Primary and Secondary Values

Primary and Secondary Values

It has been suggested that moral values can be compared to secondary qualities, thus aligning them with human-centered attributes.[1] To be good or right is to be disposed to elicit attitudes of approval from observers—that kind of thing. I will propose something different: the whole apparatus of primary and secondary qualities carries over to the realm of moral value. There are primary values and secondary values, the former objective and absolute, the latter subjective and relative. The physical world divides into a pair of broad categories, and so does the moral world. The two areas are structurally analogous. The metaphysical picture is that the world contains two sorts of attribute: those that belong to things independently of the human (or animal) mind and those that depend on the human mind. The latter are in the nature of projections, while the former are intrinsic to the reality they qualify. There is an element of choice or contingency about the secondaries, but the primaries are inescapable and mandatory—part of what there is anyway. We have representations of each, perceptual and conceptual, and we talk as if the world is steeped in both, but they are of fundamentally different status, thus producing a hybrid lived world. What is important is distinguishing the two and forming a list of what attribute falls where. It is a mistake to view the world—physical or moral—as metaphysically uniform, as if the whole of reality is either wholly primary or wholly secondary. We might thus speak of “primary morality” and “secondary morality”, or of primary and secondary values.

This architecture is not difficult to discern in our moral thinking, as in our thinking about the physical world. We have an intuitive understanding of the distinction in question, indeed an a priori understanding. We grasp that shape, size, number, and mass belong to the primary qualities of things—as distinct from color, sound, taste, and smell, which are labelled secondary. Likewise, we can easily be brought to see that some values are objective and absolute while others are dependent on human sensibility and attitude. Opinions differ over precisely which values belong the former group, but a plausible list would include the badness of pain and suffering, the goodness of happiness, the rightness of promise-keeping, truth-telling and gratitude, the wrongness of stealing, murdering, betraying, etc. Utilitarians and deontologists might differ in their formulations, but they agree in regarding certain norms as binding and universal (I put side nihilists and existentialists). These are what I am calling primary values: they have the same kind of status as the traditional primary qualities. They are intrinsic to certain states of affairs, outcomes, and actions (type of token). Pain, for example, is absolutely bad in itself, not merely in the eyes of the observer, or relative to a culture, or at a certain time in history. Anyone who denied these moral truths would show their incompetence in moral matters (or their madness in extreme cases). Call this moral realism if you like, raise philosophical objections if you must, but at least everyone can agree that such values are robust and well-nigh universal—we are dealing here with truths in good standing. But not all of what we think of as morality consists of such primary absolutes—some of it is parochial, culture-specific, humanly constructed, mutable, historically conditioned. Again, opinions may differ over what to include in the list of moral secondaries, but I venture to opine that sexual morality, for example, provides fertile ground for this kind of moral value. The values of chastity, monogamy, heterosexuality, prohibitions on masturbation and pornography, the aura of taboo surrounding oral sex—all these are reasonably seen as merely relative to a certain time and place, a matter of mutable human attitudes, a function of sociology more than deep eternal value. The same may be said about the codes of conduct governing business, sports, education, family relations, religion, and so on. No one thinks that a handshake is tantamount to a moral universal—it is just a useful convention we have adopted. For these things to be right and proper is for them to be taken as such within a generally accepted practice. We would not be surprised to find that some alien tribe or civilization does things differently—as we would be surprised to find that some group of people thinks that pain is a jolly good thing (even when it leads to no greater good). The fact is that a basic set of moral values is treated as sacrosanct and non-negotiable while others are recognizably local and contingent. Some moral norms correspond to the objective nature of value, but some are just human inventions, projections, conventions. Morality, like the physical world of perceivable objects, has a dual architecture, a kind of division of labor. Some is foundational and some is superimposed. Some is found and some is brought. The badness of pain or promise-breaking is like the roundness of apples; the virtue of chastity or monogamy is like the redness of apples (pick your own examples if you don’t like these).

