Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Value Pluralism?

In this post, I write some beginning thoughts on pluralism. I suspect that I may come to know conclusion on the matter. Whatever the outcome, I must say how puzzled lately morality as a concept has been. Questioning how we typically believe morality to be has produced in me profound interest in criticisms of morality. From Nietzsche to Bernard Williams, I enjoy thinking through exactly how morality should be shaped given how human beings are constituted. If our concept of morality is too simple with respect to how we are constituted or that morality's structure as revealed by living in the world is incoherent with what moralists claim is “moral”, then new philosophical responses are needed. My major intuition driving, perhaps, the next few posts will detail possible orientations in considered how morality truly is. We cannot expect people to do the moral thing if our concept of morality does not mesh with how people are.

Value pluralism is a thesis not about the realism/anti-realism debate concerning values; it does not concern itself with subjectivism, objectivism or relativism even, but as to the structure or shape of values. It is opposed to value monism. When we are concerned with the shape or structure of values, we are concerned with the question: Are there a set of universally consistent values that pertain to what is moral reducible to one type of good, or are there sets of values that pertain to morality as more than one moral good? If value monism is true, then values are structured simple, and there is only one relevant moral consideration in any one given moral situation. If value pluralism is true, then morality looks quite different than the one-to-one correspondence between a value and a moral situation that is present in value monism. Why this question matters philosophically is that when we hold moral agents morallly accountable, the very assessment of their accountability shifts with what structure is true about values. The more values there are the more relevant moral considerations must be taken into account to determine accountability. Our moral evaluations follow from the structure of values.

To think it through another way, the structure of values is whether or not there is one ultimate type of value that trumps all others. Classically, utilitarian authors said it was pleasure (Bentham and Mill). They thought pleasure was the only intrinsic good. They framed moral judgments as maximizing only one type of value over all others since those goods were reducible to one type of value. By constrast, value pluralism holds that there are multiple values added to what morality is. There is not one type of morally relevant value to reduce everything else to.

In deontology, values are moral principles, and the monist would see one type of principle grounding all others. In this way, Kant can be seen as being a value monist since the categorical imperative is the sole morally relevant principle that generates the right reason (maxim) by which we all being rational agents must assent to. By constrast, W. D. Ross thinks there are multiple principles and supports a pluralism of principles.

I've recently begun to think on this debate, and I cannot see one way or the other to go. First, value pluralism reflects the complexity about moral life that is overlooked in most forms of monism. Yet, the oversimplification in monism avoids incommensurability of values. Pluralism is struck by this problem of how exactly do we decide between values if there are more than one reducible value to which all others do not refer. The values are there in the moral situation, and in some cases, it is reasonable to expect they cannot be ranked. Here, I could appeal to some form of Aristotelian phronesis or practical wisdom, as is commonly done, but that just posits a mysterious faculty to which no answer can be given. If practical wisdom enthusiasts explicate how practical wisdom decides between incommensurable values, then it could very easily cascade into a procedure for settling all incommensurability problems, which is just monism again.

At times like these, I anticipate that a phenomenological reduction on values would help immensely. Yet, my inexperience in this area causes pause for reflection. Oftentimes, it takes writing just to see where one's confusion lie, and if by writing this, I realize that I am just more puzzled than when I began. Indeed, this is the best thing about philosophy. When it leads to more questions, you at least know you are on the right track

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