Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Is Objective List Theory "Spooky"?

[I'm currently working on a new introduction to theories of welfare for, and am wondering whether to include the following.  Two big questions: Do you agree that "spookiness" worries seem like a common basis (especially amongst students / non-specialists) for rejecting objective list theories?  And if so, do you find the substantive discussion here to be helpful?]

Resistance to objective list theories may sometimes stem from the sense that there is something metaphysically extravagant, disreputable, or “spooky” about the objective values that it posits. But competing theories of welfare are arguably in no better position with regard to such metaethical concerns. Wellbeing is an inherently normative notion: it is that which is worth pursuing for an individual’s sake. (If you are not describing something that matters in this way, then whatever it is that you are giving an account of, it cannot truly be welfare. A thoroughgoing normative skeptic or nihilist must deny that there is any such thing.)^[Expressivists may give an anti-realist gloss on what “mattering” amounts to. But then they can just as comfortably extend this gloss to the kind of first-order “objectivity” posited by objective list theories.]

Utilitarians, especially, regard welfare as objectively valuable: if someone claims that others' interests don't matter, we think they're making a serious moral mistake. Given this ultimate commitment to a kind of first-order normative objectivity, we might as well build a similar sort of objectivity into our theory of welfare right from the start—that is, in specifying what contributes to our welfare. Once you are on board with welfare value at all, it is not clear that there is any additional metaphysical cost to accepting an objective list theory in particular.^[Cf. Bedke (2010), 'Might All Normativity be Queer?']

On the other hand, it can be hard to shake the sense that there is something seemingly less mysterious about grounding value in our affective states, as per the slogan, “No value without a valuer!” The challenge for the subjectivist is to develop this slogan into an argument that makes clear what metaphysical difference follows from grounding value in our affective states, so long as the resulting value is equally real and important either way. Absent further argument, we may suspect that the force of the objection really stems from illicitly vacillating between normative subjectivism and outright nihilism.

After all, it would indeed be less mysterious to outright deny the reality of value, and claim that subjective valuing is all there is in the vicinity. But this would be a form of normative nihilism: that S values p is a purely descriptive fact about S's psychology. There is nothing inherently normative about this, unless we further claim that subjective valuation is something that actually matters in some way (say, in making p worth pursuing for S's sake). And then we are back to positing normativity, in all its mysterious glory.)

* * *

Are there other references (besides Bedke 2010) that'd be worth citing here?

The general point here is one that I've been harping on for a while.  For example:
Sometimes I get the sense that defenders of [hedonism and egoism] regard alternatives (recognizing either other-regarding reasons, or non-hedonic reasons) as somehow more mysterious or "spooky". So the restrictions, despite being normatively implausible-seeming, might nonetheless be warranted on broader theoretical -- even metaphysical -- grounds. But this makes no sense. Any "spookiness" entered the picture with objective normative reasons. The content of the reasons doesn't affect their spooky normative "glow". Egoists and altruists, hedonists and objective list theorists are all equally committed to normative reasons. So if we're going to posit normative reasons at all, we might as well try to secure contents for them that are as plausible as they can possibly be.

(See also: Desire-based Objective Value, for an argument that many desire theories are best understood as "objectivist" views, contrary to the standard terminology.)


  1. I think one could read the objective list view as saying (very roughly) that there's no shared property that all the prudentially valuable things have in common and in virtue of which they are prudentially valuable. They just are all prudentially valuable, without there being any common factor that explains why, hence we just have a list. I'm not sure if that's really a fair characterization. You could probably get into some tricky thing about what properties are and whether there are disjunctive properties like being either knowledge or pleasure or ... But assuming this is roughly correct or at least a way the theory might strike us, I think I can get the intuition that this makes prudential value seem mysterious. In particular, it seems to entail that it's an irreducible property of these goods. There can't be some natural property, F, such that the prudential value of a prudentially valuable thing reduces to it being F, since then the different prudentially good things would be prudentially valuable by virtue of being F, and F would be the shared essence of prudentially valuable goods. By contrast, other theories don't entail irreducible evaluative properties: hedonism is compatible with prudential value being reducible to pleasure, for example. I'm not sure if this is right, but it might be where the intuition could be coming from?

