The Value of Persons
November 25, 2013
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, Moral Philosophy, Private Language, Stuart Mirsky, Subjectivity, Value, Wittgenstein

It seems perfectly obvious that we can value persons in the same way as we value any other object of our action. An employer, for instance, will typically consider the worth of a prospective employee on the basis of that individual’s potential to do the job for which he or she is to be hired. In this fashion the valuing mode employed is not much different from the sort used when considering whether to buy this or that automobile or flavor of ice cream. It’s more complex, of course, because people are agents, too, and have considerably more capabilities than cars and scoops of ice cream, and jobs are generally far more demanding than serving as a vehicle of transport or satisfying a craving for chocolate.

A whole slew of factors will enter into the job offerer’s consideration including the job seeker’s skills and training levels, his or her core competencies and personality (will he or she get along with co-workers and the boss?) and even, at some point, behavioral propensities that will be taken as representing the operation in which the individual is to be employed. It’s a more complex network of considerations which must be addressed but, bottom line, the value to the employer that the job-seeker is thought to bring to the table will determine the hiring outcome. Just as in a decision to buy a car, take a vacation, eat an ice cream, etc., etc., the factors at work here will have little to do with moral assessment.

An important caveat applies though, since the moral quality of the prospective employee is not entirely irrelevant. To the extent that it belongs in, or affects, categories like representing the employer to others or getting along with others in the workplace, the job seeker’s moral status will be relevant, too. But in this case what’s relevant is the way the job seeker looks to the individual hiring him or her. Does the prospective employer have the right, as in the moral seeming, appearance? The interviewer cannot know what the job seeker thinks or believes. He or she must rely on the presentation, references and background checks to the extent these are available. What is being assessed in this case is whether there is general conformity to some moral standard. What is not being addressed, though, is whether that standard is, itself, morally good or whether there is a basis for relying on it at all. And that, of course, is what we want to know about.

An inquiry into the nature of moral judgments is not about whether this or that individual (or action) is moral but about whether there is anything at all that warrants being called moral and, if so, what is it and why? Particular moral codes or standards may or may not be moral at all in fact, and actual moral codes may be in conflict with one another, at least as regards particular and often critical issues so the point of a philosophical inquiry into moral questions cannot be to discover who or what is morally good but to discover what, if anything, moral goodness is. If moral judgments are an exercise in assessing a certain kind of value, suitable for a certain sort of thing, then they will be seen to be a sub-class of a more general category of value judgment. What distinguishes the sub-class we call moral is what we want to make clear.

The task of judging the presence or absence of moral value will differ from other sorts of value judgments because, while all involve consideration of actions (what course of action we may choose), only moral assessments apply to persons. There is no moral value accorded to chocolate ice cream, for instance, or the sort of car we drive (at least not in and of themselves) or whether we act to obtain chocolate ice or vanilla ice cream or buy a Chevrolet or Subaru. We find moral value, rather, in the people who act and this is just to say that we find it in the things they do as agents having the capacity to think about, and choose, the actions they finally perform. And this applies to the actions we perform for ourselves as well – perhaps, indeed, first of all. The very purpose of moral valuation lies not only in assessing others (for that is more generally a function of the valuing we do when choosing this or that object – including this or that person), but in assessing ourselves. To the extent that the issue in making moral judgments involves deciding what we should do, it is ourselves we put up for our own judgment, even though we will certainly want to morally evaluate, and do morally evaluate, the actions of others. But the moral question is finally about what I should do, not what you should.

Now this seems to go against a great deal of ordinary behavior since people are prone to judge others in moral terms. So why should we think that such judgments are really secondary in some important sense and that they arise first and foremost from the way we see ourselves? If assessing moral value is about motives rather than benefits, unlike all other judgments of relative goodness, then motives are finally personal affairs, even if, as Wittgenstein might have put it, we don’t get to see into others’ minds in order to recognize the state of their motivations. Of course, we don’t have to. But we do have access to our own thinking in a way that we don’t to the thoughts and desires of others. And it is on the model of ourselves that we assess the moral virtue of others.

Now it will no doubt be objected by many a good Wittgensteinian that the matter of private and privileged access has been definitively put to bed by Wittgenstein, himself, when he denied the possibility of private language and showed that all we mean by the words we apply to others’ minds is what we can observe of their behaviors. But the suggestion that we have access to our own motives in a way that we do not to that of others is not un-Wittgensteinian when you think about it. The issue here is not whether our words are geared to public (as in observable) criteria, which then obviates a need to see inside another’s mind to know he has one. Nothing in the point I am about to make denies that or contradicts it. The issue is only whether or not we have a subjective aspect, a mental life, consisting of thoughts, beliefs, ideas and the sort of thing Wittgenstein often called pictures (as in the mental picture we have of this or that thing). It seems odd for anyone to want to deny that. Even Wittgenstein did not, for he often spoke of how things seem to us and of the pictures we get from this or that way of saying something. What else could that be but a mental life? Rocks don’t get pictures. Nor do machines (unless we someday find a means to equip them with artificial brains). Recognizing the subjective side of our experience is not to deny its public aspect and, especially, the public nature of language or its reliance on observable criteria.

When it comes to motivation we know that in ourselves in a way we never know it in others and, while we don’t need to know it in others as we know it in ourselves, to recognize and assess it, we can never hope to have as complete knowledge of others’ motivations as we have of our own. Of course, we don’t even seem to have a totally complete knowledge of our own motives either since much is concealed from our conscious awareness. But we have a primary sort of access to our own mental lives in a way that we don’t to the mental lives of others.

So, looking to motive, we find the best and fullest picture of this in ourselves and so moral valuing, which is aimed at valuing persons and persons’ actions, as expressions of themselves, finds its richest home in the person doing the valuing. We understand others to a large extent through our experience of ourselves. Again, this is not to say that we learn about others, or learn to talk about them, by analogy with ourselves, a view Wittgenstein rejected and with which I emphatically concur. Indeed, I take the reverse to be the case, that we learn about ourselves through the lens of the public phenomena of language and other “forms of life” within which we operate. But moral judgments come late to the table in terms of human development. It takes time for a human being to develop a moral sensibility as many psychology experiments have documented. Language comes upon us well before the moral inclination.

Where, then, does the moral inclination itself come from and what does it consist of? It comes with the rise of the person as a soul. No, not a soul in the sense of being a separate phenomenon from the physical self, capable of existing without the body, or of operating without it. It’s a soul only in the very much narrower sense that, at some point, we develop more fully realized self awareness. We come, with maturity and, sometimes, the aid of an education, to see ourselves in a more introspective way, becoming aware of our own underlying beliefs and inclinations, wants and needs.

A primitive sense of self already exists, of course, both in ourselves and in other animals operating on the evolutionary ladder with us (albeit in gradually decreasing levels of complexity and comprehension capabilities). Even within the family of those primates we call human beings there are more and less developed senses of selfhood. But the point here is that the moral inclination seems to arise in us with the increased awareness of personhood that we gain over the course of our early lives and, for many of us, well beyond.

The greater our awareness of our own selfhood, the more able we become in thinking about and evaluating it – of judging the state of “self” we find ourselves in. And it is this state, and our accompanying judgments of it, that we use as a basis for judging the actions of others – for making moral claims.

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