A lot of my Twitter debating time recently has been spent defending the claim that there are facts about value that hold independent of our desires. The example I always press is that there is an objective distinction between things that are worth doing (e.g. pursuing pleasure, learning, being creative) and things that are pointless (e.g. counting blades of grass, for its own sake, when you don’t enjoy it or get any further good from it). In order to set out my case and debate it a bit, I cheekily invited myself on Kane B’s YouTube channel (he has the opposing view) and we had a really good chat about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HL2D6Mxkvh8
In hindsight, I think there’s one argument I briefly raised that I should’ve pressed more. I have two kids. Suppose the older one of them grows up to hate philosophy and love football. Now, I hate football and love philosophy. Suppose I really worry about my elder child’s preferences, even though she’s clearly very happy, and I try to talk her round, even suggest therapy to try to align her preferences to mine. I think we’d all think my behaviour would be deeply unreasonable: I’d just be imposing my personal preferences on her.
But now suppose my younger child grows up to have the basic goal of counting how many yellow cars there are in our neighbourhood every day. Suppose this really makes her really unhappy (t takes several hours) and often unwell (it’s very tiring, and she does it even when the weather is really bad), but it’s her only main freely chosen goal in life, and it’s not among her life-goals to be healthy or happy. Now in this case, if I really worry, try to talk her around, maybe suggest therapy, I think we’d think my behaviour was understandable and reasonable.
Why the difference? In both cases, the child is pursuing a freely chosen goal. The younger child is miserable and unhappy, but if there are no objective value facts, then pursuing health and happiness are just as arbitrary goals as counting yellow cars. Surely, then, my concern with the younger child should be seen as me imposing my values on her just as much as in the case of the older child? Or at least, that is what we should think if we deny the existence of objective value.
Kane claimed not only that he doesn’t believe that some goals and more worthwhile than others, but that he just doesn’t even feel the intuition. I suggest that someone who differentiates between these two cases in a normal way is implicitly committing to objective values. They are effectively committing to the idea that there’s something objectively problematic about not being concerned with your own health and happiness; it’s this implicit assumption that explains why we think concern and intervention is reasonable with the younger child but not the older. If we totally don’t feel the pull of the intuition that there are objective values, then we should be mystified by the intuition that my treatment of the younger child is somehow ‘more reasonable’. But is anyone really mystified by this?
We could put the argument like this:
- Anyone who would judge concern and intervention is reasonable in the case of the younger child but unreasonable in the case of the older child implicitly believes in objective values.
- Almost everyone would judge concern and intervention reasonable in the case of the younger child but unreasonable in the case of the older child.
- Almost everyone implicitly believes in objective values.
It’s a further question as to whether this belief is justified (I try to argue that it is in the video), but the case I’m trying to make here is that many people who think they don’t believe in objective values, in fact do.
Genuinely interested in hearing from value anti-realists on what they think about this case.