Value Realism and Metaphysical Mystery

Value Realism and Metaphysical Mystery

Probably the central question in ethical theory, and the most difficult, is whether value is objective. Is pain, for example, intrinsically bad or is this just how we describe it? Was pain bad before there was anyone around to think it bad? If pain is objectively bad, what kind of property is this, and how does it relate to the felt quality of pain? Can value exist in a world without being attributed by anyone? Is it part of what we call objective reality, as real as the properties of physics or psychology? Many people have thought that this cannot be—that value must be a projection of our attitudes. Nothing is good or bad but that thinking makes it so. So, if we are to have an ethics, it must not depend on the existence of objective value. Attempts to argue against objective value include the propositions that (a) it is not a perceptible property of states of affairs, (b) it is not a causal feature of the world, and (c) it is “queer”. These points are not mistaken, but there are plausible responses to them: perceptibility should not be taken as a mark of reality, on pain of excluding unobservable entities; the causality criterion rules out mathematical objectivity too; “queer” is merely a derogatory term for what is not a scientific fact and cuts no argumentative ice. However, it seems to me that there is a genuine non-question-begging reason for suspecting objective values, which needs to be articulated and, if possible, defused. This reason makes suspicion of objective value perfectly intelligible, but there is a way to blunt its force as an argument against value realism (VR). The matter, though, is obscure and requires diligent examination.

       We can begin with the familiar concept of supervenience. It has generally been accepted that values supervene on non-value facts: if two subjects are exactly alike in all their physical and psychological properties, then there can be no difference in their value properties. For example, if two pains are exactly alike in their felt character, then they must also be exactly alike in their degree of badness (other things being equal). Let’s accept that proposition; then the question is what the nature of this supervenience is. And here we immediately run into difficulties: how can a value fact supervene on a non-value fact? Either they are the same or they are not. If they are the same, then we have the supervenience of pain on itself, which is trivial, and not what was intended. If different, then we have honest-to-goodness supervenience of one type of property on another; but how is this supposed to work? How can a non-value fact necessitate a value? What is the mode of connection? In particular, values are normative, but psychological facts are not, so how can one determine the other? The two seem just slapped together and in imminent danger of coming apart. We are confronted with a metaphysical puzzle, a mystery. Consider another supervenience claim, close at hand: the supervenience of the psychological on the physical. Here we say such things as that pain supervenes on C-fiber stimulation, but we have no idea of the nature of such supervenience—what makes it happen, what explains it. It is left as a brute fact, a metaphysical enigma. This is not a type of transparent necessitation. So, the sensation of pain is flanked by two mysteries of supervenience: it supervenes on the brain, and badness supervenes on it. None of this is intelligible; not to us anyway. When we try to grasp how pain links to value, we are left at a loss: do we feel badness as we feel the pain that is bad? We want to say that the badness is somehow in the pain not merely set beside it, because it is so integral to pain; but how can that be—how can the normative be in the non-normative? The nexus seems unintelligible, even more so than the mental-physical nexus. Thus, we find it hard to see how value can exist in the world. We then recoil to the position that it is not in the world after all but projected from outside by the judging mind. So, it is not as if the troubles of existentialist ethics (EE) are avoided by value realism[1]; value itself has problems of intelligibility. Or so we are naturally inclined to suppose. The danger of moral nihilism then looms.

       Is there any way out? There is if you are hardened to mystery, a card-carrying mysterian: for mystery is in the eye of the beholder. We can consistently maintain that the pain-badness nexus is unintelligible to us but that nevertheless it really exists—just like the brain-mind nexus. No doubt this is disappointing, but it’s better than having to abandon morality altogether, or swallow the thin gruel offered by EE. In other words, the price of keeping morality is acceptance of a metaphysical mystery, which anyway is unavoidable. There is no objection to value realism based on metaphysical mystery, only an acceptance that not everything that exists can be made sense of by us. To put it differently, we cannot form a picture of how value exists in the world—a kind of geometry of objective value—but we can affirm that it exists, or else there is no distinction between right and wrong (given the theoretical options). We know that pain is bad, intrinsically, essentially, in its very nature; but the shape of this fact eludes us (it certainly doesn’t fit our spatial intuition). Once we accept that pain is intrinsically and objectively bad, however difficult it may be to form a conception of this, we have a clear path to morality: it is wrong to cause pain in sentient beings (unnecessarily) simply because pain is inherently bad. The same kind of story can be told about other aversive psychological states such as depression, fear, anxiety, despair, hopelessness, and so on.

