Logic, Value and Our Moral Claims
April 29, 2015
Stuart W. Mirsky in Agency, Ethics, Moral Philosophy, Reasons, Stuart Mirsky, Value Theory

When we think about language, logic seems to be an intrinsic part of what we have in mind. It’s logic, after all, i.e., the rules of relations between expressions of thought as realized in language, that make any language intelligible. This seems so because, without such rules built into it, language could not do its job.

To the extent that language is about referring, either by describing or naming (i.e., using words to point out or point at things), logic (the rules by which we put our referring terms together to accomplish the foregoing in complex ways which succeed as communication) is indispensible. And so logic seems an indispensible element of any language that we recognize as a language.

Of course, language consists of more than just the complex process of asserting things about other things. It includes doing things like signaling and expressing our emotional states for the benefit of others (so they will see and react to those expressions) and it’s this aspect in our languages that we find, in various forms, in the broader animal kingdom of which we are a part. Language also includes other types of things we can do with our words such as voicing imperatives (do this, don’t do that) which seem to depend, at least in part on, our assertoric capabilities (the capacity to describe and name things). Language is plainly multi-faceted and at least one more thing we do with words, in the context of speaking a language, is to evaluate the things we make assertions about. Indeed, even the assertions themselves, when these are taken as referents (depictable elements in the world) in their own right, are subject to valuation by us.

Unlike logic, however, which we seem to take on faith, seeing little reason to trouble ourselves about justifying it as part of language, valuing appears to occupy a different niche in our thoughts about language and what we do with it.

Although we can question logic’s role in this or that thing we do with language, or in taking any action, we don’t worry about logic’s justification.* It’s just part of language (of what we do with words to communicate successfully with others). We take it as a given. But valuing, the case in which we single anything out as being good or bad, right or wrong, better or worse, desirable or undesirable, etc., seems to leave open the further question of how anything valued gets to be valued by us. What, that is, is the basis for using value terms as we do?

Often we use such terms unthinkingly, of course, the way we do with logic. It’s hard to argue that we could get on very well without being able to make valuational differentiations of some sort and the most obvious sort we make are prudential distinctions. These valuational judgments depend on the extent to which they present us with something that is likely to get us something we already want in some fashion. That is, these represent the hypothetical valuational case. If I do X then I will secure Y and Y is what I want. Thus we have a picture in which there are value claims whose very existence depends on deeper valuations and it’s the deeper valuations which provide the basis for the prudential value ascribed.

Here we recognize the good or right thing to do as whatever gets us to the objectives we seek, and this kind of valuing seems entirely logical and so uncontroversial. If you want X and Y will get you X then Y is what you should do. Yet this model doesn’t cover all value cases and it certainly doesn’t work in terms of moral claims. Here prudential considerations just seem inadequate. Not entirely inadequate, however, because, to the extent “moral” simply means the value we place on actions taken by creatures sufficiently like ourselves to stand in shared communities with other creatures of like type, there can be more than one possible reason to ascribe value to the actions in question.

Moral valuation can reflect any behavioral performance according to a standard for that performance, whatever its provenance. But not all such standards are equal. Some depend on particular belief systems about how things are, how the world is, while others on recognition by the acting agent of certain positive and negative implications which can occur from following (or not following) a given standard. This boils down, of course, to that prudential valuing already alluded to, suggesting that at least some claims of moral value stand on a prudential basis. But not all of them do because even to decide to accept a prudential reason is to arrive at a moral judgment of that reason, i.e., of why anyone should rely on a prudential standard for the act in question. Standards, being general statements of how to act in this or that kind of situation, are, themselves, subject to evaluation, too, and that valuation can’t, itself, stand on yet another standard of the same type as itself for that would be to fall victim to the logical rule against circularity and even a standard, the statement of policy we may make about some types of actions, cannot be exempt from the role that logic and its rules play in our assertoric discourse. Unless there’s a reason, independent of the reason supporting the first standard, the first standard cannot be sustained as compelling, but it also cannot be justified in terms of anything like itself. That is there must be a qualitatively different standard supporting the moral one invoked, operating at a presumptively deeper level.

Logic itself, as a set of rules for making sense of statements within the assertoric domain of our linguistic practices, intervenes to prevent moral valuation, construed as the valuing we do with regard to standards for behavior, from being prudentially determined. To the extent moral valuation is about valuing general behavioral practices which we may engage in then, it too must submit to the demands of logic. To see why, we must look to what valuing is.

While logic seems an unassailable part of our linguistic activities, because you cannot successfully make assertions about anything without the capacity that logic gives us to relate some referents to other referents in an ordered and therefore comprehensible way, valuing seems somehow to stand outside of logic. As Hume showed, and many have rediscovered and reiterated over the centuries, no amount of logical inferences applied to assertoric statements (the names and descriptions of things we may express in order to describe and speak about things in the world) can ever lead us to any moral standard as such (i.e., to a general statement about the rightness or wrongness of some particular behavior type we can conceive of and implement). Without ruling out prudential applications in some cases, the kinds of standards which underlie those value claims we make concerning human action (moral or ethical claims) must go beyond the prudential since such claims only apply to instances of getting what we want and getting what we want, taken as a principle or standard itself, cannot establish a reliable basis for moral valuations.

