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W.V.O Quine: On What There Is (Summary) (Part 4)

March 5th, 2008 Comments off

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Critique

One potential shortcoming in Quine’s argument lies in his approach to singular terms- their elimination and replacement by quantifiers- as an application of Occam’s razor. As was explained, if singular terms can be done away with, then their supposed implications about existence vanish. Hence, by using a singular term, one need not acknowledge the existence of the entity described by the term in order to be speaking meaningfully. Yet, if quantifiers could be done away with in the same manner, would they not be also subject to ontological elimination? One such possible elimination arises from combinatory logic, which was initially intended as a means of clarifying the role of quantifiers in logic by their elimination, much as quantifiers were intended to clarify existential statements by a similar process. In her book Philosophy of Logics, Susan Haack notes, “Quine concedes that his criterion doesn’t apply directly to combinatory logic, but observes that it can be applied indirectly, via the translation of combinatory into quantified formula. ”[9] This may only be an evasion of the demand that the elimination of quantifiers places on their ontological status (via Occam’s razor). Even without delving into deeper discussion, it is a possibility worth mentioning, as it questions the validity of one of Quine’s necessary steps in reasoning.

Assuming that this problem with Quine’s methodology is somehow irrelevant to his general reasoning or can be answered appropriately, Quine’s dismission of the necessity of universals, as part of a common trend in dismissing the imaginary problems of Plato’s beard, is quite effective. Indeed, something appears highly flawed about the presupposition that denying the existence of an entity somehow presupposes that entity in the same sense that affirming that entity’s existence does. Quine accurately assesses logical possibilities (though not in those exact words) as meaningful, but does not make the error of “stealing” the concept of existence by making it a predicate.

For the non-Quinean, how much can Quine’s reasoning be used to make a more decisive case against the realist position on universals? On an absolute basis, Quine seems hesitant to commit himself ontologically,[10] and does not rule out the possibility of an ontology containing universals; he merely rules out the possibility of a poorly-reasoned ontology containing universals. To utilize Quine’s argument from an objectivist standpoint, there is not much that can be meaningfully done in the discussion of universals besides Occamite elimination, as is true with any other unnecessary multiplication of entities. In communication and in action, often times a person consistently holding the realist view on universals and a person not holding the view are totally indistinguishable, except in their assertions about the nature of universals. Lacking positive proof of a position or falsification of its negatory position, an appeal to Occam’s razor is the only logical argument left to pursue.


[1] P. 135

[2] Here, Quine briefly introduces a subtler-minded pseudonymous philosopher- Wyman- who advances the argument that Pegasus is simply an unactualized possible. Hence, when it is said that “Pegasus is not,” what is really meant is that Pegasus does not possess the property of actuality; in other words, it is an entity that is already understood to be. Wyman’s definition of the word “existence” entails that “Pegasus” has spatio-temporal connotations if “Pegasus exists,” but that “exists” does not (it merely refers to actualization). Quine then moves on to discuss some problems with unactualized possibles. This discussion is not directly necessary for his discussion of universals, except in as much as unactualized possibles can be looked at as entities in a similar manner to universals.

[3] What Quine means by “ambiguity” in this instance is that the quantifiers are subject non-specific on their own and only necessitate the satisfaction of arbitrarily-stated conditions in a proposition, not that they are poorly defined in usage.

[4] P. 137

[5] P. 138

[6] P. 139

[7] Ibid.

[8] Quine uses “significant” as interchangeable with “meaningful. ”

[9] Haack, Susan. Philosophy of Logics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

[10] At the very least, his hesitation is reflected in this article.

