Ethical Realism

March 25, 2009

Chapter 3.8 “Values and Secondary Qualities” by John McDowell

John McDowell’s article presents an argument that (intrinsic) values are real.

The distinction between primary and secondary qualities was made by John Locke. Primary qualities are objective and exist even if we don’t perceive them, such as shape and mathematical relationships. Secondary qualities are qualities are subjective and depend on our perceptions, such as color and taste.

Some people believed that if moral values are secondary qualities, then it is subjective and could be considered to be illusory. If they are primary qualities, then they are objective and could concern reality independently of our illusions. McDowell argues that morality might be something like a secondary quality, but that doesn’t make it an illusion. Moral values can be subjective, and subjective states can be real.

Primary and secondary qualities are related to our perceptions: When we observe an object, does our observation depend entirely on our sense organs or is the observation based on what the object is really like? Can we characterize an object as existing in a way that doesn’t wholly depend on our perceptual experience? (Although the color red is produced by microscopic elements, that is not how we understand the color red when we experience it. The color red is wholly understood in terms of perceptual experience) (168).

McDowell admits that we don’t know about ethical truths simply from perception, so it doesn’t actually make sense to say that moral values are secondary qualities. (Ethics requires some intellectual activity.) This is why he only wants to say that ethics involves something like a secondary quality. If ethics requires something like a primary quality, then it will be something like a Platonic form, which he finds to be absurd.

McDowell then argues that secondary qualities are not necessarily illusory because there is nothing misleading about them. Although the experience of the color red doesn’t tell us about the microscopic elements required to have the experience, there is still nothing misleading about the experience. The only way to know what color the microscopic elements will/should produce is to take a look (168-169). The color red could still be understood to be real, even though the experience might not resemble what exists in the world independently of our experience. (The color red is simply our experience of it.) The only reason that secondary qualities should ever be considered to be illusory is if they somehow trick us into thinking that they are primary qualities–and really do appear to us as they actually exist.

It seems unlikely that we can even create an idea of a primary quality from our color experiences, so it doesn’t seem that anything is misleading about them (169). The color red, for example, is simply our experience of red and doesn’t fail to resemble an object that it somehow purports to resemble.

Simply put: Secondary qualities can be subjective, but still real. Secondary qualities are not necessarily deceptive, misleading, or illusory.

Then McDowell argues that values are similar to secondary qualities by defending secondary qualities from the claim that they are extraneous (174). It has been claimed that secondary qualities don’t explain how things are in objective reality. It is true that secondary qualities tend not to explain how things are in the objective world, but this is probably because secondary qualities exist subjectively. Certainly subjective qualities tend not to be causally effective in the objective world, so we can’t have scientific experiments to find out if the color red exists objectively. It would be incoherent to even try to use (certain) secondary qualities as an explanation for how the objective world works considering that we can’t even give an account about what a secondary quality would be like if it was a primary quality.

It is true that values will also fail to explain objective reality and there is no causally effective objective moral reality that produces moral beliefs in us. However, circumstances we deem to be good or bad are said to “merit” such a response rather than to “cause” such a response (175). Saving a life tends to “merit” the response that we believe that a good action has occurred. Since value judgments are “merited,” we somehow decide which value judgments are appropriate without actually perceiving moral facts.

It might be true that we could falsely say something is “tasty” (induces pleasure), but we recognize that what each person tastes as good is different. However, this is not so with values and moral beliefs. One person can be right and another wrong. We expect that our moral beliefs can be mistaken. Sometimes we are willing to change our moral beliefs.

My Response

Although this essay has contributed some important arguments, there is much more that needs to be said. One very important question is how we know about ethics. If we know it from perceiving primary qualities, then ethics is clearly real and objective. However, it is still unclear how McDowell thinks we know about ethics. If we can’t explain how we know about ethics, then it might as well be an unjustified religious tradition, instinct, or habit. We might believe in values when no values actually exist.

If we know about “good” and “bad” because we have good and bad experiences, then intrinsic values are entirely dependant on subjective states. For example, pain. We experience pain as bad, so it is a candidate for knowledge of intrinsic value.

22 Comments »

  1. Hello!
    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

    Comment by RaiulBaztepo — March 31, 2009 @ 2:49 pm | Reply

  2. Very useful… I am looking at Locke’s response to Meta-Ethics, so this is really useful. For anyone interested, here are a few quotes from Locke to support it:

    “…a snowball having the power to produce in us the ideas of white, cold and round, the powers to produce those ideas in us, as they are in the snowball, I call qualities, and as they are sensations, or perceptions, in our understandings, I call them ideas.” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding)

    “Let us consider the red and white colours in porphyry. Hinder light but from striking on it, and its colours vanish; it no longer produces any such ideas in us. Upon the return of light, it produces these appearances on us again. Can any one think any real alterations are made in the porphyry by the presence of the absence of light; and that those ideas of whiteness and redness, are really in porphyry in the light, when it is plain it has no colour in the dark?…whiteness and redness are not in it at any time, but such a texture has the power to produce such a sensation in us.” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding).

