Sunday, August 23, 2009

An Official Goodbye

Those of you who pay attention to this space may have noticed a substantial drop-off in the rate of postings on this blog. This has been a busy summer: I've been to North Carolina, Israel, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New York, with stops in Connecticut in between and, finally, a trip out to Arizona at the end. My dad is remarried, I have sat through nearly a month of seminars, I've seen many of my friends from college, I somehow managed to not spend all of the money I saved from working this past year, and I have at long last arrived at the doorstep of the next major chapter in my life. I couldn't be more excited.

This semester will be my first as a student in the University of Arizona's philosophy PhD program. I will be taking a course in Environmental Ethics and Policy with David Schmidtz, a seminar on Equality with Thomas Christiano, and a first-year proseminar with Marga Reimer on a subject which has not yet been revealed to me. I'll also be TAing three sections of a class called The Economics and Ethics of Wealth Creation, taught by Michael Gill. Outside of my coursework and professional responsibilities, I have an incredible array of opportunities open to me. I can sit in on lectures, join reading groups, network with climate change researchers in other departments, enjoy the perpetual sun and magnificent mountains, spend time relaxing with some of the most brilliant philosophers in my age group, hang out with my mom, and explore the culinary awesomeness available throughout Tucson.

But one thing I've decided to cut from the roster is this blog. It seems to me that if I am going to be working on philosophy, there are much more pressing things I should be doing than posting here. I'm going to leave all of the existing content here, just the way it is, with two hopes. First, if there's anything on here that I've gotten right, I hope that people will find some use for my thoughts and that somehow all of this writing will help someone move across the terrain I've covered a bit more quickly than I did. But second, in the far more likely event that I one day look back on this blog as an amusing artifact of my mentality at a particular point in my young life, I hope that this site will serve as a set of snapshots of who I have been since I began writing here over a year and a half ago, and that I will be able to look fondly upon it in spite of its many shortcomings.

I want to thank all of the wonderful and brilliant people who have been a part of making this ongoing project as rich and productive as it has been for me. Dr. Hunt, Gene, Dr. Long, Dr. Chartier, Chip, Alex, Roman, Vichy, Michael, Greg, Dmitry, Dan, Jad, Giles, Stan, Alan, Joel, Radical Hippo, and JEK come to mind from the last several months, and I'm sure that there are a number of people who I'm leaving out but who played an integral role in helping me to refine my thinking. And that, of course, is leaving out the many fabulous anonymous commenters who have contributed substantially in their own right. Thank you all so much for making this such a worthwhile and educational experience for me!

I hope that this blog has been as interesting and thought-provoking for you to read as it has been for me to write. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you keep in touch.

The End.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Me From the Past!

So I was just alerted to the online availability of a brief presentation I gave at FEE's Young Scholars Colloquium last year, and I figured it would be worth posting here. I should note that the presentation was basically a response to not having enough student presentations to fill the time and needing one of the interns to jump in to eat space, so I don't pretend that anything particularly groundbreaking was said.

But without further ado, here's the link. My talk starts at 12:30, and discusses pollution taxes. In it, I make the claim that there are pollution taxes, and I'm not actually sure that's true...can anyone think of an example? That aside, I think it's pretty decent presentation, and I hope you all enjoy it!

My climate change presentation from this year's seminar will hopefully be coming online relatively soon -- and with video! -- so look forward to that...

Saturday, July 4, 2009

On Leviathan and Public Reason: A Reply to Chartier

So I've been having a discussion with Dr. Chartier over at the LiberaLaw blog about the role of the sovereign as a source of public reason in Hobbes' political philosophy, in response to an interesting post in which he discussed how a Hobbesian account might be consistent with market anarchism. Because I am a horribly verbose person, I wrote more in response to Dr. Chartier's last comments than the comments system would allow, and I am therefore posting my thoughts here. Hopefully this is of some interest to someone!

In order to understand this, it would probably be a good idea to read Dr. Chartier's post and the comments that have already been published on it, particularly this one (since this post is directly a response to that comment).


If I understand correctly, Hobbes sees the sovereign as existing to settle conflicts. In Dr. Chartier's post and comments, he's seemed to somewhat equated this to a notion of "preserving civil peace." And to an extent, this makes sense. With property disputes, for example, what the sovereign is being asked to do is to merely uphold some exogenous system of justice: the sovereign is just acting to make sure we maintain a peaceful environment, where we get our idea of "civil peace" from somewhere else.

But to Hobbes, this will treat too much as settled. He would likely want to say that we may disagree on what it is that even constitutes "civil peace." One person might have a desire to see all homosexuals put to death. Another person might have a desire to see his homosexual compatriots protected from this fate, and is willing to fight to defend them. Another person might want to see the bigoted guy put in the stockades for being such a jerk. Hobbes thinks that this kind of conflict is a serious problem. In the absence of any external norms and institutions to tell us who is right and who will get their way, and in the absence of any enforceable agreement between them, Hobbes thinks that the three people in our story will have no reasonable choice but to prepare for violence. So long as each relies on his private reason, they will be condemned to a state of war.

The liberal solution to this problem is the one which gives us the notion of "civil peace" that I imagine Dr. Chartier has in mind: this approach typically seeks to independently define some conception of right-of-way, so that we have a way of adjudicating disputes according to these independent norms. But Hobbes doesn't have this machinery in his system. He could say that there may be no standard of right-of-way that each of the three people in our story would accept if each relied on his private reason. The system of rights and duties that will appeal to the bigot will be seen as oppressive by the defender of the homosexuals, and vice versa. And even if they could strike an agreement, there's no guarantee that some new issue won't arise in the future to drive them apart. The only way for them to avoid the state of war, Hobbes thinks, would be to give some third party the authority to choose what constitutes the appropriate conception of "civil peace" that will underpin their society.

The problem with the limits Dr. Chartier seems to want to place on the sovereign, I think, is that it seems to be in conflict with Hobbes' desire that the sovereign have the authority to decide basically everything about how a society is going to function. If this authority is denied in areas where there could potentially be legitimate disagreements between people, then Hobbes is going to worry that conflicts will arise, where each side believes that his own private reasons are the right reasons. Hobbes wants to eliminate this possibility by giving the sovereign absolute authority to decide what's right and fair.

But all of this is drilling way further into Hobbes than I think Dr. Chartier was seeking to do. If all he wants to take from Hobbes is the idea that a government is necessary to adjudicate disputes, then none of these issues are going to be a big deal. In this case it seems to me that he's actually moving away from the substance of Hobbes' argument and actually moving closer to the sort of thing Locke was saying in chapter 9 of the Second Treatise. As Locke writes:
Thus mankind, notwithstanding all the privileges of the state of nature, being but in an ill condition, while they remain in it, are quickly driven into society. Hence it comes to pass, that we seldom find any number of men live any time together in this state. The inconveniencies that they are therein exposed to, by the irregular and uncertain exercise of the power every man has of punishing the transgressions of others, make them take sanctuary under the established laws of government, and therein seek the preservation of their property. It is this makes them so willingly give up every one his single power of punishing, to be exercised by such alone, as shall be appointed to it amongst them; and by such rules as the community, or those authorized by them to that purpose, shall agree on. And in this we have the original right and rise of both the legislative and executive power, as well as of the governments and societies themselves.

If Dr. Chartier is considering this sort of approach to thinking about government, then yes: I agree that it don't establish a whole lot about exactly what a government is supposed to do or how big it needs to be. As long as it addresses the "inconveniencies" of the state of nature, any system of government will seem to do, and insofar as a stateless, decentralized, or pluralistic system can address them, that would be fine too. But this shouldn't surprise us: this Lockean position is what underpins a great deal of the modern libertarian tradition, including Rothbard's market anarchism and Nozick's decentralized, pluralistic vision of Utopia. I should add, though, that it also shouldn't surprise us to find that we're led to conclusions very different from those that Hobbes professed.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Interesting Things to Watch

Howdy, y'all. I just figured I should direct your attention to two conversations that have caught my interest recently, and which may be interesting to some of you as well.

Over at the Austro-Athenian Empire blog, Dr. Long has posted a discussion of the proper definition of "socialism," entitled "POOTMOP Redux!" (after an older post, "Pootmop!," in which he discussed private ownership of the means of production -- p.o.o.t.m.o.p.). If you want some background on the post, read Kevin Carson's initial contribution to the discussion, "Socialism: A Perfectly Good Word Rehabilitated," and Stephen Kinsella's response, "The New Libertarianism: Anti-Capitalistic and Socialist." I should point out for the time-starved, however, that Dr. Long's post is probably just fine on its own.

I've posted a fair amount in the comments section of the post, and Neverfox of Instead of a Blog has jumped in as well. Of interest as well may be Dr. Chartier's thoughtful contribution on the LiberaLaw blog, "Socialism Revisited," as well as Brainpolice's commentary on the Polycentric Order blog, "Anarchist and Socialist Semantics and Historicity (Or, Why Does Stephan Kinsella Act As If Individualist Anarchism Never Existed? Redux)."


The other interesting conversation going on at the moment is a new chapter in the debate over state involvement in marriage, this time with a post on the ThinkMarkets blog by Dr. Rizzo, "What Should Be The State’s Role In Marriage?." The time scale for this discussion is a bit longer than that for the previous one. For me, it started with an overconfident post on this blog last year, now-amusingly entitled, "Open and Shut: Should Same-Sex Marriage Be Legal?" In it, I argued that the state should get out of marriage entirely in order to avoid a choice between discrimination and offending religious groups who I took to have some legitimate claim to the institution of "marriage." (That post, incidentally, marked the one and only time that this blog has ever been linked to on The Huffington Post. Go figure.)