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W.V.O Quine: On What There Is (Summary)

March 5th, 2008 Comments off

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On What There Is: Quine’s Theory of Ontology and Position on Universals

A universal describes a member of a class of mind-independent entities in reality that is not a particular thing, but an attribute, relation, etc. The realist position on universals posits that individuals share attributes with other individuals and that this commonality is manifested by the existence of universals. However, several philosophers have objected to this position, on the basis of objections because of the metaphysical strangeness or lack of necessity of universals, among others. In “On What There Is,” W. V. Quine addresses some of the logical and grammatical issues of ontology, and then relates them to the dispute over universals. Quine applies Russell’s theory of descriptions to form ontological propositions that entirely avoid referring to universals and invokes Occam’s razor to repudiate them as a result. One potential drawback to Quine’s approach is that he possibly fails to consistently apply Occam’s razor- as he applied it to the problematic singular descriptors- to the quantifiers (the “bound variables”) with which he replaces singular terms. Beyond that issue, however, Quine makes a convincing case against realist position on universals.

Before exploring universals, Quine discusses a series of preliminary concerns important for establishing his argument. He begins the article by declaring the problem of ontology to be finding the answer to a simple question: “What is there? ” Because of the evident fact that there is disagreement on these issues, the first part of his argument is dedicated to exploring the issues of rival ontologies, manifested in the form of a dispute between him and a pseudonymous philosopher, McX. If McX recognizes certain entities (has a different ontology), but Quine does not, Quine “cannot admit that there is something which McX countenances and I do not,” because it contradicts his initial rejection. Quine refers to this traditional Platonic predicament of non-being as Plato’s beard: “nonbeing must in some sense be,” Quine notes, “otherwise what is it that there is not? ”[1]

One instance of Plato’s beard in action is a disagreement between McX and Quine over the entity “Pegasus. ” McX contests that if Pegasus somehow were not, then the use of the word Pegasus could not possibly be talking about anything- but its usage does talk about something, rendering that position incoherent, resulting in the conclusion that Pegasus is. Because McX clearly does not believe that space and time contain “a flying horse of flesh and blood,” he must provide details about what Pegasus is if it is not that. Quine rules out the possibility that it is just an idea in the mind, pointing out that it is not what “Pegasus” is referring to when people deny it. [2]

Distinguishing Naming and Meaning, via Russell’s Theory of Descriptions

An essential point of contention between Quine and McX reduces to what Quine describes as a gap between naming and meaning, and whether an utterance can be significant or not if does not purport to name some entity existing in reality. In the case of Pegasus, McX argued that if Pegasus were not, then the word would convey nothing (in other words, it would be insignificant). Quine invokes Bertrand Russell’s theory of descriptions to resolve this issue, disentangling the ambiguities and fallacies caused by McX’s poor language use. In particular, the theory of descriptions functions as a means of rephrasing the articles “the,” “a,” etc. to create propositions with better-defined referents. For example, the propositions “the current Czar of Russia is cute,” can be true or false, but in both cases could imply that there is either a Czar of Russia who is cute or a Czar of Russia who is not cute. However, it could be the case- as it is- that there is no current Czar of Russia. Russell’s theory of descriptions would rephrase the original statement as “There exists someone who is Czar of Russia who is cute,” thus making clearer the propositional nature of the existence of the Czar, in addition to his cuteness.

Quine utilizes Russell’s famous “The author of Waverly was a poet” example in order to illustrate the lack of ontological commitment entailed by singular descriptors, by showing that the descriptor can be contextually rephrased into another statement with a truth value. McX falsely assumes that there must be some objective reference in the statement, “the author of Waverly was a poet,” for the statement to be meaningful.

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W.V.O Quine: On What There Is (Summary) (Part 2)

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Under Russell’s translation, however, the statement is changed to “Something wrote Waverly and was a poet and nothing else wrote Waverly,” thus shifting the burden of objective reference from the descriptive phrase to what is referred to by logicians as a “bound variable” (“something”). Bound variables- words such as “something,” “nothing,” and “everything”- are not names of specific entities, but refer to entities generally with a meaningful ambiguity. [3] The significance of the quantifiers does not require the presupposition of any preassigned objects. To be, according to Quine, is “to be the value of a bound variable” (emphasis added). With quantifiers in mind, Quine asserts that the notion of statements of nonbeing defeating themselves “goes by the board. ”[4]

