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


  1. Your arguments are worthless carbuncles in the seas of knowledge.
    Away with them!

  2. Whats wrong with my arguments? If you can actually think for yourself, instead of being one among the dozens of anonymous posters who love to abuse me, show me where my argument goes wrong.

  3. Dozens? Try 2. You have to be a more interesting writer before peope read you. Only great minds can write tedious stuff and still have people plough through them. Essay writing 101.

  4. Murali, you give in too easily! Anonymous (May 1) never justified his/her initial comment, and the remark about interesting writing, great minds, and tedious stuff is just plain ignorant. I "plough through" "tedious stuff" all the time, but nothing's more tedious than flat-footed critics who can't back up their criticisms. It's a mistake to give them any concessions!

  5. Thanks for the support Meta. I just get too many people who say that I dont write so that I am understandable, or that I sound too academic and irrelevant. Thanks for the support and continue commentin