A few months later, Dr. Koppl posted his own discussion of the issue over at the ThinkMarkets blog, "Ideas Have Consequences," in which he argued that gay marriage should be legalized. In the comments section of that post, we had what I found to be an incredibly productive conversation in which he convinced me that the religious groups in question really did not have the kind of claim to the institution of marriage that I had attributed to them, and that having a legal understanding of "marriage" was quite valuable. I accordingly posted a follow-up on this blog in which I conceded the argument to Dr. Koppl, entitled, "Roger Koppl Is Right About Gay Marriage."

Dr. Rizzo's point intriguingly takes up the banner for the sort of position I initially defended, arguing that the government ought to get out of defining marriage altogether. In the comments section, I tried to draw attention to the conversation that had already taken place on the blog earlier this year, and eventually Dr. Koppl himself arrived on the scene to defend his position again. Gene Callahan of Crash Landing, the (now willfully abandoned!) Morality Debate, chance meetings at AIER, etc., has also joined in the discussion. This should be good!

Friday, June 19, 2009

On Basic Structures and Starting Points

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls writes (7):
The basic structure is the primary subject of justice because its effects are so profound and present from the start. The intuitive notion here is that this structure contains various social positions and that men born into different social positions have different expectations of life determined, in part, by the political system as well as by economic and social circumstances. In this way the institutions of society favor certain starting places over others. These are especially deep inequalities. Not only are they pervasive, but they affect men’s initial chances in life; yet they cannot possibly be justified by an appeal to the notions of merit or desert. It is these inequalities, presumably inevitable in the basic structure of any society, to which the principles of social justice must in the first instance apply.

He elaborates (82):
The primary subject of justice, as I have emphasized, is the basic structure of society. The reason for this is that its effects are so profound and pervasive, and present from birth. This structure favors some starting points over others in the division of the benefits from social cooperation. It is these inequalities which the two principles are to regulate. Once these principles are satisfied, other inequalities are allowed to arise from men’s voluntary actions in accordance with the principle of free association. Thus the relevant social positions are, so to speak, the starting places properly generalized and aggregated.

In this post, I want to jot down some thoughts on why I find this a concerning aspect of Rawls’ approach. My concern arises from Rawls’ supposition that basic structures “contain” social positions, and thus the array of social positions in a society are the result of the choice of basic structures in that society. But the basic structure of society does not itself directly produce the distribution of starting places. In each instance where a person is born into a particular starting place, it is the consequence of some people having a child. It is somewhat difficult for me to imagine why we would think that the basic structure of a typical society could directly cause a baby to be born. Perhaps we could coherently say this if we lived in a mechanistic totalitarian society in which children were in an important sense a product of social planning, but this seems like an odd way to think about the way children are born in our society.

The extent to which the basic structure of our society impacts the array of starting places is the extent to which it has some influence on the range of opportunities that prospective parents are able to offer their children, in those cases where these people actually do choose to have children. Approaching things with this mindset, we can see that any society will “contain” an infinite number of potential starting points, and in certain relatively rare circumstances, a child will actually be born into a particular starting point. But these starting points will be the product not only of the principles governing the basic structure of society, but also (and undoubtedly more importantly) the incredible confluence of events that led up to the possibility of a particular child being born into a particular set of social circumstances, almost all of which are only tangentially related to the basic structure of society. And significantly, the way that we characterize a starting place will be significantly conditioned by the kind of parenting the individual in question will receive. I would at least be hesitant to think of the quality of one’s parents’ personal contributions to one’s childhood as being entirely the product of the basic structure of society (I would actually be a bit hesitant to make these claims about pretty much any of the social interactions that help to shape a child’s life, but for our purposes it will not be necessary to raise this challenge). If it’s true that the distribution of starting points is at least partly determined by the way that people choose to treat their children, then Rawls’ claim that the basic structure of society “contains various social positions” (where the relevant social positions are “starting places”) seems a little worrisome.

But Rawls might counter that even if the basic structure of society does not solely determine the array of starting points into which people will be born, it still has some impact on the range of opportunities that will be available to individuals whose parents decided to have them. And this, he could say, may be cause for some concern. Intuitively, this seems fair enough. I think it’s entirely reasonable, for example, to think that we may want to consider the idea that we have some duty (as individuals, social groups, communities, or whatever) to ensure that people have certain opportunities provided to them if we can help it (I don’t intend to engage this question here, but I certainly wouldn’t want to rule this out). Rawls might say that we ought to help poor families to provide education, food, or clothing for their children. He might say that we ought to help children from less fortunate backgrounds get into college or enter the workforce. Though these suggestions might be problematic for one reason or another, they don’t seem totally unreasonable on their face.

But this isn’t what Rawls wants to argue: he wants to suggest that by allowing a certain array of starting points to come into existence, the basic structure of society might itself be seen to be unjust, and would thus need to be replaced with another basic structure. This, I think, is where Rawls might be running into real trouble.

Here’s what I have in mind: Individuals who are born into particular starting points are the products of particular reproductive events. These events are the products of long histories of social changes and reproductive events which produced the circumstances in which these events occurred. Altering the basic structure of society would bring it about that a different set of reproductive events would occur, and so a different set of starting points would come about, but into these starting points would be born a totally different set of people. This is a problem because Rawls’ view is built on a scenario where the members of society are supposed to try to agree on the basic structure of society -- a mutually beneficial system of cooperation. But if we assume that living is not itself a bad thing (I have heard this disputed, but whatever), then it seems clear that the most beneficial choice of basic structures for any individual would be whatever structure brought that individual into existence. No one would really have any grounds to complain about their starting place because it would be a necessary precondition for them existing in the first place. Altering the array of starting points in society might be justified, but not on the basis that it would somehow benefit the people whose “undesirable” starting points would be eliminated. And if we’re not trying to benefit these people, then it’s sort of difficult to see how we’re still talking about a contractarian view that’s focused on starting points.

(To be honest, I’m sort of unsure about this conclusion. In this case, when I say that it’s difficult for me to see how this could be accommodated, I am not saying that rhetorically; I don’t know how it works. If anyone can explain to me how Rawls’ approach could accommodate the fact that no one will benefit from the choice of any basic structure besides the one that causes them to come into existence, that would be sweet.)

So hopefully, this post has served to establish two points on which I am confused: a) the basic structure of society doesn’t itself produce the distribution of starting places, and b) messing with the basic structure in order to alter the distribution of starting points in fundamental ways would bring about an entirely different population, which would most certainly not benefit the people whose starting points are being eliminated, and would therefore seem not be an appropriate goal of a contractarian view like Rawls’. As should be clear from the above, none of this should be taken to be “damning criticism” of Rawls; I am just hesitant about the way that Rawls is proceeding, and I think he might have made a big mistake. Even so, these do seem like the sorts of things that would need to be addressed.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

200 Posts!

Jeez...I can't believe that there are two hundred posts on this frikkin' thing. I guess I don't really have much to say about this, but I figured it should get some kind of acknowledgment. Thanks so much to all of the incredibly interesting and intelligent people who read my ramblings and occasionally leave me comments. It's been really awesome getting to meet and talk with you guys, and I hope you've gotten something out of following this blog!

I should probably take this opportunity to briefly discuss the future of this blog. As you all undoubtedly know, I'm going to be starting graduate school in August at the University of Arizona. I fully expect that as a graduate student, it will come to be nothing short of irresponsible for me to spend my time typing up blog posts instead of concentrating on my coursework. I'll therefore be suspending all updates to this site for the foreseeable future, starting when I leave for school. Until then, I'll continue to update in my usual sporadic way. So...uh...I'm not sure what you're supposed to do with that information, except to remember it so you can't say you weren't warned when I suddenly vanish off the face of the Earth for several years of intense studiousness!

Thanks again for reading.

Friday, June 12, 2009

I Don't Get the Whole "Peak Oil" Thing...

So here's a fancy story:

There's a commodity that exists in limited supplies on the Earth; let's call it awesomite. Awesomite can currently be harvested and brought to market for $5/oz, and at that price we can satisfy all the demand from people who are willing to pay that much. Eventually, some of the supplies of awesomite run out, and it becomes more difficult to meet the market's demand. We can get more awesomite for $7/oz than we can for $5/oz in this now-somewhat-depleted world, since that price would allow us to buy a sweet line of awesomite-carrying trucks which would help us reach sources of awesomite that simply couldn't be harvested without them. And at this higher price, some people decide to stop using awesomite; we can meet all the remaining demand for awesomite at $7/oz. Eventually, we start to deplete the supplies of awesomite even further, and so it becomes increasingly difficult to meet demand at $7/oz. For $10/oz, though, we can definitely get at some of the hardest to reach sources of awesomite, since we could buy a totally rad array of processing equipment that would enable us to get the valuable commodity out of ore that would otherwise be too impure to use. And at $10/oz, way fewer people want to use awesomite, so we can balance things again.

This entire time, we've known about a substitute for awesomite: spiffium. With current harvesting methods, we can get spiffium for $9/oz, but even at that price we can't produce all that much -- the technology is very limited. When awesomite cost $5/oz, people were only really using spiffium for specialized applications; it simply didn't make sense to use it when you could just use the much cheaper awesomite instead. The same was pretty much true at $7/oz. But when awesomite prices hit $10/oz, the spiffium producers went into high gear. They quickly found that they had maxed out the amount of spiffium they could produce, and suddenly people were willing to pay $10/oz for whatever they could put out. Accordingly, a lot of people started to invest in some excellent new methods to produce spiffium.