To reinforce his point, Quine anticipates and alleviates a potential problem with converting names to descriptors. In the “Pegasus” example, the word- a supposed name- cannot be processed immediately by Russell’s theory, and it must be rephrased to apply (e. g. “Pegasus was” becomes, perhaps, “Something was a winged horse that was captured by Bellerophon, and nothing else was that”). To make alleged names subordinate to Russell’s analysis, the word must first be translated into a description. Even if there is no evident definition or descriptive translation, an irreducible attribute of being Pegasus can be applied, granting the use of predicates “is-Pegasus” or “pegasizes,” resulting in the possible descriptor “the thing that is-Pegasus/pegasizes. ” In summary, all (alleged) names can be converted to descriptions, and by Russell’s theory of descriptions, those descriptions can be eliminated. Quine thus concludes,

We need no longer labor under the delusion that the meaningfulness of a statement containing a singular term presupposes an entity named by the term. A singular term need not name to be significant. [5]

The Debate over Universals

At this juncture, Quine recognizes the need to address universals because of the introduction of predicates like “pegasizes,” having now dealt with the issue of rejecting the presupposition that Pegasus must in some sense be if it is said not to be. McX begins his argument for universals by citing the pre-philosophical common sense of recognizing that there are red houses, red sunsets, red roses, etc. The houses, roses, and sunsets have something in common, and that this commonality is all McX is referring to when he speaks of an attribute. That there are attributes is as “obvious and trivial”[6] as the fact that there are red houses, red sunsets, and red roses; no less does Quine expect from McX’s or anyone else’s ontology, which is basic to one’s conceptual scheme. Under McX’s conceptual scheme, the statement “there is an attribute ‘redness’” must follow from “there are red houses, red sunsets, etc. ”[7]

Under a conceptual scheme different to McX’s, argues Quine, it is possible to admit the existence of red houses, roses, and sunsets while simultaneously denying that they have anything in common. “Redness” can be true of each of them individually, but there is no requirement that there must be some entity called “redness”; it could be that the houses, roses, and sunsets are all red irreducibly. Thus, there is no comparative gain in the explanatory power of McX’s theory provided by all entities given under the name “redness. ” Incidentally, Quine notes that a potential argument for McX’s ontology was pre-empted by the earlier discussion of the difference between names and descriptions, and how the latter can be significant without becoming the former. Because of this, McX is unable to argue that in order for predicates like “red” or “is-red” to be meaningful, they must be names with the objective reference of a single universal entity.

In response, McX grants the distinction between naming and meaning, and cedes that “is red” and “pegasizes” are not names of attributes. With that, he counters that “meanings” are still universals, perhaps even things similar to the attributes he posits, whether named or not. Quine acknowledges this objection, explaining that he can only satisfy it by refusing to ontologically admit meanings, but he also explains his lack of hesitation in doing so: refusing meanings does not entail the absence of meaningfulness of words and statements. This is evidenced by the fact that McX and Quine can agree perfectly upon classification of linguistic forms as the meaningless and the meaningful, though McX’s criteria for meaningfulness includes the “having” (in one sense) of an abstract entity he labels a “meaning.

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W.V.O Quine: On What There Is (Summary) (Part 3)

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Quine’s criteria are different; his basis for claiming the significance[8] of a linguistic utterance either derives from treating it as an ultimate and irreducible matter of fact, or from analyzing people’s ordinary reactions to the utterance in question and similar utterances. He reduces the useful ways that people commonly speak of meanings to two: the having of meanings (significance) and the sameness of meanings (synonymy). One’s “giving” the meaning of an  utterance is his utterance of a synonym in a more ordinary and clearer language than the original. If such an interpretation of meaning is unsatisfactory, then one can simply speak of an utterance as significant or insignificant, and in relationship to other utterances (in synonymy or heteronomy). Though Quine recognizes the difficulty and importance of handling this approach properly, he once more refers to the lack of any increase in explanatory power resulting from adopting McX’s ontology- in this case, the adoption of special and irreducible intermediary entities called “meanings. ”

