The Life Divine – Reading Group, Session #8 (Beginning Book Two) [7/26]


(Maia Maia) #21

Thanks, Frederick. A continuum, I hope, which is not a sideways hierarchy! We humans who make these judgements, I feel, cannot legitimately say which being is “higher” or “lower”. But often when we say “relationships” we really mean “between humans” and that seems quite mistaken to me, especially given my own experience. I’d say that many many people have “had authentic personal relationshps with animals” AND plants and other creatures often not even considered as being on the continuum. Plants are very big in my relationship world, for example, but that doesn’t mean I reank them above humans or any other being. “Places” have very often qualified in this way, especially among indigenous human groups. Scientists call places “biomes”, thus including ALL inhabitants, including rivers, winds, mountains, weathers…
I like your point about “outside” being the last place from which to judge another kind of being. But I would add that it’s not a question of IF re: discovering thouness of other beings, it’s more a question of how willing we are, how open.

(Frederick Dolan) #22

I agree in spirit with everything you say, but would add that we often misunderstand what’s involved in making value judgments. My view is that if we want to make sense of our moral commitments, we can’t avoid the concept of objective value. Some things really are better than other things – for example, it’s better to relate to other human beings as persons/agents than it is to treat them as “its”/objects. This isn’t a matter of opinion only. It’s a fact and it remains a fact even if not everyone acknowledges it, very much in the way that the earth was a sphere even when everyone believed it was flat.

Consider a reductio ad absurdum argument. If we hold that values are merely subjective, we’d be committed to the claim that slavery was “good” for thousands of years, and that it became “bad” only when we changed our minds about it over the course of the 18th-19th centuries.

This must be balanced by acknowledging that judgments about what’s good and bad or high and low are valid with respect to frames of reference, and how value concepts apply to any given case is always debatable. But the mere fact that we often disagree about what’s good or bad doesn’t necessarily imply that there’s no fact of the matter, no right answer. Parties to a dispute may fail to agree simply because they don’t all know the relevant facts, because some or all of them are making mistakes in reasoning, etc.

I would add that it’s not a question of IF re: discovering thouness of other beings, it’s more a question of how willing we are, how open.

I couldn’t say for sure in advance that all other beings will turn out to have thouness, but I think it’s prudent to assume that they might do so and to act accordingly.

Archetypal Cosmology - [CCafe 9/11]
(Marco V Morelli) #23

On moral facts and objective value. Does it make sense to regard a value as being true in an ‘out there’ (outside ourselves, outside consciousness) kind of manner—like a physical rock exists (or can be conceived to exist) ‘out there,’ independently of us—rather than as a strong subjective preference regarding phenomena that concern us? Is it either/or?

Objective values are precisely about us, i.e., they presuppose conscious, intentional beings who can make moral choices. So therefore, so-called moral facts are only objective and factual because they are subjective—a matter of how we feel about certain phenomena, (e.g., agressive violence) which we must regard as truly and objectively how we feel about those things. These then become our ‘values.’

What would make those values objective, I would say, is that our feelings themselves are not subject to our choices. We feel disgusted, repelled, and offended by moral turpitude, seeing that it causes suffering, which increases other feelings we don’t like. We can’t choose not to feel these feelings, so we value moral righteousness instead.

Just as we can’t choose for the objective rock not to exist, even when we’re not perceiving it, we can’t choose for our feelings not to exist, even when we’re not feeling them, which makes them (and their values) objectively real—but only if the objectively real world is a world of subjective feelings, as much as objects or things.

(Maia Maia) #24

I was afraid that what I wrote would be misunderstood, and it seems that has happened ! :slight_smile: I was not making an argument that there are no enduring values, that there is nothing that is “better than” something else. I was addressing The idea that there are “lower” beings and us humans pretending to be able to rank their value in some none human-related value scale. And the other thing is: I believe in kindness as the rule, with exceptions…which cannot be specified ahead of time and from outside. In other words, I believe in “directions” rather than “rules”. And so, if by objective you mean absolute, I cannot agree.
When you mention value in relation to frames of reference, the problem is we never get the frame of reference of the tree, animal, river, biome, or indeed of certain human groups. The Frame is too often the mainstream frame, the most popular at the moment, the most powerful group-frame, etc. "
That’s not at all the same as arguing “there is no right and wrong” , there are no “facts” and the like.
No one can say for sure that all beings will or will not “have thouness”. Using this word as a noun is problematic for me: a being either possesses it or doesn’t. For me, it’s more like “thouing” can be happening between any kinds of beings…or not.

