Thursday, February 21, 2008

Is Evaluation Holistic?

Which is basic: our evaluation of the world as a whole, or our evaluation of its individual constituents? Are we to work up from my particular desires to find which total state of the world I should prefer? Or do we instead start with my global preferences (a value function over possible worlds) and abstract away various details to yield my more particular desires?

An example of the latter approach might be Liz Harman's analysis: S desires that P ("all things considered") iff S prefers the nearest P-world to the nearest not P-world. One worry: on this view, it no longer seems that we can assign quantitative "strengths" to desires. (And aren't numbers elegant?)

But perhaps the upshot of the holistic picture is just that individual desires aren't really so important anyway. Utility values may be assigned to whole worlds, and combined with credences to yield expected utilities, etc. So it's still an elegant picture, and one which fits well with formal decision theory. It's just that the value of a whole world-state is not reducible to any simpler description of the values of its parts. (For example, you can't just sum all the pleasure and pain if it turns out that sadistic pleasure detracts from, rather than adds to, the overall value of the state of affairs.)

1 comment:

  1. I'm a little confused here: it seems like there are two different ways of characterizing holism here. The first, which you seem to be using, is the notion that there is some global, world-encompassing value judgment, from which individual value judgments are derived. This seems odd, because there are plenty of features of the world on which we have no value judgments, and it seems wrong to say that we would arrive at those judgments (if we do) by breaking up the overall value into parts--this would constrain evaluation by an overarching goal of consistency with the overall judgment, turning each individual judgment into a calculation more than evaluation.

    The second conception of value holism, which makes more sense to me, is just that our particular evaluative judgments do not operate in isolation from, but are dependent on the entire web of evaluations we have. (Velleman has a model of this sort: whether or not we judge something to be funny, for example, is limited by whether we find it disgusting.) From this second view of holism, we could also form an evaluative judgment of the whole, but it would be an abstraction from the web of values, not the basic ground of all evaluation.

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