In light of the preceding arguments, McX is led to question whether any statements are possible that lead one to be committed to universals or other entities Quine finds unwelcome. Once again, Quine cites Russell’s theory of descriptions in tandem with quantifiers, explaining that the entities can be stated as bound variables, so long as it is said that “there is something [a bound variable] which red houses and red sunsets have in common. ” As explained earlier, the only way to make ontological commitments is to use bound variables. If “to be is to be the value of a bound variable,” whatever is said by names can be spoken of without names; names can be converted to descriptions, and then eliminated by Russell’s theory of descriptions; the purported namehood of an utterance can be repudiated if no respective entity is affirmed by the proper use of bound variables. Variables of quantification have a range of reference over the whole of an ontology (regardless of the particular ontology), and an ontological presupposition is convincing if and only if it must be considered among entities in this range of reference in order to establish the truth of an affirmation.

Therefore, the utterance “some dogs are white” does not commit the speaker to recognizing doghood or whiteness as entities. Rephrased, it states, “some things that are dogs are white,” which only creates the requirement that the quantifier “something” has a range of reference that includes white dogs, but need not include whiteness or doghood. However, it is also recognized that the statement “some zoological species are cross fertile” entails a commitment to the abstract entities “zoological species” unless the subject of the statement is reducible to another entity. Generally, a commitment to any reference persists until some means of paraphrasing a statement can be devised to change (or properly delineate) its bound variable’s reference.

Choosing an Ontology

Bound variables alone do not commit one to any single ontology, but only describes the process by which one becomes committed to an ontology. One means of adjudicating among ontologies, relative to a particular theory, is by finding an ontology whose entities are required to be within the range of reference of the bound variables of the theory in order to render the affirmations of the theory true. Modern disagreement over the foundations of mathematics is divided almost exactly on the issue of which entities lie in bound variables’ permissible range of reference.

Quine suggests that Occam’s razor be fully applied as an adjudicator among ontologies and that any ontology should be accepted in the same way that scientific theories are accepted: one must seek the simplest theory that accounts for all of the evidence. In the case of ontology, one must seek the simplest conceptual scheme that can be created to account for all the elements of raw experience. Quine’s argument, by his implicit admission, refutes the realist position on universals only as much as he asserts that a physicalist ontology containing universals is a useful “myth,” specifically in the fields of the physical sciences and more so in mathematics; put differently, he refutes it only by undermining its necessity by emphasizing the marked difference between naming and meaning, untangling Plato’s beard in the process. In the end, he states that the question of which ontology to adopt remains unanswered, with only “tolerance and an experimental spirit” as advice and judgment to be reserved for each myth based on its quality relative to a particular point of view.

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Beliefs, Values, and Consistency (Part I): What are contradictions, and WHERE are they?

December 19th, 2007 No comments

It is not uncommon to hear in a discussion the accusation “you’re contradicting yourself.” But what is the role of contradictions in human thought? It is certainly a meaningful statement as evidenced by its use, but what does that actually mean? Using a particular set of grammatical rules and language guidelines (i.e. strict word definitions), it is certainly possible to write down two contradictory things. One popular, almost hack-neyed example often used in philosophy is the classic “round square.” We can certainly write it, though it is a contradiction “on paper.” In other words, with the definitions of “round” and “square” as we know them, no such thing exists or could ever exist. One valid test is whether you can think of – or more precisely, conceive of – the purported object. Can you think of a “round square”? Some people might think they have come up with a solution, but I can assure you that it’s impossible, though my assurances aren’t worth jack (which is why I will discuss it in better detail later on). More generally, the question to ask is, “can someone ever think a contradiction?”

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J.L. Mackie: The Subjectivity of Values

December 11th, 2007 Comments off

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The following is a summary and critique of J. L. Mackie’s “The Subjectivity of Values,” an absolute MUST-READ for anyone interested in ethics. As the professor who graded the original version of this adequately pointed out, I addressed the Mackie’s relativity argument but not so much the queerness argument.