    Comment by Giles Pengelly — February 27, 2011 @ 8:43 am | Reply

  3. Just as a heads up: according to my professor, McDowell is an intuitionist who, when writing this paper read Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Sovereignty of Good’ extensively. Now if McDowell is an intuitionist (and it does seem like he is) he would have no problem admitting that there are people who have different opinions. I suspect that he would just say that their moral sensibilities were wrong, and they would need to somehow fine-tune them. If this account of his position is correct (which assumes he sides with Murdoch) then it does seem he has alot to elaborate on!

    I would personally argue that Iris’ account and McDowell’s account still relies on some ahistorical notion of good, which in some way I feel contradicts his position that moral properties are non-primary qualities.

    Comment by Jimmy Macintosh — November 5, 2012 @ 1:01 am | Reply

    • Why do you think it contradicts his position?

      Comment by JW Gray — November 5, 2012 @ 2:02 am | Reply

  4. Well McDowell wants to differentiate between objective in the ‘experientially neutral’ sense and objective in his sense which for him is ‘what is there to be experienced.’ (Mind, Value reality pg 136) , which is to somehow find a middle ground between what is subjective in the sense that it is within perception and objective in the sense which he puts forward., He wants to say that these moral properties which are really out there are not the ‘children’ of our sensibilities but ‘siblings’ as they arise together (you can see the hegelian influence there).

    My worry is that if it is true that McDowell buys into the kind of intuitionism that Murdoch proposes (according to my professor anyway) he wants to say that there are those of us with ‘correct’ sensibilities and those who haven’t got it. But in reference to what exactly are we talking about when we say ‘you have an incorrect sensibility.’ ?
    It is not enough to make that claim based purely on conviction. To make my point clearer, I’ll go back to the colour analogy.

    Iris Murdoch (its almost as if McDowell adapted that example from her) wants to argue that ‘red’ is a public concept, and I’m inclined to agree. However, I might like red, and you might not. It would seem very, very counter-intuitive to argue that me liking red suggests that I have a ‘good sensibility’ about such things, and you don’t because you don’t like red. The point is, this ‘intuition’ is not the same as ‘agreeing that I see red, like you see red’. I don’t see how McDowell accounts for this at all. I understand that this is here he claims the dis-analogy that moral properties have with colour, but how does McDowell claim that a person’s sensibility is ‘incorrect’ with reference to the phenomena themselves, or with our subjectivity? He wants to say that there are situations in which I can say your sensibilities are inferior. And I can’t figure out how unless he posits an ahistorical good (which sounds very much like an ‘experientially neutral’ kind to me) which goes against his claims about moral properties being ‘things that are out there to be experienced.’

    Comment by Jimmy Macintosh — November 5, 2012 @ 4:40 am | Reply

    • The question here seems to be about the relation between meta-ethics and moral theory. The reality of our experiences is that they are part of reality, but they are subjective in the sense that they only exist in the mind. He says that morality is something like that. Morality also doesn’t seem to exist without the mind. Perhaps some experiences are bad and others are good. That’s the utilitarian position.

      Why do utilitarians says that some experiences are bad and some are good? They think we can and do agree about the “correct assessment” of such a thing. Perhaps some people are deluded about how bad their pain is or something, but I think it is undeniable that there’s something bad about experiencing pain.

      The real problem is when we say we experience that an action was right or wrong. That isn’t just about what experiences are good and bad to have. That’s where the “correct” interpretation of our experiences is more difficult and controversial. Then we need to know why we should choose one moral theory over another and how to properly apply the theory.

      Comment by JW Gray — November 5, 2012 @ 7:26 pm | Reply

  5. Well put it this way: Women A does not like feeling pain so she would say it is ‘Bad’ (that much I will concede). However, she loves to torture other people- she says that their pain is ‘good’. On what grounds can you say she is wrong about the pain of others? But I guess you will say her sensibilities are wrong. But corresponding to what are her sensibilities wrong? Based on the strength of your own convictions about your own phenomenology? Based on the general agreement of others? If you say yes to that, then McDowell’s theory is reminiscent of a relativistic notion of truth, and I don’t know if he buys into that or not.

