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.
...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:
...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.
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:
...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 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.