Friday, August 28, 2009

Equal vs Identical Value

In the comments of a previous post, I wrote:
There's an important difference between the substitutability of mere instruments and the equal weighting of intrinsic goods [e.g. persons]. In the former case, the swap makes no difference. In the latter, there is a normatively relevant difference (Bob no longer exists!), it is just that the result is equally desirable [Sally exists!]. There are distinct reasons offered up by the competing intrinsic values; it merely happens that they are in balance. I expect that any plausible view of value will need to accommodate this possibility.

Jack responds that he finds the following bit of reasoning just as compelling:

I am building a fence. Hence, I have *a* reason, countervailed though it is, to prefer that God not annihilate my hammer, EVEN IF God will immediately replace that hammer with another equally useful hammer. After all, there is a normatively relevant difference: the ever so useful, and for that reason instrumentally valuable hammer no longer exists!

One who recognizes the sort of distinction I'm after here will insist that the latter claim is mistaken: the non-existence of a useful instrument is not in itself normatively relevant. What would be normatively relevant would be the destruction and non-replacement of an instrument. (Of course, destruction is typically followed by non-replacement, so it isn't surprising that one might confuse the two.)

But is there anything helpful we can say to the person who doesn't immediately "get" the distinction? Perhaps the best we can do is to, er, hammer on the intuition that replacing persons is obviously significant in a way that replacing tools is not. Once one is on board with this datum, we can inquire into the most sensible way to formally capture this intuitive idea: e.g., perhaps swapping items of (equal) intrinsic value involves conflicting but balanced reasons, whereas substituting mere instruments involves no (different) reasons at all.

To spell it out in more detail: (i) the value of Sally's life gives us a different (albeit equally weighty) reason from that given by the value of Bob's life, whereas (ii) the reason the builder has to want a hammer is satisfied no matter which of the two equally useful hammers he receives. It's not as though he has two different reasons, one to want each particular hammer. Something of value is lost when Sally exists without Bob; nothing is lost by the builder having one hammer but not another that would be useful in exactly the same way. In sum, then, we might say: we have reasons to want any adequate instrument, and reasons to want each intrinsic good.

Even on a purely theoretical level, this sort of distinction makes a lot of sense. It seems extremely intuitive to me to think that there's a conceptual difference to be had between (i) a pair of options serving distinct-but-equal intrinsic values; and (ii) a pair of options that serve literally one and the same values. I think something would be missing from our conceptual repertoire if we couldn't make sense of such a distinction.

The "big-picture" relevance of this concerns the 'value receptacle' objection to utilitarianism, according to which utilitarians are thought to treat people as mere instruments to the ultimate end of promoting aggregate utility.

Indeed, I do think of (e.g.) chickens as mere instruments to the intrinsic value of aggregate animal welfare. So one might worry that utilitarians must think of people in the same way. But (I argue) this is not so. Utilitarians may well impute normative significance to the separateness of persons, for they merely claim that a harm to one may be normatively outweighed by a benefit to another. To outweigh a harm is not to (normatively) cancel it, or to deny that there is any real trade-off here at all. It is just to say that the trade-off is worth it. We should be able to make such distinctions.

7 comments:

  1. I agree with the overall point of your post. Here I would simply like to comment on the relation you draw to the "value receptacle" objection to utilitarianism and the claim that persons are morally separate. It seems to me that, contrary to what you appear to assume, there is a difference between affirming that people are mere receptacles of value and denying that their separateness has moral significance.

    Consider two forms of utilitarianism, one extreme, the other slightly less so. The proponent of the extreme form does not assign importance to the packaging of experiences into lives at all. For the slightly less extremist utilitarian, instead, it matters that experiences are had by people, though not which people have which experiences. Both views fail to take seriously the distinction between persons, since they do not attach importance to the boundaries between lives. But only the first treats people as value receptacles, since it is alone in denying that goods located in people are good because they are good for these people.

    So this illustrates that people may be replaceable without being (mere) receptacles.

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  2. Hello Prof Chappell.