See, there was always a whole lot of spiffium that could be harvested, but no one ever really cared to figure out how. Developing any one of those new methods would be expensive and may never turn up anything. And besides, the price of awesomite was just so low; the investment would only have been worthwhile if it produced a radical breakthrough that totally revolutionized spiffium production, and that was a pretty big risk to take. But at $10/oz, things looked a lot better for spiffium producers. As awesomite supplies continued to dwindle, its market price continued to climb and awesomite producers continued to use even more remote and awesomite-poor resources to satisfy the market's demand for their products. But at these high prices, spiffium producers could justify radically expanding their own production and investing in all new methods to get spiffium to the marketplace.

As time went on, the spiffium producers had a series of breakthroughs which fundamentally changed the way that spiffium was produced. They could now get way more spiffium out of the ground than they ever could before with cool new pressurized water harvesting systems and computerized geological data processing programs that spiffium company engineers created once the investment dollars started flowing in. And they could do it at lower and lower prices. Soon the price for spiffium started to drop below the price of awesomite, and now it was only the specialized applications that used awesomite; any application that could use both commodities would be hard-pressed to justify using anything but the much cheaper spiffium.


As might be rather obvious, I intended the above story to be an allegory for the growing concern about oil supplies. Oil -- the equivalent of awesomite in our story -- is really cheap right now, and has been for a long time. If you believe some people, it's too cheap! Why? Because at current prices, oil is preventing "needed" investment in alternative sources of energy -- a real-world version of spiffium. And the reason we need to be investing in alternatives is because we're going to run out of oil, and this would be terrible.

But as we saw in the story, when we started running out of awesomite, the price rose and we started using sources of awesomite that would have been uneconomical at lower prices. And eventually, prices rose high enough that it was clearly worthwhile to start investing in alternatives. The price mechanism automatically sent signals to the relevant actors that told them what they should do!

So I really fail to see what is the big deal about "peak oil" and dwindling oil resource supplies. As we start to actually run low on oil, suppliers will be hard pressed to meet market demand with their current resources. Prices will rise, people will cut back, and currently uneconomical oil resources will come into production. When prices rise high enough, alternative fuels will begin to make sense, and we will start to see a transition away from oil in applications where substitutes can be utilized efficiently. It will be just like how people slowly stopped using awesomite and switched to spiffium in our story.

Now, this shouldn't necessarily be taken as an indictment of social funding of alternative energy research; that's an entirely different issue with a whole separate range of considerations. But what I do think this discussion supports is the idea that people should take a few deep breaths and stop getting so worked up about peak oil. It will be okay.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

How Climate Change Policy May Cause Economic Disruption

A little while ago, I wrote a post discussing why I didn't think that a tax on emissions of greenhouse gases would result in an overall decrease in buying power spread across the economy. In that post, I focused on how a policy might work out if it were slowly phased in; my intention was to set aside the possibility of certain problems that a climate policy may expect to face in order to focus only on a particular set of concerns about overall buying power in the light of increasing the cost of emissions. In this post, I want to address some of the issues I set aside in that earlier post. Particularly, I wanted to focus on the possibility that by implementing a new climate change policy, we could disrupt the existing economic order in a very significant way, and that this might be expected to produce some very worrisome impacts. (Again, this post will talk about carbon taxes; if the translation to cap-and-trade schemes is confusing, I can explain.)

So here's the deal. As I explained in the previous post, a good carbon tax is built on the idea that we make carbon-emissions-intensive goods more expensive with a tax. The proceeds are used to finance a tax cut elsewhere which has the effect of making non-emissions-intensive goods relatively less expensive by increasing consumers' buying power (stated in terms of nominal dollars). This would tend to have the effect of increasing the demand for non-emissions-intensive goods at pre-tax prices, and lowering demand for emissions-intensive goods at prices reflecting the pre-tax price and the carbon tax.

In the previous post, I discussed an example involving two consumers (Cynthia and Xavier) who were part of an economy including rocks (which do not take carbon emissions to produce) and rubber balls (which do take carbon emissions to produce). Before the tax, both rocks and rubber balls cost $5. After the tax, rubber balls cost $6 and the price of rocks is unchanged. The proceeds of the tax on the rubber balls, I said, was used to finance a tax cut so that the consumers each ended up having more buying power than they would have had otherwise (in dollar terms).

If such a policy were enacted, we would imagine that people would shift their consumption choices in the direction of rocks and away from rubber balls. If we held market prices fixed for the moment, we would expect people to demand more rocks and less rubber balls. This could create an incentive for suppliers to decrease the prices of rubber balls in order to avoid building up excessive inventories, and to increase the prices of rocks in order to avoid creating a shortage. Alternatively, it could create an incentive to decrease the production of rocks and to increase the production of rubber balls. In practice, it would more than likely be a combination of both.

So here's the problem: In our modern economy, there is a lot of capital invested in the production of emissions-intensive goods. In our example economy, we might imagine that many rubber balls are produced using a sophisticated ball-making machine. And it may be that at the new lower demand, some of the companies that invested in these ball-making machines would need to sell them or might even go out of business. The people who made the ball-making machines would see demand for their products drop, and perhaps they would be put out of work. The ripples would move outward.

Of course, on the flip side, the rock producers would experience some seriously good times, at least at first. Once the drop in rubber ball demand put some people out of work and decreased the salaries of others, it's conceivable that the decrease in those individuals' consumption would balance out the increase in demand for rocks created by the carbon tax, or even outweigh it.

It should be clear that the more drastic a tax is imposed, and the more quickly it is implemented, the more significant the impacts on the structure of the economy. In our example, we might imagine that the tax was imposed only with a five year warning. In the scenario, it seems rather likely that the impacts would be substantially less severe. Producers would have time to plan for the tax, and they would be far less likely to make investments that would turn out to be really awful. Or alternatively, we could imagine that the tax was relatively small, and so the shift in demand might be rather small.

But with a quickly implemented or severe tax (or both), it seems rather clear that the impacts would be very noticeable. A number of otherwise sound investments would be converted into misallocations of resources, and these would need to be liquidated. It seems important that we acknowledge this possibility when we think about our climate policy options. Of course, nothing said here shows that we should reject climate taxes; I just think this is a side of the picture that needs to be seen.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Does the "Vintage Sedan" Commit Us In "The Envelope"?

In his book, Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence, Peter Unger seeks to show that by allowing people to suffer and die in the third world, we are failing in our moral duties. He offers an intriguing thought experiment, which has been called the case of the "Vintage Sedan":
Not truly rich, your one luxury in life is a vintage Mercedes sedan that, with much time, attention, and money, you've restored to mint condition... One day, you stop at the intersection of two small country roads, both lightly traveled. Hearing a voice screaming for help, you get out and see a man who's wounded and covered with a lot of his blood. Assuring you that his wound is confined to one of his legs, the man also informs you that he was a medical student for two full years. And, despite his expulsion for cheating on his second year final exams, which explains his indigent status since, he's knowledgeably tied his shirt near the wound as to stop the flow. So, there's no urgent danger of losing his life, you're informed, but there's great danger of losing his limb. This can be prevented, however, if you drive him to a rural hospital fifty miles away. "How did the wound occur?" you ask. An avid bird-watcher, he admits that he trespassed on a nearby field and, in carelessly leaving, cut himself on rusty barbed wire. Now, if you'd aid this trespasser, you must lay him across your fine back seat. But, then, your fine upholstery will be soaked through with blood, and restoring the car will cost over five thousand dollars. So, you drive away. Picked up the next day by another driver, he survives but loses the wounded leg.

Unger suggests that in such a scenario, it is natural for people to feel a strong commitment towards the idea that we would act monstrously by abandoning the hitchhiker. As many of the readers of this blog are libertarians who likely have stronger intuitions about the importance of self-determination than does Unger, it may be helpful to recast the illustration in order to make the danger to the hitchhiker more severe, or the cost to the owner of the vintage sedan less significant. The relevant point here is that most of us feel rather strongly that if the hitchhiker were in some real danger and if our actions could make the difference as to whether or not that danger were averted, we would have a moral duty to act to avert the danger even if doing so would require that we incur some costs ourselves.

Unger then offers an illustration that is referred to as "The Envelope":
In your mailbox, there's something from (the U.S. Committee for) UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon.

Unger's intuition is that if we believe that we should help the hitchhiker in Vintage Sedan, then we should surely send the $100 in The Envelope, where the costs to us are so much smaller and where we would be averting so much more regrettable outcomes.


For a long time, I haven't known what to do with this argument. In another post, I agreed with the sort of intuition that Unger offers about Vintage Sedan, writing:
...the reason that we endorsed a broadly liberal approach to ethical reasoning in the first place was that we want to take proper account of the value of individuals. Wouldn't it seem odd if on one hand we were saying that individuals must be respected because their lives are important and valuable, and on the other hand we were saying that there's nothing wrong when people act as though others are irrelevant and worthless? I think so.

But I offered a vague defense against the sort of move Unger takes in extending the intuition produced in Vintage Sedan to The Envelope:
But in saying that, I don't mean to create the suggestion that we are "sacrificial animals" (to use the phrasing of the ever-abrasive Objectivists), required by morality to subordinate ourselves to others whenever they can coherently make the case that their needs and wants are "more important" than ours. An important part of what makes our lives valuable and worth respecting is that we can live them for ourselves. Another way to think of this is to say that even though we may have a peripheral or relatively unimportant interest in any particular activity we may be engaging in over the course of a normal day, we have an important or even basic interest in being able to plan and execute our lives according to our own plans, without having to think of ourselves as being at the beck and call of anyone who finds herself in a bind at any particular moment.