    1. Interesting! But I'm not sure where the pressure to reject disjunctive properties is coming from. It's pretty standard for physicalists in the philosophy of mind to regard conscious states (like pleasure!) as multiply-realizable, after all.

    2. Good point! I do suspect that a lot will hinge on this, in terms of whether the concern is actually a strong one. In the philosophy of mind, isn't the idea that, say, pain may be multiply realizable in terms of its physical constitution (whether it's C fibres firing or Martian goo percolating, say), but nonetheless all pains are alike in terms of their functional role? If so, there is something all pains have in common besides being on a list of neurophysical properties that undergird pain experience; each of the different neurophysical properties that realize pain do so because they play the pain role. Whereas, on at least one conception of the list theory, there is not a shared property in virtue of which, say, knowledge and friendship are on the list. They're just there. (Admittedly, there are objective theories of welfare like perfectionism that don't have this property and seek to explain the elements of the list in terms of a shared property like 'realizing human nature'. Those wouldn't face the kind of concern I was gesturing at.)

    3. Yeah, that seems right. I personally wouldn't expect there to be an explanation of why the basic welfare facts are what they are -- seems like a natural spot for bedrock to me! -- but I think you're right that this is the best way to make sense of the objection. Thanks!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Perhaps not really different from A Mogensen's comment, but my take:

    The interest work that egoist or hedonist theories are doing is not in identifying self-interest or please as of objective normative value, but in justifying why those things are what is of objective normative value. It doesn't seem like a generalized defense of normative list theories could do that. A proponent of a given list would need to defend why those things and not some other things in addition to and/or instead of them made the list. If there was a single unifying attribute in virtue of which they made the list, then it seems that item is what's really of interest. And if there is a multiplicity, it seems we end up back at the question of why those attributes and not others.

    1. Thanks, this is helpful. I take it the idea is that only monist views can explain why the basic welfare facts are what they are. But can they really? For the kinds of regress reasons that you mention, they can't appeal to any other property in explaining why F is good for you. And appealing to F itself as the explanation why F is good for you doesn't seem like much of an explanation. (Surely explanations should relate distinct properties? Cf. Parfit on "concealed tautologies".)

      They may, admittedly, explain why some particular token F is good for you -- it's in virtue of its being an instance of F-ness. But pluralists can offer similar explanations -- they'll just be different explanations for various different kinds of goods. (F1 is good in virtue of its F-ness, G1 is good in virtues of its G-ness.)

      If we move away from metaphysical explanation and instead invoke epistemic justification, then it's even more obscure what advantage monism is supposed to offer. How do you justify having just pleasure on your objective list and nothing else? Well, offer an argument for hedonism, I guess, but it's entirely a substantive question how those compare (in terms of strength or plausibility) to the arguments for pluralist objective list theories.

      Sometimes people just seem to have a basic pre-theoretic commitment to the idea that there ought to be "a single unifying attribute" that all good things have in common. It just seems odd to me to take a pre-theoretic stance on this. What credence we should give to monism vs pluralism should just fall out of the verdicts we reach upon substantively investigating the matter, or so it seems to me. If, upon looking into it, it seems like two or more different kinds of things fundamentally matter, I don't really get the pressure to resist this conclusion.

    2. Happy to hear my comment was helpful.

      To clarify, I didn't mean to suggest the sort of monism you glossed, but rather the idea that there ought to be a unifying explanation for whatever, and however many, things make one's list. I could imagine, at least in theory, that one could offer a defense of a list with multiple items that doesn't suggest a reduction to a single attribute. (F1 and G1 are good in virtue of J, and they can not be reduced to J/J-ness - or something similar) In some sense, I suppose this reflects my thinking that whatever makes a list (even if its a single thing) should fall out from one's account of what welfare is. That is to say, we're offering an account of a single thing, welfare, so even for a list with many things, they are unified in being a comprehensive description of what constitutes welfare. So in the example you gave, what's importantly missing to me is why welfare is comprised of things with F-ness and G-ness.

      That said, your reply makes me wonder if there is anything useful to be had by thinking about if there are reasons to think a priori that a list ought to have only one or more than one item on it.

      Hopefully that's still helpful.

    3. "we're offering an account of a single thing, welfare..."