In “The Subjectivity of Values,” a chapter in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, J. L. Mackie develops his theory of “moral scepticism. ” In the first sentence, he states his thesis plainly: “there are no objective values. ” He goes on to fully define his position, by clarifying the sense in which he means it: that there do not exist in the world any such values. Though Mackie’s moral scepticism is a strong explanation for the failure of theories which posit values that are intrinsic features of the universe, such theories do not account for all theories which hold objective values; in short, not all objective theories are of the kind that Mackie describes and critiques. –more–>Initial Discussion

Mackie spends the first portion of the chapter emphasizing a critical set of distinctions to understand his argument: namely, that his theory is not a first-order (normative) form of subjectivism or scepticism, but a second-order (metaethically descriptive) one. For example, his position is not one of a moral skeptic who would argue that we ought to reject all conventional moral judgments (and thus make a positive, first-order statement about morality). Likewise, he is sure to distinguish between other second-order theses and his own. Subjectivist theories such as emotivism attempt to provide an explanation for what constitutes moral speech. An emotivist would argue that all moral speech is merely an instance of the speaker expressing his own attitude toward the subject (“stealing is wrong” means “boo for stealing! ”) In contrast, Mackie is simply describing the nature of normative statements and their respective ontological projections (or lack thereof). “Moral scepticism” is concerned with saying what does not exist, as opposed to what does; it is a negative, as opposed to a positive, doctrine.

Mackie does hold that there are clear factual descriptions of acts which we commonly ascribe to moral actions: “the present issue is with regard to the objectivity specifically of value, not with regard to the objectivity of those natural, factual differences on the basis of which differing values are assigned. ” In other words, kindness and cruelty can be described in totally non-normative terms; they simply are different classes of behavior to which moral values are commonly attached. However, value statements like “killing is wrong” are not propositional (true or false) like “three plus seven is ten” or “the earth is flat. ” The only exception is when there is an agreed upon standard of value (in a sense, an implicit transformation of a hypothetical imperative) for the subject of such a statement. For example, if it were agreed that a good ethics class is one which has a lecture on subjectivism and Hauptli’s ethics class did not have one, then the statement “Hauptli’s ethics class is good” has a truth-value (false). Morality can thus be derived from standards of evaluation, but Mackie argues that appealing to a standard of evaluation simply shifts the question posed by his scepticism to the standard.

The Arguments from Relativity and Queerness

After his introductory discussion, Mackie’s theory branches into two primary sections: the argument from relativity, and the argument from queerness. The argument from relativity begins from a point about the obvious historical variations in the content of moral beliefs across groups, classes, and societies. Of course, the presence of disagreement does not disprove the existence of objective value, just as disagreement does not disprove objective scientific facts.

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J.L. Mackie: The Subjectivity of Values (Part 2)

December 11th, 2007 Comments off

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However, scientific disagreement relies on differences in speculative inferences and explanatory hypotheses based on gathered evidence, to which moral disagreement does not have any claim. On the contrary, moral dissimilarity is more indicative of adherence to different ways of living. The causal connection is reversed: people approve of monogamy because they live monogamously, not the other way around. “Universalizable” or other general, basic principles not only come about because of widespread implicit acceptance, but individually because of the strength of one’s response to it, despite the fact that others may respond quite differently.

The argument from queerness itself has two parts, one metaphysical, and one epistemological. Its metaphysical claim, in summary, is that objective values would be radically different from anything in our experience; “if there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. ” In turn, the crux of its epistemological claim is that there would be no way to know these queer things without a special, non-empirical means of knowing them (intuition). The central idea of intuitionism, which is that there is some specific and unique interface with which humans come to realize objective moral values, is thus the logical reduction of all theories of objective values. At some point in these theories, some essential concept or inference will only be known via intuition, thus committing any consistent objectivist theory to a “lame answer” to this problem.

Mackie cites Plato’s Theory of Forms as an extreme example of what an objective moral theory entails. Either objective goods have “to-be-pursuedness” built into them, or situations must somehow have a demand for a specific kind of action. Because of this queerness, Mackie questions the connection between an action and a value, and how, if it were to exist, humans could know it. The wrongness of an action must somehow be “consequential” or “supervenient” upon the action; thus, if the natural class of an action is deliberate cruelty, it must be wrong because it is a piece of deliberate cruelty, to which Mackie inquires, “but just what in the world is signified by this ‘because’? ” Whatever it is must be beyond the realm of empirical observation, to which the only intrinsicist response is to find “companions in guilt”: identity, number, the infinite extension of time and space, among other things for which empiricism allegedly can not account. Mackie properly acknowledges that the only valid approach to this objection is by providing empirical accounts of such things, and applying the argument from queerness to those “supposed metaphysical necessities” which cannot be explained.

