Should We Value Happiness? Subjectivism and Objectivism in Metaethics

This is another post inspired by the discussions we’ve been having in the Derek Parfit seminar. Metaethics seems to me to be a very difficult thing to talk about. So bear with me as I work this out in writing. The question debated in class today revolved around the distinction between Hard and Soft Naturalism. Hard Naturalism is the view that there are just natural facts, and that we do not need to talk using distinctively normative language; we can jettison normative talk and just use natural descriptions. Soft Natualism is the view that there are just natural facts, but we still need to use irreducibly normative language. Parfit thinks that Hard Naturalism makes normativity out to be trivial, and he thinks Soft Naturalism is incoherent because he thinks Naturalism is committed to a thesis about reduction. Just about everyone in the class was not satisfied by Parfit’s arguments against both Soft Naturalism and Hard Naturalism. Most people thought that we could somehow rescue normative language from purely naturalistic properties. That is, people were saying that we could dispense with talk about these spooky irreducible Non-Natural normative facts and be just fine in producing genuinely normative claims about what we ought to do.

Now, I’m certainly not endorsing any talk about spooky irreducible Non-Natural normative facts. But I’m not really sure a complete reduction of ought-statements is plausible. How does talk about atoms in the void getting you to ought-statements? Well, the thought goes, once you start talking about the biological and society level of reality, you can get statements about what’s most natural for humans to desire, and we can translate ought-statements into statements about how to maximize happiness in sentient organisms in virtue of well-known facts about the subjective preferences of organisms. This is basically the idea behind Subjectivism. Presumably, the thought goes, it’s rational to do what one ought to do. What is it that we ought to do? Subjectivism says we should satisfy the desires of ourselves and others under conditions of ideal information and deliberation.

Imagine a man who genuinely wanted to chop off his pinky finger. He had all the relevant information about what would happen to his subjective well-being if he cut off his finger, and he wasn’t deluded or out of his mind. He simply wants to cut off his finger because he has a genuine desire to do so. Here’s the question: would he have a good reason for cutting off his finger? The subjectivist position is this: the man would have a good reason to cut off his finger because that’s what would satisfy his desire, and rationality is about desire satisfaction. The objectivist would say that the man has no good reason to cut off his finger. Having a desire for something is not enough. One must have good reasons to want to do something.

Most people in class seem to think that Subjectivism is the right way to go, because it seems to be the only plausible theory compatible with naturalistic metaphysics. But I’m convinced there is a serious problem with Subjectivism and all other forms of noncognitivism, expressivism, quasi-realism, and any other desire-based, Humean story. The problem is this: all these theories assume the same thing: that all humans share the same values. Subjectivists make the following argument. They say that we can use naturalistic facts about what the average human desires, and use these facts to tell us what we ought to do. On this view, spooky nonnatural normative facts are just like regular natural facts, it’s just that these natural facts are about making animals happy or satisfying desires. But here’s the thing: Subjectivism does not seem like it is capable or even wants to give a rational justification for the desire for happiness, or any other bottom-level desire.

And here is where I think Parfit is really onto something when he says that for Subjectivism, nothing really matters. Notice in the subjectivist explanation of the man wanting to cut off his finger the justification looks like this: he wants to cut off his finger and it’s rational because he has a desire to do so. There is no need for the man to justify to Subjectivists why he desires to cut off his finger. He has thought about it long and hard, considered all the consequences, and he still desires to do so. Likewise with claims about happiness. Why ought we to promote happiness? The subjectivist says that we should promote happiness because we all fundamentally desire happiness. So the normative force of the moral principle “maximize happiness” stems from facts about what we, as typical humans, desire.

But why should we value happiness, as opposed to unhappiness? Why should we value life, as opposed to nonlife? If the suicidal person genuinely wants to end his life, how would appealing to the descriptive fact that most humans value life give the suicidal person a reason to not end his life? It just doesn’t seem to have any normative oomph to point to the descriptive fact about what typical humans under typical conditions value. The question is why should we value the things that we value. Should we value life? Should we value happiness? What reasons do we have for valuing such things?

This is why I do not think the complete reduction to preferences works. We cannot reduce the statement “One ought to value happiness” into statements about the natural fact that most people in fact value happiness. What if we just emphasized that, look, given that most people do in fact value happiness, doesn’t that provide enough reason to, say, prevent the killing of innocent life? Parfit’s answer is no. If rationality bottoms out at the level of desire satisfaction, and we can tell no justifying story about why we should have the bottom-level desires we have, then nothing really matters except the satisfaction of those desires. But take someone who happens to not have similar values to typical humans. Let’s say a man desires to kill an innocent person. Are we going to really just say that the only reason he is irrational is because he doesn’t have typical human preferences, that he is just biologically unusual?

I think Reason can do better than that. But as I emphasized in my last post, I think the Objectivist story about rationality only works with Human Rationality, which is distinct from the instrumental rationality we share with nonhuman animals. And this is why I don’t think evolutionarily inspired arguments for moral nihilism work. Such arguments would go through if the only form of rationality humans possessed was instrumental rationality. But humans are not limited to just that form of rationality. Human Rationality is capable of reflecting on the very bottom layer of human valuation and asking, yes we do in fact value happiness, but should we? Do we have good reasons for doing so beyond just appealing to the brute fact that we very often do in fact desire such things? Don’t we want more out of our moral theory than a translation of natural facts about what we already know we desire? Don’t we want our moral theory to tell us something above and beyond the natural facts? Don’t we want our theory to tell us what we ought to do, what we ought to value?

I don’t think any of this requires talk of spooky nonnatural properties. It requires only a proper understanding of what it is exactly that Human Reason is up to when it enables humans to augment their decision making and go beyond instrumental rationality.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Should We Value Happiness? Subjectivism and Objectivism in Metaethics

  1. Dan Downes

    Have you read ‘The Objectivist Ethics’? In that essay Ayn Rand answers many of the questions you raise here.

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