Ethical Realism

April 29, 2011

An Intuitive Argument for Intrinsic Value

Filed under: ethics,metaethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 10:36 pm
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Intrinsic value is the kind of value something has if it good just for existing. I have already argued that intrinsic values are intuitive and that intuition can be a reliable form of justification—we can decide what we should believe based on our intuitions. I will now discuss my intuitive argument for intrinsic value. First, I will briefly discuss my argument and the justification for it. Second, I will discuss objections to it. Third, I will discuss whether or not it’s rational to believe in intrinsic values.

What is my intuitive argument for intrinsic value?

My intuitive argument for intrinsic value was inspired by the following reasoning:

  1. The belief in intrinsic value is highly intuitive.
  2. If a belief is highly intuitive, then we have a reason to believe it.
  3. Therefore, we have a reason to believe in intrinsic value.

This argument is very general and imprecise, and my attempt to give such an argument didn’t end up quite so simple. My actual intuitive argument for intrinsic value is the following:

  1. There are at least six highly intuitive moral beliefs, and intrinsic values is compatible with them and can help explain them.
  2. Some of our highly intuitive moral beliefs might not be compatible with the non-existence of intrinsic values.
  3. If intrinsic value is compatible with highly intuitive beliefs, helps explain highly intuitive beliefs, and denial of intrinsic value could be incompatible with highly intuitive beliefs; then we have a reason to believe in intrinsic value.
  4. Therefore, we have a reason to believe in intrinsic value.

Do we have reason to accept this argument? Let’s consider each of the premises.

Premise 1: There are at least six highly intuitive moral beliefs, and intrinsic values is compatible with them and can help explain them.

I have argued that (1) there are six highly intuitive moral beliefs and (2) intrinsic values can help explain them (and are therefore compatible with them).

First, I have already argued that there are six highly intuitive moral beliefs. I described these beliefs as “highly plausible uncontroversial beliefs” in “Six Uncontroversial Moral Beliefs.” These are beliefs that we can think we know are true, but they are intuitive insofar as it can be difficult to understand how we can know they are true. Although some people deny the truth of these beliefs, I think they are highly intuitive because they are not only initially plausible given our understanding of morality, but denying them seems to lead to counterintuitive consequences. If “uncontroversial” means that everyone agrees, then they aren’t uncontroversial in that sense, but almost no belief is. They are uncontroversial in the sense that they are widely accepted and the counterinutive consequences of denying them are likely to persuade people that they are true.

The six highly intuitive moral beliefs include the following:

  1. It can be appropriate to love someone to the point of self-sacrifice.
  2. It’s appropriate to have empathy for all people.
  3. Morality is overriding.
  4. It’s rational to be moral.
  5. Morality isn’t up to us.
  6. Some actions are right and some are wrong.

One example of a highly intuitive moral belief is that it’s rational to be moral. If morality isn’t rational, then it’s still plausible to think it’s rational to act in our personal interest. In that case then it’s not clear why we should ever act in a way contrary to our own personal interest. It would then be irrational for people to be whistleblowers or activists who endanger their own lives (or well being). Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Martin Luthor King Jr. are two of our moral heroes precisely because they endangered their own lives by speaking out for peace, freedom, and justice. They were not likely to be acting in their own personal interest because of the risks they were taking. If morality isn’t rational, then these two moral heroes were irrational. That is counterintuitive.

On the flip side, it can be rational to advance our own interests; and if being moral isn’t rational, then it seems perfectly rational to hurt people to advance our own interests. For example, thieves often steal from one person to attain something beneficial to themselves. Although it seems intuitive to think that criminals can be rational insofar as they engage in their “rational self-interest,” it seems counterintuitive to think that it’s perfectly rational to be a thief in every sense of the word “rational” (even when the thief doesn’t take any risky chances).

Second, I have argued that intrinsic values are compatible with those six highly intuitive moral beliefs—and can help explain them—in “Why Intrinsic Values are Common Sense.” For example, if other people’s lives really matter (have intrinsic value), then it seems to make a certain amount of sense that we think it’s rational to be moral. Gandhi sacrificed his life to help others, and we can wonder if that behavior is rational. It seems rational to help ourselves, but what can make it rational to help others? One explanation is that people (or their experiences) have intrinsic value. If people’s lives are good just for existing, then we have less reason to exclusively advance our own interests (and more reason to help others).

Premise 2: Some of our highly intuitive moral beliefs might not be compatible with the non-existence of intrinsic values.

I explained how the lack of intrinsic values could be incompatible with our highly intuitive moral beliefs in “Why Intrinsic Values are Common Sense.” For example, it’s not entirely clear that it’s perfectly rational to be moral if intrinsic values don’t exist. Why should Gandhi endanger his own life to help others if the lives of others don’t really matter? It could be irrational to do so in the absence of intrinsic values.

Premise 3: If intrinsic value is compatible with highly intuitive beliefs, helps explain highly intuitive beliefs, and denial of intrinsic value could be incompatible with highly intuitive beliefs; then we have a reason to believe in intrinsic value.

First, we have some reason to believe something that’s highly intuitive. I discuss the reliability of intuition in “Arguments for Intuition.” We often think we know an intuitive belief to be true despite the fact that it can be difficult to explain how we know it’s true or prove them to be true to others. For example, I think I know “1+1=2” even though I have a hard time proving it’s true or explaining how I know it’s true. I also think we can know that hurting people with red hair is wrong just because they have red hair, and that being moral is rational.

