of arguments for moral realism. But I have never been able to make sense of them. And I think you have given a pretty good explanation of why they don’t make sense.

  26. @Neil Rickert. Your argument is about what correct usage of symbols entails. If I do arithmetic mod 0, then “3+5=8” is a correct representation of reality. If I do arithmetic mod 7, then “3+5=1” is a correct representation of reality. The underlying reality is unchanged. 3+5-0 = 8 and 3+5-7=1 regardless of conceptual scheme, mod 0 or 7. My point is about the underlying reality, not about the symbols used. As far as that goes, 11 + 101 = 1000.

  27. You’ve just made his point. Those are relative to frames of reference/conceptual schemes.

  28. Dan: My response is in two stages. The first concerns “objectivity”. You define objectivity as follows: “What something’s being objective comes down to, then, is its not being variable by way of personal inclination, perception, or opinion.” I would infer from this that an objective matter is one governed by reasons, since I take it that reasons are the alternative to mere inclination, perception and opinion. There being reasons for believing or doing X would enable anyone to say that merely disliking X is not a sufficient basis for not doing or believing X.

    The second stage is to observe that cooperative activity generates reasons of a special sort and with a special force. A says to B: “I’ve done my part of the deal, now it’s your turn to do your part”. That’s giving B a reason to do X. B can’t rationally reply “But I don’t like doing X”; B can say that, but it doesn’t cut it as a reason. It may count as a reason to not enter into a cooperative arrangement with A, but B having entered the arrangement it loses any force against A’s claim on B. A’s claim is a reason of justice, and thus an ethical reason. Ethics, then, has its own objectivity. Problem solved.


  29. You may have solved a problem, but it isn’t the one I raised in the essay.

  30. First, I’m a little bewildered by the move in some early comments to derive value from biology. Value is assigned by an intellect articulating emotions and motivations. Other animals don’t have values. A lion doesn’t assign value to a wildebeest, even as food. The lion hunts, kills, eats; I doubt lions ever debate the value of food.

    The greater the articulation of emotions and motivations, the more measurable it is. That’s why we can translate valuation into signs of wealth exchange – this roll of toilet paper costs 1 dollar, not 50 cents; and the pandemic continues, it may cost 5 or 10 dollars, however much buyers are willing to spend on the black market. Paper towels may do as well until the supplies of TP increase, so maybe the price won’t go up at all.

    I don’t really value toilet paper because it contributes to reproduction or any basic need. But, having hemorrhoids, I confess I often value it very highly.

    Right now, the Far Right is arguing that the strength of the economy has greater value than the lives of older citizens; the Lt. Governor of Texas has suggested that I (age 65) ought to be willing to give up my life to that cause – I say, him first. After he’s gone, he won’t know whether I would follow (and I won’t).

    Which brings me to a more interesting question:

    “I don’t think it’s possible to hold the following two beliefs at the same time:
    – beating you partner is wrong;
    – beating your partner is OK when you happen to come from a culture in which beating your partner is OK.”
    Let’s put the conflict differently, for a different perspective:

    – we in the United States have determined over the course of history that it is wrong for a man to beat his wife. This determination followed decades of protest from women, sympathetic reflection of men, debate, court cases, elections leading to legislation, popularization of this determination in the arts, in magazines, from the pulpits of liberal churches and temples, (etc.).
    – Saudi Arabia is governed by a monarchy committed to a certain interpretation of the Koran by religious leaders of a certain influential Sunni Islam sect, that has determined over the course of history that a man can beat his wife under certain conditions and in such manner as prescribed by Sharia law.
    – as the future unfolds, it may be possible that interaction with non-Islamic cultures; or the development of some more enlightened form of Islam, or some other historic change of attitude or opinion in Saudi Arabia may lead that country to adopt opinions and perhaps even laws closer to those we enjoy in the West.

    The question that might be brought here is, how do we know that the historic process that has shaped our common understanding of this matter in America is closer to what is ‘right’ or what is ‘good’ or at least what most people find most comfortable or humane? Well, the answer is that we don’t know that, we can’t know that, no one can know that. We trust this to be so. We trust the processes of our history, and its ongoing development. The Saudis trust their own history, but this includes discussions within a certain group of Imams producing their interpretation of a holy text.

    The greatest weakness of any moral-realist argument is that presents us with choices that are a-historical, when in quite evident fact, all moral choices are the products of historical processes, both personal and collective. This lack of a-historicism leads to example choices that are simply unrealistic.

    A year ago, Mark English wrote an essay here, which, upon reflection, may well have been his best so far; it has haunted me ever since. In it he discussed a film based on a historic event: a ship’s officer, in command of a lifeboat, determines that to save the majority of passengers, several of the weaker would have to be jettisoned. In the real event, when at last on land, the ship’s officer was convicted of manslaughter, but given a light sentence, undoubtedly due to the severity of the conditions under which his decision was made.

    Yet such conditions, although hopefully few and far between, indicate the kind of real conditions in which moral or ethical conditions are made. Not the universal always, but these people at this time in this place.

    Now to the OP:
    Very pragmatic argument, and very pragmatic reasoning in the ensuing comment replies. Being a Pragmatist, I of course agree.

  31. Back to the drawing board then.

  32. davidlduffy

    “to derive value from biology. Value is assigned by an intellect articulating emotions and motivations” — No, no, you don’t have to know the value of something for it to be objectively valuable to you. You just have to have goals eg not being eaten. Humans are smart enough to sometimes know what is truly valuable. Ruyer is good on this. Dennett talks about “Free-Floating Rationales”, Merleau-Ponty about operative intentionality – all in the same space.

  33. davidlduffy,
    physiological impulses towards something or responses impelling an organism away from something do not comprise assignments of value. Such require articulation, comparative reasoning, a tendency toward measure. “Humans are smart enough to sometimes know what is truly valuable.” Unless one accepts a theistic religious view, only humans can determine what is ‘truly valuable’ for themselves.

  34. Well, maybe not. The main argument, as I meant to present it, is that even if one accepts that values are objective, it makes no difference: that is, it has no impact on the things we engage in theorizing and discourse about values for. Hence the distinction I make towards the end, between theorizing and discourse whose primary aim is to acquire knowledge and theorizing and discourse whose primary aim is to develop and promote/discourage various affections and behaviors. That is, the difference between epistemic and motivational inquiry and discourse.

  35. For whatever reason, I don’t think I can understand your essay in its intricacies, at least right now.

    So let me ask if this is at all responsive: it’s possible for us to realize that we have made mistakes in how we live our lives; this involves the notion of objective goodness. So, objective goodness matters because it’s the best way to make sense of how we could make mistakes in valuing things.

  36. How would you distinguish making a mistake, from subsequently changing one’s mind as to what was more pressing?

  37. Just reread your article and love it even more. I’m not sure I made my first comment to it as clear as I could have, but I hope it wasn’t too far off the mark. Put another way, what you are describing as the ‘force’ behind taking a stand one way or another is that things only make sense internally. You can’t necessarily convince someone of a position that springs from ideals or motivations they don’t share.

    That is, persuasion, if it happens, is not a strictly rational affair. No more so than that we have these particular values and not others. We did not come by all our values as the result of purely rational dispassionate consideration. Some are surely modified as the result of deliberation, but they did not come from nothing. When born, we landed in a world that was already constituted by human interests. We became human when we learned to embody certain ones and not others. The myth of pure rationality is the least human conception of human life possible.

    The only way we get to a world having values is that they are values for us. We are the sorts of beings for whom things like value plays a part. The problem in so many discussions of value is that it is supposed that value can be simply found independently of the needs and desires of beings for whom value exists. We are trying to say something entirely human in the least human way possible.

    The reason I keep pointing to Procrustes when I discuss value is that he exemplifies the temptation to convert the human into something alien. By fitting the people to his bed rather than letting the human be the measure of the bed he turns our normal relation on its head. He forces the human out of itself to become a subject for measurement. He looks at the human with an outsider’s interest.

    Why we are so unconvincing when we try to enforce our unshared values on others is that we often take what others hold as their own measures and transform them to merely a thing measured by us. By our interests. An outsider’s interest. The results are often as grisly as the maimed bodies lying in Procrustes bed. The difference between a measure and a thing measured is no less than that between a living being and a corpse.

    How do you sell Bibles to atheists? How do you sell bacon to vegans? One mistake that so often gets made is that we think there is some outside point of view that is neutral to both ends of the spectrum, Bibles and atheists, bacon and vegans. The truth often seems more that not only is there no one shared spectrum where we could “meet in the middle”, that our values are pluralistic and often different in kind, but that there is no such thing as a “meaningful perspective” completely outside the human interests that give these questions life.

    The further we travel from why these things matter specifically to us the less they matter. Period. In trying to give value an independent footing we let value itself slip through our grasp. We end up talking about something alien. As if we somehow forgot what value actually is, and it needed to be found again in some other idealized or non-negotiable form. Doing so is only a Procrustean move. To answer any question of value you can (in our case) only start with something human.

  38. s. wallerstein

    Why would making mistakes indicate that there is objective value? We mature, we travel, we meet new people, new political movements convince us that we were mistaken, etc. Here’s an example, I had a gay room-mate when I was 19 and there was a dispute between him and another non-gay room-mate: I sided with the non-gay room-mate and when things got really tense, I ended up punching the gay room-mate, who I knew would not hit back.

    I feel terribly guilty about that and if there were some way to get in touch with the gay fellow and express my regrets, I certainly would do so. All my behavior at the time was semi-consciously homophobic, but does that mean that there is an objective rule that homophobia is morally wrong or that as the gay rights movement became prominent, I changed with the times? I’d say the latter.

    We’re all products of our times and our morality is too.

  39. EJ,
    Thanks for the reply. I’m afraid I’m really bad at explaining what I mean, so apologies.

    “The question that might be brought here is, how do we know that the historic process that has shaped our common understanding of this matter in America is closer to what is ‘right’ or what is ‘good’ (…) all moral choices are the products of historical processes, both personal and collective. This a-historicism leads to example choices that are simply unrealistic.”

