On Philosophy

July 29, 2007

More On The Ark Problem

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Previously I discussed a hypothetical scenario in which Earth was doomed and we had to pick what to save and what to leave behind. The fact that some decisions about what to save seem superior than others reveals, I claim, that there is a strong intuitive (and, I would argue, practical) pull towards treating everything as though it does in fact have an objective value (although we may be unsure exactly what that value is). Here I am going to further investigate the consequences of that thought experiment, with a slight modification. I would add to the set-up an additional ship which has all that is required to preserve humanity at its current level of development. This eliminates the possible confusion between generic value, in the what-is-worth-saving sense, versus survival value.

First let’s consider again the possible dogmatic assertion, meant to block ascribing value to everything on the basis of this thought experiment, that all possible loadings of the ark are equally good, or are incomparable. Treating all possible ways to load the ark as equally good has an obvious problem. If all ways to load the ark are equally good then a particular way of loading it is just as good as that same way minus a single item. And so any particular way of loading the ark is just as good as not loading the ark at all (by induction). Now, while it is hard to say what the value of a particular way of loading the ark is, I do know the value of not loading the ark, the value of doing that is 0 (neither harmful nor helpful, loading the ark with the black plague, for example, would have negative value). And so insisting that all ways of loading the ark are equally good is really to insist that everything has zero value.

Of course that doesn’t work if we insist instead that they are incomparable. But incomparability has its own set of problems. Consider a particular loading of an ark meant for people that puts two individuals on it, Alice and Bob. If we can’t compare ways to load the ark to each other then we can’t compare this loading of the ark to loading the ark with just Alice, and leaving Bob off. But choosing the second way to load the ark over the first is effectively to murder Bob (since we don’t accomplish anything positive by excluding Bob). And so to claim that those two ways of loading the ark are incomparable is to say that we can’t definitively say that murdering Bob is bad. And that is a reductio ad absurdum right there.

So to escape that problem we might instead insist just that everyone (and everything) that can go onto the ark is of perfectly equal value. This might recover some of the intuitions motivating the claim that different ways of loading the ark are all equal or incomparable (specifically the difficulty in making objective value judgments that one is better than another). But if that is the case then we are back with a single best way to load the ark, namely whatever fits the most into it (preferring small people and small paintings to large ones). So we haven’t really made them equally valuable after all, what we have done is make their value (in comparison to each other) dependant primarily on accidental features of the circumstances, which obviously differ from situation to situation. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate the claim, but it removes most of its motivation; if we are going to judge people (and art) as being more or less valuable than each other anyways we might as well make those decisions based on what “really matters” instead of seemingly irrelevant qualities like their size.

Naturally this raises the concerns that always arise about value. Specifically that value, independent of anything else, seems somewhat meaningless, as compared to value for some purpose, and, similarly, that completely objective value seems somewhat meaningless, as compared to value from a specific viewpoint. Naturally I concede the point on these issues, there is no such a thing as completely objective value independent of value for a purpose and from a point of view. We only mistakenly think that it exists because we over-generalize from thinking about value in these contexts. Am I contradicting myself? No, while such objective value doesn’t exist on its own, so to speak, there is nothing stopping us from constructing it from value as relativized to a purpose and point of view. The point of constructing it would be that it could serve as a useful abstraction, that it might be better (say, from an ethical point of view) to load the arks (and make choices and laws and so on) guided by this objective value, so constructed, than the value we assign to things from our own point of view for the particular purposes we are currently interested in. But here I will stop, because it is not my point to try to actually construct this objective value (I would like to, but the topic deserves its own post), my point is to show that objective value in some form or other has a role to play, that we can’t just get rid of it by trying to avoid making judgments about comparative value (of people and art and whatever else we may want to compare) by insisting that things are incomparable or of equal value.

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