Critique

It is evident that Mackie’s argument is guilty of a straw-man fallacy, or, at least, of incompleteness. At first glance, it may appear that Plato’s Theory of Forms is used as a straw-depiction of utilitarianism, Kantianism, and other objective moral systems. Indeed, he acknowledges that few philosophers actually believe in the Forms. Nonetheless, as Mackie cites it, Plato’s theory is actually appropriately representative of those systems. He makes two implicit assumptions about objective moral theories: first, that if they are to have objective values, that these values must have an existence in reality as objects or relations have existence; second, that knowledge of such objective values compels the agent to comply. Seeing that, the actual shortcoming of Mackie’s argument is much more subtle: he is essentially claiming that all objective moral theories must possess these properties.

As will be seen, that is clearly not the case. While the following discussion can be construed as a debate resolved by clarifying definitions, the misinterpretation of definitions which Mackie does not clarify may lead to misinterpretations of the implications of his argument.

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J.L. Mackie: The Subjectivity of Values (Part 3)

December 11th, 2007 Comments off

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The definition at hand here, of course, is that of “objective value. ” If Mackie presupposes that it comes with a Platonic conception attached (the two implicit assumptions listed above), then his argument is unproblematic, but it fails to account for all “objective” moral theories. For the remainder of the discussion, we can understand “objective moral theories” to mean sets of propositions about morality that are true through time, regardless of whether agents believe that they are true, false, or meaningless. What Mackie has successfully refuted is only a subset of the above, that is, he has only challenged those theories which hold values as features of the inanimate universe.

Though ultimately inadequate, Mackie’s argument from queerness offers some valid insight. It is true that there is no logical necessity linking actions with values of the fantastical kind to which Mackie is actually referring. To better illustrate, take the case of any hypothetical imperative: it begins with a conditional “if,” and then a prescribed course of action to best fulfill that condition. The first part sets the desired factual state of affairs, and the second part describes the physical action required to best achieve it. Thus, when an action takes place, a direct connection can be drawn to the corresponding hypothetical value, which is brought about by the achievement of a standard. Suppose the imperative, “if one wants to get an ‘A’ in ethics, he ought to do his final paper. ” Then, when Chris does his paper, his action can be linked to the fulfillment of the goal of Chris having an ‘A’ appear on his transcript. Both parts of the statement pertain to material cause and effect, which can be observed and predicted scientifically (i. e. rationally). Suppose, on the other hand, the imperative, “Chris ought to do his final paper (because it is good/his duty/etc. )” If it is true, when Chris does his paper, his action achieves a good- not a good to him, or for him, but a good in itself. How does he know which actions best bring about that good in the first place, if this good simply occurs with no tangible effect upon him? This, in light of Mackie’s argument, is a very difficult question to answer. In contrast, so long as an imperative is conditional, the link between an action and a respective value is quite clear.

The next question leads ultimately to the defectiveness of moral scepticism: must a value be unconditional or categorical in order to be objective? The argument from queerness incorporates the assumption about the impossible kind of “entity or object or relation” that an objective value must be. Mackie’s faulty epistemology may be part of the problem. In particular, objectivity does not necessarily imply intrinsicality. A concept, for example, does not represent some intrinsic feature of the universe, but only comes about as the product of a particular process of integration of sensory information. Likewise, values are not an intrinsic part of reality. For value to exist at all there must be a valuator- an agent- to impose a standard on what is otherwise an indifferent universe. Things are good to agents, for the sake of attaining some goal; they are not simply good in themselves. Put differently, reality comes before morality. Prior to all good and evil, there must be a world of things that can become good, evil, or neither. In that regard, value is conditional: it predicates on the existence of agents who have some standard for the material state of affairs.

Our next concern is what makes these conditional values objective.

