David Wiggins wrote the first moral realist essay that I will discuss. In particular, Wiggens wants to know what it means to live a meaningful life and what kinds of things could have intrinsic value.
Living a Meaningful Life
Although we might partly find meaning in our lives through our goals and interests alone, Wiggins finds this kind of meaning to be unsatisfying because it can attach to something faulty (i.e. self-defeating, incoherent, or superficial.) I offer the following examples of faulty goals:
- We cannot find a satisfying kind of meaning in our lives by seeking pleasure when it leads us to too much pain because it is self-defeating. (Cigarette smoking, for example.)
- We cannot find a satisfying kind of meaning in our lives by trying to make square circles because that would be incoherent.
- We cannot find a satisfying kind of meaning in our lives by eating chocolate because that would be superficial.
Wiggens argues that in order to find anything to be meaningful in a satisfying way, we will have to accept the following:
- We will have to allow ourselves an inner view perspective (in which human experience is taken seriously). The “outer view” restricts our discussion to physical facts devoid of mental content, but it is popular with many philosophers (135).
- Meaningful goals can’t be entirely derivative (useful to help accomplish some other goal). They must be “their own goals” (valuable in and of themselves.) (136)
Wiggins believes that the anti-realist will take an objective perspective devoid of human experience and see the world (and human life) as objectively meaningless (136). The anti-realist will realize that being goal oriented seems to help people “feel like their lives are meaningful,” but all goals are “equally good” since there is no real meaning to be found. Instead, people who feel like their life is meaningful must have some kind of an emotional attachment to their goals for some psychological reason.
The anti-realist will find any goal to be equally meaningful whether or not it is entirely derivitive. Wiggins gives an example of an entirely derivitive goal, that seems to be a counterexample: Imagine a hog farmer who wants to breed hogs and make money to breed more hogs and make more money, to breed more hogs, ad infinitum (137). The reason that this circular goal is meaningless has to do with the fact that it is derivitive. Only a goal that is good in and of itself can be seen as meaningful. However, we can only know what goal is meaningful through our subjectivity (the inner perspective).
It is then that Wiggins criticizes the view that intrinsic value can only be found in our appetites, such as Bentham’s view that pleasure and pain are the only things with intrinsic value (140). In order for Bentham to be correct, we must consider the inner perspective, but that perspective will reject Bentham’s hedonism because there are other things we will find to have intrinsic value. Here is his argument:
- Many experiences (involving pleasure) have intentional objects.
- Many conscious states (of pleasure) exist because we strive for objects that are not intentional states.
- It is of the essence that many conscious states (of pleasure) give the objects we strive for non-instrumental value.
For example, when a new child is born into the family, it gives us all a great reason to feel joy. This is because we believe that the child has intrinsic value. So, the existence of some pleasures depend on our believe that something other than pleasure itself has intrinsic value.
On the other side, we might experience pain and suffering when a loved one dies precisely because we believe that loved one had intrinsic value.
Wiggens then discusses the problem of having two perspectives (inner and outer.) The fact that there are two perspectives in and of itself does not cause a contradiction because each perspective can include or exclude aspects of the other (143). “Perspective is not a form of illusion, distortion, or delusion” (143).
Objection 1: It isn’t clear to me that there really is an inner and outer perspective. Simply saying that many philosophers and scientists have ignored or rejected personal experience and subjective states for being “anthropocentric” should be enough. I don’t see how any perspective necessarily excludes subjective states or includes them, but some people have indeed tried to exclude them.
Objection 2: It isn’t clear to me what objects of intentional states Wiggens believes could have intrinsic value. He gives no examples. I think human existence (or the existence of conscious beings) is a good example. (Wouldn’t you want to exist as long as you aren’t in too much pain? Some pain can be dealt with.) Consider the following other candidates:
- Money: Winning the lottery can give us pleasure. We love money because it gets people to do what we want, such as hand us a giant TV set. We don’t/shouldn’t love money for its own sake.
- Love: Being with loved ones gives us pleasure. We love those we believe have intrinsic value. When we love someone in particular it is either because that person in particular has intrinsic value, or because that person in particular makes us feel good. Therefore, love itself seems derivative.
- Knowledge: Gaining knowledge can give us pleasure. Although many say that it is healthy to value knowledge “for its own sake” (such as Richard Dawkins), it isn’t clear that this can make sense. It is easy to see that we would want knowledge for self-improvement or empowerment, or because it gives us pleasure to contemplate knowledge, but it isn’t clear how it could have intrinsic value.
- Greater existence: Becoming a better kind of being can give us pleasure. Don’t different conscious beings have more value than others? Perhaps humans are more valuable than dogs. If so, it might also be possible to try to become a better kind of being.
Objection 3: Wiggins wants to conclude that the inner perspective will reject that pleasure and pain are the only things with intrinsic value, but it isn’t entirely clear why. He argues that some of our experiences of pleasure are based on the “fact” that something other than pleasure itself has intrinsic value, but much more needs to be said to prove this claim. In fact, we might need to believe or assume that some things have intrinsic value other than pleasure itself in order for us to have various experiences, but this in no way supports the conclusion that we have knowledge that things have intrinsic value other than pleasure and pain.
I agree that we assume that human life has intrinsic value and this assumption will have an impact on our experiences (such as our experiences of pleasure or pain), but it might be false that human life has intrinsic value.