    I agree, although I don’t think my example was unrealistic. I grew up in a neighborhood were men indeed beat their wives. By putting the conflict differently, you’re asking a different question. I’m aware of the fact that my moral convictions are contingent. But as soon as I have a moral conviction, something strange happens. It becomes impossible to hold the following two beliefs at the same time (I rephrased them a bit):

    – beating your wife is wrong;
    – my neighbor beats his wife but that’s morally OK, because he has different moral convictions.

    I can’t help believing that my moral conviction is objective, independent of inclinations etc. I can’t have the one without the other. My neighbor is *wrong*.

    Dan argues (as far as I understand) that this objectivity is irrelevant. That’s something I question, because moral convictions automatically come with objectivity. I feel that by denying the importance of objectivity in moral judgements, Dan comes close to arguing that morality is irrelevant (as long as the outcomes are the same).

    That’s not how morality works. It may be true in some sense that my moral convictions are irrelevant. But – if you permit me – I find this observation irrelevant. The objectivity that comes with moral convictions is important for *me* when I decide to act, tell the police that I have a wife-beating neighbor etc. Without this objectivity, I more than probably wouldn’t act at all – unless the screams of his wife were giving me a headache while I was preparing scaloppine or whatever.

  40. Funny, I do things because I care about them.

  41. Sorry, I don’t understand. You say “Those are relative ….” What does “those” refer to? Does it refer to the symbols used or to the numbers to which the symbols refer?

  42. Everyone knows mathematics is framework relative. That’s why you can have non-Euclidian geometries.

  43. Yes, and I bet you occasionally do things because you’re convinced they are the right thing to do.

  44. Because I care about that. I don’t see how one gets out from under the motivation.

  45. Yes, but others may not care at all. Where does your motivation to influence their behavior come from?

  46. From the fact that I care about it. I suspect that’s true of everyone.

  47. Oh, I give up.
    It’s impossible not to like you, did you know that?

  48. Josh Mozersky

    I guess I was gesturing toward this: if one’s aim is to do what is best, then what is Real (capital-R) will matter in that it will partly determine what the best course of action is. Sure, one may still not *care* about doing what is best, but at least there is *a* sense in which the non-caring course of action is a mistake: the sense of not being for the best, given the kind of creature we Are (capital-A). So, this metaphysical view carves out conceptual space that allows one to distinguish what is motivating from what is best, which is plausibly what one should do. How? Because the fact that the Real is mind-independent means that it might not motivate inherently (it isn’t set up with our cognitive states in mind, as it were). That’s the thought anyway. However, as I am a subjectivist in practice, maybe even I am forced to admit it makes no practical difference. Thanks for the reply!

  49. – beating your wife is wrong;
    – my neighbor beats his wife but that’s morally OK, because he has different moral convictions.

    You are not required to agree with your neighbor, that it is morally okay.

  50. Charles Justice

    “I have repeatedly maintained that one does not engage in ethical theorizing or discourse, ultimately, in order to come to know something, and I would broaden the point to include theorizing and discourse about value more generally. We theorize and talk about value in order to develop and direct our affections and actions with regard to various persons, things, and states of affairs, and whether or not value is objective or Real is irrelevant to that aim.”

    This reminds me of Moore – Ethical theory is not a form of knowledge it is just a way to develop and direct our affections and actions – It seems to me that this leads to a dead end. We care about things because we are responsible humans. Our responsibility means that it makes a difference whether what we care about reflects the truth. Otherwise we deceive ourselves and fail in our responsibility.

  51. @ejwinner You seem to be restricting the term “value” to be a result of 2nd-order appraisal. But surely there are first-order values as well. For instance, a balanced diet, moderate exercise and some social interaction are all good for human beings. They promote health. This is so objectively; It does not vary because of anyone’s personal inclination, perception, or opinion. Most people would prefer to be healthy, no doubt, but a few might not, perhaps for religious or political reasons (think of someone on a hunger strike). A person’s preference for or aversion to health is an assignment of value in your sense. But to assert that there is no value to a balanced diet, moderate exercise and some social interaction apart from such assignment seems to me to restrict the term “value” unnecessarily.

  52. @couvent24 – You say “I can’t help believing that my moral conviction is objective, independent of inclinations etc. I can’t have the one without the other. My neighbor is *wrong*.”

    That you can’t help believing something doesn’t make it so.

    Here are some purely descriptive facts about our sense of morality: The moral judgment has specific cognitive, behavioral and emotional characteristics. Cognitively, the rules it evokes are taken to apply without exception. Prohibitions against rape and murder are believed to be universal and objective, not matters of local custom; and people who violate the rules are deemed to deserve punishment. Behaviorally, we do in fact punish moral offenders and praise those who obey the law in ways that do not apply to, for instance, people who merely wear unstylish clothes. Emotionally, when our sense of morality is triggered, we feel a glow of righteousness when we abide by the rules, guilt when we don’t, a sense of anger or resentment at those who violate the rules and a desire to recruit others to allegiance to the rules. [Pinker, Steven. The Moral Instinct.” Online publication

    All of these facts about morality say nothing about whether or in what circumstances we should obey the moral rules.

  53. bmeacham,
    One problem here is that what you term a “2nd-order appraisal” is the common understanding of the term. I think one reason for this may be that what you seem to understand as a ‘1st-order appraisal’ (eg, the promotion of health including “a balanced diet, moderate exercise and some social interaction (as) all good for human beings” is really a ‘2nd-order’ determination dependent on a previously determined standard of what constitutes the good, and I think most people intuit this.

    “Most people would prefer to be healthy, no doubt, but a few might not, perhaps for religious or political reasons (think of someone on a hunger strike).” Then your claim of ‘objectivity’ (which I suspect you’re using as a disguise for ‘Real’ in the way Dan complains of) is effectively made irrelevant. Eg, a religious ascetic clearly holds to a standard of ‘good’ that for him or her outweighs your own. For such, the spiritual good of the ascetic life effectively – and Realistically – moots any reference to the ‘good’ of health.

    “But to assert that there is no value to a balanced diet, moderate exercise and some social interaction apart from such assignment seems to me to restrict the term “value” unnecessarily.” – Two notes: First, value is always comparative, it largely functions as a strategy for comparison (‘I value fasting for Krishna rather than eating this prohibited beef steak’). Consequently whatever is asserted to ‘have no value’ is really simply waiting for value to be assigned to it, by someone or some group.

    Secondly, the term ‘value’ is so commonly used is such a variety of ways, that in any immediate discussion it must be restricted or it simply becomes useless.

    “Bacteria “value” nutrient.’ – ‘How much are they willing to pay for it?’ ‘Don’t value that first edition of Elvis singing “Hound Dog” – it hasn’t the value of a unicorn’s horn (which you can grind into powder and snort to improve sexual potency).’

    In common practice, generally the limit is understood within the conversational context.

    What you may deem as an ‘objective’ ‘1st-order appraisal’ is so only within certain studies for certain purposes. It is undeniably useful – as you say, most people would prefer to remain healthy – but it is not definitive.

  54. No, we are responsible humans because we care about things, specifically about what others in our group think of us.

  55. (Replying here because I see no Reply button on your comment further down.)

    You say “Everyone knows mathematics is framework relative. That’s why you can have non-Euclidian geometries.” I have two comments.

    (1) The appeal to what everyone knows is suspect. How do we know that what everyone “knows” (i.e., believes with conviction) is true?

    (2) Geometry and other mathematical systems are ways of deriving propositions from axioms according to rules of transformation specified in the systems. Different axioms, as in Euclidean vs. non-Euclidean geometries, yield different derived propositions. Each geometry is, obviously, a different conceptual scheme. But I am not talking about conceptual schemes. I’m talking about the reality (if any) to which the conceptual schemes refer.

    Look, if I have this many objects: * * * and then acquire this many more: * * * * *, I will end up with this many: * * * * * * * *. That is true regardless of what conceptual scheme I use to represent the quantities.

    I assert that the fact that 3+5=8 is both objective and Real. I do not assert that “3+5=8” (in quotes to indicate mention rather than use) is both objective and Real.

    Do you mean to assert that numbers (not our symbols for them, but numbers themselves) are not Real? If they are not Real, then what are they?

  56. bmeachem: How do we know that what everyone “knows” (i.e., believes with conviction) is true?

    What is mathematical truth?

    I’m talking about the reality (if any) to which the conceptual schemes refer.

    I’m glad you included that “if any”. As a mathematical fictionalist, I do not believe that there is any such reality.

  57. Charles Justice

    Two can play at this game: animals care about things – they care about getting enough to eat, avoiding predators, and sexual reproduction. But animals aren’t responsible. Human care and concern – for doing the right thing, for avoiding harm, for the welfare of others – comes from the acceptance of responsibility. This acceptance is developmental, it arises out of our life history, it is open to a vast range of unanticipated situations. A psychopath doesn’t care about the welfare of others because he doesn’t accept responsibility. He is parasitic on society and does not exist as a part of it. Our acceptance of responsibility is a give and take between what society offers us and what we commit ourselves to doing. Just because responsibilities are constituted through forms of life, doesn’t mean that we don’t freely accept our responsibility. So it is just the opposite of what you are saying. Cares are not determined by society, they are determined by our accepting responsibility for what society offers us.

  58. @Neil Rickert: You are fictionalist, and I am a platonist.This might not be the best forum to hash out the controversy between the two, as it is a bit off topic. I wonder which position Kaufman endorses. He has not yet responded to my question about it.

  59. Anti realist on mathematics.

  60. I agree this is not the right place.

    I don’t actually see it as much of a controversy. Yes, I disagree with platonists. But that disagreement does not get in the way of doing mathematics. So it seems a moot point.

  61. davidlduffy

    EJ writes below: “Bacteria ‘value’ nutrient.’ – How much are they willing to pay for it?”

    It is just as easy as for humans to produce a measure of revealed preference – ie how much effort an organism will spend.

