Benny Labamba

In Defense of Radical Value Pluralism

Theories of morality can be value monistic or value pluralistic. That is, they may claim that there is one thing that has moral value, or they can claim that many things have moral value.

Let’s focus on consequentialism. Consequentialists have often been value monists. They have claimed that only one thing has moral value, and this one thing should be maximized. Perhaps the one thing of moral value is:

For value monists, lots of things have value (friendship, sex, career success, etc.), but they only have instrumental value insofar as they help to maximize the one thing of super value.

Other consequentialists propose a short list of things that have moral value.

  • Happiness, loving personal relationships, appreciation of beauty, and a few other things (Moore)
  • Happiness, well-being, health, and a few other things ()

Value monism has been attacked by Williams (“Ethical Consistency”), Stocker (Plural and Conflicting Values), Wiggins (“Weakness of Will, Commensurability, and the Objects of Deliberation and Desire”), Nussbaum (The Fragility of Goodness), and Swanton (Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View).

But these arguments on this subject depend on trusting our intuitions about whether certain things are right or wrong or rational, which is not the kind of argument that persuades someone like me. My brain did not evolve to have accurate intuitions about what is morally right or wrong or rational. My brain evolved to eat and fuck. So I have no reason to trust my intuitions about “right” or “wrong” or “rational.”

I offer a different kind of argument against value monism and against short list theories of value.

First, consider the arguments in favor of value monism.

One argument is that moral value must come from intrinsic value, and only one thing (happiness, perhaps) has intrinsic value, and all other things do not. But whenever I ask for evidence of this claim, people can only point to their own intuitions. I am always amazed at how quickly people who call themselves evidentialists suddenly become intuitionists when it comes to morality.

Another argument for value monism comes from the notion that that morality is (by definition) action-guiding. Morality must have a definitive answer for “what should I do?” But if many things have value, there might not always be a definitive moral answer to that question, so value monism must be true. I resist this argument because (1) I don’t think that morality must always have an answer to the “what should I do?” question; there are genuine moral dilemmas, and (2) even if many things have value, there may still be a way to weigh them against each other.

A third argument for value monism comes from those who, like me, think that moral value can only arise from things that are valued by valuing beings. Such people reject intrinsic value, and insist that something has value only if some being values it. For example, here is Richard Carrier:

On close analysis, I believe there is only one core value: in agreement with Aristotle and Richard Taylor, I find this to be a desire for happiness. I believe that all other values are derived from this, in conjunction with other facts of the universe, and that all normative values are what they are because they must be held and acted upon in order for any human being to have the best chance of achieving a genuine, enduring happiness.

The claim is that the only thing that is valued is happiness, and all other things are valued instrumentally: they are valued because they contribute to happiness.

I think that claim is false.

That claim misunderstands how valuing happens, at least in humans.

Things have value to us when we desire them. A cup of coffee has value when I desire it. Sunshine has value when I desire it. Sex has value because you desire it. Spinach has value to some people because they desire it.

A desire is what philosophers call a “propositional attitude.” It is an attitude toward a proposition. In particular, a desire is an attitude that a proposition be made or kept true. When I desire that my mother be happy, my desire is an attitude that the proposition “Luke’s mother is happy” be made or kept true.

Here, the (happiness) value monist wants to claim that the only proposition to which my desire can be attached is the proposition “Luke is happy.” But this is false. I can desire that pretty much any proposition be made or kept true. I can have an attitude that “The sun exists” be made or kept true. I can have an attitude that “I am running through flowers” be made or kept true. I can even have an attitude that “My future child is compassionate” be made or kept true.

These are two different theories about value. For convenience, let’s call the value monist’s theory “Happiness Theory.”

Alonzo Fyfe the difference between the two in this way:

Assume that you and somebody you care about (e.g., your child) are kidnapped by a mad scientist. This scientist gives you two options:

Option 1: Your child will be taken away and tortured. However, you will be made to believe that your child is living a happy and healthy life. You will receive regular reports and even correspondence explaining how great your child’s life is. Except, they will all be fake. In fact, we will take your child to another location and spend every day peeling off his skin while soaking him in a vat of salt water, among other things.

Option 2: Your child will be taken away, provided with paid medical insurance, an endowment to complete an education, will be hired into a good job, and will be caused to live a healthy and happy life. However, you will be made to believe that your child is suffering excruciating torture. You will be able to hear what you think are your child’s screams coming down the hallway. We will show you video of the torture. It will all be fake, of course, but you will be convinced it is real.

Of course, after you make your choice, we will make you forget that you even had these options presented to you.

What do you choose?

Now, we are not going to kidnap people and make them choose. However, both theories need to explain the fact that the vast majority of parents, for example, report that, in such a situation, they would choose Option 2.

Happiness theory seems to suggest that the agent should choose Option 1. After all, the agent will be happier receiving news (that she believes) that says that her child is living a happy and healthy life. So, if happiness is what she is after, and Option1 delivers more happiness, then Option 1 is the rational choice.

Why do people choose Option 2?

Because happiness theory is wrong. In fact, people do not choose happiness. They choose “making or keeping true the propositions that are the objects of our desires.” In this case, the desire in question is the desire that one’s child be healthy and happy. A person with a desire that “my child is healthy and happy” will select that option that will make or keep the proposition, “my child is healthy and happy” true. That is Option 2.

People do not value just one thing. Nor do they value just a short list of things. Their desires can have a vast array of propositions as their objects. Radical value pluralism, I think, is true.

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