I continued that:
...because it's important to us that we be able to live our own lives, we have no duty to devote ourselves to empowering others. That's not to say that it is not virtuous to do so, or that we should not focus on the richness that helping others can bring to our lives. I only seek to suggest that if someone chooses to pursue his own dreams, living his life primarily for himself except where impelled by emergency to come to the aid of his fellow people, it wouldn't be fair for us to say that he has failed morally or behaved in an evil manner.

But to be honest, I haven't been totally satisfied with this argument. That is, I don't think it's wrong; I just feel like there's something missing. It seems to me that we don't have a duty to send the $100 in The Envelope, and it's not just because we don't have a duty to devote ourselves to solving world hunger. It seems to me that there's something importantly different between Vintage Sedan and The Envelope that could support a moral distinction between them.


For the longest time, though, I couldn't think of what the distinction might actually be; they just seemed totally different. Now, obviously there are differences between Vintage Sedan and The Envelope where Unger is going to get to laugh sinisterly if you retreat to them. These include appeals to the distance or anonymity of the people in The Envelope -- these are the sorts of things that don't seem like they can support the distinction we intuitively want to make. And it's going to be especially ugly if we try to go down the road that leads to, "Well the hitchhiker's suffering here is worse than that of the thirty people who will die for lack of basic necessities."

But now I'm toying with another sort of distinction, which I think may have at least some merit. In Vintage Sedan, it seems that the hitchhiker has found himself in an emergency situation. Something has happened to him that threatens the expectations that he very reasonably had about his future. If he is not taken to the hospital, he will need to make drastic adjustments in the way he thinks about his life and his future. In The Envelope, on the other hand, the people to be helped are "in trouble" simply as a result of the sort of lives they lead. To the extent that they are not in any particularly unusual circumstances given the sort of lives to which they are accustomed and acculturated, their fates will (at least as far as we know in the example) fall more or less within the range of the expectations that they could reasonably be expected to have. Surely we would want to acknowledge that these individuals find themselves in a rather regrettable lifestyle (given global standards), and that perhaps it would be nice if they had different and better opportunities available to them. But it seems to me that this is a very real and very significant difference between the people we are to help in The Envelope and the hitchhiker's situation in Vintage Sedan.


Now, Unger's point is that because we think that we should help the hitchhiker in Vintage Sedan, we are committed to sending the $100 in The Envelope. If, however, the difference I have outlined between Vintage Sedan and The Envelope really is significant, then Unger will be incorrect; our position in Vintage Sedan does not commit us to a particular stance on The Envelope. But it could still be true that this difference does not justify our failure to send the $100 in The Envelope -- it could be that Unger's conclusion is correct even if his argument is not.

So, then, what do we think about the idea that we have a moral duty to provide assistance to people who find themselves -- through no fault of their own -- in living situations which are (by current global standards) very dire? I'm not sure what I think. It seems to me that our obligation towards them is certainly not quite the same as the obligation we feel in Vintage Sedan, but saying much more would likely open me up to charges of begging the question -- that is, unless I were to here try to construct a theoretical defense of one conclusion or another, which isn't going to happen. I think this is an issue that requires a lot more thought, and that it would be premature of me to arrive at any definitive conclusion here. I guess I'll leave it at tentatively rejecting Unger's argument, then. I think I'm happy with that.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

On the Two Functions of the Principles of Justice in A Theory of Justice

So the other day I finally started reading Rawls' A Theory of Justice. I'm going to spend a lot of time trying to feel this book out, since it's pretty darn important that I get it right. In this post I want to trace a single stream of Rawls' thought, connecting the choice of the appropriate conception of justice to the determination of how we should conceive of the original position.


Rawls thinks that in evaluating political institutions, we must first focus on the question of whether or not they are just. He writes (3):
Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.

But whether or not we find that a set of institutions is just will turn on the conception of justice that we use to evaluate those institutions. He thinks that while people may hold different conceptions of justice, the concept of justice itself, where basic social institutions are concerned, is uncontroversial (5):
Those who hold different conceptions of justice can...still agree that institutions are just when no arbitrary distinctions are made between persons in the assigning of basic rights and duties and when the rules determine a proper balance between competing claims to the advantages of social life.

So ignoring for now the question of whether or not we agree that this really is the concept of justice we all share in thinking about social institutions, we can see that for Rawls, the concept of institutional justice makes two demands of a social system: (1) Basic rights and duties must be assigned in a manner free of arbitrary distinctions; and (2) The rules adjudicating competing claims to the advantages of social life must produce a "proper balance." Our individual conceptions of the justice of social systems, then, will similarly need to do two things: 1) They need to specify what distinctions are significant in assigning basic rights and duties; and 2) They need to define what counts as a "proper balance" between the competing claims to the advantages of social life. Rawls writes (5):
Men can agree to this description of just institutions since the notions of an arbitrary distinction and of a proper balance, which are included in the concept of justice, are left open for each to interpret according to the principles of justice he accepts. These principles single out which similarities and differences among persons are relevant in determining rights and duties and they specify which division of advantages is appropriate.


So, then, how are we to decide which particular conception of institutional justice is right? Here Rawls seeks to utilize an intellectual crutch to help us think about the decision. He proposes that we imagine ourselves as people at a hypothetical negotiating table at the beginning of a society who are trying to determine what principles should govern the choice of institutions in the society. We are to imagine that we are all destined to be born into whatever social system is put into place on the basis of our decision, but we are deprived of certain pieces of information about who we will become. Rawls writes (11):
Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.

But why should we think that the results of this thought experiment will be relevant? Who cares what people in such a ridiculous set of circumstances would think? And won't the conception of justice that we choose in such a situation simply reflect the choice of what information we were allowed to consider?

Rawls is quick to clarify. He acknowledges that clearly, the features of the choice situation are no small matter; in fact, the design of the "original position" is a critical part of the choice of the appropriate principles of justice. He writes (14):
...justice as fairness [the name of Rawls' theory], like other contract views, consists of two parts: (1) an interpretation of the initial situation and of the problem of choice posed there, and (2) a set of principles which, it is argued, would be agreed to.

The design of the initial position, he contends, is meant to help us abstract away the things that we think are morally irrelevant in choosing an appropriate conception of justice. We don't know who we're going to be when we're in the original position, or what we're going to value, because those sorts of things aren't supposed to matter in thinking about justice. Rawls explains (16-17):
One should not be the somewhat unusual conditions which characterize the original position. The idea here is simply to make vivid to ourselves the restrictions that it seems reasonable to impose on arguments for principles of justice, and therefore on these principles themselves. Thus it seems reasonable and generally acceptable that no one should be advantaged or disadvantaged by natural fortune or social circumstances in the choice of principles. It also seems widely agreed that it should be impossible to tailor principles to the circumstances of one's own case. We should insure further that particular inclinations and aspirations, and persons' conceptions of their good do not affect the principles adopted.

So, then, the way we are supposed to think about the original position is to first deprive all the people at the table of the information that we think is irrelevant to making their choice. We are then supposed to ask what kind of decision they would make.


Now, Rawls insists that we add a further condition: the people at the table in the initial situation are completely self-interested. He writes (12):
One feature of justice as fairness is to think of the parties in the initial situation as rational and mutually disinterested. This does not mean that the parties are egoists, that is, individuals with only certain kinds if interests, say in wealth, prestige, and domination. But they are conceived as not taking an interest in one another's interests.

Now, it's not clear to me exactly what Rawls means by this. Two possibilities come to mind: 1) People in the initial situation should not care about the other people in the situation; their focus should be entirely on the people who will be born into the social system that will be produced by their decision, each of whom they have a chance of coming to be; and 2) People in the initial situation should focus only on the self-regarding interests of the people who will be born into the social system that will be produced by their decision.

It seems to me that (1) is reasonably plausible. The initial position is just a thought experiment, and so the interests of the imaginary people in the initial position are irrelevant. So if Rawls means (1), then that's fine. But if Rawls means (2), then I can only ask...well...why? It seems like Rawls is going to talk about it later (he notes section 25, entitled "The Rationality of the Parties"), so I'll hold off on passing final judgment. But it does seem rather curious that we would want to ignore any interest that people have in the fellow members of their societies in thinking about what kind of society they would want to live in. For the time being, I'm just going to assume he means (1) until I see any indication otherwise.


Here's something puzzling to me:

As we saw, the initial position is supposed to help us choose a conception of justice by abstracting away all of the irrelevant things we might otherwise consider in trying to make the choice. And remember, the conception of justice that we choose is supposed to do two things: 1) Assign basic rights and duties; and 2) Define what distribution of social advantages is appropriate. Is it really going to be the case that the relevant considerations for choosing the principles for (1) are going to be the same as the relevant considerations for choosing the principles for (2)? Are they at least not necessarily the same?

Here's why I ask:

It seems to me that when we think about assigning basic rights and duties, we think that there are very few distinctions between people that are really relevant. And Rawls seems to capture this intuition in all of the considerations he abstracts out of the initial situation. We don't think that rights or duties should depend on personal identity, social circumstance, personal interests, or our own conceptions of the good. These things aren't supposed to matter. And for assigning basic rights and duties, it seems like we would want to rule that these things are irrelevant.