    Second hit from a Google Scholar search “ethology value assessment”:

    …Included in these models [of animal contests] are an animal’s assessment of both an opponent’s resource holding power (relative size and fighting ability) and the value of a contested resource (resource value), as well as the impact of these factors on contest outcome. Assessment models also include the step-wise accumulation of information by competitors.

    As a human being, I know exactly what “value” means in this context. Although this endlessly elaborated by cortical modelling of ourself and our environment, the Humean point that the passions come first points to valuation and so judgment as something other animals do too. We can test this in nonhuman primates by single-neuron recording:

    A neuronal representation of value can be said to be abstract (i.e., in the space of goods) if two conditions are met. First, the encoding should be independent of the sensorimotor contingencies of choice. In particular, the activity representing the value of any given good should not depend on the action executed to obtain that good. Second, the encoding should be domain general. In other words, the activity should represent the value of the good affected by all the relevant determinants (commodity, quantity, risk, cost, etc.). Current evidence for such an abstract representation is most convincing for two brain areas: OFC and vmPFC.

    Finally, when one includes abstract higher order goals such as novelty-seeking, which other animals share, we can transcend the simple Maslovian D-needs.

  62. Value requires the capacity for representation: that is, the ability to represent something or some state of affairs as good.

    Like “information,” the word is being abused across the intellectual landscape. EJ is absolutely correct. There is no value intrinsic to nature.

  63. Charles Justice

    To say that value requires the capacity for representation is making “value” human in an artificially a priori sense. “Value” is an abstraction, and what it points to is a similar process in animals. Animals desire food water and mates, just as humans do. Humans can represent the objects of their needs and desires as valuable, but the important thing is biology here. We have needs and we have to act in order to fulfill them, same as other animals. Representation is beside the point.

  64. Yes, value is something distinctive to persons. I am surprised that requires explaining.

  65. “You are not required to agree with your neighbor, that it is morally okay.”

    Of course it’s morally OK not to agree with my neighbor. If that was sarcasm, it’s rather weak. And if it isn’t sarcasm, it misses the point, the point being that I *can’t* agree with my neighbor if I sincerely hold the moral conviction that beating your partner is wrong. A

  66. Charles Justice

    Pardon my ignorance on this issue, I would like to hear your explanation of this “distinction” I think I am acquainted with the idea of value, and as far as I can see it refers to a process in humans that is basically continuous with animals. It comes from need, it leads to desire and aversive motivational states. Human valuing is heavily involved with the use of our imagination and therefore may be distinctive from animals in that sense. But the process of valuing is essentially a biological process. I would love to hear your explanation for why this isn’t so.

  67. The point is that you see your moral conviction as real. Yet your neighbor probably sees his contradictory moral conviction as real. That should argue against moral realism.

  68. No, I don’t see moral convictions as real (I think I already mentioned that).
    I’m reasoning from the point of view of someone who has a moral conviction.

  69. “Emotionally, when our sense of morality is triggered, we feel a glow of righteousness when we abide by the rules (…)”


    Pinker maybe, but not me. Usually, I just try to do the right thing, no glow involved, thank you very much, Steven.

    “All of these facts about morality say nothing about whether or in what circumstances we should obey the moral rules.”

    When I’m writing this, nobody has confirmed that he can hold the two beliefs I mentioned at the same time. I’ll assume nobody can, and conclude that sincerely held moral convictions automatically come with objectivity. The neighbor may have certain inclinations, but *if* you have the sincerely held moral conviction that beating your wife is wrong *then* the neighbor is wrong (notice the if-then construction).

    The question is now: is this objectivity relevant? Does it follow that you should act, call the police etc.? Let me rephrase the question: would you be compelled to act if your moral conviction had no objectivity? If you believed that your neighbor simply has other moral convictions that are just as good as yours?

    I don’t think so; at best you would be less inclined to act. And that’s the reason why I think moral objectivity is not irrelevant; although it’s possible that in itself, it’s not sufficient to make someone act.

    Dan claims that this objectivity is irrelevant. He acts because he cares about the wife of the neighbor. But here’s something I don’t understand. The neighbor doesn’t care at all about his wife. If Dan calls the police there will be grave consequences for him. Somehow, people who share Dan’s opinion, think their caring feelings override the attitudes, feelings etc. of the neighbor. That’s something I wholeheartedly agree with, but I’m left with a question.

    Why? The only reasonable answer is, I think, because the inclinations etc. of the neighbor are irrelevant. Caring seems to come with objectivity, too.

  70. I don’t see the relevance of the evolutionary etiology of desire. To value something is to represent it as an end. Something not capable of representation cannot value something.

  71. Neil Rickert,

    To clarify a bit: my reasoning is just as valid for someone who sincerely believes that women should cover their hair, dress modestly etc. Or for someone who feels gay marriage is a sin.
    It’s not about who is “right” or “wrong”. It’s about the way moral convictions work.

  72. davidlduffy

    Dear Dan.

    You can say “no, it’d not” as many times as you like, but you have heard of neuroeconomics, and I presume think that the value that economists talk about is something to do with your concept. There are many thousands of papers in this literature eg another review

    To efficiently interact with its environment, an organism must be able to predict the consequences of actions and choose the best of possible alternative. Value, as a quantification of the expected rewards or costs associated with any choice or action, is thus critical to the decision-making process. This fundamental relationship between value and choice is expressed explicitly in economic theory, which defines the expected utility of an object only from an analysis of the choices a decision-maker makes between that object and other options..

    .Learning based on prediction errors, in which an organism makes a prediction and learns contingent on errors in that prediction, is a process central to adaptation and learning rules in both computer science and psychology. Building on earlier studies of octopaminergic neurons in the honeybee brain, these authors suggested that mesencephalic dopamine neurons encode an error prediction that provides a dynamic signal of the difference between the expected amount of reward and the actual reward.

    Not only do bees use language, they also represent value.

  73. Neuroeconomics. Lol. That’s got to be one of the best ones I’ve heard in a long time.

    You are far too credulous. The fact that there is a discipline for something doesn’t mean it isn’t idiotic. A good portion of what passes for “cognitive science” is like that.

  74. Why do you feel guilty about that? There are at least two ways to describe why: you now have values that are different from your values then, or you made a mistake back then.

    WAY 1–YOUR VALUES CHANGED: With your current values, you disapprove of some of the values you had back then. Given what you now value, what you valued then looks ugly. But it wouldn’t be wrong to say you did anything wrong; you just now don’t like what you did then. And the you of back then wouldn’t like the you of now. That’s all there is to say.

    WAY 2–YOU MADE A MISTAKE: On the other hand, you might think that you’ve grown up, matured, come to see things more clearly. Given what you now know, you believe you made a mistake back then. You weren’t thinking clearly, or you were brainwashed, or whatever. You shouldn’t have done what you did back then. It was wrong, not just because you dislike it, but because you harmed someone for something you shouldn’t have harmed him for.

    I think Way 2 is more natural to how we talk or think; I’m guessing I’m a minority on this web-forum. But I wonder if I’m a minority in the world?

  75. Way 1 seems much more natural to me. In order for a mistake to be made, there must be a clear and independent fact of the matter.

  76. s. wallerstein

    I grew up with the idea that if there was a strong difference of opinion between two men, they settled it with a fight, no hitting below the belt, no kicking, just boxing. I believe that most males in 1965 had the same idea. Now that seems so weird that I can hardly believe that I once believed it, but I surely did. Society has changed, my conception of what it means to be a man has changed and so have my values.

    Yes, of course part of me believes that I have “seen the light” now, that I have emerged from the cave of macho brutality, but the fact that I believe that I’ve “seen the light” means little because ISIS also believes that they’ve “seen the light”. We all tend to believe that our values are unquestionable because our values are part of our core identity: to affirm that our core values are fragile, precarious and the result of contingent circumstances means that our identity is also fragile, precarious and the result of contingent circumstances. However, our identity is fragile, precarious and the result of contingent circumstances.

  77. Kaufman says “There is no value intrinsic to nature.” Davidlduffy and Charles Justice disagree. I’m with them. A balanced diet is good for us. That is an objective fact. A certain amount of sunlight is good for plants (the specific amount varies from species to species), and without sunlight plants wither and die. These are also objective facts. Goodness-for is a kind of value. “Good” is a value term. To assert, as Kaufman does, that “Value requires the capacity for representation: that is, the ability to represent something or some state of affairs as good” restricts the notion of value unnecessarily. Here is the first definition of “value” on “relative worth, merit, or importance.” There is no mention of representation here.

    Kaufman has criticized another interlocutor of argument by way of stipulated definition. I think he is guilty of the same thing by insisting that value requires representation.

    Instead of arguing which meaning of “value” is correct, let’s use two different terms — “value1” and “value 2” or “value-with-representation” and “value-without-representation” or something similar — and see if we can come to some useful agreement.

    And by the way, it appears that we could usefully do the same thing with the term “good.” When Kaufman speaks of “the ability to represent something or some state of affairs as good,” what does he mean by “good?”

  78. Couvent124 says “*if* you have the sincerely held moral conviction that beating your wife is wrong *then* the neighbor is wrong.” False. If you have the sincerely held moral conviction that beating your wife is wrong, then you have a sincerely held moral conviction that the neighbor is wrong. Your conviction doesn’t make your neighbor wrong. He, presumably, has a sincerely held moral conviction that he is right and you are wrong. That doesn’t make you wrong, does it?

  79. To represent something as good is to represent it as an end.

  80. Rgressis thinks that Way 2 (that one has made a mistake about moral values) is more natural to how we talk or think. I agree, Our folk intuitions about morals is that they are objective and that we can be mistaken about them. Once a person examines the issue, that person might be more inclined to endorse moral anti-realism, as Kaufman evidently does. But so what? Let’s not rely on argumentum ad populum. Let’s examine the arguments for and against moral realism.

  81. bmeacham,
    “A certain amount of sunlight is good for plants (the specific amount varies from species to species), and without sunlight plants wither and die.” Yes, without sunlight plants wither and die. But that’s not intrinsically bad, nor is there an intrinsic good to sunlight for the plants. We humans project ‘good’ or ‘bad’ on the universe around us – it is our judgment, our decision. The plants don’t care, and the universe doesn’t care. There is no fact to the determination of ‘good’ except by agreement with others like ourselves. That value is a term of “relative worth, merit, or importance” means precisely that there must be a judgment – and I don’t know of any plants capable of making such a judgment. They thrive, they die. That is a ‘just-is’ of their existence.