Someone may object to the analogy I am making on two grounds: first, that so-called primary values are not causally charged, unlike primary qualities; second, that moral values are not perceptible, unlike both primary and secondary qualities. As to the first objection, we may immediately concede the point but insist that it doesn’t undermine the point of the analogy. The point was not causality but objectivity and absoluteness (compare mathematics). More interestingly, we could point out that the traditional distinction of qualities never depended on a causal conception of primary qualities—the defender of the distinction need not claim that primary qualities have causal powers. Shape and size might not have causal powers and still be mind-independent and absolute (who says that physical geometry must be causally active?). Furthermore, the concept of causation is elastic enough to allow a special kind of causal association to apply to the value case: for can’t we truly say that it is because pain is bad that we believe it is bad—and isn’t that a type of causal statement? We shouldn’t restrict all causal relations to the billiard ball kind (whatever that is exactly). In any case, causality is not the issue. As to the second objection, it is not part of the original conception of primary and secondary qualities that they be perceptible: the point is that primary qualities are not mind-dependent and secondary qualities are—their perceptibility or otherwise is irrelevant. Some primary qualities may belong to arcane physics and not be accessible to the human senses, and some secondary qualities may belong with more intellectual responses (amusement, interest, usefulness). Furthermore, moral values can find their way into perception, even if not by the five traditional senses: don’t we perceive (immediately apprehend) that pain is bad (just try feeling it), and don’t we have a visceral impression that incest is wrong? So, again, there is no good objection here to the proposed analogy.

Abstractly considered, the two-tiered structure has a kind of natural obviousness to it. In the beginning was the absolute—a given mind-independent world consisting of facts that are just there. They would be there even if we weren’t. This is what we call the objective world. Our job is to discover it, recognize it, absorb it. We do this. This world can be a world of morally neutral elements (I won’t say “facts”) or it can be a world of moral values. And how could there not be such a world, given that we were not around to will it into being? It is the world of non-mind, pre-mind, anti-mind. Then minds came along, equipped with interests and preferences, desires and beliefs, fears and favorites. It is then convenient to conceive of parts of the antecedent world as instantiating reflections of such human (and animal) traits. Now we have relative attributes—color, taste, etc. Something like the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is inevitable. But the same thing is true of values: certain things (mainly psychological states) have value, and they have it intrinsically (pain just is bad in and of itself); but in addition to this we have various practices and preferences that go with our mode of life (historical, contingent), and these are applied to the world we find ourselves occupying—they are not already there waiting to be picked out. Thus, the natural world divides itself into primary and secondary qualities, and the normative world divides itself into primary and secondary values. Isn’t this pretty much what we would expect? It could hardly be that our lived world is all primary or all secondary, since that would ignore our human contribution or reduce all of reality to a human invention. No, we live in a world that is partly our own creation and partly uncreated by us. Obviously, trivially. In the beginning of human consciousness was the world-mind nexus, the joining together of the primary and the secondary—the it and the I.[2]

[1] I discuss this in The Subjective View (1983), chapter 8.

[2] We have no trouble distinguishing the it and the I with regard to the physical world, so we should have no trouble distinguishing the itand the I with regard to the moral world. We speak impersonally of what morality (it) requires or recommends, as opposed to what we (I) are motivated to do. We don’t naturally personify moral imperatives but view them as reaching us from outside; we conceive of them as like an impersonal force. Kant’s categorical imperative is like a giant it that bears down on us, oppressively so. True, we sometimes personify morality in the form of God, but that is only because we feel the need to give the impersonal shape of morality a human face; and the inaptness of the comparison becomes all too transparent when we reckon with the Euthyphro argument. Still less does Freud’s internalized parent view of the “superego” propose a plausible account of the phenomenology of moral judgment. The plain truth is that morality is experienced as an overwhelming It-thing, i.e., as consisting in a heavy weight of nature. In other words, our conviction that we ought not to cause (unnecessary) pain is not felt as someone telling us not to cause pain, any more than gravity is felt as someone telling us not to float upwards. Or so it seems to me.

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