Saturday, April 11, 2009

Consequentialism (2): On Value

To recap: Among the most fundamental problems with consequentialism are the basic issues it has with value. 

Consequentialism basically identifies some things as inherently valuable, and says that we ought to promote them. (maximise value etc). In this post, I will try to flesh out exactly how value is tied to consequentialist ethical theories.

A question we should be asking is: what type of value is this? Lets say that X has intrinsic value. (X can be anything we want) What makes it the case that X is something that should be promoted for everybody?

One way we could answer this is to say that what it means for something to be valuable is that we ought to promote it. If this is true by definition, then it would follow from identifying X as valuable that we ought to promote X. However, we should be reluctant to make such a move for two reasons. Firstly, if valuable is defined as ought to be pursued, then what are the independent criteria for judging whether X is valuable or not? This does not really bring us any closer to the answer to the question.

Another reason to avoid making the move is that this is not really what people seem to be talking about when they talk about value. i.e. the definition seems to be false. It is not a conceptual truth that value is about global maximisation. Or at least, it doesn't seem to be. A more common notion of value has to do with the pursuit of value. In order to not make mistakes, lets be more specific and talk about happiness. Happiness is not just one of the things that I want, it is actually one of the directions in which my welfare can be measured. Since I am naturally attracted to and desire my own welfare, it seems rational that I should pursue my own welfare.

So far so good. I've got some working definition of value, but I seem to have tied it to egoism! Something I didnt wish to do. What consequentialists have to do is tofind a way to tie this notion of value to its promotion. One way that this is commonly argued is that if happiness is intrinsically valuable, then it must be pursued universally. One objection to this is that it does not seem obvious that hapiness is value simpliciter. It seems more intuitive that my happiness is valuable to me, my loved one's happiness is valuable to me, but a stranger's happiness? very little or not at all. This, in itself does not constitute a proper objection. However, we can see that there are yet further conditions to apply. If value is subjective (agent relative), then we cannot obtain consequentialist ethical theories out of it. Hence, it seems that we need values to be objective.

The notion of objective value is controversial. Here is a thought experiment that may clarify things. Imagine that after an apocolypse, there are only 2 living things left in the world: You and a very old, Giant Sequoya Red-wood tree. While you are alive, we assume that you value the tree and would not cut it down. However, we are trying to test the intuition about whether the tree is objectively valuable. Let's also suppose that you are dying and that you have a button. If you press the button, the tree will explode after you die. Do you press the button? or would one be indifferent to the outcome

If you still refuse to press the button, it seems reasonable to extend this concept to things like happiness.  There are also other factors that encourage making the move towards objective value. These include a universalisability requirement. Objective value is universalisable while subjective value is not. Objective value is categorical while subjective value is hypothetical etc.

Having made it this far, we can see that consequentialist ethics would require some notion of objective value, which I hope that I have fleshed out appropriately. Now that we have seen how such a value would work, the question to ask is whether we can actually tie anything to this notion. i.e. What makes it the case that anything has the type of value that I desribed in the above post?

In my previous post, I stated that I would explore the three criticisms in this post. However since it seems that my post is already so long, I will continue this dicussion in subsequent posts. Coming up next.... Consequentialism (3): More On Value

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Consequentialism (1)

Back to the usual program. I'll try to explain and define my terms so that it is as accessible as possible. Of course, I may do a piss poor job of it, or may sound condescending, so apologies in advance.

The word 'consequentialist', is not likely to be familiar to most laymen, but I think the word 'utilitarian' is. Now, when people talk about utilitarian ethics, they are saying that the right action is one that results in the greatest good for the greatest number of poeple. Strictly speaking, utilitarianism is hedonistic. When it talks about good, it talks about pleasure only. i.e. physical pleasure, intelectual pleasure, other types of pleasure etc. So, to clear a few things up, utilitarianism is a subtype of consequentialism. So, when we talk about consequentialism, we talk more broadly. The good is not just pleasure, it can be other things like life, freedom, or anything else that contains intrinsic value. We could even have multiple things which simultaneously have intrinsic value.

What do I mean by intrinsic value? Intrinsic value can be opposed to instrumental value. Instrumental value refers to things we value only because they lead to other valuable things. Intrinsic value refers to things we value in themselves. So, some things have only intrinsic value, some have only instrumental value, and some can have a mixture of both instrmumental and intrinsic value.

