In his post In Defense of Radical Value Pluralism, Luke Muehlhauser attempts to falsify value monism. Before addressing his claims, I’d like to comment on a few lesser issues and get them out of the way. On value, Luke writes,
A cup of coffee has value when I desire it. Sunshine has value when I desire it. Sex has value because you desire it.
Come from someone who emphatically denies intrinsic value, I think imprecision with language invites confusion here. Luke’s language lends all too easily to the idea that coffee, sunshine and sex can “have” or possess value, as if value is some sort of object that can be possessed. He writes as if value were a noun, but the only way value can be a noun is if it’s a person, place or thing. Many will see this as trivial, semantic, or nitpicking, perhaps because they feel the language is accurate enough to get the point across. I agree the language is accurate enough to get the point across, but that’s too low of a standard for rigorous philosophy. I think using value as a verb would allow Luke to make his arguments with more clarity and less amenability to confusion. Nothing has value, ever: people value.
Luke defines a desire thus:
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.
I’m not so sure we can affirm that last sentence because people can have desires that are not propositions they wish to be made or kept true. Consider the fantasies of your average married man. He certainly desires the beautiful women that are not his wife, but – if he is prudent – his attitude is not one that the proposition be made or kept true.
Nonetheless, these are tangential concerns, and now that I’ve gotten them out of the way, I can focus on the post itself.
Exploring various arguments against value monism, Luke continues,
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.
What does Luke expect? Do scientists have a “morality tester” that can identify the “one true morality” outside of human intuition? It would seem that was only possible if the type of intrinsic value that Luke denies actually did exist. As opposed to, say, the behavior of non-conscious objects bound by the laws of physics, isn’t morality inextricably intertwined to human intuitions? Don’t our feelings guide our desires? I wonder what type of evidence Luke or anyone else making his claim might be persuaded by.
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.
The reason I resist that argument is because the fact that people value many things doesn’t preclude definitive moral answers to any or all “what should I do” type questions. As Luke says, there might still be a way to weigh things. However, here’s something to consider in response to (1). If we are to say that a true science of morality is possible, then, shouldn’t there be – at least in theory – an answer to every “what should I do” question? Given an authentic science of morality, why should it be the case that some “what should I do” questions might not be answerable?
Criticizing Richard Carrier’s value monist theory, Luke continues,
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… 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.
Although I understand the spirit of the objection, I disagree with Luke that Carrier misunderstands how valuing happens, and I would actually like to hear Carrier respond. I also disagree with Luke that Carrier’s claim is false. In fact, Luke’s “objection” to Carrier seems to affirm value monism if you ask me: Why would Luke desire to run through flowers, unless of course running through flowers was instrumental in making him or somebody else happy? Why would Luke desire to have a compassionate child, unless of course it was instrumental in contributing to his child’s happiness, or the happiness of other sentient creatures? Luke seems to affirm Carrier’s value monism.
To falsify Carrier’s claim, Luke would need to identify an instance of an act that was not preceded by either the agent’s desire to be happy, or the agent’s desire for someone else to be happy. Can you think of such an act? Consider the enactment of a law that prohibits crossing the street on a red light. One might be tempted to think such a law is motivated by the desire for safety, then argue that safety and happiness are two different things. Well, technically, they are two different things, but why would a legislative body desire that citizens be as safe as possible? Is it not because the absence of calamity is conducive to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
Consider Sam Harris’ claim that morality ought to be concerned with the well-being of sentient creatures, which Luke criticized here. I agree that we can identify instances where people deliberately act in ways that do not directly maximize their own well-being. However, when they do so, I feel safe to say it’s always in sacrifice to the well-being of others. It would certainly increase my well-being to be a successful criminal, but I sacrifice that to the well-being of others. Can you think of an intentional act that does not aim to increase either the well-being of the agent, the well-being of other sentient creatures, or both?
We can only split a hair so thin. Whenever I hear people like Luke and Alonzo Fyfe emphatically declare that other theories of morality are false, I can’t help but to chuckle. I think they ought to hoist themselves by their own petards and take a closer look at desirism.