Sunday, October 12, 2008

Cohen-Conservatism revisited

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.)


  1. So, the point here is not pluralistic incommensurability, right? It's that we CAN compare the value of things or states of affairs, and find that one is less valuable than another, but RIGHTLY prefer the lesser over the greater due to our prior relation to the lesser?

    I think it's incontrovertible that we very often, maybe even almost always, prefer states of affairs that we judge to be less than best in some kind of impartial sense, and we very rarely feel guilty of some wrongdoing when we do this.

    You might just take this to imply that human beings are incapable of caring very much about impartial value. We can no more be motivated to maximize impartial value than we can fly. So, if ought implies can, it can't be wrong to fail to maximize impartial value. And so utilitarianism fails to provide account of right and wrong.

    Is Cohen saying something a lot different from that?

  2. One important difference is that Cohen isn't just concerned with partiality or 'personal value' (the kind of thing I discuss more here), but that even when being impartial or altruistic it's appropriate to preserve existing things of value rather than treat them as replaceable. We may have to go out of our way, or make some sacrifices, in order to save other things of greater existing value (he's not necessarily opposed to maximizing that). And in some cases, I take it, he'll claim it would be downright wrong to destroy something of intrinsic value and replace it with something marginally better -- wrong not because anyone is upset by this, but because it treats the particular intrinsically valuable thing "merely as a means" or abstracted vessel of value.

    So the key claim is metaphysical, not pragmatic. Whereas utilitarians think of value as something to be abstracted and maximized, Cohen thinks the ideal response to embodied value in the world is to cherish the particular things in which such value inheres. Here's a key quote:

    ' One can say, quite properly, upon acquiring a valuable thing, "I shall value this until something better comes along", but one cannot in the same way say "I shall cherish this until something better comes along": that could happen to be a correct prediction, but it could not express a decision to cherish...

    So, for example, you do not cherish a Tintoretto if you happily replace it by a slightly better Picasso: you thereby treat the Tintoretto as something that has the merely instrumental value of being a vessel of aesthetic value.

    (And I take it we're meant to universalize this response beyond just the things we personally happen to cherish, to all the other valuable things in the world that we recognize warrant such cherishing.)

  3. (So yes, the alternatives may be perfectly commensurable, and indeed if we are picking among hypothetical alternatives in advance then we should presumably pick the best. But the claim is that once we come across an actual valuable thing in the world, then that object has a special claim on us.

    So value has at least two theoretical roles: (i) making hypothetical prospects more desirable in advance, and (ii) in addition making something extra worthy of preservation once it actually exists (or crosses our path, as per Jack's objection).

  4. Thanks Richard. That's helpful.

    I'm pretty skeptical of Cohen's psychological claim about cherishing. It just strikes me as false. I agree that "you do not cherish a Tintoretto if you happily replace it by a slightly better Picasso". But "happily" is doing all the work here. It's a commonplace of Berlin-style value pluralism that tradeoffs are "tragic", since one kind of value cannot really compensate for the loss of another incommensurable kind. I can't be said to really value truth if I happily give it up for friendship. A lack of anguish indicates a lack of appropriate responsiveness to value. Likewise, in Cohen's case, I can't be said to cherish something if I give it up for something better, no sweat. But it certainly isn't nonsense to give up a cherished thing, reluctantly and with great regret, for something better. One might be pained to think of the cherished thing given up, since one still cherishes it. But it seems weird to argue that it defies the nature of cherishing to do it. People do it all the time.

  5. Even for marginal improvements? (Cohen does of course allow that replacement may be justified if the increase in value is sufficiently large.)

    More importantly, I don't think value pluralism alone can account for the difference between "giving up" an existing (cherished) value and merely passing up a possible value. One might choose a better-paying job over one that would bring more friends -- we're perfectly able to compare these values in advance and make appropriate trade-offs between them (however reluctantly). But it's a very different matter to give up a friend you already have for money.

    Or, in the art example, I imagine one really could quite happily choose the Picasso over the Tintoretto in advance. So there's nothing in the objects themselves, or the kinds of value they have, which makes this a difficult choice in the abstract. The Tintoretto is easy to pass up. It's just not easy to give up, once you have it.

    So I take Cohen to be pointing out that intrinsically valuable things command our loyalty, and (if true) that's not something mere value pluralism can explain.

  6. It strikes me that much of the (broadly consequentialist) work on population ethics (Broome, Blackorby, Donaldson, Dasgupta etc.) can be viewed as attempting to accommodate almost exactly this sort of concern - but based on the assumption that the only value-holders to be "cherished" are individuals rather than objects (an assumption to which I am partial).


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