Ethical Realism

February 26, 2009

Chapter 3.7 “Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life” by David Wiggins

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. We cannot find a satisfying kind of meaning in our lives by trying to make square circles because that would be incoherent.
  3. 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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).

Intrinsic Value

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:

  1. Many experiences (involving pleasure) have intentional objects.
  2. Many conscious states (of pleasure) exist because we strive for  objects that are not intentional states.
  3. 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).

My Objections

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.


  1. Great blog and hope to have time soon to come back and read some more! xx

    Comment by Hannah — February 28, 2009 @ 1:14 am | Reply

  2. You write: “It isn’t clear to me what objects of intentional states Wiggins believes could have intrinsic value.” Here is an example. I admire Hume’s work (the object of my intentional states) not because it gives me pleasant feelings (in fact it causes me much trouble). I admire it because of its philosophical excellence. Of course, in reading Hume I take pleasure in the qualities of his work. But that does not mean that I feel some pleasure I could get from something else. The reading itself constitutes the pleasure, not some kind of feeling that accompanies my reading Hume. And that’s what is called intrinsic value.

    Comment by JH — July 11, 2009 @ 9:25 am | Reply

    • JH, it sounds like you are saying pleasure could be an example of intrinsic value. I agree that pleasure could have intrinsic value, and discussed that in the essay. Wiggins, however, seems to think there must be more to it than pleasure. “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.”

      I’m not quite sure what you mean to say that the reading of Hume constitutes pleasure, not the feeling. By definition, I think pleasure has to be a feeling. It involves various qualia, doesn’t it?

      Comment by James Gray — July 11, 2009 @ 10:06 pm | Reply

      • One could defend the view that pleasure (at least one form of it) is not a mental process that can be identified apart from the activity in question. There is, for example, no way of getting the pleasure of reading Hume by doing something else. This activity is not a means for obtaining some feeling we call ‘pleasure’. “Reading Hume for pleasure” is not to be paraphrased as “Reading Hume for getting a nice feeling” but as “Reading Hume for its own sake” or “because it is a great thing to do”. Describing the pleasure is describing the characteristics that make the activity worthwile. These characteristics are not psychological ones.

        Comment by JH — July 12, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

  3. Suppose I read Hume for pleasure. – Does that mean I read Hume as a means for obtaining some kind of agreeable feeling? I don’t think so. First reason: I could not get the pleasure of reading Hume by reading Kant or some other great philosopher. Quite impossible. Second reason: There is no empirical evidence for there being a feeling one could identify apart from the activity of reading. There are, of course, agreeable feelings involved in reading. But would it be correct to describe these feelings as ‘the pleasure of reading Hume’? If I asked someone to describe his pleasure of reading Hume he would describe the qualities of the work, not his mental processes. So this form of pleasure and intrinsic value are connected. What makes some things worthwhile is not the amount of ‘pleasure’ (conceived as feeling) they produce but certain characteristics we discern in them. Wiggins says in Part 6 of his article: “The participant, with the going concepts of the objective and the worth while, describes certain external properties in things and states of affairs. And the presence there of these properties is what invests them with importance in his eyes.”

    Comment by JH — July 12, 2009 @ 6:32 pm | Reply

    • What you are talking about sounds like it falls into Wiggins’s argument against pleasure being the only intrinsic value. We take pleasure in many things precisely because we think there is some other intrinsic value involved. The fact that we can’t describe pleasure to others is pretty irrelevant because that is just a fact about all pleasures.

      My assumption: You enjoy reading Hume partly because it is written well and partly because you think some kind of knowledge (or self-improvement, or something else with intrinsic value) is obtainable from it. Kant might also be worth reading because of the intrinsic value involved, but it is also painful to read because it’s not written well. We are then more ambivalent to read Kant.

      Sometimes we also take pleasure in things with no other intrinsic values being involved, such as eating chocolate. Reading Hume does not seem to be in that category. You could say that tasting chocolate is for most people a kind of pleasure in itself because that activity is nothing other than a mental state.

      If you think reading Hume is a pleasure in itself (without any intrinsic value involved other than pleasure), then I still don’t see how that can work.

      Comment by James Gray — July 12, 2009 @ 9:29 pm | Reply

  4. […] Chapter 3.7: Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life by David Wiggins […]

    Pingback by Contemperary Metaethics Part 1 Table of Contents « Ethical Realism — September 10, 2009 @ 9:18 am | Reply

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