Monday, July 03, 2006

Welfare, the only ethical value?/3

The value of mountains, artworks, and plants.

For what regards the intrinsic value of non-sentient organisms, welfarism denies it exists or is part of the ethical realm. The only ethical reason one has for protecting and preserving non-sentient organisms (or things), are welfarist reasons, that is to say, reasons that derive from the impact of such organisms and things on sentient organisms.

I find this view unattractive. It implies that we should assent to the following propositions:

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 don't agree with any of these statements; I am afraid that it is difficult to argue for such intuitions, and that at this point one has reached bedrock. I just find it impossible to deny the value of an ancient rest, of a memorial place, of an artistic creation, derives from its contribution to the well-being of others.

One could argue that one should not deny that such things have value, but only that they have ethical value. Picasso's "Guernica" obviously has aesthetic value, but in so far as we have ethical reasons to preserve this work, it only derives from the aesthetic enjoyment that it produces in people that value aesthetics.

Among other things, this entails that if there is nobody who values Picasso's art, and if it can be know for certain that Picasso's art will never be the source of aesthetic enjoyment for some future individual, or that its existence cannot give any contribution, say, to the lives of historian of arts, etc..., there would be no ethical reason not to destroy the painting. I do not think that this is the case.

I think this point can be proved with some example of everyday life, in which it is clear that we have doubts of an ethical nature, on whether we should preserve or protect things that are valuable apart from their contribution to people's well-being. In Rome, for example, people would not agree to be taxed in order to extract from the ground further Roman rests of no significant interest (it is known that, by drilling a bit in the Roman soil, one can find ancient Roman rests, among which rests of ancient craftwork, most of which of no special historical or aesthetic value. By "special" historical or aesthetic value, I mean that the discovery of this stuff will very likely not change our knowledge of ancient Roman art and craftwork. They may be rests of the same type as the ones that are already in our museums. Yet, I think, these things have some value. I do not see any reason to deny that they have at least as much intrinsic value as analogous pieces that we can already admire in museums.)

But people agree to be taxed in order to build a new subway line. This can be taken to show that the Roman people's prospective enjoyment in having the possibility to use a new subway line is greater than their prospective enjoyment in admiring new ancient Roman rests. (I assume the preference for the subway relative to the Roman rests does not reflect the urgency of the former, because people do not just intend to postpone the extraction of further Roman rests. Roman people just feel that they do not need to uncover more ancient rests, as the community possesses enough of this stuff, so they will not really enjoy having more of it. )

If welfarism was correct, there should be no doubt that, given the assumptions, the ethically right thing to do would be to build the new subway line, even if this implied the destruction of the ancient rests. On the contrary, it is an open question whether the subway line should be build, when this implies the distruction of some ancient rests. This shows that we recognize that there is more that matters, beyond people's well-being. (I assume that the point here has nothing to do with future generations, in the sense that future generations can also be assumed to benefit more from the building of a new subway line, than from the other alternative. I also take the preference for the subway line to be informed, that is to say, based upon a correct evaluation of the impact of this good on anybody's well-being. So I take this preference to reveal future enjoyment accurately.)

These are just my intuitions, what do you think about it?

1 comment:

Rony said...

Hmmm... I try myself at this.
I know nothing about welfarism, but I feel your argument about the subway line is not entirely convincing.
If you include all types of costs born by a community in your concept of "taxation", you easily realize that people already prove to be ready to "put a tax" on themselves in order to save the ancient ruins: that is actually what is happening now in Rome, since designing the metro structure has been done in a way that minimizes the destruction of ancient ruins, and that designing implied an increase in costs. In other words, building the subway without any care of the ruins would have been much cheaper. But that's not what is happening: because of the well being value of ruins people (the community of Romans) accepted to bear the cost.
On the other hand, ancient ruins believed to be of scarce archeological value are being destroyed deliberately: that's what the preparatory excavations are for. They dig, look what type of ruins they find and, if not valuable enough, they file everything in catalogues and keep going.
So I guess the welfarist position here still holds true, if you reject an "all or nothing" approach, as I am trying to do. The value (that is the amount of well being, etc...) of something can be measured against something else, and then judgements depending on the "weight" of those values can be done -- in a rational choice fashion, I daresay.
Now, I don't really know what I just said, but I feel cool. :-)