(Frederick Dolan) #25

I suspect we’re pretty much in agreement. Perhaps it’s helpful to distinguish two somewhat different senses of “subjective.” One sense refers to individual preferences, which of course differ dramatically from person to person. Facts about the preferences of individuals are facts about those individuals, with no implication about whether they are the right or wrong preferences to have. Another sense refers to our status as conscious beings generally – that part of what it means to be a person or agent is that we make judgments about what’s good and bad or permissible and impermissible, judgments that we want to be true in the sense that they correspond to what is in fact morally required of beings like us. The latter, as you say, is a fact about us, and it remains true (if it is true) even though there are some who deny it. In that sense it’s as much of a fact as facts about rocks, although rocks are very different from decisions about what and what not to do – that is, in the sense that what’s right and wrong can’t be changed by mere volition, any more than a rock can fail to exist simply because we choose not to believe it.

But I don’t think we can reduce morality to our feelings about morality, because there’s still the question of whether our feelings really do correspond to what’s in fact right or wrong. Just as we want our beliefs to be true, we want our feelings to be appropriate, and that’s not something we can decide by consulting our feelings only. There’s an element of reflection that, I believe, is irreducible.

That’s not to say that feelings are irrelevant or that we’re faced with an either/or – I agree completely about that. Subjective feelings are real, and feelings and dispositions are powerful guides, and we can’t reason about morality without them any more than we can determine what’s right and wrong by relying on feelings only.

In a sense, there would be no objective truths about moral principles if there were no beings to whom those principles applied. But it’s also the case that even if there were no such beings, it would be objectively true that if there were beings to whom moral principles applied, then there would be moral principles. In that sense moral principles are true in the “out there” sense as well. It’s a matter of discovering what they are and not just making them up.

(Frederick Dolan) #26

Understood: these are two very different assertions, and the latter doesn’t follow from the former. I’m perhaps a little more optimistic than you are about our ability to imagine non-human values. If we grant that what an organism needs to function will have value for that organism, and if we know something about the various functions of, say, ants, then presumably we can rank the value of things on an ant-related value scale. Admittedly, that doesn’t get us to a universal moral scale according to which some beings would be more valuable than others in the sense of more deserving of moral consideration, but like you I see no need to get to any such thing. Indeed, it doesn’t get us to moral value at all, because the moral question concerns what we ought to need and what our highest or best functions really are, not just what we happen to need or are able to do.

I believe in kindness as the rule, with exceptions…which cannot be specified ahead of time and from outside. In other words, I believe in “directions” rather than “rules”. And so, if by objective you mean absolute, I cannot agree.

Also understood: morality doesn’t consist exclusively in formulating and applying rules, certainly not absolute rules, and that’s not what I mean by “objective.” In this context, by “objective value” I mean that which is possessed by things in virtue of which they are intrinsically valuable. Consider Socrates’ question in the Euthyphro: Is something good because the gods approve of it, or do the gods approve of it because it’s good? Mutatis mutandis, is something good because humans value it, or do humans value it because it’s good? If we value things (or rather, if we think we ought to value things) because they’re good, I call whatever it is that makes those things good “objective value.” To put it differently, when we’re trying to figure out what’s good, we’re trying to figure out what’s objectively or intrinsically valuable, what’s truly praiseworthy.

I suspect these considerations apply to all the main theories of morality, rule-governed or not:

Deontology (an act is morally required in virtue of its conformity to rules or principles): presumably we want the right rules, not just any rules.

Consequentialism (an act is morally required in virtue of its consequences): again we must discover which are the right sorts of consequences.

Virtue ethics (an act is morally required in virtue of its contribution to the well-being of the actor and his community): again, we need to know what truly constitutes well-being for creatures like us.

the problem is we never get the frame of reference of the tree, animal, river, biome, or indeed of certain human groups. The Frame is too often the mainstream frame, the most popular at the moment, the most powerful group-frame, etc.

I agree that the frame is too often construed too narrowly, but as you point out this is frequently due to extraneous factors such as popularity, power, etc. and not to inherent cognitive limitations. I’d want to argue that we do possess the epistemic resources to understand a very wide range of frames other than our own – certainly as wide a range as we need to understand other human beings and I suspect also a great many non-human beings as well, though certainly not all.

(Maia Maia) #27

But how can you speak of any inherent value “possessed by things” outside of human/personal valuation standards?

(Frederick Dolan) #28

An excellent and thorny question. I’ll try to clarify.

First, I would distinguish between “personal” and “human.” Values or preferences are presumably based on beliefs about what’s good or right or what matters. I can form beliefs like this about what’s good for me only – for example if I like the taste of chocolate, then chocolate ice cream is good for me (up to a point). Nothing about what’s good for you follows from that – you might prefer strawberry.

