Intrinsic vs. Relational Moral Value

We consider moral patients to have moral status in that they count, morally speaking, in their own rights. Counting morally means that something that is a moral patient can function as the object of moral responsibilities of moral agents.

But what does it mean to count morally? One idea is that in order to count morally a thing must be valuable in some way. The VCP directs us to protect those moral patients which are vulnerable, and valuable, and whose well-being, their 'good' is in some way dependent on our choices and actions. But what kind of value are we talking about? What gives certain things this kind of value, the kind that enables them to count morally?

It is important to remember that we have been talking only about moral value, that kind of value that makes a thing a possible object of a moral responsibility in its own right. There are many other kinds of value: aesthetic, functional, instrumental, nutritional, medicinal, commercial or economic value, and so forth. While we are mainly concerned with understanding the concept of moral value, it is important to bear in mind that the same thing that has moral value can also have some of these other kinds of value.

The main conceptual distinction that is conventionally drawn is between the notion of intrinsic value and that of relational, derived, or instrumental value. Something has a relational or derived value when its value depends on the existence of a valuer who places or confers a value upon that thing. So, for instance, commercial value is determined by markets, and markets consist of buyers and sellers who jointly determine the commerical values of various kinds of commerical goods and services. A used car has a commercial value, but this value is wholly derived or relational, since it depends on the acts of buyers and sellers who jointly determine its value. Many other things that we say are valuable have only derived or relational values. There is an old debate, however, about whether or not it is possible for all sorts of values to be derived.

Some philosophers have thought that all values are derived. David Hume, for instance, the towering intellect of the Scottish Enlightenment, seems to have held the view that even moral values, for instance the values that we attach to certain kinds of actions, are derived from our sentiments:

Take any action allow'd to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You can never find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, toward this action. Here is a matter of fact; but this the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from contemplation of it. (David Hume. A Treatise of Human Nature. Courier Dover Editions, 2004, pp. 333-34).

In Hume's view, the willful killing of another person is not morally wrong because this act destroys the life of another person, a vulnerable living being whose life has an intrinsic value; it is wrong because a moral observer places a value on that person's life and the violation of this derived value produces in this observer feelings of disapprobation at the loss of something in which he has placed a value. On this view, things have moral value only if someone, a valuer, attaches a moral value to them. Philosophers call this theory in metaethics non-cognitivism or emotivism. On this view, even moral values are relational, they are derived wholly from the sentiments of human valuers. On this view things only have value to the extent that human valuers place values on them.

Like Kant, I do not think that noncognitivism with respect to moral value can be correct. A view that holds that all values are relational or derived leads to a regress which can only be ended by circular reasoning, or by nihilism (the view that nothing in the universe has value), or by taking some things as having an intrinsic value.

The regress arises if one asks the question, "If a human being's life is valuable only because a moral observer, in this case, another human being, places a value on it, then what is it that makes the moral observer valuable?" If the value of a thing is derived from an act of valuing it by another thing, then in order for the second thing to have value, the valuer must itself have value. If the valuer has no value in itself, then how can it confer value upon something else? What is it that gives moral valuers their value?

If it is other moral valuers, then we have a circular argument in which moral valuers have value because moral valuers confer it upon themselves. But this begs the question of how moral value arises in the cosmos, for one can still ask where did the moral valuer get the value that it confers upon itself? If some other moral valuer conferred the value upon the valuer, then one can ask where that being got its value from, and if the answer is another moral valuer, then we can reiterate the question, and so on ad infinitum.

If valuers have no value in themselves, then nothing can have any value, since, by our hypothesis, things only acquire value in relationship to valuers who place values on them. This is nihilism, the view that nothing in the universe has any value. Nihilism violates our ordinary moral intuitions in a quite radical way since it entails that nothing is either morally right or morally wrong. Since human lives have no value, for the nihilist, genocide is just as morally acceptable as baking apple pie. Most moral philosophers want to avoid nihilism since it makes everything meaningless and valueless. If nihilism is correct, then everything really is permitted.

In order to escape circularity and avoid nihilism one must take some things as possessing intrinsic rather than derived value. Those things which Kant called "ends in themselves", or which we can say have intrinsic moral value, are the source and the origin of the value that exists in the cosmos. In order for chains in which the value of one thing is derived from acts of valuing by valuable beings, there must be something in the universe that has an intrinsic moral value, something that is valuable in itself.

One traditional way that people have thought they could stop the regress is by invoking a deity or supernatural being, who functions as the valuer of last resort. On this kind of religious theory, human beings have a value because God loves us above all of his other creatures, because we are created in "God's image."
If this is our view, then the value of human lives is still a derived value; human beings are believed to be valuable to God, not intrinsically valuable, or valuable in ourselves. Only God is assumed to be "valuable in Himself"; everything else's value derives from acts of valuing by a divine moral valuer who places a value on human beings because he loves us. This is the theocentric perspective that humans have used for many centuries to help them understand the moral order and which still holds sway over many people's minds. Without the belief in a personal deity who functions as the valuer of last resort, there would be no escape from nihilism and human existence would seem meaningless to many people. This is one powerful reason why the religious belief in a personal creator God remains so popular.

