An Old-Fashioned Argument for An Unpopular View

I’m working on a paper about whether or not all values are perspective dependent. People like Geach, Foot, Thomson, and Kraut have argued that all values inherently involve someone or something’s perspective, and so there is no such thing as perspective-neutral value. Something might be good for me, or good for the environment, or good for the poor, or good for the Democratic Party, but it makes no sense to say that something is just plain good.

I disagree. I think there is a type of goodness that does not make any essential reference to any particular perspective. One reason why I think so is modeled on G. E. Moore’s  Open Question Argument. Consider the following pair of questions about Ted Bundy:

Q1: is good for Bundy that Bundy gets what is good for him?

Q2: is it good that Bundy gets what is good for him?

Q1 is a fairly trivial question about the impact on Bundy’s welfare of an increase in Bundy’s welfare; Q2 is a much more difficult question about the overall, perspective-neutral value of an increase in Bundy’s welfare. The two questions are not equivalent in meaning; the answer to one does not settle the answer to the other.

Is it good that Bundy gets what is good for him? It is easy to imagine that it is not, for Ted is a serial killer. The question ‘is it good that Bundy is doing well?’ is not equivalent to or settled by any question about Bundy’s welfare or flourishing in particular, or any particular person’s welfare, or the general welfare of everyone involved. It is not question about goodness from any particular person’s perspective; it is a further question that crucially involves a form of goodness that does not take any particular person’s point of view or perspective as its own. The fact that it would have been good from Bundy’s perspective for him to get away with his crimes is why it would have been so bad for that to have happened. If Bundy’s getting away were not good for Bundy himself, it would not be bad in a perspective-neutral way.

Richard Kraut argues that the hypothesis that value is perspective-neutral makes a mystery of the reason-giving and motivating properties of goodness. He argues that if pain were bad, but not bad for anyone in particular, we could have no clear reason for opposing it, nor would we be motivated to minimize it. (See Kraut, What is Good and Why, p. 75) This argument is reminiscent of J. L. Mackie’s “queerness” argument in favor of error-theoretic moral nihilism. That pain is bad seems to entail that it has “to-be-avoidedness,” which would have to be a very strange property. Why should the mere fact that pain is bad–but not necessarily bad for the person whose pain it is–give us such a reason to avoid pain for ourselves and alleviate it in others? Kraut argues that this “to-be-avoidedness” is comprehensible only if pain is understood to be bad for the person whose pain it is.

But it is not clear why simply appending “for the person who undergoes it” to the sentence ‘pain is bad’ solves the problem, as Kraut suggests it does. The mere fact that something has a negative impact on someone’s welfare does not, by itself, give us a reason to oppose or avoid it. The fact that Diazinon is bad for cockroaches, or for some particular cockroach, for example, does not constitute a reason to oppose or avoid Diazinon.

Nor does the fact that the pain is bad for Bundy give reason, by itself, to alleviate the pain. If justice requires it, we the badness of the pain might  play an important role in a moral justification for our bringing it about, rather than opposing it. But if we shift the discussion to a more virtuous person, who we stipulate does not deserve any pain, then that fact (in conjunction with the fact that pain is bad for the person who undergoes it) entails that the pain is (perspective-neutral) bad, and that we (thereby) have good moral reason to oppose it. Although this is somewhat mysterious, this mysteriousness is a problem for everyone, and so it does not tell against perspective-neutral value in particular.

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2 Responses to An Old-Fashioned Argument for An Unpopular View

  1. M. Rubin says:

    I’m on board for all of this, I think.

    One thing that I find strange: I haven’t read Kraut, so I have no grounds to think that you’ve got him wrong. But it’s curious that (as you present him) he is suggesting that although value is always perspective-relative, some normative reasons are agent-neutral. I would have thought that the very same considerations that make someone skeptical of perspective-neutral value would make one skeptical of agent-neutral reasons.

    I don’t meant to suggest that Kraut’s stance is incoherent. But I do wonder what motivates it.

  2. Hey Rube,

    Thanks for reading. I see your point, and I think you’re right about how weird this is, and that I haven’t made the point as forcefully as I might have.

    I’m fairly confident I’m reading Kraut correctly. He argues that the supposition that goodness is perspective-dependent plays a crucial role in explaining why we have good moral reason to care about and/or prevent the pain of others. He says something like, why should we care about bad things if they aren’t bad for anyone? Does that speak to your worry?

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