  82. Charles Justice

    I think you are missing something important here. When I value something I perceive its importance and I may or may not desire it. I value my country, it’s not an end, I am a part of it. I value my beloved, she is not an end, I value my children, they are not ends. Valuing is a process that involves perception of needs, emotional and motivational states, and the use of our imagination. These are basic and I don’t see how they could not be rooted in our biology. It’s true, that to talk about “values” necessarily involves representation – is this what you mean? But surely valuing as a process does not require representation. People just do it. I value fresh air, but I just enjoy breathing it, I don’t need to think about it. Maybe what you mean is that to recognize that one values something is to represent it. But in that case the representation is after the fact. I value fresh air just by enjoying breathing, afterwards I can recognize that I value it. It seems to me that you are insisting on an idiosyncratic and unnecessarily narrow definition of value.

  83. alandtapper1950

    Some values are optional, but some are not, because they are necessary for social survival. Social survival is a good thing, because individual survival depends on it. The argument for that claim comes from consideration of the Prisoners Dilemma. The only way out of the Prisoners Dilemma is that both parties be willing to not defect, when individual self-interest dictates that they should defect. Generally, we manage to survive and cooperate because most of us have socially-attuned emotions and feelings. The most important of these is the sense of justice, which has emotional and cognitive aspects. The cognitive element in justice is the bit that says I must do my part towards achieving X because I entered an agreement to do my part of X conditional on others doing their part of X and they have done their part.

  84. s. wallerstein

    Here’s an article from yesterday’s Guardian trashing Woody Allen’s memoirs as sexist.

    If you read it, you’ll see that in his book Woody Allen makes a lot of comments objectifying women, which I never would make publicly today, although some might pass through my mind. What Woody Allen says would have been perfectly acceptable among liberal or liberated people in 1965; no one would have questioned them or condemned them.

    It seems that Woody Allen just hasn’t changed with the times or with the zeitgeist as I have. Does that mean that almost all males in 1965 had sinful thoughts and made sinful remarks about women and that now thanks to the feminist movement most of us now make non-sinful remarks about women (I can’t read minds, so I have no idea what other people think)?

    Or does it mean that the feminist movement has exerted political and social pressure so that most males (not Trump) no longer make remarks objectifying women? From my point of view in 2020 I agree with the feminist movement (not with Woody Allen or Trump), but it’s not because I’ve “seen the light”, but because I’ve moved with the times and with the zeitgeist.

  85. Hey Dan,

    Just curious if you see some of the disagreement in this conversation as at least in part a result of people feeling stuck between a choice of relativism or absolutism? That is, that we necessarily have to hold that either anything goes, subjectively, conventionally, what have you, or that value is vouchsafed from some secure and ultimate source, and no middle course exists? Either, or.

    I’ve been reading a bunch of Bernard Williams and Isaiah Berlin lately, both avowed pluralists, and only recently found my way to Hilary Putnam. They all pretty much confirm what I had already gathered following the trail from Wittgenstein outward. Relativism fails, not because absolutism gets it right, and absolutism fails, not because relativism gets it right. When talking about value we are talking about human practices and for the most part neither “anything goes” nor “only one way” of grasping a situation suffices. The extremes of purely personal and subjective or purely impersonal and objective are merely what things look like in these exceptional circumstances. Most of human life, however, gets lived somewhere in the middle.

    Philosophy has, in this case as in so many others, artificially narrowed the field to its extremes, for simplicity sake or some other agenda all its own. Putnam in particular effectively criticizes the subjective/objective distinction, and I have many of the same objections. As long as we continue to talk as if things divided as neatly as philosophy sometimes pretends the harder it will be to see beyond the purist artifices of philosophical rationality to the wild diversity and plurality that human life itself offers us. If we start with rationality things only look a certain way. If we start with humanity, things look quite different.

    Would you agree that some philosophers are motivated by an insistence on squaring things rationally, and some philosophers (Wittgenstein, Williams, Berlin, Putnam, Cavell, etc.) are motivated by squaring things with the human AS human?

  86. I just wanted to make a – to me – banal point, namely that sincerely held moral convictions come with objectivity. People disagree whether this objectivity is relevant. That’s fine with me.

    I’ve said everything I had to say – more than once, actually – so this is my last contribution. I suppose I’m not the only one who has better things to do.

    “That doesn’t make you wrong, does it?”

    Oh yes, it does. That creates a contradiction, but it doesn’t bother me, because the contradiction merely shows moral convictions can be incompatible.

    You may be surprised that objective statements can contradict each other, but they can. “The world is a cube” and “the world is an octahedron” contradict each other, but their meaning is independent of personal inclinations etc.

  87. Something I forgot to add: “The world is a cube” and “the world is an octahedron” contradict each other whatever the actual shape of the world may be.
    Objectivity in itself is not about being “real” or not.

  88. Let’s imagine Way 2 is more natural than Way 1, for most people. You’re right, it certainly doesn’t show that there’s a fact of the matter, and I didn’t offer it to show that. All I’m hoping it shows is that moral realism is a natural way of talking and thinking, at least until you think about moral realism explicitly.

    I’ve noticed this in my students, by the way: when I ask about the status of moral talk, most of them claim that morality is just a matter of opinion, no one is actually right or wrong, etc. Yet they often seem to get quite morally indignant about particular issues.

    Both things could be true at once, of course; it may be that you think that morality is just a matter of opinion, all the while holding your opinions extremely confidently and thinking anyone who disagrees with you is irrational or evil. It just seems to me that in the heat of the moment, at least, first-order moral talk seems factive.

  89. s. wallerstein

    I’m not sure what you mean by a “natural” way of thinking, but obviously moral beliefs are held with extreme tenacity and defensiveness.

    First of all, they are often tied up with parental affection: what Freud calls the “superego”, that is, values that you internalized from your parents to the extent that they become unconscious. So if I differ with the values of some people, I’m calling into question their parents, which are fighting words all over the globe.

    On the other hand, if you’ve liberated yourself from your parental values, as at times happens to a certain extent (and only to a certain extent) in late adolescence, that takes an incredible amount of psychic energy and thus, you hold on to your new values with equal tenacity and defensiveness. Your new values become part of your new identity, won after conscious and unconscious struggle with your parents and after a struggle as traumatic as one with your parents,
    you’re going to hold on to your new values as if they were even more sacred.

    People defending their identity will kill you as if you touch a sensitive point because their identity is what they are. Ok, for sure, wisdom may teach us that we aren’t really our identity: I’m me and being Jewish (my identity) is fairly superficial, but if you insult the Jews, I’m going to get angry and like almost all Jews, I’m convinced that the Holocaust is the greatest crime against humanity on record. Actually, it may be that the genocide of the Native American peoples was a greater crime in terms of numbers, but you get the idea.

    None of the above implies that our values are objective or exist in the way that tables do.

    Now believing that values are not objective does not mean that I don’t have ethical commitments. I do have them, but they are my commitments, I chose them and I can change them if I want to.

  90. @Couvent2104: Yoiu sas “You may be surprised that objective statements can contradict each other ….”

    I am not at all surprised. If two statements contradict each other, then at least one must be false (and perhaps both are). Both can purport to be about objective reality, but that is independent of their truth value.

    I am surprised, however at your saying that your neighbor’s sincerely held moral conviction that he is right and you are wrong does in fact make you wrong. If you actually believed that, you would change your behavior to match his, or would at least feel some impulse to do so.

    If he thinks you are wrong and you think he is wrong, then you have contradictory opinions, that’s all. But your opinion does not determine reality. For many years people thought that the sun and all the stars revolved around the earth. Some, no doubt, had sincerely held convictions on the matter. But their beliefs didn’t make it so. We now know better. (More precisely, we now have a theory that enables us to make more accurate predictions.)

    If you think your neighbor is wrong about some moral issue, in what way does that make him actually wrong? If he thinks you are wrong, in what way does that make you actually wrong? I am very confused about what you are trying to get at.

  91. Great post, Dan! I’ll say some things in response here as a catalyst for our conversation Wednesday, which I’m very much looking forward to. Not necessarily disagreeing here, just mulling over some of the contents.

    I agree that objectivity and authority come apart. Institutional norms are a case-in-point. The rules of playing chess are what they are, but if I decide I don’t want to play chess, or play by custom rules, they have no authority over me. On the other hand, institutional norms aren’t totally objective, either. I think if the U.S. Chess Federation (or some other authoritative body) decided that taking a pawn en passant is no longer a legal move in chess, I assume that it wouldn’t be. It’s interesting to consider whether if you went on playing according to the old rules, it still be correct to say that you were playing chess. But my point here is that chess rules and other institutional norms that lack authority are subject to human manipulation.

    The question I’m now thinking about is whether there are any norms that are totally independent of all human construction and yet only weakly authoritative (i.e., I think, “Real” in the sense you mean here). Maybe the norms of human health, or the norms of evolutionary fitness, are examples. Perhaps there are objective standards for what constitutes human health. But it doesn’t seem that gives you any overriding reason of the kind we realists take morality to have. You can say: “To hell with it, I want a cigar.”

    But I do think that the kind of authority morality is supposed to have does require objectivity in the strongest sense. Otherwise, the fundamental moral rules could be engineered by humans. That seems paradigmatically inconsistent with the authority of morality! But I do think it’s the authority, not the objectivity, that really matters to realists, though I don’t think they always recognize this.

    Your example with humor is interesting. It might be objectively true that most people find “The Producers” funny. So objectively speaking, it is funny. But what does it matter to me if I don’t find it funny? Well, I think there are actually a couple of distinct possibilities here. One of them is that I think the majority is wrong. It’s actually witless and dumb (or maybe offensive) and people just have really bad taste and this proves it. So I could deny that “provoking a lot of laughter” = “funny”. Or I can concede that it’s funny, but just concede that I unfortunately can’t appreciate humor of this kind. It’s not my bag. This distinction is actually relevant for you, practically. For instance, if you’re a critic, it matters to what kind of a review you’d write.