Second, if intrinsic values are compatible with our highly intuitive beliefs, then we don’t have an intuitive reason to reject them on the basis of our highly intuitive beliefs. The six intuitive moral beliefs in particular don’t seem incompatible with intrinsic values. However, we do have some reason to reject a belief when it’s incompatible with our highly intuitive beliefs.

Third, if our highly intuitive moral beliefs require the existence of intrinsic value, then we have a greater reason to believe in intrinsic value than reject it. Some of the highly intuitive moral beliefs that I discuss might not be compatible with the rejection of intrinsic value.

Fourth, if intrinsic value can help explain our highly intuitive moral beliefs, then we have a reason to hypothesize that intrinsic value exists. The six highly intuitive moral beliefs that I discussed seem like they can be explained by intrinsic value.

These four considerations can all imply an “argument to the best explanation”—at least in isolation from other considerations. Considering the six highly intuitive moral beliefs, intrinsic value seems to best explain them insofar as it provides an explanation compatible with them and the rejection of intrinsic value seems like it’s not be compatible with them all.

I can’t say for sure that intrinsic values are the “best explanation” all things considered because the philosophical debate over the existence of intrinsic value isn’t over yet and there are a lot of factors that must be considered when deciding the best explanation for a phenomena. The argument above doesn’t take all possible factors into consideration. That is something more appropriate for philosophy books and doctoral theses. Examples of arguments for moral realist views (that seem to imply the existence of intrinsic value) that take many factors into consideration include The Normative Web and Truth in Ethics and Epistemology.

Objections

I think the argument presented here is highly plausible, but there are possible objections to consider. These objections will not be given in detail, but they can be elaborated at some later point.

First, someone could argue that the six highly intuitive moral beliefs that I mentioned aren’t actually intuitive at all. I don’t know how anyone could believe that, but it’s something to consider.

Second, someone could argue that intrinsic value aren’t compatible with these six highly intuitive moral beliefs. Again, this is not something I expect anyone to prove any time soon.

Third, someone could argue that intrinsic value isn’t a possible explanation for our highly intuitive moral beliefs. Once more, this does not seem like a plausible objection at this point of time but perhaps someone could make a persuasive argument for it at some point.

Fourth, someone could argue that the denial of intrinsic value is intuitive. Perhaps there are alternative ways to understand our highly intuitive moral beliefs without intrinsic value that are both compatible with them and can help explain them. This is a very important kind of argument and some people have attempted it. In fact, I think almost all philosophers take the six highly intuitive moral beliefs very seriously and many simply don’t think intrinsic value is needed for them. If we found out that intrinsic value is just one way to make sense out of our highly intuitive moral beliefs, that wouldn’t necessarily debunk my argument entirely. We would still have to compare and contrast each possible position to see which can do the best job at explaining our highly intuitive moral beliefs.

Fifth, someone could argue that intuition isn’t relevant to what we should believe. In that case it can be true that intrinsic value explains our highly intuitive moral beliefs, but it still wouldn’t be a reason to believe in intrinsic value. I think many people will be tempted to give this argument, but I don’t think it’s a good one. It might be that we can ultimately dispense with the word “intuition” when discussing the evidence for intrinsic value, but I think it’s more plausible to think that all arguments depend on intuition at least to a small extent.

Is it rational to believe in intrinsic value?

My intuitive argument for intrinsic value is a positive argument for intrinsic value, but it’s limited. Positive arguments don’t (usually) prove something to be true once and for all, and the fact that a belief is highly intuitive isn’t irrefutable evidence for that belief. At the same time all of our beliefs could be “hypotheses” that are proven false at some point, so it might be excessive to demand more from an argument for intrinsic value. Nonetheless, I personally think that the belief in intrinsic value is rational because (1) we have some reason to believe in intrinsic value and (2) I don’t think any of the objections to the existence of intrinsic values are very plausible—I don’t think any of them are exclusively supported by highly intuitive beliefs (or anything else equivalently plausible).

Perhaps the best argument against intrinsic value is that intrinsic value is a violation against Occam’s razor—we ought not multiply the number of entities beyond necessity. Certainly the existence of intrinsic value is less simple than the denial, but I don’t think that positing the existence of intrinsic value is “beyond necessity.” For example, we can deny the existence of other people’s minds to avoid multiplying entities beyond necessity, but that doesn’t seem appropriate. I discuss this in more detail in “The Argument From Queerness.”

It is possible that it’s necessary to believe in intrinsic value to be rational insofar as it’s irrational to reject it, but that isn’t supported by the wide variety of opinions within the philosophical literature. There are quite a few philosophers who reject the existence of intrinsic value and it’s not entirely clear when a belief is irrational, even though there are some good examples.

It might be irrational to reject intrinsic value all things considered. I don’t want to rule out the possibility that we could at some point prove that intrinsic value probably exists to the point that we should all agree. After all, I think it’s irrational to believe many things—it’s irrational to believe that “1+1=2,” that other people don’t have minds, and that there’s no external world.

Conclusion

I find my intuitive argument for intrinsic value to be very plausible, even though it could be proven unsound at some point. If it is proven unsound, I expect that it will be because we find out that some alternate explanation for our highly intuitive moral beliefs is even better than intrinsic value. I have no idea how that argument can succeed, and I think it makes sense to accept my argument until then.

My argument is modest and does not actually prove the existence of intrinsic value. Even if we have more reason to accept that intrinsic value doesn’t exist than that it does, my argument can still succeed—we can have at least one good reason to believe in intrinsic value, even if it’s not the final word in the matter. However, I personally don’t think there’s an overriding reason to reject the existence of intrinsic value. The best arguments against intrinsic value that I know of are not very persuasive.

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