But these are just contingencies. The question is what’s truly good, truly praiseworthy, objectively valuable. What should we like, esteem, strive for? This is a question that we pose in the first person plural, not the first person singular, because it pertains to human beings and the human condition as such. Answering this question requires us to employ a concept of what’s objectively or intrinsically good, not just what this or that person regards as good as a matter of fact.

I arrived at this position in part because the alternatives strike me as absurd. If what’s right and wrong or good and bad are merely subjective, then it must have been right to burn witches in the 17th century but wrong to do so in the 20th. Slavery must have been good until we decided it was bad. If values are subjective, someone who devotes his life to amassing the biggest tin foil collection in history is doing something as praiseworthy as what Michelangelo and Shakespeare did, if only he believes it to be.

To say that doing something of value means doing something that seems to the one doing it to have value confuses the interest we have in living a life that seems valuable and the interest we have in living a life that really is valuable. If you suspect that this is a distinction without a difference – that a valuable life just is a life that seems valuable to the one living it – consider Robert Nozick’s thought experiment in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. You’re offered a chance to have your brain removed and hooked up to an Experience Machine that will provide you with the illusion that you’re living the best life you can imagine. In reality, you’re a brain in a vat, but you won’t know that – so far as your subjective experience goes you’re writing symphonies, founding companies, winning elections or wars, or doing whatever else seems valuable to you. Should you accept the offer? Most of us would say no, but the question is why, and at least part of the answer is that subjective experience is not all there is to value.

Or consider two possible worlds. In World 1, you’re in love with X, X is in love with you, and both of you are happy. In World 2, you’re in love with X, but X hates you, wants you only for your money, and constantly cheats on you, but, because you’re unaware of this, your experience is exactly the same as in World 1. If it doesn’t matter whether your subjective experience corresponds to objective reality, then there’s no reason to prefer World 1 to World 2. Yet World 1 is obviously superior to World 2. Why? Because subjective experience accords with objective reality. In World 1 you don’t just think that X is in love with you, X really is in love with you.

Or consider Sisyphus, the very model of a life devoted to valueless activity. Imagine the gods arranged things so that Sisyphus believed that spending eternity pushing boulders up a mountain was the most valuable thing he could do. Would Sisyphus’ situation be no less absurd? If not, then subjective perceptions of value can’t be all there is to determining what counts as valuable. There must be a dimension of objectivity as well.

Now these considerations apply to groups as well as to individuals. Imagine that the gods made everyone believe that boulder-pushing was the greatest accomplishment possible, so that Sisyphus’ entire community shared his belief that he was doing something valuable. Would that make it so? If individuals can be wrong about what’s valuable, so can groups of individuals.

For these and other reasons, I don’t think we can avoid the concept of objective value. In determining what’s truly praiseworthy, we’re asking neither about what this or that individual values nor what members of a group agree is valuable – even if this group includes every human being who has ever lived or will live. In this sense, what’s valuable isn’t reducible to “human/personal valuation standards.” The important question is whether our valuation standards pick out what is truly, intrinsically, objectively valuable.

Note that none of this implies that we can know for certain what is in fact objectively valuable. The question of how and to what we apply the concept of objective value hasn’t been touched in anything I’ve said here. Perhaps disputes about the application of the concept will never be resolved. But such disputes make sense only given our commitment to the existence of objective values – if there weren’t any objective values, there would be nothing to dispute and no point to the dispute.

(Maia Maia) #29

I think I’ve failed to ask the question precisely enough! I agree completely that within the human sphere we have to ask the question and find the direction of an answer, at the least. WE also have to encounter with some equinimity the directions/answers that do not appear to align with our own, but are not just obviously evil.
The hard case is judging other, and not only the others of humans, but the others of other beings, and even things.
Intrinsic value of any being is the value from inside that being, is one way I would put it, unless that being is actively harming others. But orienting our lives by values is not the same kind of value in which beings are ranked from high to low, yes. So I think I’ve not made that distinction clearly, maybe I still haven’t!

“Note that none of this implies that we can know for certain what is in fact objectively valuable”

Yes. There is life-long learning, orienting our lives by ground-values we invent, borrow, integrate, contemplate, cultivate. …
AND–something different—there is knowing the objective value of anything or anyone.

There are moments only, it seems, of accord without dispute, and, in a positive sense, no point to any dispute. Those moments are among the most precious of all.

(Frederick Dolan) #30

Couldn’t agree more. To express the quality of these experiences, only arts like music and poetry suffice. One of my favorites is “Of Mere Being” by Wallace Stevens:

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.