    Comment by Jimmy Macintosh — November 5, 2012 @ 9:37 pm | Reply

    • The question is not only how we experience pain but that the word “pain” precisely refers to a bad experience of some sort. I don’t think a person who tortures others say the pain of those being tortured is good in the relevant sense. They still know someone is feeling something bad. It is quite possible for someone’s pain to be good “in some sense.” Perhaps it is right to make someone feel pain in some circumstances.

      The relevant sense is likely “intrinsic disvalue.” Pain seems to be bad “for its own sake.” However, pain could be useful to us. That means it can be instrumentally good.

      But I guess you will say her sensibilities are wrong.

      Let’s say she enjoys harming others. She likes the pleasure it gives her. I would certainly want to say it’s “wrong” for her to feel that way insofar as it’s not virtuous. A virtuous emotional response would motivate her to do the right thing rather than something so harmful.

      But corresponding to what are her sensibilities wrong?

      Depends on the moral theory. A utilitarian would say that she is being motivated to cause people more pain than pleasure. The pleasure she gets would be said to be insignificant compared to the pain she causes.

      Based on the general agreement of others? If you say yes to that, then McDowell’s theory is reminiscent of a relativistic notion of truth, and I don’t know if he buys into that or not.

      I am not a relativist and I don’t think he is either.

      Comment by JW Gray — November 5, 2012 @ 10:23 pm | Reply

  6. I don’t think a person who tortures others say the pain of those being tortured is good in the relevant sense.

    Is it not even possible? Is it not even possible for her psychology to deal with the concept of ‘pain in others’ in that way? If she is ‘wrong’ I think there needs to be some explanation of why her mind is incapable of registering it in the ‘right’ why, and why ours seem to be so much better at it.

    Depends on the moral theory.

    So morality is relative to a moral theory? Considering that you are not a realist, in what way do you think you can claim that certain moral judgements are closer to moral truth than others? The direct phenomenology of ‘pain’ aside, what gives you resources to claim that morality is objective, even in the face of the possible existence of people with drastically different psychologies? The psychology you have might be more common, but what is so ‘innately’ better about it that can claim greater accuracy at recognising intrinsic moral truths?

    Comment by Jimmy Macintosh — November 5, 2012 @ 10:45 pm | Reply

    • *considering that you ARE a realist sorry

      Comment by Jimmy Macintosh — November 6, 2012 @ 12:19 am | Reply

    • Is it not even possible? Is it not even possible for her psychology to deal with the concept of ‘pain in others’ in that way? If she is ‘wrong’ I think there needs to be some explanation of why her mind is incapable of registering it in the ‘right’ why, and why ours seem to be so much better at it.

      We know what people mean by “pain.” They mean an experience that we can describe as having an “intrinsically bad” element. If someone denies that, then they don’t buy into what we might say is the correct description of metaphysics (assuming it is correct). If it is not a correct description of metaethics, then you are rejecting a premise that a moral realism might require.

      It is certainly possible to deny that pain is “intrinsically bad” but we want to know who is right. Either it has intrinsic value or it doesn’t. The mere possibility of denying it isn’t enough to make it true. Both a realist an an anti-realist can have a different story and interpretation of our experiences.

      So morality is relative to a moral theory? Considering that you are not a realist, in what way do you think you can claim that certain moral judgements are closer to moral truth than others?

      I don’t understand this question. We can ask if any moral theory is true and how we can even answer such a question. I never said that I’m an anti-realist.

      Do you want to know how we can decide which moral theory is true or false?

      The direct phenomenology of ‘pain’ aside, what gives you resources to claim that morality is objective, even in the face of the possible existence of people with drastically different psychologies? The psychology you have might be more common, but what is so ‘innately’ better about it that can claim greater accuracy at recognising intrinsic moral truths?

      Either some experiences are intrinsically good or bad or not. I think some of mine are, and I think some of yours probably are for the same reason. If some being has no intrinsically good or bad experiences, then we might not have a reason to talk about how important its interests are.

      Comment by JW Gray — November 6, 2012 @ 3:38 am | Reply

  7. Sorry about saying you were an anti-realist I did apologise in the immediate comment after for that embarrassing mistake ><.

