Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Welfare: the only ethical value?/2

There is a curious, but I think ultimately unsuccessful, strategy for defending welfarism, a strategy certain philosophers seems to be committed to in order to defend their views from some very intuitive objections. (An example is Sumner, in his lenghty defence of a welfarist theory of the good in Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics.) The strategy consists in the following:
1. acknowledging the existence of values that are different from welfare (ex. aesthetic, or perfectionists ones)
2. connecting the idea of value with that of practical reason
3. acknowledging that practical reason responds to this plurality of values
4. denying that the rational and the ethical should be symmetrical, that is to say "reasons can emanate fro distinct, independent, and possibly incommensurable points of view, of which ethics is but one" (Sumner, op.cit. 188)
5. denying that the unique status of welfare in ethics can be carried over to practical reason

Notice that
(1) is a position welfarist are forced to retreat into, since any view that denies the existence of any value beside welfare will be seen as an hopelessly limited representation of the human condition. (As I shall illustrate with some examples.)
(2) is required by providing some content to value talk, and is a standard move
(3) follows from 1 and 2
(5) is expedient to save welfarism from a typical criticism; for welfarism says that in ethics all reasons derive from the value of "well-being"; therefore, if ethics exhausted practical reason, they would have to claim that all reasons reflect the value of "well-being", which implies something like (1), the denial of all other values. With 5, the welfarist committ himself only to deny the importance of other values, in so far as ethics is concerned.

What would be the implications of the view that welfare is the only value in general, and not only when ethics is concerned? It would entail the truth of the following claims, that I consider false:
A. the value of the historical remainings of Rome is a function of their contribution to the well-being (say, by being sources of enjoyment, or aesthetical contemplation) of the actual or future individuals that will visit it.
B. the value of holocaust memorials is a function of the contribution they make to human well-being (say, by preventing similar tragedies to happen again.)
C. the value of the tomb of a famous person, or of a rest, is a function of the well-being of other people
D. the value of all non sentients living beings (say plants and certain animals) - assuming, as some welfarist do, that they don't count as welfare subjects in their own - is a function the attitudes towards them of real welfare subjects (say people and other animals.)
E. the value of non sentients beings, say mountains or rivers, is completely exhausted by their contribution to the well-being of welfare subjects.
F. that the value of a work of art derives from its contribution to human well-being
G. that the value of our memories derives from their contribution to our well-being

I take all of the former statements to be false. But notice that it is enough to agree with one of them to have troubles with the former statement, namely, that only welfare is a value. For to deny that other things, beyond welfare, are valuable, means to deny that such things as a mountain or a river, a cow, an ancient Roman shard, a Holocaust memorials, or a Picasso statue, provide us, simpy by being what they are, with reasons to act in certain ways and to avoid acting in certain other ways (such as by respecting them, honouring them, avoiding their destruction, and so on).

(And this is found by many people an utterly unacceptable conclusion.)

The distinction between the realm of ethics and the realm of practical reason allows a welfarist to accomodate the human concern with nature's or art's value as a value in itself, with the basic intuition behind welfarism, nicely summarized by the following quote:

"If something will improve the conditions of no one's life, make no one better off, then what ethical reason could be given for recommending it? And conversely if something will harm no one, make no one worse off, what reason could be given for condemning it?" (Sumner, op.cit. 192)

The attempted synthesis therefore offers the following solution: there are values different from welfare, but well-being is the only foundational value so far as Ethics is concerned. The existence of different values beside well-being only shows that there are more valuable states of affairs than there are ethically valuable states of affairs, or more generally, that our reason responds to a wider set of considerations than the narrowly ethical. This is what (4) says.

The above stated view (4), seems both commonsensical and "liberal" at the same time. Williams, among others, has reminded us about the dreadful consequences of forgetting that a human life is shaped by an heterogeneous set of concerns, different from what we may see as ethical concerns. To deny this would be to assume at the outset that man's rationality is exhausted by his sticking to the ethical point of view. This goes against the "liberal" self-conception of a human being as an individual who has emancipated himself from the commands of any unilateral code of conduct (ethical views are considered such codes by many people) and who has recognized the existence of a plurality of viewpoints from which the world can be legitimately be evaluated.

Sumner's distinction between practical reason and ethics, beside expedient for his project, seems also to be independently plausible, for a host of good reasons. Yet, I will argue that Sumner's use of the distinction, and the consequences that he draws from it, are not compatible with William's defence of it.

How reasonable is it to claim that there is clear-cut distinction between ethics and other values? First of all, one need distinguish between different sorts of values among the non-ethical ones. Epistemic correctness, or logical coherence, important as they are, do not seem to call for the same sort of response as ethical ones. That is to say, even if we admire people who are logically cogent and well-informed, we do not blame them in the same way as a person who knowingly violates a moral duty, unless, at least, that lack of logical cogency or information was itself due to some substantial moral failing, such as the lack of care or intellectual dishonesty, and carried dreadful consequences, for example by harming other people. We also may find it valuable to promote epistemic correctness or attitudes to logically correct reasoning in the world, but I doubt whether those values engage our motivation in abstraction from other values.

On the contrary, think about ideals isuch as self-expression, self-realization, aesthetic value, understanding or the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Williams' point is that such values shape our lives to the point that we would not be living a valuable and authentic life if we didn't attach to them the importance we do. The realization of a perfectionist ideal can make us do actions that are bad from the viewpoint of ethics, as shown in Williams' example of Gauguin. Gauguin deliberately rejects a whole host of moral obligations (to his family, for instance) because he finds it more “important”, in this sense, to be a painter. I'm not assessing here whether what Gauguin did the right thing, or was justifiable, nor whether Williams is right that the ideal of "self-expression" can legitimately trump concerns such as one's moral obligations. I just want to point out that, in Williams'view, the failure of the ethical standpoint to absorb all other normatively relevant points of view goes hand in hand with the affirmation of the importance of such alternative standpoints.

In contrast with Williams, Sumner defines the realm of ethics as a realm of special importance:
" We outlined above four desiderata for any value capable of seving in a monistic theory of the good: it must be intrinsicc, generic, important, and ethically salient..." (ibid. 193, my emphasis)

The reason why aesthetic evaluation should be kept separate from ethical one, is that the concerns of aesthetic value are not as deep and serious as those of ethical value:
"Suppose that with eyes wide open you choose a plan of life which you expect to be worse prudentially - worse for you - but better from some other evaluative standpoint... let this standpoint be aesthetic. In order to dedicate yourself exclusively to the pursuit of your artistic vision and bequeath your immortal work to posterity, you sacrifice family, fortune, and health. ... But in that case, it is not at all clear why ethics should be concerned with the assumed gain in aesthetic value which compensates for the loss of your well-being. Aesthetic value is the concern of, well, aesthetics. This is ethics; why should it take aesthetic value on board?" (ibid, 189)

Clearly, Sumner's attitude towards the importance of aesthetic and other non-ethical values has nothing in common with Williams'. This claim, (4), seems intuitively plausible when associated with Williams' view that there are other highly valuable concerns beside ethics. But this is not the reading of (4) that Sumner can adopt, because according to him the distinction between ethical and non-ethical value coincides with the distinction between things that are especially important and things that aren't.

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