But in talking about how the advantages of social cooperation are distributed, it's not entirely clear that these same considerations are irrelevant. Imagine that Mark, Rita, and Beatrice are the only three people in their society, and they all live as subsistence farmers. They honor the boundaries of their respective plots, and the third party is always relied on to settle disputes. They are generally pretty happy with their peaceful coexistence. One day, Beatrice invents a new game and sets to work in her scant spare time producing the equipment to play it. She then insists that Mark and Rita pay her a small bit of what they produce if they want to play the game. They happily oblige, and inequality is born. In this illustration, it's clear that we have a situation where everyone is being made better off by their social arrangement; Mark and Rita gain because they get to play a game that they enjoy, and Beatrice gains because she gets to enjoy their company as well as the payment they provide.

But now imagine that we turn to the question of whether everyone is getting an appropriate share, and we use Rawls' tool. We think of Mark, Rita, and Beatrice all at the beginning of their society, trying to decide what rules to adopt for distributing the advantages of social cooperation. Is it really true that the personal identity of these three is irrelevant for thinking about who should get what? Should we expect Beatrice to agree that the appropriate way to settle the issue is to pretend that all three of them had an equal chance to be her, and that she could just as easily be the one paying? I at least don't think it's obvious that Beatrice should be willing to grant this.

And even if Beatrice should grant this, is it really for the same reasons that she ought to grant the irrelevance of personal identity in assigning basic rights and duties? It just seems to me that if the considerations that are relevant in choosing each set of principles are going to line up, it's going to be a coincidence. But maybe Rawls defends this way of doing things later; we'll have to see. Maybe I've already missed something! If anyone's actually reading this post, do you know why Rawls structures things this way?


Something else that has me confused:

How does the original position contribute anything to the process of assigning basic rights and duties? Rawls tells us that our conception of justice is supposed to "single out which similarities and differences among persons are relevant in determining rights and duties" (5). And in designing the thought experiment that is supposed to help us decide how to do this, we are supposed to abstract away "those aspects of the social world that seem arbitrary from a moral point of view" (14). It seems to me that if we can design the original position, then we must already know "which similarities and differences among persons are relevant in determining rights and duties." So what are we gaining through the thought experiment?


My notebook is riddled with nitpicks, reservations, and qualms about this whole thing, and I'm sure I could go on all night -- I'm equally sure most of my objections would be dumb. So I think that for now, I'm happy to leave it at this. I've at least gotten a post up about the book, which has actually been more difficult than you might imagine (this is the fourth try, if my memory serves me correctly). Believe me, there will be more.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Assorted Responses to Callahan on Value Theory


In the comments section of my post replying to some of his earlier points, Gene Callahan advanced a number of counterarguments that I think are deserving of a response. Because Gene's comments are separate responses to specific points I made, this reply will itself be a little disjointed. Rather than introduce the points by way of introduction, I will simply direct the reader to Gene's post to get a feel for what issues he raised; this post will respond to several of them in turn.


The first point Gene makes is that economists, acting within their capacities as economists, shouldn't have anything to say about value theory. He writes:
For economics, it is sufficient to to posit that, whatever the nature of value in a metaphysical or ontological view, market prices are determined by what economic actors *think* things are worth. To understand how a price for some good emerges from the market process, it makes no difference whether or not there is any objective yardstick by which value judgments may be measured as better or worse.

He continues:
...economists "should" be concerned with how actors' actual evaluations bring about market prices. There is no reason for an economist qua economist to concern herself with the ontological character of value.

Look at it this way – there is no need for a chemist to question what matter “really” is – it just does combine in such and such ways, whatever it is.

I have no interest in arguing about this point; I don't care if economists want to be interested in value theory qua economists or qua something else. In passing, I will say that many of the most important figures in the history of value theory have been economists, and many economic doctrines have been severely hampered in both the past and present by their lack of a proper understanding of the nature of value (for one obvious and important example: Marxian economics). But it will suffice to point out that this entire argument was brought about by me saying: seems to me that this way of thinking is not entirely correct, in much the same way and for much the same reasons as the "realist" theories of value in economics were both ubiquitous, unsurprising, and false.

If what Gene wants is for me to recant the inclusion of realist theories of value under the heading of "economics," then fine. It is done. I repose: seems to me that this way of thinking is not entirely correct, in much the same way and for much the same reasons as the "realist" theories of value in value theory were both ubiquitous, unsurprising, and false.

Hopefully that will dissolve the problem.


Gene's next point is built on the idea that in the past, scientists postulated the existence of many entities or objects (i.e., phlogiston, caloric, ether) which we now hold to have represented mistaken understandings of the phenomena being investigated. Surely, Gene points out, this shouldn't lead us to reject realist theories of science, which claim that the objects we are investigating really do exist (though perhaps we might reject realism for other reasons). He then tries to draw an analogy between this intuitive notion and the idea that pluralism about values is evidence in favor of anti-realism.

To put Gene's point another way: In the past, scientists claimed that certain things exist, and we now no longer think that those things ever existed. This should not, however, lead us to believe that nothing exists and that our own ideas about what exists are necessarily mistaken. In the same way, people in the past have held certain beliefs about what is valuable, and we hold different beliefs. And in the same way, this should not lead us to believe that nothing is valuable and that our own ideas about what is valuable are necessarily mistaken.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that scientific realists hold the belief that there are mind-independent objects that produce the kinds of phenomena we investigate in the natural sciences, where as moral realists do not (or at least, hopefully do not) believe that there are mind-independent moral truths that we are seeking to "measure" and "discover" through our "moral senses" in the realm of ethics. It is simply the nature of value that it is nothing more than a mental phenomenon, and we have what I take to be compelling empirical evidence that different people's minds work in different ways (even if only slightly so) in evaluating objects. If this is true -- if we know that different people's minds evaluate the same objects differently as a simple matter of the way that they work, and not because some are "faulty" and others "sound" -- and if it is also true that there is nothing to value besides these evaluations, then the objectivist and realist theories of value simply cannot stand.

The reason that this doesn't apply to the natural sciences is that we do think that there is something to empirical phenomena besides the mental states we directly experience. We think that there are mind-independent objects out there that produce these experiences. If we didn't believe this -- if we believed that empirical phenomena were just in our heads -- it wouldn't make sense to be scientific realists. And unless Gene wants to defend the idea that value is an existential property of an object, or the idea that -- contrary to my argument here -- everyone's mind really does work the same way in attributing value, then I simply don't see how either objectivism or realism can possibly work.


Gene's next point is an objection to Mises' argument that it is vain to attempt to argue about ultimate ends. Mises contended that there is no argument you can possibly offer against the value of an ultimate end, and Gene noted:
Isn't this obviously falsified by our everyday experience? Don't we regularly witness discussions about "ultimate values" in which one party succeeds in convincing the other that his initial value judgment was wrong? On a grander scale, doesn't, say, the triumph of Christianity over pagan values or the spread of Buddhism in Asia also demonstrate that one can successfully argue about 'ultimate judgments'?

I've been reading Rawls lately, and here I am reminded of his notion of "reflective equilibrium." In A Theory of Justice, Rawls uses the concept of reflective equilibrium in talking about the design of the thought experiment involving a hypothetical "original position," where people are to imagine themselves having to decide on the principles by which basic rights and duties will be assigned and by which the advantages of social cooperation will be distributed. In the original position, we are supposed to imagine ourselves behind a "veil of ignorance," where we are deprived of certain knowledge, and the knowledge of which we are to be deprived is supposed to be determined by what we think should be irrelevant in determining the principles that we are to choose. Rawls says that we take it for granted that personal identity, social circumstances, etc., should not be taken as relevant in choosing a principle of justice, and so we should therefore imagine ourselves in the original position as not knowing who we will end up being, or in what social circumstances we will find ourselves, etc. In the context of that discussion, Rawls writes (18):
In searching for the most favored description of this situation [the original position] we work from both ends. We begin by describing it so that it represents generally shared and preferably weak conditions. We then see if these conditions are strong enough to yield a significant set of principles. If not, we look for further premises equally reasonable. But if so, and these principles match our considered convictions of justice, then so far well and good. But presumably there will be discrepancies. In this case we have a choice. We can either modify the account of the initial situation or we can revise our existing judgments, for even the judgments we take provisionally as fixed points are liable to revision. By going back and forth, sometimes altering the conditions of the contractual circumstances, at others withdrawing our judgments and conforming them to principle, I assume that eventually we shall find a description of the initial situation that both expresses reasonable conditions and yields principles which match our considered judgments duly pruned and adjusted. This state of affairs I refer to as reflective equilibrium. It is an equilibrium because at last our principles and judgments coincide; and it is reflective since we know to what principles our judgments conform and the premises of their derivation. At the moment everything is in order. But this equilibrium is not necessarily stable. It is liable to be upset by further examination of the conditions which should be imposed on the contractual situation and by particular cases which may lead us to revise our judgments.

In thinking about Rawls' point, consider the concept of the "reductio ad absurdum" in moral philosophy. In using this technique, we show that a principle, if followed consistently, leads us to conclusions that we find unacceptable. This, we take it, is evidence for rejecting the principle. But why? Why shouldn't we just accept the conclusion that we find unacceptable?