    We know what people mean by “pain.” They mean an experience that we can describe as having an “intrinsically bad” element. If someone denies that, then they don’t buy into what we might say is the correct description of metaphysics

    How is her interpretation of pain innately wrong though? I do not want to be controversial- I think I am in agreement with you when we say that pain is undesirable. Thus to that extent, I have some kind of solidarity with you, but that's all I can say.My point is is that if their psychology is different such that they genuinely feel or believe that pains that other people feel are intrinsically good then we must also argue why our psychology is intrinsically 'better'. If that lady says 'well I've experienced pain but its only 'bad' when I feel it. It's good when other's feel it.' This portion of that response interests me alot though: "what we might say is the correct description of metaphysics". How do we achieve a 'correct' description? By not only your lights, but a large number of others? I suspect that the real difference between me and you is epistemological.

    Either some experiences are intrinsically good or bad or not.

    That's not really what I meant- I'll try and be more clear. My question is epistemological in conception- how do we know what we think is true is actually true? Strictly in terms of our current discussion of course. In this case, I think McDowell will have to speak of an objectivity that is not just 'what is out there to be experienced'. I think he will have to say that objectively speaking (in an experientially neutral sense) that our psychologies are more suited for differentiating between innate bad and good. If people with drastically different psychologies from us genuinely have such different conceptions of 'pain' in terms of moral value than how do we still maintain that we are objectively right about such judgements?

    Comment by Jimmy Macintosh — November 6, 2012 @ 4:26 am | Reply

    • How is her interpretation of pain innately wrong though? I do not want to be controversial- I think I am in agreement with you when we say that pain is undesirable.

      Depends what her interpretation is. She might be an anti-realist that doesn’t think intrinsic value exists at all. In that case she might think people dislike pain for its own sake. That would be incorrect assuming that it really is intrinsically bad.

      Thus to that extent, I have some kind of solidarity with you, but that’s all I can say.My point is is that if their psychology is different such that they genuinely feel or believe that pains that other people feel are intrinsically good then we must also argue why our psychology is intrinsically ‘better’.

      I don’t know how they could experience something so deceptive, but we could say that their experiences are inferior precisely for that reason. They are “projecting” something onto the minds of others. They shouldn’t assume that other people’s pain is pleasure or something strange like that. It’s baffling to say that pain is intrinsically good.

      If that lady says ‘well I’ve experienced pain but its only ‘bad’ when I feel it. It’s good when other’s feel it.’ This portion of that response interests me alot though: “what we might say is the correct description of metaphysics”. How do we achieve a ‘correct’ description? By not only your lights, but a large number of others? I suspect that the real difference between me and you is epistemological.

      What she is saying sounds hypocritical. We should generally trust what other people say about their own experiences and not insist that we know their experiences better than they do. And we are made in very similar ways to other humans and mammals. The fact that they behave similarly to we do in response to pain (and tell us what it’s like) confirms that their pain is similar to ours, that they experience it similarly to how we do, and that they probably have similar experiences because they are biologically similar to us.

      Understanding metaphysics is based on observation, theoretical virtues, and perhaps even intuition. Again, there are “epistemic theories” much like there are moral theories. It is not an easy issue to resolve. There are disputes about the right way to justify our beliefs. However, there are also many clear-cut cases. We do seem to know a lot about proper justification. For example, we shouldn’t justify our beliefs with invalid deductive arguments or fallacious arguments.

      That’s not really what I meant- I’ll try and be more clear. My question is epistemological in conception- how do we know what we think is true is actually true? Strictly in terms of our current discussion of course. In this case, I think McDowell will have to speak of an objectivity that is not just ‘what is out there to be experienced’. I think he will have to say that objectively speaking (in an experientially neutral sense) that our psychologies are more suited for differentiating between innate bad and good. If people with drastically different psychologies from us genuinely have such different conceptions of ‘pain’ in terms of moral value than how do we still maintain that we are objectively right about such judgements?

      There are moral realists and anti-realists who both think their interpretation of their experiences are superior. This is not a “case closed” situation. We should consider who has the best arguments and a superior understanding of epistemology could help.

      I think it is clear that some psychologies are more suited to justifying beliefs properly than others — even in certain domains over others. A creature without eyes will have much harder time finding out if leaves are green or not.

      Comment by JW Gray — November 6, 2012 @ 5:42 am | Reply

  8. There are two notions which I think require further discussion:
    1)” What she is saying sounds hypocritical. We should generally trust what other people say about their own experiences and not insist that we know their experiences better than they do…I think it is clear that some psychologies are more suited to justifying beliefs properly than others — even in certain domains over others. A creature without eyes will have much harder time finding out if leaves are green or not.”