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J.L. Mackie: The Subjectivity of Values (Part 4)

December 11th, 2007 Comments off

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First, we must ponder the exact notion of value. With no need to assert psychological egoism, we can say that all human action is disposed toward the pursuit of value (subjective or objective), whether it is in seeking worldly pleasures, peace of mind, good conscience, or a healthy soul, and whether these actions are self- or other-oriented. Consider value as a means by which things can be preferred over others; in essence, how an agent values something will affect how he acts in order to attain or keep it. The objectivity of such values arises from the fact that agents, specifically humans, possess a physical nature that generates the material basis for a standard of evaluation, from which “the good” is generated. The presence of the fundamental alternatives of existence or nonexistence (“to be or not to be”) is a necessary precursor of value for humans. [1] Without some fundamental alternative, an agent’s course of action would have no purpose and thus no value, if he would even act at all.

Value, then, is derived from a system of conditional imperatives that reduce to the fundamental alternatives and the respective facts pertaining to them. If one wants to live, he ought to eat; if one wants to eat, he ought to produce food; if one wants to produce food, he ought to learn about agriculture, gathering, or hunting, etc. Because the achievement of prolonged existence or one of its corollaries is the achievement of a material state, there is a consistent and empirically-derived basis for resolving the content of the latter portion of conditional imperatives. In this sense, values are objective; they can not be achieved consistently by arbitrary whim.

Without any further elaboration, Mackie’s argument from relativity will pose a problem for the objectivity of value. One could simply argue that there was never a contention in the first place that the optimal fulfillment of hypothetical imperatives was not a matter of objective fact- that it is only the content of the “if” portions of the imperatives that lend themselves to subjectivity, and this is our concern. The problem with this assertion is that it ignores the essential commonality among human beings. In one way, relativity has merit: if you want to grow food in Italy, grow wheat; if you want to grow food in Ireland, grow potatoes. These are two different “ways” of life, both of which can be correct. However, those statements are merely higher-order expressions of the basic imperative, “if you want to live, eat,” which is one of the many imperatives relating to the agent’s relationship to the fundamental outcomes of existence versus non-existence. In other words, by their being what they are, humans are committed to the conditional imperative “if you are human, and if you want to live, satisfy your physical needs. ”[2] The chief difference between a condition such as “if you desire a grade of ‘A’” and “if you are human” is that the products of the latter have claim to objectivity, because the agent does not choose it, whether as an end or a means to an end; it is only a fact given by nature. The result is the existence of an objective value which is not intrinsic, but is logically dependent on the presence of humankind.

In the end, Mackie’s argument for the subjectivity of values makes a strong case against the existence of intrinsic values. He draws attention to several important inconsistencies and difficulties encountered by the philosophical daydreams of Platonic ideals, intrinsic values, and others of their conceptual family. Nevertheless, his argument is insufficient as proof for the subjectivity of values across different agents of the same kind (humans, as the only relevant case).

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J.L. Mackie: The Subjectivity of Values (Part 5)

December 11th, 2007 Comments off

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In summation, consider the following hypothetical imperatives: if you are looking for an unambiguous explanation of why the concept of intrinsic value is metaphysically and epistemologically bizarre, read Mackie’s “The Subjectivity of Values”; if you are looking for a normative validation of a moral free-for-all, read Gilbert Harman’s “Moral Relativism Defended” instead; if you are looking for proof that objective values do not exist, you must extend your search a bit farther than Mackie’s limited, albeit excellent, article.

Source:

Mackie, J. L. “The Subjectivity of Values” In Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, edited by Louis Pojman, 446-456. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2002.


[1] In this essay I am speaking about a very specific counter-example to Mackie’s claims; it is conceivable that someone could argue for other kinds of objective values that are not intrinsic (such as a collective “that is good which contributes to human prosperity”)

[2] “What if I don’t want to live? ” is a question that merits some serious discussion beyond the scope of this paper. My summarized response is that life is a necessary precondition for all possible values that follow. One who does not want to live constitutes one who has chosen to reject interaction with reality, which cannot be replaced by something else.

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