Rawls' point is that our judgments and principles can be revised from both sides. When our principles lead us to conclusions that we judge as extremely worrisome, we sometimes revise our principles so that they produce "better" judgments, and we sometimes revise our judgments -- we come to see that we are committed to things that we might have initially thought to be untrue. So it is that when we point out to the slave owner that he considers himself -- and all men -- to have rights, and that he has poor grounds for making the claim that his slaves are less human than the rights-bearing non-slaves, we force the slave owner to make a choice. He can reject the view that all people have rights, or he can reject the view that he is justified in keeping his slaves.

Mises' point is not that this sort of thing doesn't happen (or "can't" happen). His point is that there is no valid argument that will enable us to critique the principles in question so far as the holder of those principles is legitimately comfortable with the conclusions to which they lead. To use Rawls' language, Mises is saying that a person in reflective equilibrium will be satisfied with the principles that they have adopted (and have no reason to be unsatisfied!), and that it is possible for people to achieve different states of reflective equilibrium. This, I think, is at least in principle true, and is probably most clearly true in light of the kinds of problems that Gaus points out about prioritization.


Gene moves on to note that even if there is no definite knowledge of the true nature of eudaimonia -- the Aristotelian conception of an individual's ultimate good -- it would clearly not be irrelevant whether or not people are correct in their beliefs or quests towards it. He writes:
If I admit that there is no widespread agreement amongst scientists as to whether or not the universe will expand indefinitely, reach a stable sate, or begin to contract at some point, does that render it 'irrelevant' as to whether one of those views is objectively true? Should the scientist convinced of the first view just give up, shrug, and say, "Well, I guess those other views are just as good as mine!"

Gene's point seems to be based on the idea that if there is no way to objectively say what is best, then everything is just as good as everything else. But this seems clearly false. For one thing, people's views could be inconsistent. These views would clearly be wrong, even if we couldn't say that there was a single correct view. Also, going back to Rawls, we could note that some people's views commit them to conclusions that they would find unacceptable, so that if those people knew about those conclusions, they would want to reject their own views. That would also seem to count as a bad sort of view, even if there were no objectively right answer.

But if we were to find ourselves in a world where everyone was in reflective equilibrium, and no one was inconsistent or unaware of the full entailments of their views, but there was still pluralism that simply could not be resolved (by the nature of such a situation), then it wouldn't be relevant if (unbeknownst to them all) there were actually a truth about the matter that none of them could see. When I say that it's not relevant, I don't mean that the truth wouldn't be relevant if they knew it. I mean that since they don't and can't know it (again, but stipulation), it has no bearing on the situation.

Here's an illustration off the top of my head that will probably be open to a host of objections not relating to my point: Imagine that there's one group of people convinced that Blue God exists, and that what Blue God wants is for people to wear blue all the time; if they don't, Blue God will send them to Hell to suffer for eternity. And imagine that there's another group of people convinced that Red God exists, and that what Red God wants is for people to wear red all the time; if they don't, Red God will send them to Hell to suffer for eternity. Now, let's imagine that there's no good way for any of them to actually figure out whether it's Blue God or Red God who exists, but actually it's Red God. In this world, would it be constructive in any way for a member of either group to start calling all the members of the other group Heathens, or trying to convince them to convert? I don't think so. It may be true that both groups think that they're right and that the other group will be going to Hell to suffer for all eternity. And if any of these groups had any good reason for believing that their position was more plausible than the other group's position, then it would make sense to try to convince people. But they don't have any reason like that in support of their position (remember, we're comparing this to a world in which everyone is in reflective equilibrium).

Now, an obvious counterargument would be that actually, we can know the true nature of eudaimonia, and therefore it isn't irrelevant to get all worked up about it. Ultimately, I just don't think this is true, and I think that all the attempts I've seen at working towards such an understanding are clearly wanting (admittedly, though, I have not sat through many; most often, the fatal problem is that they fall victim to the kinds of concerns raised by Gaus -- they identify stuff that we all generally think is valuable, but they fail to give a compelling account of how we should weigh each value against other values). But if I'm wrong about this, then clearly I'd also be wrong about thinking that the concept is irrelevant. I'm okay with that. If there's an Aristotelian out there who would like to explain to me exactly the manner in which she proposes that we might go about determining what value system is objectively most appropriate for human beings, then I'm open to hearing about it, but until then, I'm just going to stick to the assumption that reflective equilibrium is as far as we're going to get, and that reasonable pluralism will continue to be the name of the game.


Here's a quick one. Gene says:
If the procurement of an object *really* makes its acquirer better off, isn't that evidence that it *really* was valuable, rather than evidence for the contrary?

If by this Gene means, "If acquiring an object really did promote a value upheld by the aquirer, isn't that evidence that it *really* was an appropriate means for promoting that value," then yes. If, however, he means, "If acquiring an object really did promote a value upheld by the aquirer, isn't that evidence that the aquirer ought to have upheld that value," then clearly no. The value subjectivist is comfortable with this.


Gene's final point is, again, that no experience is purely subjective. But this time he takes it in a different direction:
...every experience is intrinsically an experience *of* something, and that *something* must be, to some degree *objective*.

I take it to be objectively true that one directly experiences one's experiences, and therefore the phenomenal nature of one's experiences is directly accessible. But what does it mean for a phenomenal object to be "objective"? If I draw a picture of a dragon, it is a picture of a dragon, but what does it mean to say that the dragon is therefore "objective"? Are we saying that "the picture of the dragon" is objective -- that it exists? That seems okay -- and so too is it okay to suggest that we experience moral sentiments. But I don't see how moral sentiments entail the existence of moral truths (even though they are, in a sense, experiences "of" those moral truths) any more than a picture of a dragon entails the existence of a dragon (even though it is a picture "of" a dragon). This sounds like the "We can have a concept of God, so therefore God must exist" line of argument. But perhaps I misunderstand what Gene is trying to say...


In any case, I think that about does it. As I mentioned in my response to Roman yesterday, I'm going to be trying to shift my focus away from metaethics and onto Rawls where I think it belongs. But thanks go to Gene for his thoughtful comments, encouragement along the way, and enthusiasm about carrying on this discussion. It's really been a fantastic learning experience and a lot of fun as well. Of course, this doesn't mean that the conversation needs to end, and I'll do my best to track down any future posts on this subject on other blogs and post links to them here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Priorities Call: A Response to Roman Pearah


I got a copy of A Theory of Justice the other day, and it has wrenched my attention rather thoroughly away from the metaethical debate that's been going on here lately. I really hate to walk away from a conversation, especially one that is as fascinating as the one we've been having here. But as might be apparent, I've put a whole lot of time into thinking about this, and if I continue to engage the subject with as much vigor as is my style, I know that I will continue to spend my time on metaethics, at the cost of not devoting my full attention where it probably belongs: political philosophy. Accordingly, this will be my second-to-last super-long post on this subject (unless someone totally blows my mind; I also have to respond to Gene Callahan's latest comments...but that's it!).

Over at the Instead of a Blog unblog, Roman Pearah wrote a very interesting and thorough critique of my arguments, and it deserves a careful response. With the focus that I have accorded to Rawls over the last few days, though, I haven't gotten a chance to read or listen to the resources to which he linked in his post. Without having gotten through those materials, I can only respond to the passages he quoted at face value, and therefore I may miss something critical in the justification of his points. Accordingly, although I believe I can defend myself successfully against his critique, I will necessarily be vulnerable to the possibility that I have not properly understood the full force of his arguments.

Roman organizes his critique into two main parts, one addressed at Vichy and one at me. I will discuss only the points that are directly focused on my arguments, though his comments towards Vichy may be relevant to me as well. Within the part of Roman's post directed at me, there are five sections. In the first, Roman discusses the difficulties associated with interpreting moral claims as psychological statements, and suggests that this poses a difficulty for my position. In the second, he notes that my conception of value is built on a certain kind of rejection of the concept of intrinsic value, and proposes an alternative that he believes to open an avenue to ascriptions of intrinsic value without being vulnerable to the arguments that I used to arrive at my position. In the third section, Roman argues that my rejection of morality runs into trouble through begging the question in my characterization of the issue at hand. In the fourth section, my move from explanatory value subjectivism to normative value subjectivism is called into question. And finally, in the fifth section, Roman suggests that my account of a reasonable fictionalism sounds like indirect utilitiarianism, and that I might therefore be vulnerable to all of the criticisms that come along with that view.

I will address each of these points in turn, with one exception. In my last post, I discussed the subjectivity of value at length in a response to Gene Callahan. The fourth section in Roman's critique contends that I have not offered a compelling reason why I accept normative value subjectivism. Since Roman wrote his post before I finished that reply to Gene, and since I believe I substantiated my views in that reply (particularly in section III), I will not endeavor to restate that argument. The other parts of Roman's critique, however, will be addressed below.


In his first line of argumentation, Roman points out that there is an inherent problem with translating moral statements into statements about our psychology. He illustrates this problem with the following example (which I'm slightly altering to make it valid without a bunch of jumping through hoops):

1. Any person who kicks the baby acts wrongly.
2. Ludwig kicks the baby.
3. Therefore, Ludwig acts wrongly.

Clearly, statement (3) is logically entailed by statements (1) and (2). But now consider this second example (again, rewritten slightly for clarity):

1'. When I think about the abstract idea of someone kicking a baby, I feel like there's something wrong.
2'. Ludwig kicks the baby, and I see him do it.
3'. Therefore, I feel like there's something wrong.

We should be able to see that statement (3') does not follow from statements (1') and (2'). It simply is not the case that feelings are logically entailed by other feelings. It could be that we would expect that if I were the sort of person for whom (1') was true, and I were in the situation described by (2'), it might come to pass that I would feel like there was something wrong. But this is no longer the kind of logical relationship that we saw when we looked at statements (1), (2), and (3).