    If they have different psychologies then chances are they have uncontrollable tendencies (whether these tendencies are stronger or not is dependent on the individual psychology) towards different beliefs in the first place. But it seems that I have to make out why I think it is possible for someone to have such a psychology in the first place. I can’t offer a proof, but I can offer a strong motivation:
    Not so long ago there were breeding experiments with a type of fox. The original generation were very hostile towards humans. Each successive generation involved breeding the foxes which were more amicable towards humans, until one generation were amicable and friendly enough to become household pets (I think these foxes are now sold as such). If we assume that a similar thing happened towards wolves and the house-hold dog, we still see the odd, say, Labrador being somewhat unfriendly, or uncharacteristically aggressive towards humans. These dogs, whilst they would be mostly friendly would still have the possibility of having a psychology that at the least seems inclined towards aggression. I suspect that there are still cases of people being unusually aggressive and/or apathetic.
    2) “What she is saying sounds hypocritical. We should generally trust what other people say about their own experiences and not insist that we know their experiences better than they do. And we are made in very similar ways to other humans and mammals. The fact that they behave similarly to we do in response to pain…think it is clear that some psychologies are more suited to justifying beliefs properly than others…”

    Now the issue is this: We must say why our psychologies are intrinsically more suited to knowing why pain is intrinsically ‘bad’, just because most of us act in a certain way. I’m not sure how you’ve done this. You’ve given me “The fact that they behave similarly to we do in response to pain…confirms that their pain is similar to ours, that they experience it similarly to how we do, and that they probably have similar experiences because they are biologically similar to us.” My example should be strong enough in its own right to cast doubt on why the vast majority of people are right when they intuitively say that pain is bad. We can argue that they are hypocritical, but I think you need to explicate more on why this is. Surely woman A can only be hypocritical if she insists ‘pain is bad’. But she does not. The possessor of pain takes over: ‘MY pain is bad.’ ‘YOUR pain is good.’ For her, those might be powerfully intuitive, much like how ‘pain is bad’ is intuitive for us.

    Comment by Jimmy Macintosh — November 6, 2012 @ 7:46 pm | Reply

    • Not so long ago there were breeding experiments with a type of fox. The original generation were very hostile towards humans. Each successive generation involved breeding the foxes which were more amicable towards humans, until one generation were amicable and friendly enough to become household pets (I think these foxes are now sold as such). If we assume that a similar thing happened towards wolves and the house-hold dog, we still see the odd, say, Labrador being somewhat unfriendly, or uncharacteristically aggressive towards humans. These dogs, whilst they would be mostly friendly would still have the possibility of having a psychology that at the least seems inclined towards aggression. I suspect that there are still cases of people being unusually aggressive and/or apathetic.

      I don’t see how that relates to the issue about whether or not pain could be intrinsically bad or not. We are dealing with interpretations of experience. The idea that some people like chocolate and some like vanilla is no more relevant than whether or not foxes like the company of humans.

      There are people who enjoy pain in certain contexts (masochists) and psychopaths who care little about others. Those are the abnormal types of psychology people generally mention in this debate, but I think their experiences are perfectly compatible with the view that pain is intrinsically bad.

      2) “What she is saying sounds hypocritical. We should generally trust what other people say about their own experiences and not insist that we know their experiences better than they do. And we are made in very similar ways to other humans and mammals. The fact that they behave similarly to we do in response to pain…think it is clear that some psychologies are more suited to justifying beliefs properly than others…”

      Now the issue is this: We must say why our psychologies are intrinsically more suited to knowing why pain is intrinsically ‘bad’, just because most of us act in a certain way. I’m not sure how you’ve done this.

      More suited than what? Realists of intrinsic values can explain why they think we experience that pain is intrinsically bad. I don’t see why an “experience based” argument would be so questionable. We can observe colors and three dimensional objects. We can obviously do that better than something incapable of observing such things.

      You’ve given me “The fact that they behave similarly to we do in response to pain…confirms that their pain is similar to ours, that they experience it similarly to how we do, and that they probably have similar experiences because they are biologically similar to us.” My example should be strong enough in its own right to cast doubt on why the vast majority of people are right when they intuitively say that pain is bad. We can argue that they are hypocritical, but I think you need to explicate more on why this is. Surely woman A can only be hypocritical if she insists ‘pain is bad’. But she does not. The possessor of pain takes over: ‘MY pain is bad.’ ‘YOUR pain is good.’ For her, those might be powerfully intuitive, much like how ‘pain is bad’ is intuitive for us.

      It’s like arguing that I see green when I see grass, but everyone else has an inverted spectrum and sees red. Why would anyone think that possibility should be taken seriously? The fact that biology seems to cause experience and that other people have a similar biology is a very good reason to doubt that they have an inverted spectrum.