So, how would consequentialism work? Lets say that there is a moral dilemma between two courses of action A and B. We look at the consequences of each action. Some of the consequences will have intrinsic value, some instrumental. We translate this instrumental value in terms of the intrinsic value it provides. So, then we see which set of consequences provides more intrinsic value. The action which results in the most value is the right action. In short, consequentialism basically says that the ends justify the means. 

There are some variations. Which is more important, actual value, expected value, average value, total value? While that would actually be an interesting discussion, I dont plan to have it here (unless enough people request to have it) There is also a variant called rule consequentialism where the right action is one the follows a rule which will produce the best consequences on average. 

There is also indirect consequentialism. Indirect consequentialsim divides the theory into two parts. One is the right-maker, the other is the decision procedure. Indirect consequentialism still says that what makes an action right is that it provides the best consequences. However, since directly calculating the consequences all the time probably makes one make poor decisions since we spend more time calculating and less time doing, it is better to use a reliable decision procedure which is more likely to tell you what the right action is. e.g. some rules of thumb etc.

Hence, it is not the case that consequentialists would necessarily go around violating rights willy nilly. So what exactly do I find wrong with consequentialism? The judgement of actions as right or wrong still depends on what the consequences were. But even though this violates some of our moral intuitions, I won't harp on this particularly. Consequentialists will say that this is not a bug, but a feature and arguing this point often just breaks down into admitting that we have different intuitions about morality. However, there are a number of criticisms of consequentialism that I can offer.

1. Consequentialists need a meta-ethical theory of value. What connects the fact that something is valuable to the fact that it is an appropriate thing to be pursued (in the context of a moral theory)?

2. Heirarchy of values. Given that more than one type of thing are intrinsically valuable, which is the most important, and how do you justify making that standard universal?

3. There are some horrific things that consequentialists may have to accept if they are to be consistent. E.g. Survival lottery etc.

More criticisms may follow in Consequentialism (2). I will also expand on the three that I offered

Evolution and Free Will

So far, I've talked in vague generalities about politics and morality. I dont plan to stop, but I have found this article by D.A. Ridgely on another of my interests. I will reproduce the article here.

“It is time, I think,” said the arrow to itself at the exact zenith of its flight, “to start my descent.”

D.A. Ridgely on Apr 7th 2009

There is a problem with the phrase “natural selection” and it is the word “selection.” It is the sort of problem that more often than not arises when scientific theory adopts or co-opts words already present in our natural language and, in doing so, unintentionally introduce all the richer senses and uses of the word that existed beforehand. In true Humpty Dumpty fashion we believe we can be the masters of the word against the world. Perhaps in the carefully circumscribed circles of academic usage in general or scientific usage in particular, we can. But often we seem to struggle even there and when it comes to explaining to the general public what a scientific or philosophical theory does and does not mean or entail, the prospects for success are even more abysmal.

Selection, after all, is a concept implying intention: a deliberate choosing from among alternatives as when one picks an entrĂ©e from a menu. To be sure, intentional language does not require that we commit in our more philosophical moments to the existence of free will, but it sure as hell makes it hard to deny it. (If you don’t believe in the existence of even limited free will, does it bother you at all that you reached that conclusion involuntarily?)

My point here, however, isn’t to argue about free will and determinism but to point out the sort of having our cake and eating it too that one so often reads in the popular press. Brian Boyd, a professor of English at the University of Auckland, hopes to appease Darwin’s critics but gets off to the following bad start:

Evolutionary thinking has lately expanded from the biological to the human world, first into the social sciences and recently into the humanities and the arts. Many people therefore now understand the human, and even human culture, as inextricably biological. But many others in the humanities—in this, at least, like religious believers who reject evolution outright—feel that a Darwinian view of life and a biological view of humanity can only deny human purpose and meaning.

Does anyone seriously deny that human beings and all that they do, at least in this world, are at least in part inextricably biological? Isn’t the question whether the human condition, arts and humanities and religious belief included, can be understood exclusively in biological terms? Are there still, for example, any Absolute Idealists lurking about? I haven’t run into any, and I frequent some pretty obscure philosophical circles from time to time.

