Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

I have recently been arguing that the term good:

must be cashed out in fact terms lest it just be a projection of our preferences and nothing more.  [And] if it means anything objective, it means effectiveness.

In reply, James Gray accuses me of reductionism:

One, “good” does not have be defined in non-good terms. I don’t know that moral realism should be reductionistic and entirely understandable in non-moral terms.

I am not guilty of reductionism.  Reductionism as an intellectual error reasons that as soon as one understands a thing’s subcomponents which make it work in the way that it does one has revealed it not to be the thing it appears to be.  So, for example, reductionists think that if the mind is made up of neural interactions then in some way the mind is “just” a bunch of neurons and that this means that our mental activities are “fake” or an “illusion”.  Such a view does not give any credit to the real differences and unique orders of being which arise when entities interact.  It is as though they do not see the difference between a car going 60 miles an hour and “just a bunch of metals, plastics, and fabrics”.

A non-reductionistic attitude feels no threat from understanding mental activity as neuron interactions.  Thoughts and emotions, tastes and touches, are no less real just because they arise from and are constituted by the interactions of neurons.  They are distinct emergent realities which the neurons generate in their activities but which would not occur if the neurons were isolated or insufficiently arranged or behaving.   Thoughts, emotions, tastes, touches, etc. still refer to facts about the world and are still pleasant and can still convey objective values to us just as they always have since the days when we knew nothing of neurons.

In fact, all our references to facts, all our pleasurable conscious awareness of our mental states and our mental nature itself, all our discovery of value, etc. has all along been the result of neuron interactions.  These things are no less real just because they are made up of sub-components that strike us as alien and foreign from a scientific and uncommon sense point of view.  They are only real in the first place because of these now scientifically describable processes.

Things are similar in this case.  I am not denying the actual value of moralities or any other intrinsically good things by tracing them back to the factual interactions in which and from which they emerge.  I am analyzing the ways that value functions through facts, not reductionistically ridding all the value fr0m values by describing them in terms of facts.

Value is in certain fact relationships, inherently and necessarily.  It is a kind of fact relationship.  It inheres in reality itself in this way.  Increasingly complex value relationships emerge as increasingly complex beings emerge.  The true value of morality is situated in this much broader context of reality-wide occurrences of value.  The true value of morality in general arises relative to the human mind to which it is objectively valuable.  The true worths of particular general moral frameworks and more specific moral judgments are determined relative to our factual relationships to the world.

James’s mistake is in reading me as defining “good” in “non-good terms”.  My thesis, as expressly boiled down to a simple equation, has been that goodness is effectiveness itself. It is not explained by any further “non-good” parts of reality as effectiveness is a basic feature of reality, without which we could not understand realities at all.

To say that a being functions well as the being it is when it does the characteristic function that makes it the being it is, is not to read the good in “non-good” terms but to read good as a factual function among parts of reality.  The subcomponents which are in interactions are not “non-good” things.  They only exist as beings themselves insofar as they emerge as good functions of their own further subcomponents’ interactions, which means they themselves are intrinsically good.  And their functional interactions which create higher, more complex goods are intrinsically good relationships for them which oftentimes even contribute to their staying in being themselves.

I am not prejudicing the “non-good” over the good but, rather, opposing the common prejudice that facts are inherently value neutral and “non-good”.  My argument is that reality is shot through with facts which are composed of value relationships all the way down to the most basic rudiments of existence, whatever they may be and which compose increasingly complex value relationships insofar as they compose increasingly complex beings and relationships among beings.

In this way I am a naturalist, to be sure, but far from a reductionist.

James does rightly characterize my view as one which wants to understand moral realism in non-moral terms.  This is what is most distinctively Nietzschean about my account.  There is more to value than just moral value.  Differing moral value judgments arise from differing biological and social conditions in which they served different people’s interests in survival, flourishing, and dominance.  When thinking normatively, we should carefully assess how particular value judgments of all stripes, including all sorts of conflicting moral ones, (a) successfully or not track true value and (b) contribute to successful survival and flourishing for individuals and for humanity in general.

This means assessing moral values without circularly deferring to the moral prejudices received by our biology or our cultural conditions.  This is important for two reasons.  1.  The objective truth about values, including moral values, is an objective good for its own sake.  2.  We can improve our moral values if we have objective, non-question-begging, value standards by which to assess their actual worth and the worths of their possible replacements where they are faulty.  Such analyses are not reductionistic and they do not try to assess the good in “non-good” terms.  They do purport to assess moral values in non-moral terms, but not all value terms are moral terms–however much the automatic prejudices of morality (usually helpfully but occasionally harmfully) mislead us into strongly feeling like they are.

James had three other objections, which I will attend to shortly.  But this strikes me as a self-contained topic so I will stop here for now.

Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”

Immoralism?

Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    Thank you for the thoughtful replies, Dan. I’m still a bit confused about your view.

    First, I don’t know that it matters to call something a “moral value.” Of course, there are instrumental values concerning morally neutral goals. Are you saying that intrinsic values are moral but instrumental ones aren’t?

    My point is whether we can understand intrinsic value in non-”intrinsic value” terms.

    Second, you said “Such analyses are not reductionistic and they do not try to assess the good in “non-good” terms. They do purport to assess moral values in non-moral terms.” I don’t know what any of this means, perhaps because it’s not clear to me how moral values differ from nonmoral values. Some examples might help.