      This is ambiguous between a question-begging reading and an innocuous (but unhelpful) one. 'Welfare' is just a word for what's worth caring about for an individual's sake. Is there a single thing that's worth caring about for an individual's sake? That's just what's in dispute. Perhaps you instead mean that we're asking a single question: "what is worth caring about for an individual's sake?" OK. But then I don't see any pre-theoretic reason to expect that the items that feature in the answer should be unified in any non-trivial way (that is, except for their sharing the normative property of being worth caring about in this way). Why couldn't a diverse array of things all be worth caring about, for fundamentally diverse reasons?

    4. I meant it in the question begging sense, and had I thought of it as such, I probably would've tried to phrase it differently - I appreciate that's not helpful here, but I'm not sure how else, or more usefully, to phrase the opinion that there needs to be something unifying the arguments for what some set of things constitutes welfare. I suppose, what I'm interested in is a non-trivial account of why the items that feature into an answer to what is worth caring about. Perhaps my biases/pre-theoretic assumptions are just showing at this point ...

      As a last ditch effort to offer something useful from my thinking on your post:
      If welfare, W, is defined by/equivalent to/constituted by some set of things/properties, {x1, x2, ..., xn}, I want a non-trivial explanation for W = {x1, x2, ..., xn}, in particular, I want a defense of the set as a whole, not an explanation for why some member(s), xn, are a member of W. I want to know that the set being discussed is not a subset of some larger set that is identical to W, that the set is necessary and sufficient for a useful understanding of W, i.e. welfare

    5. Thanks for clarifying! Just to push back on the implicit assumption that a satisfying explanation here is possible on any view, consider perfectionism. It claims that the Xns all belong in W in virtue of their "realizing one's species' nature" (or some such). But we can still ask, why is "realizing one's species' nature" determinative of welfare? It's not clear what answer could be given to this, besides whatever ordinary first-order arguments perfectionists offer in support of their view. But then, is it really so different to the position of the pluralist who holds that (say) love, happiness, and creativity are the basic welfare goods, and supports this with first-order arguments (showing that their view gives the most plausible verdicts across a wide range of cases, say)?

      Part of the puzzle here, I think, is getting clear on why you are asking for something beyond just first-order arguments about what is and isn't good. If (i) we've given good reasons to think that x1, x2, and x3 are basic welfare goods, and (ii) we don't appear to be missing any other basic welfare goods, then why doesn't that suffice to explain why W = {x1, x2, x3}?

    6. I'm quite certain I am less familiar with the literature on what constitutes welfare, arguments for egoism, hedonism, etc. - but insofar as I am familiar with arguments for hedonism and egoism, I take them as not simply asserting self-interest or pleasure are what is of objective normative value but in arguing, however successfully or not, that those things are all and only what is of value. I agree that one could always ask why not x as well, but to me that doesn't detract from the fact that they offer an argument for why only their thing is valuable. In light of counter-examples one could always update the argument or throw the whole thing out. As an example, if one were to say W={self-interest, pleasure}, I'd expect each camp to either argue that their thing is prior and the other is reducible to it, or to offer counter examples that they don't think the other can address (I suppose one could argue they are identical in some sense). Since I take both as arguing for why their thing is the only thing of value, to really support having them both, one would at least need to argue against each being sufficient alone and that they are non-identical. I suspect sufficiency arguments would need to appeal to ordinary examples of welfare. Perhaps that take just reflects my own ignorance or lack of careful reading/thinking ...

      As for why I think this matters, if we are to draw conclusions about what ought to be done on the basis of some theory of welfare, I think there is a big difference between an account which says this and only this is what is relevant and one that says this and maybe some more is what's relevant. I find the latter type of account not so useful, as I can always fall back on, well, maybe this example is covered by one of those others (or else am not really sure how to use it to decide things). I'd rather work with a closed set of relevant features, and then update them as necessary or bite the bullet and attribute my lack of comfort with a conclusion to some undesirable bias or something. In short, in order for a theory of welfare to do the work I think I want it to do, I feel it needs to be a closed set of however many items. If my gloss of arguments for egoism and hedonism are way off, then perhaps this is too high a bar for any theory of welfare.


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.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.