    I want to ask a question relevant to your last paragraph:


    "The "big-picture" relevance of this concerns the 'value receptacle' objection to utilitarianism, according to which utilitarians are thought to treat people as mere instruments to the ultimate end of promoting aggregate utility.

    Indeed, I do think of (e.g.) chickens as mere instruments to the intrinsic value of aggregate animal welfare. So one might worry that utilitarians must think of people in the same way. But (I argue) this is not so. Utilitarians may well impute normative significance to the separateness of persons, for they merely claim that a harm to one may be normatively outweighed by a benefit to another. To outweigh a harm is not to (normatively) cancel it, or to deny that there is any real trade-off here at all. It is just to say that the trade-off is worth it. We should be able to make such distinctions.


    My question is this: shouldn't one allow for the separateness of chickens too (of all sentient animals really) in order to make room for fitting regret if one (thinks he) has all-things-considered reason to kill it? I have no clue about fitting value theory, but a have an educated layman's conception of fitting emotions and it seems to me that reflexive indifference is not fitting. Maybe some other emotion is fitting instead of regret? Maybe gratitude towards the animal for becoming your food, like Native Americans are said to have been/ be doing when hunting? Personally i take it to extremes (i don't kill them even if i am starving) but i was wondering what you think about fitting regret in such cases.

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    1. "fitting value theory", that i wrote, inexplicably missed the word "attitude":


      https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fitting-attitude-theories/

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    2. Harming a sentient being is certainly bad (and so regrettable). The key "separateness" question is whether, given a choice between inflicting either of two equal harms on different chickens, you should feel torn or indifferent about the comparative question of which chicken gets harmed. (You can still regret that there wasn't an alternative that avoided harm altogether.)

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  3. Thank you for your response Prof Chappell. I did have in mind the case of the two chickens where one needs to choose which one to kill, but i (mistakenly) thought that if one does not think of chickens exactly as she thinks of humans (allowing for their differences in suffering-thresholds) then she would have no conceptual room for regret at all in any case of killing chickens, so long as there would be a replacement chicken. Your response certainly leaves room for regret, and if i understand correctly the corollary for those who seek to incorporate regret in their outlook in such cases is this: it is theoretically possible that one may fittingly regret that a chicken unavoidably had to be harmed, instead of regretting that this particular chicken was harmed , even though the chicken will be replaced.

    What still nags me is this: when i imagine the situation with cats (or dogs, creatures I am very familiar with) instead of chickens, it still feels to me that it does make a difference which one will be harmed, in the sense that one is indeed fittingly torn for the sake of the particular animal when forced to choose. I imagine a scenario where Pedro (the fictional character from Williams' "Jim and the Indians" thought experiment) puts a gun in my head and i have to choose which of the 20 cats will go for euthanasia. In "Jim and the Indians with humans" the designated target had consented, but here there is no consent from the cat, whichever i choose. Somehow I feel there is something significant in the choice, even though I have no principled way of articulating it. The cats cannot possibly be identical in inner worlds (though of course in your thought experiment I take it we stipulate it to be so for the purposes of eliminating confounders). Maybe that is confounding my intuitions. I guess I see thinking of animals as separate (in the way we think of humans) as more efficacious in generating motivation to respect animals more. But maybe your suggestion is motivating enough too, I will think about it. Anyway, thanks again for your response.

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    1. Ah, right, if one's only chicken-related concern is for aggregate (rather than individual) chicken welfare, it would seem difficult to accommodate regret about killing with replacement (assuming the replacement has sufficient welfare to make up for whatever harms the other suffered while dying).

      So that could be a reason to extend moral separateness more broadly. If you think we ought to care about individual animals (as certainly seems plausible when thinking about cats and dogs) then you probably should just extend my account of the intrinsic value of each person to similarly apply to each non-human animal. (Or, perhaps, to each animal that's above some minimal cognitive threshold for being their own individual self. One could imagine insects being conscious, for example, without attain the relevant level of individuality. And I was assuming something similar of chickens, though I admittedly don't really know enough about the empirics as to whether that's justified or not.)

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