The question of a standard of behavior (for when and whether getting something we want is also right to do) always stands outside the simple logic of prudential relation. It’s always a further question, a question of valuation that precedes the logic of how to get what we want, given the world as it is, or when.

Valuational judgments are not limited to the moral and the prudential though, even if both of these represent ways we have of deciding what to do. Indeed, value is as basic to language as logic itself is since both are needed to complete the communicational function between language speakers which language serves. Besides prudential and moral (or ethical) value judgments, we may also make judgments we recognize as aesthetic. That is, judgments about what appeals to us and how it appeals. Beautiful things are that to the extent they have certain kinds of appeal for those who encounter them, whatever the medium of encounter. Still another form of valuing we do, of course, is deciding between truth and falsity. We speak of truth values just as we speak of aesthetic and moral values. Here it can be seen that value is integral to a whole range of our activities.

What it represents then are the ways we have of asserting the occurrence of a condition of selectability in some referent (a thing we can differentiate and so distinguish for referring purposes). We may select some things over others based on their nature (which tells us what the appropriate gauge of valuation is) and our own capacities. Thus, some things are desirable because of how they affect us and among these will be those that appeal to us in an aesthetic way, although we tend to reserve “aesthetic” for only a certain class of appeals, i.e., for those involving a complex form of appeal in which an object of our attention can induce a kind of psychological satisfaction that is felt in a different way than outright physical pleasure (though physical pleasure may be part of the aesthetic appeal). Other things may be desirable for quite different reasons, e.g., a true statement has more value to us than a false one because true statements, acted upon, lead to better results in the world. In this case, “better” is understood prudentially, of course, i.e., as in being whatever is most likely to advance our intentions, including, in many cases, our survival (since most of us intend to survive most of the time).

Moral value claims, though, do not resolve into prudential judgments of value for the reasons already presented (they are insufficient to support a claim that one should do what best gets one what one wants because that claim demands its own justification). And yet moral value claims stand on reasons, too, just as any value claim must. Indeed, the very notion of a value claim, of an assertion like “X is good” represents a special kind of relation which always assumes a valuing agent, i.e., one who values in order to act because he or she has reasons to do so. In this important sense, moral valuation is part of the panoply of valuing itself but is not simply resolvable into the other forms of valuing we do: prudential valuation, aesthetic valuation and truth valuation. All of these have much in common including the fact that, to the extent any of them involve claims of what is “good” in any sense of that term used descriptively, they stand in for a pronouncement about our reasons for acting.

Thus, whenever we speak valuationally, what we are actually doing is asserting the existence, in the referent, of some element, feature, quality or condition, which presents us with a reason to acquire or pursue it, to use it or choose it. Value claims are finally about giving reasons, whatever those reasons may be. And they may be many different sorts of things. But, importantly, what all such facts about the things in question must do is form the basis of a reason for the agent to act. Just as logic provides us with the range of possible relations between described phenomena, so valuing represents the range of relations between phenomena and their describers.

Valuing represents a different set of usages by which we, as speakers, relate to the world. Logic lets us compose complex descriptions of how things are, based on the many different ways things can relate to one another, while valuing lets us compose complex descriptions of how things stand to us. Valuing assumes agency and more, it assumes a thinking agent, one capable of giving and acting on reasons because it takes awareness and a certain level of cognitive capacity to both distinguish elements before us in the world and to sort them. The sorting happens on various trajectories that assume the subjective cognizer, the language speaker, in the mix.

Thus language can be seen to stand on at least two foundational structures, the first being the capacities to differentiate between distinctive referents in the world and the second being the assorted capacities available to its users for relating those referents to the users themselves. Valuing places the valuer in the world with the numerous objects he or she (or it) refers to. Valuing ties us to the world and, as such, is a distinct yet necessary constituent of the languages we use, the things we can say to one another. Without it, we stand in isolation from everything else there is. But with it we become what we are. And there are at least four parts to valuing as an activity we engage in, four modes of valuing that is, i.e., the prudential, the aesthetic, the truth functional and the moral. It’s the last, of course, that causes the most controversy and prompts so much distress over how it’s to be accounted for.

Here the other three modes seem to have no purchase because moral valuation is a matter of judging our reasons for acting themselves—and such reasons, while susceptible to the other forms of valuational judgment in different cases, can only be judged in their entirety if we also take account of the volitional component of the action which the reasons given may reflect, i.e., what the agent wants to attain. That is, no description of a deliberative action taken by an agent is ever complete without including a description of that agent’s intent—and thus the intent’s value cannot be left out of the judgment of the action if the reason for the action, the statement of the facts that underlie the act-prompting power of the statement, is to be fully assessed.

Morally relevant valuational judgments, offered on prudential or aesthetic grounds alone, will be incomplete—and the question of the truth or falsity of the statement will be irrelevant to the value of the reason as a reason to act. Truth and falsity are relevant, to be sure, in a prudential way but not in a moral way since prudence cannot underwrite the moral. Thus moral valuation must be grounded in whatever means we can adduce for explaining how we value intentions in the agent.

Logic does not ground value nor does value ground it, of course. But both are equally significant for the possibility of language and for the kind of cognitive capacities we have.


* Although sometimes, at least, we reject dependence on logical thinking -- for instance, as when the poet or artist is at work, or in the case of a spiritual project which we suppose can elevate our sense of being in the world beyond the merely logical relations embedded in our everyday language.

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