    Note, however, that the empirical definition of “funny” that you provided isn’t strongly objective – meaning that it isn’t independent of all human attitudes and social construction. It’s just independent of my own private reactions. So it actually is analogous to chess rules in that respect. It’s not really analogue of morality in terms of the objectivity, so we shouldn’t expect it to be an analogue of morality in terms of authority (i.e., “Reality”).

    The relationship between “X is good” and “You ought to promote X” is an interesting one. There may be a case for saying that it is analytic: If you really unpacked what is meant by “good” or “value” then you’d see that really acknowledging that something as valuable or good would commit you to promoting it. By the same token, if you say something is good but then say you don’t want to promote it and see absolutely no reason to promote it, then it’s dubious whether you are being consistent. It could also be a synthetic relationship. That seems plausible inasmuch as acknowledging X would, by my own admission, promote the most good in the universe doesn’t seem to commit me (logically) to the claim that it’s what I have most reason to do. That might be right, but it requires the addition of substantive ethical claims, like the claim that one ought to maximize value.

  92. OK, one last time.

    “I am very confused about what you are trying to get at.”

    Well, that’s my fault. I’m very bad at explaining things.

    I’m interested in the way moral convictions actually *work*, why people are compelled to act (or not) when they have sincerely held moral convictions. And I think that the objectivity that automatically comes with sincerely held moral convictions – the idea that beating your wife is *wrong*, whatever the personal inclinations of your neighbor – is a motivating factor for moral actions.

    That’s the reason why I don’t agree with Dan when he claims that “moral objectivity” is irrelevant.

    It’s not about having the right or the wrong moral convictions. I’m not judging actions. It’s about the reason why people act when they have moral convictions.

    Suppose my neighbor has the moral conviction that women should cover their hair when they go out, and suppose my wife doesn’t cover her hair. Then my wife is *wrong*, no matter what her personal inclinations are. *Ïf* my neighbor has this conviction, *then* the wrongness of my wife is objective, and this objectivity will be part of my neighbor’s motivation to call the local modesty police.

    You may say “but it’s only wrong for him, he has no reason to call the modesty police”. OK, but if it’s only wrong for him, then why is he calling the modesty police? Is he misguided? Do you know better? From which moral point of view are you judging his actions? Why do you think that your personal opinion is valid for him, too? My guess is: you have a moral conviction, it automatically comes with objectivity and therefore you’re certain that it’s valid for my neighbor, not matter what his personal inclinations are.

    And I repeat: what interests me is not who is right or wrong. I’m interested in the reasons why people act.

  93. davidlduffy

    “You are far too credulous. The fact that there is a discipline for something doesn’t mean it isn’t idiotic. A good portion of what passes for ‘cognitive science’ is like that”

    Dear Dan. I actually know a little about these areas – eg a colleague and former student has just published in Science

    The hermeneutics of suspicion extends to value – we must infer from actions what people really want. The representations involved are not necessarily reportable..

  94. In response to your comment below (which doesn’t have a reply button that I see):

    Again, I’m not saying that any of this shows that our values are objective. I’m just saying that it shows that many of us–maybe even most of us–think of them as objective.

  95. And I think that the objectivity that automatically comes with sincerely held moral convictions – the idea that beating your wife is *wrong*, whatever the personal inclinations of your neighbor – is a motivating factor for moral actions.

    I definitely have strong moral conviction. But I do not assume that other people have the same convictions. So I have never considered my strong moral convictions to be objective. At this point, I would have to say that I not at all sure what you mean by “objective,” but it cannot be the same as what I mean. And, in any case, whether or not my moral convictions can be said to be objective is not relevant to my having those convictions nor to how I act on them.

  96. I agree with your last paragraph. But I don’t see what it demonstrates, as it is a purely epistemic point.

  97. s. wallerstein

    Sure, most people see their values as objective probably because most people are religious and if you’re religious, at least a believing Jew, Christian or Muslim, you see morality as god-given and hence, objective.

    I’m an atheist and always have been one. I never believed in a god, not even as a child.

    By the way, I want to thank you for taking the time to converse with me. I’ve been hanging out in philosophy blogs since maybe 2005 when I first got broad-band internet. I’m not a philosopher obviously nor was I a philosophy major.
    In those 15 years in philosophy blogs I’ve seen many professional philosophers dismiss my comments as not worthy of their attention, answer me with a list of bibliography which I must read (and which I have absolutely no access to since I don’t live near a university library with books in English) or otherwise pull rank on me. You don’t do that nor does Dan K., which is one of the reasons I keep participating in this blog, even though I’m far to the left of Dan K. and probably of you (generally in internet, people group by political tendency). You wonder, I know, whether your teaching reaches people and if you show the same degree of attention to your students’ questions and ideas as you do to mine, I’m sure that you’re an excellent teacher and that you reach those students of yours who have some interest in learning from you.

  98. Hi S. Wallerstein (Shane? Sean?)

    You’re quite welcome. I’m one of those people who thinks that the fact that a philosopher asserts philosophical proposition X doesn’t give you any reason to believe X, though I do think it gives you reason to think that the philosopher’s reason for asserting X is probably pretty good. That said, if you hear the reason and think it’s lacking, and you bring it up to the philosopher, it seems inappropriate to me for the philosopher to pull rank. I don’t know that we can really pull rank much, other than to testify to how most philosophers see things, for example.

    As for my teaching, I used to be better than I am now because I used to be very enthusiastic. I believed in the product, as it were. Since then, I learned lots about pedagogy, saw how little students were learning, how poorly most teachers were teaching, and lost motivation (this happened in about 2017). I’ve not been able to get it back since then, and students can sense that I basically think everything I teach them is a waste of everyone’s time, so they don’t read, work, etc. It may sound like I’m suffering depression — I’m not — I’m just suffering what you might call “pedagogical depression.”

    And I certainly don’t think anything you’ve said is beneath me. Almost every intelligent person I know of is an atheist and a subjectivist, not just about morality, but about all normativity. Dan’s views and yours are, for most of the intelligentsia, common sense. That said, if you were in Auschwitz (or in the Gulag, or on the Trail of Tears, etc.) I’m not sure you would be so confident that you and your oppressors just had a difference of opinion! But in fairness to you, you could just say that someone suffering in a death camp isn’t well-positioned to see reality as it really is.

  99. My mother was in Bergen Belsen. Any religious faith she might have had or belief in “objective morality” was lost there.

  100. @ejwinner: You say ” … nor is there an intrinsic good to sunlight for the plants.” Uh … what?! It is precisely for the plants that sunlight is good!

    You say that the plants don’t care. Well, we could have a discussion about plant cognition, but we don’t need to. It doesn’t matter that the plants don’t care. The fact is that sunlight is good for plants and lack of it is bad for them whether or not they care. And as I said earlier, “good for” and “bad for” are value terms, so there is objective value in the world, and there would be even if no sentient beings existed.

    You say “That value is a term of ‘relative worth, merit, or importance; means precisely that there must be a judgment.” No. It just means that, for instance, adequate sunlight is of more worth to the plant than lack of sunlight. Again, it doesn’t matter whether the plant makes a judgment about it.

    You might want to say that adequate sunlight is bad because it makes poison ivy grow and we don’t like poison ivy, and that is an example of our our projection of good and bad on an indifferent universe. I agree that such a judgment would be our projection. But it doesn’t obviate the fact that sunlight is good for the poison ivy. What’s good for us and what’s good for the poison ivy are different things.

    You seem to want to stipulate a definition of value that requires representation or judgment. I don’t, and I appeal to everyday usage of the term “good” in my favor. You prefer a different definition. Well, let’s use two different terms and be done with quibbling about definitions.

  101. s. wallerstein

    My father wasn’t in a concentration camp, but as a Jew who lived through the Holocaust and was in the U.S. Army during World War 2, he told me that as a result of the Holocaust he lost all belief in the conventional Jewish god and became an agnostic (an agnostic about deism, not about conventional religion which no longer convinced him at all).
    While not a person given to extensive philosophical speculation, he did not seem to believe in objective morality if one judges from his general opinions about human nature.

    By the way, I myself lived through 11 years of the 17 year Pinochet dictatorship here in Chile and saw one good friend murdered and several tortured by the dictatorship, which I opposed actively participating in human rights organizations. That experience did not convince me of the existence of objective morality, although it did solidify my ethical commitment to social justice and human rights.

  102. bmeacham,
    I am told that millions of years ago, a comet crashed into the earth and the consequences included the extermination of most species of dinosaur. Was that a ‘bad’ thing? even for the dinosaurs? Maybe that’s exactly what they needed at the time. But how would I know that?

    – “adequate sunlight is of more worth to the plant than lack of sunlight” – this is a proposition asserting a judgment. In order to make this proposition comprehensible, let alone arguable, certain human determinations have to be assumed, granted, or explicated for agreement. In common speech such determinations are understood unless challenged; so I could well say ‘sunlight is worth more than (ie, is judged as more valuable) to my roses than lack of sunlight.’ However the question here is whether these determinations are intrinsic to the substantive terms and their references (sunlight, plant) apart from the human thought making the judgment. I don’t see it. I don’t know, and do not believe it is possible, lacking divine intelligence, to know whether “adequate sunlight is of more worth to the plant than lack of sunlight” or not. It is true that plants thrive in sunlight; but that might be a terrible thing, even for the plants. How would I know? This is not a matter of skepticism – it is a matter of what we can or cannot say of the universe with any surety. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are human determinations, and ‘value’ is a term of judgment, for instance between or other such determinations.

    I also find that more people, at least in my experience so far, actually do use these terms with such understanding, even when, for the sake of brevity of communication, they allow metaphors and absolutes to pass unchallenged (since challenging them would stultify speech). But as hopefully we all know, that the sun neither rises nor sets; still, tomorrow, I expect the sun will rise, “… and the great shroud of the sea roll on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

  103. davidlduffy

    You suggested that “value is something distinctive to persons”. If the person is unaware of their true (ie objective) values, the methods we use to elicit these values are those that also apply to nonhuman animals.

