A few months ago I described G.A. Cohen's anti-fungibility objection to utilitarianism: intrinsically valuable things warrant cherishing, and thus preferring their preservation to replacement even by something more intrinsically valuable (within limits). It's a fascinating proposal, so it was great to hear Cohen discussing it with some of my other favourite philosophers in the 'Scanlon workshop' here yesterday. Here are some of the especially interesting ideas I recall:
(1) Michael noted that there must be some feature in virtue of which we reasonably prefer the less intrinsically valuable thing to the greater (but merely possible) replacement: perhaps its actual existence, or historical connection to us, or some such. But then it looks like we can reinterpret Cohen as claiming that that very feature affords the object with some extra, i.e. extrinsic, value. (At least on a buck-passing account, whereby value is defined in terms of what we have reason to desire.)
But I wonder whether a revised version of buck-passing could reduce value to a peculiar subset of reasons for desire -- namely, detached/universal impersonal reasons -- thus allowing that we might have other (more particular or personal) reasons for preferring the lesser good. Cohen could then resist the claim that the extrinsic reason bestows any additional value on the object. His conservatism is not intended to contest amounts of value, but rather the appropriate response to value. (Rather than promote it generally, we should cherish the particular things that have it. So the claim goes.)
(2) Liz compared Cohen's disposition to preserve existing things, or even to look forward to preserving future things, with the attitude of being glad that the past turned out as it did -- noting, in particular, that injustice is more of an objection to the former. We may now be glad that the pyramids were built (despite the slave labour), but nobody should tolerate slave labour at the time. (Or something along those lines. I wish I could remember the details better.)
Relatedly: Jack got me thinking about whether the Cohen-conservative would disapprove of time-travellers going back and changing the past (per impossibile) so that some more valuable thing originally came into existence in place of the lesser thing we now cherish and wouldn't replace. I suspect he would have no objection to this, and indeed I think Cohen's response to Liz involved the idea that only in cases of 'personal value' (e.g. children) do we have reason to be especially glad that history turned out as it did. In case of particular value more generally, though we should cherish the things that now exist - and resist their replacement - there's no reason to think badly of the alternative history where some even more valuable thing was created in the first place.
(3) Seana[?] suggested that it would be interesting to explore precisely which valuable things are irreplaceable and why. A rosebush in your garden may be harmlessly replaced by another of comparable intrinsic beauty, but to change the entire garden seems to involve more of a loss. (Cohen tries to explain away the former judgment, but I take Seana's point to be that we might do better to grant it, and then investigate where lie the limits of Cohen's thesis.)
Jack pointed out to me that there's no intuitive pull to cherish particular valuable things that exist beyond the light cone (or to feel regret if God tells us he replaced them by something better). So this suggests that it isn't actual existence per se which does the work here, but some more tangible connection to us. On the other hand, I wonder about a 'pristine environment' (imagine a lost island or an Antarctic lake that's been frozen over for millenia), whose novel organisms might be made even more interesting if exposed to radiation or a "beneficial mutation virus". That sounds repugnant, despite our past disconnection from them; is it perhaps our acting on them to bring about the replacement which forges the intuitive connection here? I guess it doesn't seem so bad for God to do it, at least if he does so before we discover the pristine environment. Post-discovery divine replacement still seems to be a loss of sorts, though.
(This might be a fitting time to note Peter Singer's skepticism that any of these intuitions really show anything besides our contingent human biases. Maybe. But, in fairness, I think there's also significant theoretical appeal to Cohen's claim that "A thing that has intrinsic value is worthy of being revered or cherished" in its particularity, and not simply as a vessel of fungible value. So I think it's definitely an idea worth exploring.)