A Dispute Between Kraut and Moore Regarding Welfare and “Impersonal” Value

In this paper I’m writing about perspective-neutral value I address a dispute between Moore and Kraut concerning the relationship between welfare value–that is, the kind of goodness that relates to how well a person is doing–and impersonal, perspective-neutral value. And perhaps this is relevant to something that came up in the comments to my previous post. According to Moore, roughly, the hypothesis that there is such a thing as welfare value, in conjunction with some auxiliary premises about who has reason to do what, generates a contradiction; therefore, all value is neutral in perspective. But according to Kraut, the hypothesis that exists perspective-neutral value makes value and its reason-giving properties mysterious. It seems to me that they’re both wrong.

Kraut argues that if pain, for example, were bad, but not bad for anyone in particular, then it would be impossible to explain why pain is bad, what is so bad about it, or why we (thereby) have reason to avoid or prevent it. It is only on the hypothesis that pain is bad for the person who undergoes it that its badness makes sense, and that we can see why we have an obligation to minimize it. (See Kraut, What is Good and Why, p. 75.) Goodness, therefore, is tied to interests, and since interests are tied to some particular perspective—that of the person or thing whose interests they are–so is goodness.

Pace Kraut, Moore claims that not only is welfare value not of central moral importance, it is not coherent. His argument is that if something were good (say) for me in particular, then that must mean that it is good in an absolute sense that I have it. (See Moore, Principia Ethica, §59, p. 150.) But if that were right, then everyone else would have as much reason to bring it about that I have what is good for me as I do. And if it is true that my sole fundamental obligation is to pursue my own good, then everyone else must also be so obligated–for it is good in an absolute sense that I attain my good. And the same would be true of everyone’s good: if something is good for you, then it is good in an absolute sense that you have it, and I have no less a reason than you to bring about that it is yours. But that entails a contradiction. It entails that my good and your good are each the sole good. And that cannot possibly be right.

Kraut argues that this leaves a gaping hole in our evaluative practices. Without the concept of welfare value, there is no way to express the idea that, for example, something is in someone’s interests, or not in someone else’s interests, or that someone is doing well, or that someone else is doing poorly. (See Kraut, p. 71.) This sort of evaluation is clearly a sort of evaluation, clearly makes sense, and is clearly morally relevant.

But it seems to me that Kraut’s criticism does not revealthe deeper mistake behind Moore’s argument. First, one could hold that it is good for me to get (say) pleasure while denying that it is good in an absolute sense that I get pleasure. One could also maintain that welfare value is legitimate without maintaining that each person’s sole obligation is to advance her own welfare. Additionally, one could also hold that facts about what is good for me yield reasons for me to act without thereby creating corresponding reasons for others. Moore denies that there is any value-related reason for action where the fact that P obtains is good from the point of view of S1 entails that S2 has a reason to bring P about, and where this depends on S1 being identical to S2; this is clearly false. We have prudential reasons to act in ways promote our own interests, and whether an action would promote our own interests are not makes ineliminable reference to a perspective-dependent welfare value. So Kraut’s hypothesis makes a mystery of the fact that S1’s pain creates reasons for S2, and the hypothesis that there exists a perpective-neutral kind of value explains how this works. Perspective-independent value generates perspective-independent reasons to promote or maximize value, but perspective-dependent value cannot.

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