      I also said that the sadistic woman does not experience other people’s experiences. She merely infers their experience. To assume their pain is intrinsically good (of certain people) would (a) imply that their pain is not pain and (b) imply that their pain is different from hers in some important way. This is why I said she was “projecting” some concept of pain onto others. She does not have evidence for thinking what she thinks.

      Whenever people say that certain people are unique from everyone else in some significant way, then we want to know why they would think such a thing. Such a thought does not seem justified unless there’s a good reason to think it. The default position is that creatures with similar biology will have other similar characteristics.

      I think your thought experiment that person x has intrinsically bad pain and everyone else has intrinsically good pain is a lot like the assumption of solipsism (that I have a mind and no one else does). It is implausible for similar reasons that solipsism is implausible. It is similar to the “problem of other minds” issue.

      Comment by JW Gray — November 7, 2012 @ 5:40 am | Reply

  9. More suited than what? Realists of intrinsic values can explain why they think we experience that pain is intrinsically bad.
    More suited than people with abnormal psychologies (at least that’s what you want to say). If different people have such different psychologies you must explain why our resources are better for claiming that it has an intrinsic badness in an objective sense. Realists of intrinsic values can give AN explanation, but I think that explanation to be questionable, which is why I have been arguing against McDowell’s account.
    It’s like arguing that I see green when I see grass, but everyone else has an inverted spectrum and sees red. Why would anyone think that possibility should be taken seriously? The fact that biology seems to cause experience and that other people have a similar biology is a very good reason to doubt that they have an inverted spectrum.
    My example admits that we have similar biology in the sense of DNA, but for whatever reason very different psychological tendencies. This argument needs to be taken seriously by my lights- you want to say that pain in intrinsically good for everyone whatever their psychology (and so whatever they think). But if people can have such different psychologies you must answer as to why their psychologies are inferior for speaking of value.
    I also said that the sadistic woman does not experience other people’s experiences. She merely infers their experience. To assume their pain is intrinsically good (of certain people) would (a) imply that their pain is not pain and (b) imply that their pain is different from hers in some important way. This is why I said she was “projecting” some concept of pain onto others. She does not have evidence for thinking what she thinks.

    Do we, the ‘normal people’ do anything different? You are still not answering the epistemological concern. These answers are all given by our lights.
    I think your thought experiment that person x has intrinsically bad pain and everyone else has intrinsically good pain is a lot like the assumption of solipsism
    In what way? The woman in the example as you rightfully say, is sadistic. She does not need to assume the lack of minds that other people has.

    Comment by Jimmy Macintosh — November 7, 2012 @ 6:38 am | Reply

    • More suited than people with abnormal psychologies (at least that’s what you want to say). If different people have such different psychologies you must explain why our resources are better for claiming that it has an intrinsic badness in an objective sense. Realists of intrinsic values can give AN explanation, but I think that explanation to be questionable, which is why I have been arguing against McDowell’s account.

      It is questionable. We should consider whether or not we experience pain that way or not. If someone does not experience pain that way, then the realist might wonder if they are experiencing pain at all.

      My example admits that we have similar biology in the sense of DNA, but for whatever reason very different psychological tendencies. This argument needs to be taken seriously by my lights- you want to say that pain in intrinsically good for everyone whatever their psychology (and so whatever they think). But if people can have such different psychologies you must answer as to why their psychologies are inferior for speaking of value.

      I would need to know more about their psychology and how it relates. I can’t respond to a mere possibility. It’s like explaining why a color blind person doesn’t prove grass isn’t green.

      Do we, the ‘normal people’ do anything different? You are still not answering the epistemological concern. These answers are all given by our lights.

      Normal people don’t just “project” experiences onto others because they are trying to understand the experiences of others to the best of their ability. They can’t just make up whatever they want. This is exactly why I said that solipsism seems relevant.

      Do you think solipsism is just as plausible as the existence of other people?

      In what way? The woman in the example as you rightfully say, is sadistic. She does not need to assume the lack of minds that other people has.

      She takes her experience of her own pain to prove that it’s intrinsically bad, but she doesn’t think other people’s experience of their pain proves the same thing. She is picking and choosing her epistemic norms in a hypocritical way.

      I said it’s solipsistic because we have a reason to think people have other minds, other color experiences, and other pain experiences for pretty much the same reasons. My understanding of “pain experience” is of an experience that’s intrinsically bad.

      Comment by JW Gray — November 7, 2012 @ 6:51 am | Reply

  10. the realist might wonder if they are experiencing pain at all…I can’t respond to a mere possibility. It’s like explaining why a color blind person doesn’t prove grass isn’t green.

    Interesting- in the case of the colour blind person, the light particles external to him wouldn’t change, its some component of his body. Granted, perhaps those who can see more colours may have advantages (such as crossing the road). But in this case, we have the resources for further discussion: The lady can experience pain, and so can we. The difference is in our thoughts about the ‘badness’ of pain.I suspect that you will answer my question if the ‘mere possiblity’ involved a horrible ethical dilemma of a man threatening to bomb a school unless he gets to rape a child. What is so different about this? Why is our psychology is adapted to percieve things in a way that is ‘intrinsically good’? To dimiss this as mere ‘possibility’ is an attempt to avoid the question but I’m not convinced you have good grounds to do it. You attempt to justify yourself:

    She takes her experience of her own pain to prove that it’s intrinsically bad, but she doesn’t think other people’s experience of their pain proves the same thing. She is picking and choosing her epistemic norms in a hypocritical way.

    I stress the possessor of pain, you stress the pain itself. You refuse to even consider this story as remotely plausible- I’m not convinced that you can avoid it:

    My understanding of “pain experience” is of an experience that’s intrinsically bad.

    That is my point- your understanding. I provided an example to cast doubt on the notion that some psychologies such as ours is so innately good for understanding what is ‘bad’ intrinsically about pain, and why we must think of it one way or another. Our intuitions may scream ‘pain is bad’, but the example is designed to go around that claim by providing us with a person that has drastically different ways of thinking. What is so darned implausible about it? The strength of our convictions alone doesn’t provide us with truth.

    Comment by Jimmy Macintosh — November 7, 2012 @ 7:54 pm | Reply

    • Interesting- in the case of the colour blind person, the light particles external to him wouldn’t change, its some component of his body. Granted, perhaps those who can see more colours may have advantages (such as crossing the road). But in this case, we have the resources for further discussion: The lady can experience pain, and so can we. The difference is in our thoughts about the ‘badness’ of pain.I suspect that you will answer my question if the ‘mere possiblity’ involved a horrible ethical dilemma of a man threatening to bomb a school unless he gets to rape a child. What is so different about this? Why is our psychology is adapted to percieve things in a way that is ‘intrinsically good’? To dimiss this as mere ‘possibility’ is an attempt to avoid the question but I’m not convinced you have good grounds to do it. You attempt to justify yourself

      She takes her experience of her own pain to prove that it’s intrinsically bad, but she doesn’t think other people’s experience of their pain proves the same thing. She is picking and choosing her epistemic norms in a hypocritical way.

      I stress the possessor of pain, you stress the pain itself. You refuse to even consider this story as remotely plausible- I’m not convinced that you can avoid it:

      I see green. I ask someone if a leaf is green (not all are). That person correctly says, “Yes.” That is a good reason to think that person also sees green. People feel pain and have similar responses to pain. That is evidence that they experience it in similar ways. I think saying that pain is intrinsically bad refers to something like the fact that it “feels bad.” We think we have a good reason to want to avoid pain based on how we experience it.

      I don’t know what exactly you think is so plausible about this thought experiment.

      That is my point- your understanding. I provided an example to cast doubt on the notion that some psychologies such as ours is so innately good for understanding what is ‘bad’ intrinsically about pain, and why we must think of it one way or another. Our intuitions may scream ‘pain is bad’, but the example is designed to go around that claim by providing us with a person that has drastically different ways of thinking. What is so darned implausible about it? The strength of our convictions alone doesn’t provide us with truth.

      Let’s say your thought experiment is about someone who literally experiences that my pain is intrinsically good, but her own pain is intrinsically bad. That just seems delusional. It’s like a person who experiences that a leaf is green but experiences that I see that the leaf is red — even though I don’t. That’s the problem.

      Let’s say you just want to say someone doesn’t think they experience that pain is intrinsically bad. There are people like that. I can have a debate with them about the proper way to interpret our experiences.

      Comment by JW Gray — November 8, 2012 @ 6:31 am | Reply

  11. I see green. I ask someone if a leaf is green (not all are). That person correctly says, “Yes.” That is a good reason to think that person also sees green. People feel pain and have similar responses to pain.

    I do not doubt that the vast majority of us do, in fact I am inclined to agree!

    Let’s say your thought experiment is about someone who literally experiences that my pain is intrinsically good, but her own pain is intrinsically bad. That just seems delusional. It’s like a person who experiences that a leaf is green but experiences that I see that the leaf is red — even though I don’t. That’s the problem.

    Yes. The light particles don’t change simply because your body for whatever reason lacks the ‘right resources’. Some people’s bodies have the resources to see certain colours, and other’s don’t. As for the ‘That just seems delusional.’ it would seem delusional, and we would probably regard a person who felt pain in such a way to be ‘crazy’ or ‘psychotic’. That is why I have chosen such an example- to challenge the notion that there ‘can’ be a right way of looking at things. Secondly, none of us can directly experience someone else’s pain (as far as I know). The fact that the woman is ‘delusional’ enough to believe that the pain of other people is good is not enough to tackle the idea that our intuitions are innately superior (I would argue that our is better instrumentally, but our problem is over internationality).

    Let’s say you just want to say someone doesn’t think they experience that pain is intrinsically bad. There are people like that. I can have a debate with them about the proper way to interpret our experiences.

    But this dialogue just goes in a circle. It pre-assumes the correct way to interpret our experiences without giving an adequate foundation apart from some innately good intuition. You freely claim the woman’s intuitions to be ‘delusional’. I do not see how in order to speak of ‘innately good intuition’ you can’t speak of objectivity in an experientially neutral sense.

    Comment by Jimmy Macintosh — November 8, 2012 @ 1:29 pm | Reply

    • We think we experience things and can accurately understand our own experiences. If everyone who seems to function well agrees, then there is no problem. If people disagree about how to interpret their experiences, then we will have to decide if one person is interpreting their experiences better.

      In this case we are dealing with someone having experiences similar to ESP — someone claims to know what it’s like for someone else to have an experience. That seems far fetched. We agree that we should not agree that a person has ESP without a very good reason to do so.

      Moreover, we are dealing with someone who claims that other people’s experiences have an extremely different property than it seems to have to the people who actually have them. Being intrinsically bad seems to be based on “feeling bad” (and perhaps other things). Why exactly would a person say that other people are understanding their own experiences the wrong way, but she understands her own experiences the right way? Is there any reason to say such a thing that’s likely to be right? She is claiming to have a privileged position no one else has. That seems far-fetched and in need of justification.

      Is it possible for people to have totally wrong intuitions? Yes, and that seems to describe the problem of the sadistic woman.

      Is it possible for the sadistic women to have a privileged understanding of intrinsic value and pain experience that somehow makes her pain different than everyone else’s? Perhaps, but I see no reason to think such a possibility is “actual.” The fact that something is possible does not mean we should take it seriously.

      Our intuitions can be challenged, but I don’t see a way to disregard them entirely. Why believe anything at all? If you don’t think intuition counts for anything, then I don’t know that any belief could really be justified more than another one.

      And we aren’t just dealing with intuition. We are dealing with the assumption that experiences count as evidence. We have inductive support for that conclusion. Sometimes people have conflicting experiences, but we seem to figure out who has the accurate experience quite often. We really do think we can find out that certain people are delusional or experience hallucinations.

      Comment by JW Gray — November 10, 2012 @ 7:56 am | Reply

  12. We think we experience things and can accurately understand our own experiences. If everyone who seems to function well agrees, then there is no problem. If people disagree about how to interpret their experiences, then we will have to decide if one person is interpreting their experiences better.
    Exactly. The only thing we can do is try to justify our beliefs as best as we can and seek broad agreement- achieving solidarity is very important indeed for progress of knowledge.

    That seems far fetched. We agree that we should not agree that a person has ESP without a very good reason to do so…She is claiming to have a privileged position no one else has. That seems far-fetched and in need of justification.
    But our lights, she WOULD have absurd ‘far-fetched’ intuitions. But that is all I think we can say without reverting to a notion of objectivity that contradicts the position McDowell wants to uphold.

    Our intuitions can be challenged, but I don’t see a way to disregard them entirely. Why believe anything at all? If you don’t think intuition counts for anything, then I don’t know that any belief could really be justified more than another one.
    To cope with our environment. It is clear that furthering scientific knowledge has huge advantages in helping us do the things we want to make our lives more comfortable. I guess there’s nothing wrong either with simply being interested in science. It seems that the current ethical discussions involving homosexuality, coloured people, etc. Just helps us to achieve solidarity with others.

    And we aren’t just dealing with intuition. We are dealing with the assumption that experiences count as evidence. We have inductive support for that conclusion.
    I have no doubt that this is true, but I do not think it is ‘knowledge’ in the sense that it is ‘true, justified belief’ in a platonic form. Experience is what we have, and experience is what we have to learn to cope with.

    We really do think we can find out that certain people are delusional or experience hallucinations.
    I agree that we ‘really do think’ that, but I think that attempt to find ‘objective knowledge’ in the sense McDowell pretends he doesn’t hold is a pipe dream.

    Comment by Jimmy Macintosh — November 11, 2012 @ 12:23 am | Reply


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