Monday, March 09, 2009

Desire-based Objective Value

Desire-based theories of value (or reasons) are sometimes called 'subjectivist', and contrasted with 'objective' theories. But I think this classification fails to cut logical space at its joints. According to a more natural way of dividing 'subjective' and 'objective' theories of value, many desire-based accounts will turn out to fall on the latter side.

One way to highlight the arbitrariness of the standard classification is on formal grounds. Note that the mental state of desire is part of objective reality, and whether it qualifies as 'fulfilled' is a matter of fact no less objective than the question whether some belief qualifies as 'knowledge'. But a theory according to which knowledge is intrinsically valuable is typically considered a form of objectivism. That is: there can be 'objectivist' theories of value according to which mental states X are intrinsically valuable. The theory might even be monistic, and claim that X is the only thing that's intrinsically valuable. (This wouldn't be very plausible in case of knowledge, but for all its implausibility, such a view would clearly be objectivist in nature.) It would seem inexplicably strange if objectivists were barred from substituting "fulfilled desires" for X -- a mere change in content. Presumably we want the distinction between 'objective' and 'subjective' theories to track some deep difference in form.

Note that someone might hold that fulfilled desires are objectively valuable in just the same way that other objectivists hold that knowledge (say) is objectively valuable. This seems especially clear in the case of preference utilitarians who claim that we have reason to satisfy other people's preferences even if we don't want to. (The fact that we don't want to is itself a reason that counts for something. But so is the other person's desire, and it might outweigh our own.) The relevant feature here seems to be that we are normatively bound by a higher authority than our contingent, immediate perspective. This may be true even on desire-based accounts, if they impel us to respect other desires besides our present ones -- i.e. other people's desires, or even just our own future desires, for that matter.

A sure sign of value objectivism, as I've defined it, is when a theory imposes on us alienating aspirations -- a condition certainly satisfied by any form of utilitarianism, including desire-based versions.

Value subjectivism, by contrast, insists that the values or normative reasons to which one is beholden must be firmly rooted in one's current sentiments or 'deliberative standpoint'. Subjectivism thus entails some kind of 'present aim theory' (in Parfit's terminology), allowing only what Bernard Williams calls 'internal reasons' -- reasons that can gain traction and motivate us given our actual psychologies.*
* (But what if our actual psychologies are irrational? Isn't some idealization needed here? But then, if we build enough into our understanding of 'rationality' -- cf. Kantians -- then the results may be just as alienating as before. I'll put aside such complications for now, but comments are welcome.)

I guess one could, as a matter of form, hold even the present aim theory in an 'objectivist' way. That is, one might just insist that objectively, "from the point of view of the universe", what's advisable for each person is that they fulfill their own present aims. So what's distinctive about subjectivism is not the content of our normative reasons, but the underlying explanation why we have the reasons that we do. Subjectivism appeals to our subjective perspectives as bedrock. Objectivists, if they appeal to our subjective perspectives at all, do so on the basis of some further, underlying consideration: e.g. that subjectively satisfied people constitute a better world.

So, even if satisfying desires is what finally matters (practically speaking), it is an open question why this is what matters, or what the source of this normativity is. Desire-based subjectivism will ground the putative normativity of desire in the agent's own (unalienated) perspective, whereas desire-based objectivism will ground it in something larger than the agent -- possibly, the universe itself. This, I propose, is the most theoretically interesting way to divide 'subjective' and 'objective' theories of value.


  1. I prefer the (possibly weaker) definition of subjectivism - a subjectivist theory of ethics insists that what's right/good is dependent solely upon someone's 'say-so'. In the case of Divine Command Theory, for example, right/good is whatever God decides - the objectivist variation would be that God decides whatever he does because it's good.

  2. I guess there are a couple of ways to interpret that suggestion. On the strict interpretation, what's right or good is determined by some (arbitrary) explicit opinion -- effectively collapsing the distinction between belief and truth (or actual vs. ideal judgments). I agree that this is an important distinction, though perhaps less interesting because the 'subjectivist' branch of it so clearly has nothing to recommend it.

    On a looser interpretation, we understand the subjectivist as insisting that right/good is constructed (perhaps with some degree of idealization) out of someone's tacit commitments or deliberative standpoint -- which may or may not align with their explicit "say-so". This interpretation is equivalent to the definition offered in my post (at least if we assume that the relevant 'standpoint' is always that of the individual agent herself).

  3. I have to say I'm rather suspicious about using the terminology of subjectivism and objectivism. The terms have so many different usages that I feel that they are probably of little value. To say that something is subjective or objective seems to muddy the waters rather than saying anything illuminating.

  4. Well, maybe. But are there any better terms available? We want to be able to talk about these ideas somehow; specifying exactly how we mean to interpret these evocative (if common) terms seems like it might be the best option we have.

    (Perhaps I could have just said that philosophers often divide theories of value into those that treat desires as reasons vs. those that don't, whereas I think a more important distinction in this vicinity is between those that are ultimately grounded in perspectival considerations vs. those that aren't. But I'm not sure that's any clearer, and it could get long-winded after a while if there aren't any convenient labels available.)


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)