On Philosophy

July 30, 2008

Putting Philosophy To Work: A Value Problem

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 2:24 pm

Philosophers, and in fact people in general, spend a lot of time wrestling with values. The nature of values, however, is not much of a problem, unless you want to make it one. A value is something that is motivational for a person; a person that wants to be happy values their own happiness and a person who wants the world to be a fairer place values justice. Understood in this way a number of apparent problems often associated with values often evaporate. It makes little sense, for example, to ask “what values should a person have?” What someone should and shouldn’t do is bound up with what they value, such that they should do whatever promotes their values. Obviously other definitions of “should” and associated ideas of obligation are possible, but this is probably the best of the lot. Simply consider some other definition of what people should do that diverges from the proposed one. In that case there will be, by that standard, things that a person “should” do but which they have no motivation to, since it in no way promotes their values. Isn’t it a bit absurd to say that there are things a person should do but which we can’t provide any reason for doing them that will actually be motivational? If there were such cases it would negate much of the power of “should”. In conversation, “should” seems to stand in for the idea that “there are reasons you would accept to do this thing”. We tell people that they should do something in order to influence their behavior. If “should” could come apart from psychologically motivating power then it would be irrational of us to try to motivate some action by telling them that they should do it (instead we would appeal to things that do motivate them).

Anyway, back to the matter at hand, which was the idea that what a person should do is bound up with the values that they have, and thus that asking what values a person should have or which they should be motivated by is essentially to ask what values they value. Answering that question requires understanding how that person’s values interact, to see whether they conflict or whether there are additional values that are “implied” by their existing explicit values. Such work may be very interesting at an intellectual level, but it also misses, to an extent, why people care about values. People inquire into values, I think, because they are interested in advice and guidance concerning what to value and thus how to live. They are looking, essentially for philosophy that will interact with their existing values and change them. An intellectual inquiry into the nature of values or their interactions will never really satisfy that aim. At best it will reveal that some of their values conflict, but it will never say which value they should change or abandon, nor actually motivate such changes.

Now in one sense that unsatisfactory state of affairs is the best we can do. There is no absolute position from which values follow. At best we can make some guesses about what many people “should” value given assumptions about their situation and existing values that we hope apply to most people. But, as I noted previously, the inquiry into values is often a search for philosophy that will change their values, and this overly intellectual approach will never be satisfying, in part because it aims to describe the nature of values rather than doing anything with them. But how is it possible for philosophy, given that there is no absolute position to dictate values from, to do that? If we accept that then doesn’t it necessarily follow that it is not possible to construct a philosophical position that will change what someone values in one direction or another?

No, such philosophy is possible. But to find it we have to give up the notion that it will follow from these truths about value. Finding an argument or perspective that will change someone’s values has little to do with the facts about values directly. Rather it is more like constructing a tool that will interact with the person’s psychology so as to produce the desired changes. Although we may shape this argument so that it appears to be based on certain “facts” about values that appearance is there only to make the tool effective. This might sound heretical in a way. Am I saying that we should simply abandon the philosophical truths about value for applied psychology? Rest assured, I have nothing of the sort in mind. There are two reasons to understand such a psychological tool as genuine philosophy. The first is that the theory about the nature of values outlined above, while not directly useful, will probably play a role in constructing our tool. Specifically by realizing that values do not follow from some absolute position or principles we will not attempt to construct our tool along those lines (since it is thus vulnerable to certain objections and will become less effective), but will instead fashion it to work by playing one value off of another. The second reason to accept such a tool as philosophy is because, in this case, such a tool will probably take the form of a philosophical perspective; i.e. it will be a position that does not contradict any facts (which, again, would lead to it being rejected), but which will emphasize some facts and some ways of thinking about those facts, over others. Now if our tool was a string of meaningless words that affected an individual’s psychology as if we were programming a computer, then I would concede that it was not properly philosophy.

Perhaps the best way to explain this idea, and to defend it against the claim that it embodies a turn away from philosophy proper, is to illustrate it through an example. Anyone who is looking to philosophy to guide their values clearly thinks that there is some problem with their current values. Naturally there could be a number of reasons for this – let’s consider just one, that they often find themselves to be unhappy because they fall short of being able to live up to one of their values. And, to narrow things down further, let’s consider only the valuing wealth, fame, or praise as the cause of that unhappiness (these values are similar in that they require the participation of other people, and hence aren’t completely under the control of the individual). A person who places a high value on wealth, fame, or praise may often be unhappy because they lack those things, and because there is no simple way to get them. Thus such a person may turn to philosophy, looking for a psychologically motivating reason not to value wealth, fame, or praise.

At this point the overly intellectual approach would point out that which values we have are essentially arbitrary, and thus that nothing stops us from abandoning those problematic values for some other, better, ones. But obviously acknowledging that won’t motivate someone to actually give up a value. Could you give up on valuing your own happiness or you life simply because someone pointed out that you have no real reason to value those things? No, those values are so hard wired in, both by genetics and by our practice at valuing those things, that we cannot simply give them up. Similarly someone who has fallen into a “habit” of valuing wealth, fame, or praise can’t simply choose to give it up.

However, just because the overly intellectual approach fails us doesn’t mean that it is useless. If we take seriously that theory about values it becomes clear that to change someone’s values we need to leverage one value against another. In this case our lever will be their value of themselves. Everyone reading this values their own life, because if they didn’t odds are they would have taken a long walk off a short pier some time ago. Similarly being bothered by unhappiness also implies that you value yourself to some extent, since you take your suffering to be a bad thing. Now consider what valuing yourself means. To value yourself means valuing the person who you are now, not the person you were or the person you might be, since the person you are now is the only thing here to value. (Even valuing your potential is just another way of valuing who you are now.) And suppose you also value wealth, fame, or praise but are unhappy because you lack that thing. Valuing something is a double edged sword, not only does it mean endorsing that thing, but it means taking its absence to indicate some kind of deficiency. For example, if you value ethical goodness that means that you will naturally abhor ethical deficiencies. Consider what that means in the case of valuing wealth, fame, or praise – it means that you are also committed to believing that someone who lacks those things is in someway deficient (and perhaps that leads to your unhappiness). But this is not compatible with valuing who you are now. If you value who you are now then you don’t believe that you are in some way deficient. Valuing who you are now means being ok with not having wealth, fame, or praise, if you don’t have them. Thus the way to stop valuing wealth, fame, or praise is, whenever you find yourself thinking about those things on contemplating how to get them, to tell yourself that you are fine with who you are now, a person who is poor, unknown, and unappreciated.

There are a few logical flaws with that argument (I leave discovering them as an exercise for the reader; one of them is especially boneheaded). And it could equally well be run in reverse, to the conclusion that such a person should give up valuing their own life, although I doubt that version would have any effect. However, it is still effective. I know that from personal experience as I used a version to rid myself of a faulty value, even while fully aware of its deficiencies. And despite its usefulness as a tool to adjust values it still looks like philosophy. Indeed it could be argued that it only works as a tool because it is properly philosophy. On the philosophical level it offers a new perspective on a person’s pre-existing value of their own life and how that value interacts with the problematic value, one that motivates rejecting the problematic value. Of course the version presented here could be rightly criticized as being only a sketch of a full perspective. To embody a proper philosophical perspective more attention probably needs to be given to describing valuing oneself and its consequences. And the perspective needs to be considered in different situations and defended against what may seem to be absurd consequences (should a bad person, for example, really value themselves as they are?). But the point here is not to fill in all the details.

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