For this reason, Roman resists what he takes to be my assertion that moral claims can be properly translated to statements about psychological states. If (1) and (2) entail (3), and (1') and (2') do not entail (3'), then it simply cannot be true that (1), (2), and (3) can be properly translated to (1'), (2'), and (3'). Up to this point, I am in full agreement. The problem is, I didn't ever claim that they could be. What I claimed was that moral claims are false, and that they were projections of our attitudes onto reality.

To help illustrate this difference, let's start with (1'): "When I think about the abstract idea of someone kicking a baby, I feel like there's something wrong." For a normal person who believes that moral intuitions can tell us about morality, this is pretty much taken as clear evidence of claim (1): "Any person who kicks the baby acts wrongly." But this step is clearly not truth-preserving.

Remember, my argument for fictionalism is basically this:

a. (1) is not literally true.
b. A typical person comes to believe (1) because (1') is true of her and and she unconsciously projects her attitudes onto reality.
c. Because (1') is true of basically all typical people, and because it's very natural for typical people to project their attitudes onto reality, (1) can be a useful fiction.

Roman's argument is predicated on the idea that I want to defend the view outlined in (1), (2), and (3), when my entire position is predicated on the rejection of that view. Accordingly, it won't be a problem for me that (1), (2), and (3) don't translate to (1'), (2'), and (3'); if anything, that's the whole point!


Roman next moves on to call into question a distinction I draw between value theories that see value as arising from one's personal response to objects, and those seeing value as arising from the nature of the objects themselves, such that we simply come to "recognize" or "discover" their value. Roman offers a third alternative, which he characterizes as Wittgensteinian:
It simply seems incoherent to say that something called “money” could ever not be valuable as a means of exchange; that’s just what “money” means. Something that had all the characteristics of money except for value just wouldn’t be called “money”.

Roman's point can be illustrated in the moral realm with the idea of "murder": The definition of "murder" (in its verb form) is "to kill or slaughter inhumanly or barbarously." It is, one might notice, simply not possible for an act to be murder and for it to simultaneously not be morally objectionable. Morally permissible murder isn't murder at all; it's killing. And so, going back to the example Roman offered, money that is not valuable is arguably not money at all, but rather merely paper and disks of metal.

It seems to me that Roman is right, and to the extent that we accept the claim that "money" is a value-laden term, then it will need to be allowed that I spoke imprecisely. But although I hadn't thought about this alternative when writing my discussion of value theory, it's not because I have some problem with the concept; in the initial post in this discussion, I even cited a few lines by David Hume making roughly the same point:
When a man denominates another his enemy, his rival, his antagonist, his adversary, he is understood to speak the language of self-love, and to express sentiments, peculiar to himself, and arising from his particular circumstances and situation. But when he bestows on any man the epithets of vicious or odious or depraved, he then speaks another language, and expresses sentiments, in which he expects all his audience are to concur with him. He must here, therefore, depart from his private and particular situation, and must choose a point of view, common to him with others; he must move some universal principle of the human frame, and touch a string to which all mankind have an accord and symphony.

So I agree that there are value-laden terms, and that we cannot use these terms independently of the value statements they imply. But why is this important? It seems like what Roman's trying to do is to suggest that there are certain objects of which we cannot conceive without imputing moral judgment. This, I think, is a mistake. For every value-laden term available to us, I take it that there is a value-neutral term that describes the same object without the moral connotations. The person who does not value what other people call money can simply say, "I don't care for your paper and metal disks"; the moral nihilist can say, "There's nothing inherently wrong about killing."

The problem with this line of attack is that it passes the buck from "is X wrong?" to "are we justified in describing this object as being X?" It's true that if the thing is money, then it's valuable, but the value subjectivist will simply say that the thing's "money-character" is not an inherent quality; so too will the nihilist say that the thing's "murder-character" is not inherent to it. And within the fictionalistic paradigm I try to establish, we can see that saying that something "is" money functions as a useful fiction; so too does the claim that something "is" murder. All is still accounted for. Accordingly, it seems to me that this line of argumentation falls a little short of creating significant problems for my position.


In Roman's next section, he suggests that I beg the question in rejecting morality by ruling out "the alternative that we all share the same ultimate end." This, he claims, would lead us to the idea that "Rather than a prudential should or a moral should, there is just should." There are two ways that I would want to dispute this line of argumentation.

First, Roman builds on Dr. Long's view that the sorts of ends that Isaiah Berlin would want to call "ultimate ends" would more appropriately be called "constitutive" components of a single ultimate good -- an idea that Long at least probably gets from Aristotle. But Long seems to think that the ideal constitution of one's ultimate good is something that can be determined through logical or conceptual analysis. And in this point, Roman is taking this a step further and saying that everyone's ultimate good might be the same. If Roman wants to seek out such an analytic truth about "The good of a human," then I say, good luck. I am not aware of any plausible analytic account of my ideal ultimate good, or of anyone else's, much less an account which demonstrates conclusively that everyone's ideal ultimate good is actually the same. And I am skeptical that there could ever be such an account; it seems to me that the telos of an object simply is not a matter of objective fact that is amenable to exploration and systematization, either analytically or otherwise. But to avoid igniting an argument on this point, I will propose that at least as a useful approximation of the state of our current understanding, it at least makes sense to be agnostic about the possibility that we can know the objective ideal ultimate end of a human being, and to agree that at least for now, we must treat the plurality of conceptions of the good as at least potentially irresolvable -- at least by us.

Second, even if there really were an objective account of the ideal good of a human, such that the constitutive goods to be pursued were a matter of scientific discourse, it would still be the case that the reason we should pursue these goods would be prudential, and not moral. As I said in my comments to Stan:
What is the difference, then, between the enlightened, egoistic moral nihilist and the moralistic humanist? In his essay, "Deception and Reasons to be Moral," Geoffrey Sayre-McCord notes (114):
People may have dispositions that give rise to moral behavior without being moral people. They might, for instance, be so carefully watched that temptation always gave way to fear of detection and punishment. We could certainly expect such people to behave morally; but they would be behaving morally by default, and not because they are moral. What sets the moral apart from the enlightened egoists is (at least in part) their willingness to act on considerations other than those of self-interest; unlike enlightened egoists, those who are moral constrain their pursuit of personal benefits on moral grounds.

To Sayre-McCord's fear of detection, we could add the value of future interactions, the personal pleasure received from the approval and trust of others, the sense of satisfaction that comes with having a "virtuous" character, and the personal displeasure that one might experience as a result of sensitivity to the harms inflicted on others by one's own actions. Each of these factors would be perfectly accessible to the moral nihilist, and provide reasons in themselves to act in much the same manner that morality would prescribe. But as Sayre-McCord points out, these are not moral reasons.


In the final section of Roman's critique, he expresses puzzlement over my claim that we have "good reasons" to accept fictionalism, and suggests that my account sounds a lot like the "indirect utilitarianism" proposed by Leland Yeager (which itself appears to just be a rule utilitarian view with a different name). I will not here get into all of the reasons why I find rule-utilitarianism to be a suspicious ethical view. Instead, I will focus only on what I take to be a very important difference between my argument for my fictionalist position and the kind of argument a rule utilitarian would offer in favor of adopting the same position.

According to a rule utilitarian, the appropriate method for deciding between alternative attitudes or rules is to inquire into the overall consequences of those attitudes or rules being adopted and to evaluate them in an aggregative way to determine which consequences are more desirable on the whole. On this account, the attitude or set of rules that would produce the best overall consequences (in terms of human well-being) is the one we should all adopt.

In defending my own position, I too suggested that the consequences of adopting alternative attitudes should be instrumental in informing our decision about whether to adopt them. So I can see why Roman might have made the connection between my view and rule utilitarianism. However, where the rule utilitarian is concerned with aggregate outcomes, I am only concerned with personal outcomes. The account of why I think fictionalism is an appropriate paradigm to adopt had nothing to do with what would happen to society if everyone adopted it; it had only to do with what would happen to the individual making the choice.

I certainly wouldn't want to rule out the idea that rule utilitarian considerations should also play a role in informing that decision; if I found out that my fictionalism would cause the downfall of society two years after the death of the person adopting it, I would think that to be somewhat relevant as well. But it's important to see that my argument for fictionalism was not based on those kinds of considerations; the point was that it would be personally beneficial for people to adopt the paradigm.


So that about does it, I think. Hopefully this response has sufficiently answered the questions Roman posed and clarified my position for those who might have shared some of the same concerns. I thank Roman for his thoughtful comments, and hope he got as much out of formulating his questions as I did in answering them!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Check Out Roman Pearah's Critique of My Metaethical Views!

[This post is part of The Morality Debate]

Over at the Instead of a Blog unblog, Roman Pearah wrote an incredibly kind critique of the arguments I've offered over the last week or so in defense of moral fictionalism. Roman's arguments are built on a collection of papers and lectures by Roderick Long, to which links are conveniently provided in the post. I've read through Roman's post, but want to hold off on responding until I've had a chance to read and digest Dr. Long's pieces and Roman's arguments in their light. In the mean time, I encourage everyone to check out Roman's critique as well as the rest of his blog. Roman is one of an unfortunately small group of truly intelligent, nice, and sophisticated thinkers in the world of philosophical blogging (or un-blogging as it may be in his case), and he deserves every bit of your attention.

