Thursday, February 07, 2008

the impossibility of a private language, ergo the objectivity of values.

I hardly ever get surprised by something in philosophy anymore; in the new literature I read I more often than not find myself either anticipating the arguments, or when I see something insightful, I think to myself, “Hey, I’ve thought of that before, too!”

Two notable exceptions as of late: Plantinga’s “How to be an Anti-Realist” (which I won’t be discussing here) and a passage from “A Defense of Objectivity” by a one Margarita Levin.

Levin is critical of anti-realist theories of value, and she begins her defense of the objectivity of values with this keen insight:

So let us first ask whether values can be neutrally attributed to others. It seems to me that such attribution is indeed possible. Wittgenstein’s celebrated attacks on private languages apply with full force to a private language of values. If evaluating were a private act, people could not learn- as they obviously do learn- what someone means when he says that he “admires” something or “despises” it. There are public indicators of valuing; most clearly what a culture encourages and discourages- which it is possible to determine at least in principle- is a good sign of what it values. Of course, the values an individual will publicly assent to may not be the values he secretly holds, and ferreting out his true preferences may require considerable ingenuity, but again this is not in principle impossible. On the whole, determining values poses no less but no more difficulty than detecting the presence of a shy nocturnal animal. (pg. 6 of the article)

What an ingenious way of turning Wittgenstein on his head! If talk of values makes sense, then there is no sense in saying we don’t have access to what people value, much less saying that values altogether don’t exist. Of course, in Wittgenstein’s earlier days he maintained that value talk cannot be empirically verified and therefore value talk is nonsense. Regardless, Levin’s point is that we are clearly acquainted with our own values as well as the values of others, therefore so much for anti-realism concerning values and for verificationsism.

But of course, it’s one thing to acknowledge the existence of the practice of valuing (i.e. Mary likes strawberries; the Nazis didn’t value the Jews, etc.) and another to acknowledge that there is objective criteria about what should or shouldn’t be valued.

My view is that there is objective criteria about what ought to be valued: the Nazi’s were wrong to kill Jews for their Jewry, and Mary ought to like strawberries because strawberries are yummy. Of course, the former “ought” is a much more severe kind of “ought” than the latter, but an ought nonetheless. And the way to figure out what should be valued is to look no further than our human nature. I ought to not want to kill Jews for being Jewish because doing so might increase my social well-being (if I live in 19th century Russia or Germany), but it will aversely affect my wellbeing (murders tend to be miserable). And besides, I know a few Jewish people and I’ve had knowing and loving them has greatly enhanced my love for life.

The reason I can say that Nazi’s are wrong for not caring about Jews is because their not valuing Jews is a complete miscalculation. Germans, in virtue of being human, have much more in common with Jews, who are also human, that render the Germans’ differences with Jewish people as ultimately insignificant, and hence focusing on those differences they have with Jews is nearsighted, to say the least.

But notice, this metaethical assay of mine is not objective in the sense of “independent of the existence of humanity.” I concede that if there were no humans there would be no human values, and further no criteria for what ought to be valued. But this is a trivial point, because every scientist would concede that if there was no atoms there would be no truths about atoms. The only reason why ethics seems a peculiar subject matter is because the subject matter of ethics happens to be us, and that’s not the case when it comes to atoms, for we aren’t atoms. We study ourselves objectively in the sense that we can study ourselves and each other as objects of inquiry. We can use our cognitive faculties to find out what would be better for us to value, or what might be better for us to not value, and our conclusions about these matters will be true, or false, or if we are being vague, the whole spectrum between partly and mostly true or false. In this respect, then, the study of values and metaethics is just as objective as the physical sciences are purported to be…

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Blogger Gary said...

...And no one will ever see an atom.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Gary said...

...And the trees in the Garden of Eden were literal/physical trees endowed with their unique qualities by Jesus and were all destroyed by The Flood.
The Tree of life in Revelation is in the New Heaven/New Earth, specifically in the New Jerusalem...

The Natural Tree of Life
The Spiritual Tree of Life






How's that for being relevant?

4:11 PM  
Blogger MG said...


You wrote:

"But of course, it’s one thing to acknowledge the existence of the practice of valuing (i.e. Mary likes strawberries; the Nazis didn’t value the Jews, etc.) and another to acknowledge that there is objective criteria about what should or shouldn’t be valued. "

So do you think that Levin's argument leads us to the conclusion that values are objective (even if this doesn't tell us anything about which ones are real and which ones are false), or just that valuing is something that *might* have an objective referent?

10:33 PM  
Blogger Derek said...

At best, the argument I quoted from Levin shows that anti-realism about values is false. We all value things, and we’re well aware of it, and the practice of valuing is impossible if there is no such thing as values (that is, if anti-realism in regards to values is true). But the argument I quoted doesn’t substantiate a meta-ethical criteria: it might be an objective fact I value my friend Bob, but this doesn’t meant that I ought (or ought not) value him.

11:00 PM  

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