       This diagnosis does two things for us: it explains why we think VR is problematic, and it assures us that this thought is not to be taken too seriously (because it doesn’t show that VR is false). What it tells us is that there is a metaphysical mystery at the root of morality, which is why moral philosophy has the history and contours that it has. It explains the appeal of EE as well as the failings of EE theories. EE stems from perfectly understandable causes, indeed from profound causes; but it is not acceptable as a moral theory and it is not compulsory. We can therefore relax back into commonsense morality while accepting that common sense rests on metaphysical mystery. Yes, pain is actually bad in itself and not by some sort of decree, human or divine, but this simple fact is not easy to make metaphysical sense of. In this it joins a whole host of other problems traditionally assigned to philosophy.[2]

       Is it possible to know what pain is and not know that it is bad? No: I know just by introspection that pain is bad, and this knowledge is certain. How I know this is a difficult question—it raises epistemological mysteries (like mathematics). These epistemological mysteries must be set beside the metaphysical mysteries already identified. Together they form a formidable obstacle to easy acquiescence in VR, but to the mysterian there is no inconsistency here, just an acceptance of intellectual limitation. By all means let’s keep trying to resolve these mysteries, thus vindicating VR, but let’s not be deterred from believing VR by their mere existence. Above all, let’s not fall into the arms of EE simply because we find ourselves (understandably) puzzled by VR. For what is not puzzling when you get right down to it?[3]

       About the metaphysics of pain, I would say two things: pain is inextricably bound up with states of the brain, though not in a way we understand; and it is also inextricably bound up with the value of badness, though not in a way we understand. The brain and badness are both somehow in pain, constitutive of it, part of its very being: but we really have no idea how this can be true. Thus, we have both the mind-body problem and the mind-value problem. However, there is no need for us to go eliminative about the mind or nihilist about morality because of these problems, tempting as that may be.  The mind is somehow “in” the brain and value is somehow “in” the mind—but we don’t understand what “in” means here.[4]

[1] See my “Existential Ethics and Value Realism”.

[2] Not just the mind-body problem but also problems about causality, space, time, matter, necessity, free will, meaning, knowledge, number, and so on.

[3] I know that many readers will find the view defended here deeply repellent—they are convinced anti-mysterians. I actually think the view solves an age-old problem that has proved resistant to every other approach.

[4] It is tempting to say that the mind is an aspect of the brain and badness is an aspect of pain, but this word, though suggestive, has little explanatory force.

5 replies
  1. Joseph K.
    Joseph K. says:

    I’m an adjunct at a community college teaching an Ethics 101 course this fall. Your book Moral Literacy will furnish the many of the assigned readings. One of the great virtues of this book to mind is that it is completely devoid of the pedantry and the well-meaning but tedious excursions that so often mar introductions to ethics. The reader is treated on every page to brilliant thoughts on moral problems rendered in elegant conversational prose. The sheer intelligence and good sense of the author are hardly up for discussion. The book proves the utility of applying philosophical reasoning to moral problems. Common moral sense is made more consistent critical and intelligent, less liable to be ensnared by inherited dogmas. All this presents ethics to the layperson in an attractive light, a discipline aiding illumination of reality rather than a retreat into academic irrelevance and fantasy.

      • Colin McGinn
        Colin McGinn says:

        In case readers hadn’t noticed: if I’m right in what I say here, I’ve solved one of the biggest problems in philosophy. I’ve shown (a) that VR must be true and (b) that its unintelligibility is no bar to its being true.

  2. Ahmadi
    Ahmadi says:

    You said : The brain and badness are both somehow in pain, constitutive of it, part of its very being…

    1. That is , Has the brain or the mind normative constituent – nature_ in additio to non normative cons. or natures ?
    2. Thetefore, we must believe to quadruplet (4) aspect theory of mind , not triple aspect theory ?


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