Anyway, Boyd proceeds by distinguishing between Darwinian explanations for the emergence of creatures such as you and me over millions of years and William Paley’s classic watchmaker analogy in support of his teleological argument for God as the Grand Watchmaker. So far, so good. In fact, Boyd does a fairly good job of explaining how the inference of a watchmaker from the existence of a watch does not carry to the existence of a Creator from the existence of the universe in all its physical, chemical and biological complexity. But then things go a bit sour. He writes:

Life could become established only when matter organized itself in a way complex enough to sustain and reliably reproduce itself. Maintaining such a highly improbable and functional arrangement of matter became life’s first purpose.

No. Matter doesn’t arrange itself. There is no trial and error involved in elements bonding with other elements as though they thought it might be useful to share electrons. Complex molecules don’t purposefully sustain and reproduce themselves. Selfish genes aren’t really selfish, they just act as they do because they are what they just happen to be and we anthropomorphize their unintentional ‘behavior’ as though they were behaving intentionally. Nature doesn’t select; variations happen, most of which would be deemed abysmal failures if they were, in fact, intentional. But they are not. Oxygen using organisms evolve in oxygen atmospheres, if they do evolve at all (and at least here they did) because breathing oxygen works in the strict sense that they survive where alternatives wouldn’t survive. But survival of the fittest is just a way of saying that things that do in fact work work better than things that don’t in fact work. Not even survival, in this sense, is purposeful unless you want to say that organic survival and reproduction are per se purposeful, and where is the evidence for that?

Assuming for the sake of argument that human beings can and do act purposefully, it is certainly true that they could not have done so in any meaningful or interesting sense until fairly late in the evolutionary process of our species. The cognitive capacity to weigh alternatives purposefully and act accordingly (again assuming that humans aren’t deluded in believing they possess such a capability) certainly doesn’t exist among the most primitive of life forms and may not exist in any other life form on earth, at least as some of us understand or believe it to exist for humans.

But none of that evolutionary process occurs by virtue of motives, reasons, purposes, etc. Boyd repeatedly falls back on such intentional language, however, as in “Purposes evolve, and Darwinian processes extend them.” I have no idea what that could possibly mean such that it would come anywhere close to satisfying the concerns of those who claim, correctly, that Darwinism does not require the existence of free will to explain human behavior insofar as it is capable so far of doing so. Indeed, at least most of the Darwinists I know believe that any lingering lacunae in their account of the human condition will eventually be fleshed out, as it were, without any such need.

And they may well be right. On the other hand, explaining, for example, how human beings could behave exactly as they do in fact behave without invoking the metaphysically perplexing existence of consciousness wouldn’t suffice as proof that consciousness doesn’t exist. Neither does showing the fatal flaws in the teleological argument for the existence of God equal proof of God’s nonexistence. Occam’s Razor is an aesthetic preference for elegance, desirable but neither necessary nor conclusive. Plato is as entitled to his beard as, well, as Darwin is.

I wouldn't add anything else

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Lim Din Ghy (see I mentioned you) mentioned that I was not controversial enough. I reread my posts, and I may agreew ith him. I so far hav not said anything that most people would object to. I think that may be because I am taking baby steps. I am saying very uncontroversial things and trying to see where those things will lead to. To be explicit, I believe in a liberal society. A liberal society is not just about western values (for those who are concerned about foreign ideas and such), a liberal society is compatible with eastern values too (e.g. confucian values etc). I want a liberal society because I am a deontologist. I believe that we have rights. And those rights imply various duties. I believe that consequentialism is not the correct moral theory. I do this for a variety of reasons which I will make clearer. I will eventually move on to rights. A lot of people have incorrect views on what rights are. These include Chee Soon Juan, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and many others. From the way they talk, they seem to think that rights appear out of nowhere. But, rights are based on agreement. And different people want different things and will agree to different things. It is not unreasonable to expect that the content of rights may vary from society to society. There is no set of rights, the content of which is exactly the same across all societies. (or is there?) This is just the tip of the ice-berg. I hope readers continue to read the posts. I hope more of you guys will comment. And more often too. I would also appreciate feedback on whether I am going too fast etc. If people cannot follow, what's the point right?

PS: Ah Lin, is this controversial enough?