But for atheists and religious skeptics, like Hume, and even for philosophers such as Kant, who was a theist, this theocratic answer is not satisfactory. If the belief that some things are right and wrong depends ultimately on the belief in God's functioning as valuer of last resort, then the entire moral world collapses when belief in a personal creator god wanes and is replaced by a scientific worldview in which there are no personal deities who create and manage the universe, who lay down moral laws, answer our prayers, and judge us morally after we die.

Kant and modern day secular humanists choose a different place to stop the regress. They insist that human lives have intrinsic moral value because they exhibit rational moral agency. This is, of course, also circular, but it is no more so than insisting that God is valuable just because he is God. Explanations must come to an end somewhere, Wittgenstein famously said. So why is it worse to stop the explanation of the origin of moral value by insisting that human beings, as rational agents, are intrinsically valuable than by insisting that there must be a deity who is intrinsically valuable and whose valuing human beings confers value upon us? At least we know that human beings actually exist, while the God that people talk about seems to many of us quite imaginary.

Despite claims from religious people of how much God loves us, he seems in fact to be indifferent to human suffering, while at least some human beings do care about human suffering at least to some extent, at least some of the time. From a theocratic point of view, of course, the alternative secular humanist answer to the question of the origin of moral value is seen as a major threat to their belief system. They deride it as "moral relativism." Despite such protestations, however, people are still losing their religion in increasing numbers. While many people see this as a symptom of moral decline, others, like me, understand that it is really an opportunity for spiritual renewal.

From the human-centered (homocentric) point of view, the concept of dignity, or inherent worth, is used to describe the kind of moral value which underpins the moral status which belongs to human persons. Possessing dignity is not the same thing as having self-respect or acting in a dignified manner, as is appropriate to one's class, rank or position. Dignity is that moral property of human persons by which we acknowledge them as beings who are intrinsically worthy of moral concern and as having inherent rights which specify how they may and may not be treated. If one strips a person of his or her human dignity, then one removes the ground of his or her moral status and with it his or her human rights. For this reason, dignity is deemed to be an inherent and inalienable moral property of all human persons. The term 'dignity' refers to the intrinsic moral value of human persons. Many homocentric ethical theories of moral status, such as Kant's, divide the moral universe into persons and things. Persons possess dignity or instrinsic value, because, for Kant, they have rational wills, and hence they are moral agents, while mere things do not. For Kant, everything that is not a person is a thing. Possessing a rational will is the necessary and sufficient condition for moral personhood on Kant's view. On this view, one either has moral status or one does not; there are no kinds, degrees, or levels of moral status. Only things with intrinsic moral value have moral status, and only persons with their rational wills have intrinsic moral value.

But this Kantian theory of intrinsic moral value is inadequate for several reasons. First it denies moral status to sentient animals, other living beings, ecosystems, and endangered species. Secondly, by reducing the grounds of moral status to a single criterion, rational agency, the Kantian view denies full moral status to human beings who may lack this capability at various times during their lives. Third, a single criterion view like Kant's fails to capture the multi-faceted nature of our moral intuitions about what makes some objects more morally valuable than others. In Kant's moral ontology there are only two sorts of things: moral agents, whose intrinsic value gives them the moral status of persons, and 'things' which have no moral status because they have no instrinsic value, but only instrumental or derived value. But this is clearly an inadequate description of the moral world. We need to have a richer vocabulary if we are going to understand the nature of our moral community.

But there is also another possibility -- we can adopt a biocentric perspective according to which Life is what has intrinsic value and is the source of all forms of derived value. This view is reflected in the various forms of nature mysticism that one encounters, for instance, in the work of poets like Walt Whitman, or naturalists like John Muir. It is also the basis of some religious beliefs, such as the Buddhist doctrine of ahimsa, or Jainism, which teaches that it is wrong to harm any living thing without reason. It is also present in many pre-Christian religious traditions in which the Earth is understood to be a goddess, Gaia, who gives birth (life) to all that moves, and swims, and flies. One encounters a similar idea in the writings of New Age spiritual teachers such as Ken Wilber and Eckhardt Tolle. From the biocentric perspective all living things have intrinsic moral value, and are ends in themselves, and can therefore be the objects of human moral responsibilities. The kind of value that living things have is an objective value that exists independently of the acts of moral observers who may or may not value them for their own sakes and who often attach other kinds of derived value to them.

If explanations must come to an end somewhere, it makes much more sense to end the explanation of the origin of moral value in the phenomenon of Life on Earth than it does to place it in an imaginary deity or in human beings alone among all the life forms that have made their home on this planet. This bio-centric theory of moral value is perfectly consistent with a scientific world view that understands the Earth itself as a speck of stardust revolving around a rather ordinary star, on the spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy, which is only one among the billions of galaxies in the cosmos. Because of a series of cosmic accidents, like the asteroid collision that created the Earth's moon and in the process reconstituted its atmosphere, Earth became suitable for life as we know it to arise. It is also consistent with some traditional religious views in which the hand of God directed the Earth to bring forth life. Bio-centrism is also consistent with various forms of New Age spirituality in which life on Earth is just an outward manifestation of a cosmic intelligence, an infinite and eternal Presence, which is the formless source of all manifest forms of being.

Whichever of these metaphysical world views suits you it still makes sense to regard Life as having intrinsic moral value. This metaphysical adaptability makes the bio-centric perspective the leading candidate for providing the basis for a global ethics.

No comments: