The belief in intrinsic values (and moral realism in general) is incompatible with certain beliefs about reality. Something has intrinsic value if it is good just for existing (perhaps happiness or human life). Moral realism is the view that there are moral facts beyond our personal interests and beliefs. If something has real value just for existing, then there are facts about what actions are better than others because some actions can promote intrinsic value better than others. For example, killing people destroys something with intrinsic value assuming human life has intrinsic value.
The rejection of intrinsic values tends to be based on a person’s worldview. The most popular worldviews of philosophers tend to be materialistic—the view that everything that exists is physical (rather than spiritual, divine, or anything else nonphysical).1 I personally endorse a sort of materialism, but some forms of materialism could be the root cause of moral anti-realism. In particular, intrinsic value is incompatible with the worldview of Democritus (atomism) and it could be incompatible with versions of Heraclitus‘s worldview (the impermanence and change of all things). I already discussed these two worldviews in “Worldviews of Reality,” but I would like to discuss these worldviews further and contrast them with the emergentist worldview to make it clear how these worldviews relate to morality.2 I certainly don’t want to say that emergence is the only worldview compatible with the existence of intrinsic values, but emergence and how it relates to morality is compatible with various theological worldviews.3
I will briefly discuss how intrinsic values seem to relate to these three worldviews and the philosophy of David Hume in particular. I will provide some objections to David Hume’s view of morality and Hume is a good example of a philosopher whose worldview is incompatible with intrinsic values. Finally, I will discuss other assumptions incompatible with intrinsic values.
Intrinsic Values and Democritus
Some philosophers today endorse the worldview of Democritus—eliminative materialism—and Thomas Hobbes and David Hume are two modern philosophers with this worldview. Democritus thought that everything is impermanent and nothing stays the same except atoms. Atoms are unchanging and eternal. The ultimate reality—the most real stuff—are atoms and everything else is a sort of illusion (and are less real). Ultimately mathematics, human identity, and morality must be illusions because all that “really exists” is atoms. You don’t really exist, mathematical facts don’t really exist, and so on. This is obviously not a view compatible with intrinsic values because they aren’t atoms.
Intrinsic Values and Heraclitus
Philosophers today tend to endorse something closer to the worldview of Heraclitus. Heraclitus thought that nothing stays the same. Nothing is eternal. Everything is impermanent. We now know that even atoms were created and can be destroyed. A person cannot step in the same river twice because she won’t be the same person one second in the future. The problem is that even mathematical and moral facts must change. “1+1=2” and “murder is wrong” don’t seem to be the kind of truths that change, but Heraclitus seems to say that they must change because nothing can ever stay the same. Of course, things don’t seem to change that much from second to second—but any sameness would imply a sort of permanence. This view does not seem compatible with intrinsic values because intrinsic values represent something permanent.
Philosophers often want to endorse the worldviews of Democritus and Heraclitus without committing themselves to the absurdities implied by them. They want to say that “1+1=2” is always true, but they often suspect that moral facts aren’t always true.
Intrinsic Values and Emergence
Although materialism offers a very appealing and modest worldview, we don’t want to be committed to the absurdities of eliminative materialism or the total impermanence of all things. Some facts seem to stay the same. I seem to be the same person as I was two seconds ago (in some sense), “1+1=2” seems to always be true, and “pain is intrinsically bad” seems to always be true. We could just accept all this at face value or we could hypothesize about what reality is really like. After all, if it’s impossible for any nonatomistic permanence to exist in a physical universe and we know that some nonatomistic permanence exists, then it would seem rational to endorse a nonmaterialistic worldview. (Additionally, if we know that the universe is entirely physical and intrinsic values is incompatible with an entirely physical universe, then it would seem rational to reject intrinsic values.) One worldview of the physical universe that is compatible with nonatomistic permanence is emergentism—the view that nonatomistic facts can exist due to material conditions. For example, the right combination of physical stuff gives us a brain, and a brain gives us a mind. The mind is real and is not merely our brain. The mind has a sort of permanence to it despite the fact that the brain is constantly changing. The mind doesn’t last forever and it doesn’t stay entirely the same, but there is still something permanent about it.
Emergence is one explanation for the existence of intrinsic values. Whenever I feel pain, I experience that something “bad” is happening and I know that other people have this experience. I have no reason to think that the “badness” found in my pain is deceptive and it makes sense to think everyone’s pain is intrinsically bad. It makes sense for me to try to avoid pain, but it also makes sense for me to try to help other people avoid pain. The “badness” of pain exists because of the nature of pain and pain exists because of how our minds work. The “badness” of pain is real, pain is real, and our minds are real; but all of these things require a living brain.
I find emergence to be a plausible worldview even though it is speculative. I don’t think emergence is necessarily true and the facts that emergence would explain are not controversial. They are more certain than emergence. I think that I know that I am the same person as I was two seconds ago, that pain is intrinsically bad, and that “1+1=2.” These facts are the starting point of philosophy and should not be rejected (unless we know something is true for certain and these facts are less certain than that other truth).
The worldviews of Democritus and Heraclitus are revisionist insofar as they require us to reject things we seem to know are true. We could call them “counterintuitive” because of the absurdities they lead to. Revisionism is important when very strong evidence requires us to reject our intuitive beliefs, but we don’t have strong evidence in support of the worldviews of Democritus or Heraclitus. Those are highly speculative hypotheses about the universe, just like emergentism. One important difference is how emergentism is much more intuitive and less revisionistic insofar as it is compatible with our highly justified and highly plausible beliefs.
The belief that we experience that pain is intrinsically bad is highly justified and highly plausible and we shouldn’t reject that belief unless we have very good reason to do so. It explains why it makes sense to help other people and refuse to hurt them. I attempt to justify the fact that pain is intrinsically bad—and the absurdities in denying it—in more detail in “An Argument for Moral Realism.”
Intrinsic Values and David Hume
I suspect that David Hume is both a powerful influence on the beliefs of philosophers and a product of a similar worldview that other philosophers share. The worldview is a version of Democritus’s worldview, but his conclusions could be the same as that reached by someone who shares Heralcitus’s worldview.
David Hume is an empiricist, and as as an empiricist he thinks we can only know about the world though observation. (Mathematics might not be part of the world, so it might be known by carefully defining mathematical concepts.) This is why Hume will reject the possibility of intuition, self-evidence, or revelation from God.
One problem here is that we neither observe that “observation is a reliable method of attaining knowledge” nor that “observation is the only reliable method of attaining knowledge.” I discuss this issue in more detail in “Common Sense Assumptions Vs. Self-Evidence.”
Hume realized that moral judgments might not be “factual” when he considered that they might be merely emotional. Consider the following passage:
Reason is the discovery of truth or falshood. Truth or falshood consists in an agreement or disagreement either to the real relations of ideas, or to the real existence and matter of fact. Whatever, therefore, is not susceptible of this agreement or disagreement, is incapable of being true or false, and can never be an object of our reason. Now ‘tis evident our passions, volitions, and actions, are not susceptible of any such agreement or disagreement; being original facts and realities, compleat in themselves, and implying no reference to other passions, volitions, and actions. ‘Tis impossible, therefore, they can be pronounc’d either true or false, and be either contrary or conformable to reason” (Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature III.I.I.9)
Hume is saying two things here. First, that reason’s function is the discovery of truth and falsehood. (Either that or reason is the discovery of truth and falsity by definition. Of course, Hume thinks observation is the method of attaining knowledge, but I don’t think observation is reason.) Two, that there must be potential contradictions for something to be true or false. “1+1=2” and “1+1=3” are contradictory, so they can’t both be true—and one of them might be true. However, my desire for chocolate isn’t true or false. It doesn’t even attempt to describe reality. The fact that I desire chocolate and you don’t doesn’t mean one of us has a “false desire.” In other words passions and feelings aren’t “cognitive”—they are neither true nor false.
It is here that we might start to worry that there are no moral facts. Could “Murder is wrong” merely be my interest in people not murdering? In fact, Hume seems to be implying such when he says,
Thus the distinct boundaries and offices of reason and of taste are easily ascertained. The former conveys the knowledge of truth and falsehood: The latter gives the sentiment of beauty and deformity, vice and virtue. (Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. App. I.V.21)
Hume is saying two things here. One, that our emotions aren’t cognitive, so we can’t reason about them because reason’s function is to tell us the difference between truth and falsity, but there are no true or false emotions. Two, that moral judgments aren’t cognitive, so we can’t reason about them for the same reason.
It could be objected that (a) we can reason about the “appropriateness” of emotions and (b) that moral judgments aren’t reducible to emotions.
Why does Hume think that moral judgments can’t be true or false? Hume rejects intrinsic values for at least the following three reasons:
- We can’t know what “ought to be the case” from “what is the case.”
- We can’t reason about moral goals.
- Moral judgments can motivate us, but reason can’t.
1. We can’t know what “ought to be the case” from “what is the case.”
Hume argues that you can’t get what “ought to be the case” from “what is the case” in the following passage:
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs, when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ‘tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason shou’d be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. (Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature III.I.I.27).
The main argument is basically that (a) no one has ever explained how we can get what ought to be the case from what is the case and (b) what “ought to be the case” seems totally different from “what is the case.” After all, what “is the case” actually exists right now but what “ought to be the case” might not exist right now.
My objection: If you want to accomplish a goal, then you “ought” to do whatever helps you do so. This has nothing to do with morality. Hume will probably then respond, “I was talking about how to get a moral judgment, not advice.” In that case we don’t have to talk about what “ought to be the case” at all. We can just talk about what has intrinsic value or intrinsic disvalue. We know that pleasure is intrinsically good, so it makes sense to have a goal of promoting pleasure. We can agree that we morally ought to promote intrinsic values and we can figure out how to best accomplish such a goal.
2. We can’t reason about moral goals.
Hume argues that we can’t reason about moral goals (ultimate ends) in the following passage:
It appears evident, that the ultimate ends of human actions can never, in any case, be accounted for by reason, but recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind, without any dependance on the intellectual faculties. Ask a man, why he uses exercise; he will answer, because he desires to keep his health. If you then enquire, why he desires health, he will reply, because sickness is painful. If you push your enquiries farther, and desire a reason, why he hates pain, it is impossible he can give any. (Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. App.I.V.)
Hume argues that we like pleasure and dislike pain period. We can’t explain why, so morality is probably based on emotions rather than “facts.” However, this argument has various flaws.
My objections: We like pleasure because of how it feels and we dislike pain because of how it feels. We observe what pleasure and pain are and decide that they have certain moral properties based on our observations. It might be true that we don’t necessarily reason about the value of pleasure and pain just like we don’t reason about what green looks like. Observation is a method of attaining knowledge without a requirement for reasoning.
Hume said earlier that reason is a method of attaining knowledge, but here he seems to be assuming that reason is the only method of attaining knowledge. That is a direct contradiction of his empiricism. Obviously we can observe things without reasoning about it.
Perhaps Hume at some point thinks he proves that we can’t observe that pleasure is intrinsically good or pain is intrinsically bad, but I think we do observe such things. I would certainly be interested in knowing why we couldn’t observe such a thing.
3. Moral judgments can motivate us, but reason can’t.
Hume argues that reason can’t motivate us, but emotions can in the following passage:
Reason, being cool and disengaged, is no motive to action, and directs only the impulse received from appetite or inclination, by showing us the means of attaining happiness or avoiding misery: Taste, as it gives pleasure or pain, and thereby constitutes happiness or misery, becomes a motive to action, and is the first spring or impose to desire and volition. (Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. App. I.V.21)
Since reason can’t motivate us, but emotions can, Hume finds it plausible that moral judgments are based on emotions because they can motivate us.
My objections: It isn’t obvious to me that (a) moral judgments motivate us, (b) reason can’t motivate us, or (c) knowledge of intrinsic values can’t motivate us. Even if moral knowledge doesn’t provide us with knowledge, perhaps reason or knowledge can be used to increase or decrease our interests. The fact is that I think pain is intrinsically bad and it’s not hard to understand why I would want to avoid it based on my knowledge about it (how it feels). It might be a little mysterious to some people why my knowledge of pain can motivate me to help other people avoid pain. We tend to expect people to be egoistic and are surprised by altruistic behavior. We think altruistic behavior needs to be explained. I’m not sure that altruistic behavior is really as mysterious as we tend to think it is, but perhaps it is. Even if it is, I think I could cultivate my tendency to have empathy for others based on my knowledge that pain is intrinsically bad (or I could neglect my tendency to have empathy for others based on my belief that pain isn’t intrinsically bad).
Hume is famously revisionistic. He starts out with certain popular assumptions, such as empiricism and materialism, and will proudly commit himself to any absurd conclusions that it leads him. Never mind that empiricism or materialism are highly speculative—he uses these assumptions to reject induction (the belief that we can know anything through generalization and past experience) and moral facts. According to Hume, raping and torturing children are things we don’t like, but they aren’t “really wrong.” The fact that we know how horrible it is to feel pain is supposedly irrelevant to the importance of the pain others feel.
Assumptions Incompatible With Intrinsic Value
It’s not entirely clear what all of Hume’s assumptions are that lead him to his conclusions nor what all the assumptions are of people who agree with them. However, I will discuss what I suspect such assumptions could be. I see these assumptions as “unwarranted” and highly contentious rather than as plausible or obvious. I will discuss three of these assumptions:
We can’t observe mental content.
Hume thinks that we can attain knowledge from observation and he admits that we can know about pain and pleasure from experiencing it. In that case, why can’t we know anything about pleasure and pain, such as whether it’s intrinsically bad or not? Hume doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that we can observe our own experiences through introspection. I think this view of introspection is very plausible. To think I can know that a chair exists by observation but can’t know I have thoughts or emotions through introspection seems absurd.
It is true that our introspective observations can occasionally be deceptive. We know that many people who experience God are wrong—and perhaps all such experiences are deceptive. However, most of our experiences are deceptive that refer to other things. Our experience that pain feels bad seems indisputable. Whether or not the fact that pain feels bad is cause to think it is intrinsically bad is controversial, but I find it plausible.
Emotions are nonfactual.
People talk about “facts and values” as though there were no moral facts (intrinsic values). The view that values are nonfactual could be ultimately based on the idea that emotions are nonfactual. The idea that emotions are nonfactual could be based on the idea that emotions can’t be true or false. However, that doesn’t mean emotions are entirely nonfactual insofar as that seems to imply that they don’t exist or are somehow illusory. (People who think values are nonfactual tend to think values are unreal and illusory.) I think emotions exist like tables and chairs even though they are quite different from tables and chairs. Additionally, emotions tend to be based on beliefs. The belief that your family member dies can make you sad. The belief that the family member had intrinsic value also seems to have an effect on how much grief we will experience.
It is quite easy to see that Hume could have got things the wrong way around. He thinks moral beliefs are based on emotions rather than that emotions are based on moral beliefs. Our beliefs can have a very strong impact on our emotions and it differentiates them. Delight is based on the belief something good happens (such as when we have a child who is born) and grief is based on the belief that something bad has happened.
There is certainly a non-intellectual component to having emotions and desires. However, many desires seem pretty meaningless until we attach a belief to it. A pain in the stomach means nothing by itself, but it can become a desire for food when we decide that we can soothe the pain by eating. Some of our desires could be given meaning by us rather than the other way around. We could say that such desires have a “fill in the blank” component. Our social desires, for example, don’t tell us to do anything in particular. How to use the “motivation” from such desires seems to be up to us. Sure, we might need desire to have motivation, but some desires might have little to no actual content until we decide what content to give them. We might be able to use our social desires to promote intrinsic value.
Mental content is less real than atoms.
I already briefly mentioned this assumption above. A lot of people don’t seem to think mental content is factual (see above) or they think psychological existence itself is “less real” than atoms and such. I don’t see why anyone would agree with this. Why would I think my mind is less real than atoms?
Some people have suggested that morality can’t be based on the “psychological” intrinsic values of pleasure and pain because “they’re subjective.” It’s unclear why being subjective—existing in the mind—is irrelevant to morality. Intrinsic value can be a property of psychological phenomena even though they aren’t “solid objects.” The idea that something must be a “solid object” to have intrinsic value seems strange.
I think there is prejudice against psychological existence because we are recovering from Cartesian dualism—the view that minds and bodies are two totally different kinds of reality that can’t interact. One way to avoid dualism is to decide that the mind doesn’t exist or it’s “less real” than solid objects. I think a more plausible solution is the view that minds are physical like solid objects even though there are obviously differences between rocks and minds.
I have discussed the implausible overly ambitious philosophical commitments about reality that are incompatible with intrinsic values, but whether or not intrinsic values also require overly ambitious philosophical commitments is a good question. I think intrinsic values are necessary to make sense out of our uncontroversial and highly plausible moral beliefs, and these beliefs shouldn’t be rejected without a good reason to do so. To reject such highly plausible beliefs without a good reason to do so would be to favor controversial beliefs over uncontroversial ones. Of course, it is possible that intrinsic values are not required to understand our uncontroversial moral beliefs or that intrinsic values require highly absurd philosophical beliefs that must be rejected. However, the most absurd philosophical commitment intrinsic values might require is something like the existence of emergence. I don’t find that particularly offensive. I discuss this in more detail in “Objections Against Moral Realism Part 3: Argument from Queerness.”
1 Of course, some materialist philosophers could believe that spirits or gods are physical after all. The Stoics are a good example of this.