Value Subjectivism Isn't A Mistake: A Reply to Callahan

[This post is part of The Morality Debate]


In the comments section of a post over at the Crash Landing blog, I drew a parallel between moral nihilism and the subjective theory of value in economics:
It's my contention that the conclusion in question [moral realism] is a very natural one to believe, given the very human propensity to project evaluative attitudes onto objective reality. Accordingly, it's not surprising at all to me that most thinkers throughout history believed it. But it seems to me that this way of thinking is not entirely correct, in much the same way and for much the same reasons as the "realist" theories of value in economics were both ubiquitous, unsurprising, and false. Just like it's not the bread that is valuable, but rather I who values the bread, so I claim that it's not the act that is morally objectionable, but rather I who takes moral exception to the act. It seems to me that morality, as commonly conceived, is built on a framework of attributions of intrinsic value, and that these are literally false. This doesn't mean that the attributions capture nothing true -- surely when we say that money "is" valuable, we are saying something that makes a great deal of sense even though it is literally not true -- but I think it does mean that moral claims are, strictly speaking, false.

Gene responded:
Danny, you've made a mistake here. Economics can in no way show that 'realist' theories of value are false. How in the world could it possibly demonstrate this, since the question is philosophical? What Menger pointed out was that, for the purpose of economics, the question of the 'real value' of something does not arise -- the price is determined by what people think something is worth, whatever its 'real' worth may be. Menger explicitly acknowledged that the value someone places on something may be incorrect.

It was a terrible mistake on Mises' part to try and turn Menger's correct theory of economic value into a metaphysical doctrine about the 'purely subjective' nature of value. In fact, nothing whatsoever is or ever could be 'purely subjective' -- both subjective and objective are abstractions from any concrete experience, and neither can exist on its own.

Now, Gene makes several points in this comment, and I think each of them is worth discussing. As I understand them, Gene's contentions are:

  1. Economics cannot demonstrate that realist theories of value are false because the truth or falsity of those theories is a philosophical matter.

  2. Menger's view on the subjectivity of value was a methodological position; he believed that in fact, people could be wrong about the value they placed on objects.

  3. Value cannot be purely subjective because it must have an objective component. Mises thought otherwise, and this was a mistake.

I will address each of these points in turn.


Economics cannot demonstrate that realist theories of value are false because the truth or falsity of those theories is a philosophical matter.

It's conceivable to me that Gene could mean either one of two things with this point:

  1. The truth or falsity of realist theories of value is a matter that falls outside of the field of economics. Accordingly, economics has nothing to say about it.

  2. The philosophical nature of value theory means that the truth or falsity of realist theories of value cannot be demonstrated.

If Gene meant the first thing, then I don't really want to go to battle over the point. I would hope that economists wouldn't want to say, "We're economists, not philosophers; value theory just isn't our thing," should be. But if this is an issue, then I'll gladly take off my economist hat and put on my philosopher hat for the point of discussion. My philosopher hat is way more comfortable anyway.

If he meant the second thing, then I disagree, The value subjectivist is contending that realist theories of value commit a category error by claiming that objects can have intrinsic value. It should be possible, then, to demonstrate analytically whether this is the case.


Menger's view on the subjectivity of value was a methodological position; he believed that in fact, people could be wrong about the value they placed on objects.

In order to discuss this claim, it will be valuable to see what Menger himself had to say about this. Since my exposure to Menger's work is rather limited, I will base my discussion on what he has to say about this at the beginning of Principles of Economics, but I will be happy to be corrected if Menger changed his view or expanded on this discussion elsewhere.

Menger's theory of "goods-character" is built on four conditions (PoE 1.1):
  1. A human need.

  2. Such properties as render the thing capable of being brought into a causal connection with the satisfaction of this need.

  3. Human knowledge of this causal connection.

  4. Command of the thing sufficient to direct it to the satisfaction of the need.

On the possibility that someone might be mistaken about an object's goods-character, Menger writes (ibid):
A special situation can be observed whenever things that are incapable of being placed in any kind of causal connection with the satisfaction of human needs are nevertheless treated by men as goods. This occurs (1) when attributes, and therefore capacities, are erroneously ascribed to things that do not really possess them, or (2) when non-existent human needs are mistakenly assumed to exist. In both cases we have to deal with things that do not, in reality, stand in the relationship already described as determining the goods-character of things, but do so only in the opinions of people. Among things of the first class are most cosmetics, all charms, the majority of medicines administered to the sick by peoples of early civilizations and by primitives even today, divining rods, love potions, etc. For all these things are incapable of actually satisfying the needs they are supposed to serve. Among things of the second class are medicines for diseases that do not actually exist, the implements, statues, buildings, etc., used by pagan people for the worship of idols, instruments of torture, and the like. Such things, therefore, as derive their goods-character merely from properties they are imagined to possess or from needs merely imagined by men may appropriately be called imaginary goods.

In order for Menger to truly be an objectivist about value, he would need to say that there is an objective truth about what it is that humans need. This would allow him to run through the entire value proposition without any reference to opinions -- the human need would be objective, the properties of the object that allow it to meet that need would be objective, the human awareness of those properties would be objective, and the command of the object sufficient to use it to satisfy the need would be objective.

But there is, I think, a good reason to be wary of this step (with apologies to the vulgar Aristotelians and, as is redundant to note, the Objectivists). As Isaiah Berlin pointed out in The Crooked Timber of Humanity (79-80):
There are many objective ends, ultimate values, some incompatible with others, pursued by different societies at various times, or by different groups in the same society by entire classes or churches or races, or by particular individuals within thm, any one of which may find itself subject to conflicting claims of uncombinable, yet equally ultimate and objective ends.

It is on the foundation of this basic idea that Mises writes, in Theory and History (1.3):
What the theorem of the subjectivity of valuation means is that there is no standard available which would enable us to reject any ultimate judgment of value as wrong, false, or erroneous in the way we can reject an existential proposition as manifestly false. It is vain to argue about ultimate judgments of value as we argue about the truth or falsity of an existential proposition.

Now, Mises takes this idea to a rather limited conclusion, noting that (ibid):
We may, for instance, try to show a Buddhist that to act in conformity with the teachings of his creed results in effects which we consider disastrous. But we are silenced if he replies that these effects are in his opinion lesser evils or no evils at all compared to what would result from nonobservance of his rules of conduct. His ideas about the supreme good, happiness, and eternal bliss are different from ours. He does not care for those values his critics are concerned with, and seeks for satisfaction in other things than they do.

But an even more important problem can arise even if people agree about what is of ultimate value. As Gerald Gaus writes in his essay, "Liberal Neutrality: A Compelling and Radical Principle" (22):
The crucial problem is the ranking of values...According to Milton Rokeach, a psychologist, Americans agree in affirming a set of thirty-six values; what they differ on is "the way they organize them to form value hierarchies or priorities." If so, our main disagreements about the good are not about what is of value, but the relative importance of values. After all, what is a ranking of values but a "conception of the good?"

He notes, for example, that "...even if everyone agrees that smoking causes cancer, rational people clearly do disagree about whether the pleasures are worth the risk of death" (ibid).

I take it that even if there is, unbeknownst to us, an objectively true account of the value system that humans ought to follow in order to achieve eudaimonia (which I sort of doubt), it is clearly not the case that we are currently at a point where we could say what it is with any degree of confidence that would enable us to plausibly claim that all dissenters are wrong. If this is true, then the objectivist conception of value is at best irrelevant and at worst completely false.

But there is a further problem for Gene in bringing in Menger's theory: Menger's characterization of goods-character is manifestly egoistic. This leaves no clear avenue for establishing attributions of intrinsic value which do not make reference to an object's capacity for satisfying some need of the valuer. Even if we take a valuer's needs in the broadest possible sense, this view is completely compatible with the moral nihilist's view, and incompatible with the moralist's understanding of moral values.


Value cannot be purely subjective because it must have an objective component. Mises thought otherwise, and this was a mistake.

Here it will be important to understand what the value subjectivist means when she claims that value is subjective. Clearly, the things that we value are objects, and we take the nature of at least some of these objects to be a matter of objective fact. The subjectivist would be stupid to deny this. She would similarly be stupid to deny that the capacity for certain objects to be brought into causal connection with the production of certain consequences and outcomes is a matter of objective fact, or at least of empirical discourse.

What the value subjectivist is saying is that the attributes and capacities of an object are only valuable insofar as the ends which they promote are valuable. And further, that there is no truth (or at least no truth accessible to us) about what ultimate ends are the appropriate objects of value and how we should rank those ends relative to each other. The relevant "subjectivism" is based on the thesis of reasonable and potentially irresolvable pluralism about this issue -- the value of ultimate ends, on this view, will come down to subjective opinions, tastes, or biases (though this doesn't need to be a pejorative claim as the terms might connote).

Now, Mises actually went a step further and argued that valuing was a voluntary thing -- the product of action. In Theory and History, Mises writes that "Judgments of action are voluntaristic" and "Judgments of value are mental acts of the individual concerned" (1.1). And I think that in this regard, he was not correct (or at least not completely correct. The problem arises from his definition of "action," offered in Human Action (1.1):
Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego's meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person's conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life.

If action inherently aims at ends, and the selection of ends is an action, then we get turtles all the way down. But one need not adopt Mises' conception of the voluntary nature of attributing value in order to reach the subjectivist's conclusion. One needs only acknowledge that there is no objective conception of the good that we can know, and therefore opinions about ultimate ends are all we have to work with.

Personally, I find this position to be extremely compelling. The ball's back in your court, Gene!
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