    Value and function are intertwined. Coming back to my allusion to Dennett earlier, one takes the “intentional stance” to understand what an organ or a behaviour does, and what benefits it provide to the animal or person. Even if the animal or person doesn’t know where these benefits come from, it requires the outside observer to infer where the value is. The value is not subjective – it is modelled by the observer to be “out there”. If I comment to the person being observed that it is obvious to me what the value is of a particular behaviour, they may well disagree with me.

    Re ethics, I have previously cited the utilitarian Harsanyi:

    If we care about the common good, then reason will clearly tell us what moral code to follow: it will tell us to follow the rule utilitarian moral code. But if we have no concern for the common good, then reason cannot tell us to follow this moral code (or any other).

    For a naturalist re morality like him (and the contractarians), it is objectively true that the the common good is best served by such-and-such a system (though practicalities like the Arrow Impossibility Theorem might make multidimensional value systems only imperfectly maximizable). But this doesn’t cut much ice with the proportion of defectors in the population, in the game theoretic sense. In the current pandemic situation, we hear from plenty of people who argue their values require them to congregate in large numbers or act in such a way to, at arms length, kill off more of the elderly and health-compromised. After all, their individual defection is a negligible contribution to any bad outcomes, surely? And if contact tracing did confirm a direct causal link to the outcome for an individual, this would be mere bad luck, or a necessary sacrifice for the economic good. To my mind, there are objective facts about morality in this current situation, and I don’t mind Parfit’s arguments that almost everybody can agree there are some things that just aren’t OK.

  104. Again, I can’t reply to any of your comments directly, so I’ll just reply here.

    That’s quite interesting, re: your family members. I did not have direct family members who died in the Holocaust or who were in camps, though some members of my family were on a list to be put there.

    Certainly, many people reacted to the Holocaust by losing faith in God, but I’m not sure why people brought that up in their responses to me. I don’t recall invoking God; I recall invoking objective morality only (that said, perhaps it was in the penumbra and emanations of what I wrote). Regardless, it’s surprising to me that people react to injustice they suffer by concluding that there is no objective injustice after all — just things they don’t like. It definitely goes against my prediction that in the heat of the moment, at least, people would conclude that what they’re suffering is *really* wrong and *really* shouldn’t happen. I wonder if the experiences of your family members are typical? Indeed, now I’m beginning to wonder: has *anyone* *ever* perceived terrible things to suffer to be things they *objectively* shouldn’t have suffered? I mean, philosophers say things like I said all the time, but I wonder if there are any examples. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Gandhi? Victor Klemperer? I think this is something I should research.

  105. I included the belief in objective reality in my reply. My mother is neither a moral realist nor an objectivist. Indeed, she virtually never engages in moral discourse and speaks almost exclusively in the language of feelings and sentiments. As to whether she is “typical,” I have no idea, but of course neither do you.

  106. This also, frankly, just begs the question. I offered a very specific provocation: what, tangibly, specifically, non-hand-wavingly is *added* to the discourse of hope, desire, aspiration, fear, misery, etc., by the moral framework? I’ve asked this question again and again, but have yet to hear anything substantive and non-baroque.

  107. @couvent2104: You say “You may say ‘but it’s only wrong for him, he has no reason to call the modesty police’. OK, but if it’s only wrong for him, then why is he calling the modesty police?”

    He’s calling the modesty police because *he thinks* it is wrong. I presume he thinks it’s wrong for everyone. But that doesn’t make it actually wrong for everyone. You think it is not wrong. That doesn’t make it not wrong for everyone.

    Yes, people by and large think their moral intuitions are objectively and universally true or valid. And they are motivated to act on them and have certain emotions when they are triggered. Those are facts about people, not about the moral rules themselves. People’s intuitions are not reliable guides to the ontology of morality.

  108. s. wallerstein

    You seem to believe that the alternatives are objective injustice or things we don’t like ( in your words).

    Between those two alternatives there is a tremendous range of human experiences. Your philosophy leaves out solidarity, empathy, commitments to a cause, commitments to others, projects for a world with less oppression as well as very deep visceral personality traits: for example, I always identify with people who are being excluded or attacked by a mob, independent of who those people are. I’d probably defend Trump if he were alone and about to be lynched, even metaphorically lynched. Now that’s something that I never learned from a book and I never chose to be like that, but it’s part of who I am.

    You simply seem to skip psychology, not the academic subject, but the incredibly complex ways our minds work and which constitute our deepest values. Our values are part of who we are and to understand them we have to understand ourselves, our biography, but that doesn’t make them any more objective than any other personality trait, say, my tendency to introversion.

  109. Oh boy, oh boy, what have I done? I apologize to everyone here.

    I use the word objective in the sense defined by Dan: “… not being variable by way of personal inclination, perception, or opinion.”

    You write: “I definitely have strong moral conviction. But I do not assume that other people have the same convictions. So I have never considered my strong moral convictions to be objective.”

    I assume you want to say you don’t consider your moral conviction to be objectively true. But for me it’s not about truth, it’s about objectivity (and the role this objectivity plays as a motivating factor for action). There’s a fundamental difference between being “objective” and being “true”. Something can be objective – like the description “the world is an octahedron” – without being true. The two are logically independent.

    Given this fundamental difference between being objective and being true, it’s possible to consider your moral convictions to be objective without assuming that other people have the same convictions. If you have the sincerely held moral conviction that beating partners is wrong, then your neighbor is morally wrong when he beats his partner, no matter what his personal inclinations, perceptions or opinions are. In that sense your sincerely held moral conviction comes with objectivity.

    I think it’s hard to avoid that sincerely held moral convictions come with this objectivity. If it were easy to avoid, at least one person in this discussion would have said: “Hey, I think beating my wife is wrong, but if my neighbor has other moral convictions, he can beat his wife, it’s OK with me.”

    I believe this objectivity is a motivating factor for action, Dan doesn’t. That’s about it, I think.

  110. “People’s intuitions are not reliable guides to the ontology of morality.”

    I guess not, but I’m discussing morality-as-practiced, and I don’t see how something useful can be said about morality-as-practiced without taking people’s intuitions into account.

  111. Peoples’ intuitions provide the conditions of adequacy for any moral account. Other than accusations of internal inconsistency, every substantial objection to every moral theory is grounded in intuitive reactions.

  112. Yes, he is just flat-out confused on that point. Intuitions provide the “evidence” against which the adequacy of any moral philosophy or account is measured.

  113. s. wallerstein

    You ask about whether any activists against injustice have ever not believed in objective morality. You cite Martin Luther and Gandhi, who were both religious figures and undoubtedly believed that morality was objective.

    I thought for a while about a noted activist who did not believe in objective morality and I came up with Simone de Beauvoir, who is generally considered to be the mother of modern feminism and besides writing the Second Sex, was a feminist activist herself in France, besides participating actively in the campaign against the French imperialist war in Algeria. This is the clearest case of all because Simone de Beauvoir wrote a book on ethics, An Ethics of Ambiguity, which she explicitly states her belief that there are no objective values. The book is short and a good summary of existentialist ethics.

  114. Charles Justice

    I notice that both you and Dan Kaufman are using narrow definitions of value, and you both are actively trying to rule out naturalism. By doing this your missing a sense of continuity about value. Living things maintain themselves and reproduce. They value in some sense what helps them to do these things. Perhaps the way humans value is different. After all, humans are reflective, we talk about valuing and we recognize the act of valuing and perhaps no other animals can do this. But the process of valuing is continuous in living organisms and humans. And not to recognize this is to blind oneself to the nature of value. It is to have an impoverished view of value and of ethics.

  115. I assume you want to say you don’t consider your moral conviction to be objectively true.

    I don’t even know what it could mean, to say that a moral conviction is true.

    But for me it’s not about truth, it’s about objectivity (and the role this objectivity plays as a motivating factor for action).

    Using Dan’s definition of objective, which you helpfully quoted, I fail to understand how a moral conviction could be other than a matter of personal inclination, perception or opinion.

  116. I don’t believe that there is any value intrinsic to nature, and that is a view that pretty much extends back to the scientific revolution of the 17th century, when teleology and teleological explanations were eliminated from natural science.

    So, far from my view being “impoverished” it is the view that actually follows from the course of our intellectual history.

  117. Charles Justice

    Start your research with The Book of Job, because that is exactly Job’s dilemma: he suffers harm to the point of arguing against God based on God’s divine justice. A beautiful story. Also Recommend Herbert Fingarette, Mapping Responsibility, where he discusses the Book of Job in the last chapter.

  118. Charles Justice

    Without nature there is no value. Without the goals to survive and reproduce there is no value. Valuing is a process that requires a living organism, and humans are a living organism.

  119. This unresponsive to the point. But to be honest, I’m tapped out on this conversation. We’ll just have to leave it at disagreement.

  120. I hate the fact that I have to keep on replying to a post way up above. Obviously not Dan’s fault, but it bothers me.

    What’s added? I was thinking about this a lot today.

    First, I want to say that I wasn’t wondering whether any activists didn’t believe in objective morality. I was wondering whether any of them *did* believe in objective morality.

    Second, Dan asks what’s added by saying that morality is objective. It’s a good question. But it leads me to wonder whether Dan thinks that anyone actually believes in objective morality? I mean, I could say a lot of things about what believing in objective morality adds, but I expect that Dan would say that everything I attribute to a belief in objective morality is, in fact, just other stuff. But in that case, it’s impossible to even believe in objective morality, so no one actually disagrees with Dan. They may think they do, but Dan has shown that it’s literally impossible to disagree with him about this. I’m not sure that’s the conclusion Dan is after — I don’t think it is — but maybe I’m wrong here.

