Friday, December 26, 2008

Value Holism draft

I've finally finished a rough draft of my paper on 'value holism' -- you can check it out here. Any feedback would be very welcome (even just to point out the sections that seem most unclear or in need of further work). Thanks!


  1. Nice paper. I like the subject matter. I'm familiar with the basic idea of holism but maybe it would be helpful (at least it would have been for me) to take a little more time at the beginning explaining it in general terms. There are odd cases that I'm not sure would count as holism.

    By chance, do you know the PageRank algorithm? The idea is that the "prestige" of a web page is derived in terms of all of the others and the number (e.g. prestige = 4.5) only makes sense relative to each other number. But each page has its own unique prestige. Would prestige in this case be holistic?

  2. Richard,

    I like the paper -- it is better than most papers I read. However, I remain fairly convinced by atomism and imagine that my reaction will be typical for people who are *attracted* to atomism, rather than just implicitly being atomists because they like other aspects of utilitarianism or a similar theory. I think these latter people are the ones that you might convince (or partially convince).

    I'm afraid I don't have many focused criticisms of your paper, as there is little that sticks out. It is a good summary of reasons that one might use in support of holism. My best critique would be to show the list of reasons in favour of atomism which I think is the stronger list (but this would take an essay or equal length or a face to face talk).

    However, I can pick up on one little thing. You talk about the sadistic conclusion (which I think is due to Arrhenius in his doctoral thesis), and about the dividing line between lives worth living and those which aren't. You say that the difference can be arbitrarily small, but for the strong version of the sadistic conclusion, this is not so. It can be phrased as saying that for any arbitrarily bad level below zero and any number of people with that level, there is a number of people with lives worth livings whose addition is worse. Average utilitarianism, for example, falls victim to this version and if your preferred holism does too, then your comment about bright lines might not work to help you (I'm not sure, it depends on your view).

    Anyway, its a nice paper. Thanks for posting it.

  3. Richard,

    I'm afraid I haven't had a chance to read the paper. Perhaps you know this already, but you might want to take a look at Shelly Kagan's The Additive Fallacy, or Jonathan Dancy's Ethics without Principles, both of which have a lot of nice points on the atomism/holism issue.



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