    Anyway, here is my take on what it is like to believe in objective morality:

    Suppose someone says “I don’t like mayonnaise.” I don’t really care. I’ll just think, “ok, you must not like the taste, the texture, or the smell.” Suppose I write a short story, and I think it’s really good. If someone says that it’s terrible, my feelings will be hurt, but I wouldn’t think they shouldn’t think that. It might just not be the kind of story they like. If someone tries to murder my son, I will strongly dislike this. But I would, additionally, think they shouldn’t have tried to kill him. And I wouldn’t say, “well, if no one minded, it would be ok.” And I wouldn’t say, “I just strongly dislike it, but I get that this person strongly wanted to, and this is just two different preferences.” I would say that this person shouldn’t have had this preference, or at least shouldn’t have acted on it.

    So, the “should” here captures the conviction that the person should not (sorry to define it circularly) undertake this action. And perhaps even that he shouldn’t want to undertake the action.

    In other words, I think there’s a difference between “I don’t like X” and “you shouldn’t do X.” I think “immoral” captures this.

  121. @ejwinner: You say “It is true that plants thrive in sunlight; but that might be a terrible thing, even for the plants.”

    Sorry, that does not make sense to me. “Good for” in a biological context *means* promoting thriving. If something is good for a plant (or any living organism) it nourishes, provides benefit to, enables the health of, promotes the thriving of that plant. To say that thriving is a terrible thing for the entity that thrives is a contradiction.

  122. @Daniel Kaufman. You say “the scientific revolution of the 17th century, [was] when teleology and teleological explanations were eliminated from natural science.” Recent discussion in philosophy has gone well beyond the mechanistic metaphysics of the 17th century. See the following:

    Buller, David J. “Introduction: Natural Teleology.” In Buller, David J., ed. _Function, Selection and Design_. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1999, pp. 1-27.

    Cummins, Robert. “Functional Analysis.” _The Journal of Philosophy_, Vol. 72, No. 20. (Nov. 20, 1975), pp. 741-765. Online publication as of 17 August 2007.

    Millikan, Ruth Garrett. “Proper Functions.” In Buller, David J., ed. _Function, Selection and Design_. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1999, pp. 85-95.

    Neander, Karen. “The teleological notion of ‘function’”. _Australasian Journal of Philosophy_, Volume 69 Number 4, December 1991, pp. 454-468. Online publication as of 12 January 2018.

    Sober, Elliott. _Philosophy of Biology_, Second Edition. Boulder Colorado: Westview Press, 2000, pp. 86-88.

    Wright, Larry. “Functions.” _The Philosophical Review_, Vol. 82, No. 2 (Apr., 1973), pp. 139-168. Online publication as of 22 May 2012.

    I address this issue from a slightly different starting point in my essay “More About Function” here:

  123. I am more than familiar with the literature. Teleology and function are not the same and functional explanations are not teleological.

    I’m going to bow out at this point. I’ve exhausted what I have to say on the subject.

  124. If someone tries to murder my son, I will strongly dislike this.

    We have laws against that.

    I have always distinguished between legality and morality. Laws (i.e. legality) are restricted to those aspects of morality about which we can be reasonably objective. But morality is broader than that.

    I think there’s a difference between “I don’t like X” and “you shouldn’t do X.” I think “immoral” captures this.

    Fair enough. But it really isn’t “you shouldn’t do X.” Rather, it is “I think (perhaps very strongly think) that you shouldn’t do X.” And that’s why it is morality rather than legality, and why I doubt that it should be considered objective. I cannot see how to get myself out of the judgment.

    Note: I discovered that I am able to use the wordpress “Reader” site and click “Conversations” to find and reply to a specific comment. I don’t know whether that always works.

  125. bmeacham,
    ““Good for” in a biological context *means* promoting thriving” – according to humans who have studied biology and established certain theories that seem to articulate our experience with nature.

    “If someone tries to murder my son, I will strongly dislike this.” Besides its lack of any strong sense of history, moral Realism’s other major weakness is it’s lack of any sense of the social – it is all individual agents engaging with other indivuudal agents.

    If I had a son and If someone tries to murder my son, I would call the police; we have long established laws in this community against such behavior, generally agreeing that it is disruptive and deprives others of their Constitutionally assured rights, and the peace and well-being of their loved ones. Or I would pummel the would be murderer and then, if the police arrest me for assault, I would hire a good lawyer and demand a jury trial, since I have a strong suspicion that other members of my community would agree that the attempted murder was so egregious an act that it would at least be understandable to protect my son by force.

    Your own example is therefore ruled out of court.

  126. s. wallerstein

    Is someone wanting to kill your son “a preference”?

    You put everything in terms of preference as if life was about choosing between chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Your whole view of life seems to stem from a shopping mall or an economics textbook.

    If life is just one big shopping mall where the consumer chooses whether he or she wants grey or blue socks, then perhaps the only options are moral realism or “anything goes”.

    However, in the real world someone for whom killing someone is as trivial a decision as deciding on the color of their socks is called a sociopath or a psychopath and is generally locked up for a long long time and should of course be treated by psychiatrists, although I understand that does not generally occur.

    Normal people, those with a certain sense of empathy, generally only kill others in self-defense or in a wartime situation and even in wartime, I’ve read, many soldiers do not shoot to kill because for them killing others is a weighty matter, which has nothing to do with which color socks one buys.

    In spite of 40 years of neoliberal inculcation, most of us have not internalized neoliberalism to the extent that to kill or not to kill is a matter of preference and that has nothing to do with objective morality, simply with empathy or caring about others.

  127. @Daniel Kaufman: You say “functional explanations are not teleological.” I disagree. It’s common in biology to explain phenomena by appealing to their outcome, for instance that sweating occurs in order to cool the body. In other words, the function of sweating is to cool the body.

  128. You can disagree all you like. It doesn’t change the realities. Massimo Pigliucci, a biologist and philosopher with whom I have done many, many dialogues will confirm that there are no teleological explanations in biology. You are failing to make the distinction between teleological and teleonomic explanations.

    Indeed, you are missing the entire point of the theory of natural selection. It explains the *appearance* of purpose, where there is none.

  129. Massimo and I did an extensive dialogue on this subject.

  130. I@Daniel Kaufman: I say “People’s intuitions are not reliable guides to the ontology of morality,” and you disagree. I am speaking meta-ethically. Most people’s intuitions, I expect, are that moral rules really do exist independently of our personal inclinations or beliefs. In other words, most people are moral realists, even if they don’t know the term. Reasoned philosophical analysis can lead one to embrace that view or to adopt another view, a form of moral anti-realism perhaps. You say you haven’t been a moral realist since your early twenties. What changed your mind? Did your intuitions change or did thinking carefully about them lead to realize that they were misleading you?

  131. Zac


    “This also, frankly, just begs the question. I offered a very specific provocation: what, tangibly, specifically, non-hand-wavingly is *added* to the discourse of hope, desire, aspiration, fear, misery, etc., by the moral framework? I’ve asked this question again and again, but have yet to hear anything substantive and non-baroque.”

    I’m curious to see how a moral framework wouldn’t be implicated in and responsive to our hopes, desires, aspirations, fears, and miseries. It’s a means of staking claims as to better or worse ways of navigating these together, which, I’m sorry, is a condition we’re stuck with. Maybe you want to dismiss it as folk excrescence of these things and have done with it, but I don’t see your essay motivating that. Maybe I could launder morality into the conversation for other sensibilities by calling it a “device for generalization” or some-such philosophical trinket. Or maybe I end up finding the philosophical gymnastics in more need of justification than the moral framework they attack.

    Since we’ve already invoked the Holocaust… Am I more confident that genocide is evil or that all your metaphysical, semantic, and evaluative assumptions and inferences hold water? Ask William Gass’ obliging stranger. Am I confident that “you shouldn’t commit mass murder, ok?” is more normatively binding than “you should accept that value judgments are fundamentally motivational and subjective”? Crazily, yes. Am I required to consider the only legitimate sense of mattering individualistic or reducible to such? In that case, that claim doesn’t matter to me (useful, this!). Is it more obvious to say that torture is wrong or that “well ‘wrong’ is actually just an empty suit, and when I put on my super-neutral, just-the-facts philosophico-spectacles, it’s more accurately, clinically said that torture is something most people disprefer”? Those spectacles look cloudy. Outside of sociology or psychology, is the only rationally licit statement about the genocidaire’s values that they’re just different? Sounds like a hopelessly abstract, bloodless sense of rationality.

    So Cary Elwes questions and answers aside, if it comes down to it and I’m asked to underwrite my worldview with a more worked-out philosophical argument, I’m saying I’d reach for Putnam’s “Reason, Truth and History” before this essay. “If our ‘objectivity’ is objectivity humanly speaking, it is still objectivity enough.” I just don’t see the great insight of pointing to the person who doesn’t care. That someone doesn’t care about some value is no more inherently interesting, relevant, or justified than someone who doesn’t care about some fact. Assuming as much posits an ur-value (only individualistic values are warranted) that your subjectivism ultimately guts anyway.

  132. if it comes down to it and I’m asked to underwrite my worldview with a more worked-out philosophical argument, I’m saying I’d reach for Putnam’s “Reason, Truth and History” before this essay.

    = = = =

    Great. I think you should do just that.

  133. Zac

    *toothy grin*

    *finger guns*

  134. Still can’t figure out how to respond to particular comments, but I’ll close with this (I’m feeling depressed, so I’m going to refrain from commenting for a while):

    *I* don’t think that everything is a mere preference. I’m just trying to deal with features of Dan’s view that puzzle me. Let me explain:

    Dan thinks that moral discourse is a mistake. I won’t go so far as to attribute to him the view that we *shouldn’t* engage in it, but I think he thinks that it’s a waste of time. Moreover, I get the sense from Dan that he thinks that words like “immoral”, “moral”, “good”, and “evil” basically mean “don’t do that”, “do that”, “I like that” and “I don’t like that.” At the end of the day they’re mere preferences. And I think he thinks that trying to make sense of moral declarations as amounting to anything more than mere preferences is impossible, because “you shouldn’t do that”, if it means anything besides “I don’t want you to do that” is literally incoherent, or nonsense. As in: there is literally nothing you can do to explain what “you shouldn’t do that” means other than to invoke someone’s desires. If you claim that it means something more than that, then you are very confused; not so confused as to say “here’s a triangle, but it has seven sides”, but confused like saying, “Take the set of all sets that are not members of themselves.” It looks, on the face of it, like it has a distinct content, but if you think hard about it, you’ll realize that it literally makes no sense.

    Anyway, this puzzles me because it sure seems to me like a lot of people use moral discourse, and it seems to me that when they use it, they’re doing something different from just asserting their preferences. But so far as I understand Dan’s view (I don’t understand it, and I’ve told him privately that I think there’s some kind of mental block I have that renders me unable to understand him on this subject), he thinks that they’re not doing that.

    But perhaps I shouldn’t be so puzzled. Certainly many philosophers have thought that believing in supernaturalism is literally impossible, and that no one actually is a supernaturalist. And some have thought the same about non-egoistic behavior–not only is it an empty set, but it couldn’t possibly be anything but that. So maybe it’s like that. But I’m not sure I understand those views either.

  135. Charles Justice

    R Gressis, right now we are all physically distanced from each other, but I just want you to know that we are all feeling depressed – that’s all seven billion of us.

  136. s. wallerstein

    First of all, I solidarize with your depression. Here in Santiago de Chile in order to leave one’s home one needs to get permission online from the police and even then, one can only leave for a limited amount of time to go food shopping. to go to a pharmacy or to a doctor’s appointment. One can get permission for 20 minutes a day to walk one’s dog (if one has a dog), but not to take a walk or to jog.

    I obviously cannot speak for Dan, but here’s my take on what you’re saying. Using moral language, one might say that Pinochet was evil or wicked. That tells me very little. Was he some kind of James Bond villain who wanted to destroy the world for the pure pleasure of destruction? No, he claimed and he may have believed his claim that he was saving Chile from becoming a communist dictatorship. I don’t agree that Chile was headed towards a communist dictatorship at the time of the coup, but lots of people, an important minority of Chileans, did as did Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger by the way. So the word “evil” tells us little about Pinochet. Other terms tell us more: he was Machiavellian, cunning, ambitious, treacherous, often untruthful, cruel, etc. That gives you a picture of the man he was, much more than labeling him as “evil”. If he genuinely thought that he had saved Chile from communism, well, he clearly was among those who believe that the end justifies the means because the means he used: murder, torture, imprisoning and exiling opponents, were violent and cruel. So what do we gain by calling Pinochet “evil”? Nothing but the pleasure of feeling morally superior to him and self-righteous, which for me at least are annoying human traits. Let’s analyze human behavior, let’s try to understand it.

  137. Zac

    s. wallerstein:

    “So the word ‘evil’ tells us little about Pinochet. Other terms tell us more: he was Machiavellian, cunning, ambitious, treacherous, often untruthful, cruel, etc. That gives you a picture of the man he was, much more than labeling him as ‘evil’.”

    This sounds a lot like factoring it out into further evaluative terms. If it’s just a matter of filling out thin ethical terms with thicker ethical terms and descriptions, I don’t see where the problem is. If someone calls somebody “great” and another person asks why, the follow-up would be a deeper dive into deeds and characteristics motivating the term. That doesn’t render the word “great” pointless posturing, of course. It’s just a general judgment.

    Sorry to hear about the tough restrictions in Chile. Godspeed.

  138. s. wallerstein

    Zac, Thanks for the words of support. Anyway, I understand what you’re saying and I suppose that it depends on the person because for some people the word “machiavellian” is an evaluative term and for others it’s a descriptive term.
    I tend to see the words I used above about Pinochet as descriptive, while others may see them as evaluative. Maybe there are two kinds of people in this world: those who tend to see the world in moral terms and those who don’t (besides those in between). Maybe neither group is right: there are just two (or more) ways of seeing the world.

  139. Zac

    As for seeing the world morally or descriptively, I’m definitely an in-betweener. I’m in closest sympathy with Hilary Putnam and his career-long discussion of the fact-value dichotomy (e.g. his book of the same name), part of which entailed an analysis of the kind of thick ethical concepts we’re talking about. Can they be labelled purely descriptive or evaluative, or can they be factored neatly into the two? Putnam thought no on both counts. The two components are entangled.

  140. alandtapper1950

    Dan: To make any progress on this issue we need to talk about contracts and promises. The necessity of keeping one’s contracts and promises is not grounded in personal preferences. If A promises to do X for B, then B has a right to claim that X be done by A but also a right to waive that claim. A in turn has a duty to do X, if B requires it. These rights and duties are generated by the act of promising, backed up by the social practice of promising. A’s personal likes, inclinations, opinions, feelings or other such psychological attributes have nothing to do with the case. Ditto for contracts, except of course the transfer of rights and duties runs in both directions. There’s your objective morality. Nothing baroque about it.

  141. s. wallerstein

    Zac, that’s very interesting. one day I’ll try Putnam.

  142. From Bernard Williams, “The Human Prejudice”:

    “If there is no such thing as the cosmic point of view, if the idea of absolute importance in the scheme of things is an illusion, a relic of a world not yet thoroughly disenchanted, then there is no other point of view except ours in which
    our activities can have or lack a significance.”

    It’s really as simple as that.

  143. And one more from Williams, “The Human Prejudice.”

    “It is a total illusion to think that this [ethical] enterprise can be licensed in some respects and condemned in others by credentials that come from another source, a source that is not already involved in the peculiarities of the human enterprise. It is an irony that this illusion, even when it takes the form of rejecting so-called speciesism and the human prejudice, actually shares a structure with older illusions about there being a cosmic scale of importance in terms of which human beings should understand themselves.”

    See my essay on Williams:

  144. alandtapper1950 says “These rights and duties are generated by the act of promising, backed up by the social practice of promising.” Right, they are socially constructed. That makes them objective but not Real, as Kaufman uses those terms.

  145. Kaufman says “You are failing to make the distinction between teleological and teleonomic explanations.” I take your point. Thanks for the clarification.

    If I understand you correctly, then, there is no value in nature despite the appearance of there being such, because goal-seeking behavior can be explained teleonomically. There is no need to posit that organisms that appear to seek goals and hence appear to value them actually represent those goals (ends) to themselves. But humans do, so humans have values.

    Do you suppose that there are any non-human organisms — such as for instance apes, crows, elephants or dolphins — represent ends to themselves?

  146. Yes, and yes. With regard to the second “yes,” we are, of course, guessing.

  147. Zac

    That’s fair enough, but people can still take it in different directions. Coincidentally, the “objectivity humanly speaking” quote from Putnam is preceded by a similar sci-fi scenario to what Williams discusses in his essay. But of course, he obviously didn’t come of that a subjectivist in ethics. There’s no cosmic point of view establishing the significance of contracts or promises either, though these, I think, fall safely under objective social practices. B there’s not even a cosmic point of view adjudicating between incompatible but empirically equivalent scientific theories. The cosmic point of view is simply a non-starter. Cosmos don’t talk.

    Your primary concern seems to be autonomy. You see the fact of people making decisions on their own as highly significant and worth safeguarding. But while it may be significant and worth safeguarding, I don’t see the same things following from it. A person decides that burning children alive is OK. You say that because he can come to this decision and we can imagine him being unpersuadable, we should consider this fact as discrediting morality. But why should the child burner’s judgment have such weight? Well, you don’t really have an argument for any kind of weight extending beyond an individual judgment, so it’s hard to see how the argument is supposed claim any kind of broader validity. It’s a lot of sounds we may or may not respond well too.

    Even in your Blazing Saddles examples, I don’t really get the only sense of mattering as personal mattering. What comedies I watch hinge on what I find funny, but I don’t find other people’s appreciation of it irrelevant. Like if someone asked me if it was funny, I might say, “I’m not big on it (more a Young Frankenstein man), but a lot of people love it. I think it’s up your alley.” I don’t even feel the urge to call it a bad movie, however we want to parse that out. It’s influenced a lot movies I do like and a lot of people get a kick out of it. I can recognize Brooks as a craftsman if anything. If I’m committing a philosophical sin by claiming that that matters too, I’m not sure I buy the philosophical commandment. Our vocabulary of subjective value is more nuanced and sensitive to distinctions than “I don’t like, so there”. Things get even more complicated when we start teasing out all the other ways we can find value in a movie and the numerous ways our values and the values of other people interact and influence each other. Value isn’t simply an individual, free-floating thing. It’s a concept we learn from others and one we’re constantly renegotiating. I think your attempt to impose strict philosophical boundaries on it is fundamentally doomed.

  148. alandtapper1950

    My comment was about promises and contracts, not about cosmic significance.

  149. Marc Levesque


    I especially enjoyed and agree with you essay.

    “Like “information,” the word is being abused across the intellectual landscape.”

    This. I’ve been thinking about that a lot while reading the discussion.

    Look forward to your next piece.

  150. @Daniel Kaufman: You say “With regard to the second “yes,” [that some non-human organisms — such as for instance apes, crows, elephants or dolphins — represent ends to themselves] we are, of course, guessing.

    We are indeed guessing, but our guesses are educated. Primatologist Frans de Waal says “This is the impression chimpanzees give in almost everything they do: they are thinking beings just as we are. (_Peacemaking Among Primates_ Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989, pp. 38-39.) I don’t want to argue the point; I’m just emphasizing it.

    Here’s my question: If some non-human animals do represent ends to themselves, can we then legitimately say that there is value in nature? I’m just seeking clarification on how you use the term “value.”

  151. It means that there are things valuable to them.

  152. @Daniel Kaufman: You say, regarding value in nature, “It [value in nature] means that there are things valuable to them [animals that value things].” I think you mean by this that there is no value simpliciter, only value in context, value for entities that strive to attain goals. Is that right? If so, I think I agree. That’s why I prefer to speak of goodness-for and goodness-at instead of abstract goodness in general.

    By the way, I realize that this discussion has strayed from your original assertion, that value judgments are essentially motivational, not epistemic.It would be interesting to have a discussion about the ontological status of value, but perhaps you have already covered that.

  153. Yes, I think we agree.