Toward a Comprehensive Account of Value Discourse
March 4, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, Ethics, Everett Wesley Hall, Hume, Stuart Mirsky, Value, logic

Still working my way through Hall, on the 12th chapter now and have reached a point, I think, where I have enough of a sense of where he is headed with his analysis to make some comments:

Hall builds his account of valuing, and moral valuing specifically, on the notion that valuing just is emotion and that it occurs in parallel (though intermixed with) occurrences of perception (perceiving). He proposes that there are parallel linguistic forms within what he calls our conventional language (ordinary language governed by a convention-based grammar) which reflect or express the underlying elements (emotion and perception), with each having its own distinct logic, also occurring in rough parallel. Thus he argues that the polarities of truth and falsity represent the dichotomies intrinsic to perceptive/descriptive language, as represented by the truth tables of logic, while a favorable/non-favorable/indifferent trichotomy characterizes emotional language. Both forms of language, he proposes, in keeping with their underlying (natural) basis, i.e., reflecting the two ways we relate to the world around us, have semantic content. That is, they refer to entities outside themselves. This referential trait, he holds, is an expression of the fundamentally intentional nature of both.

For Hall, then, the solution to the problem posed by Hume's is/ought dichotomy is to demonstrate that Hume missed the linguistic/semantic character of value claims and to show that oughts and is's are interconnected because of their parallel reliance on the intentionality of the language user. Rather than there being a disconnect between is's and oughts, as Hume had proposed (and as has become a kind of gospel in much of modern Anglo empirical philosophy), Hall suggests that they work in the same way, by dependence on facts because of their common source in the intentionality of the subject. Hall is unclear, however, on just what intentionality actually is, though he does suggest that it's an aspect or dimension of some physical events (certain events occurring in brains) but not others.

He says intentionality does not occur as a property per se which, he tells us has exemplification as its mode of existence (it occurs in discernible instances, examples, in the world) but, rather "has ascription" although, as we've seen earlier in these discussions, that description is hard to pin down nor does he amplify what he means by this phrase. Some here apparently take him to mean something like 'intentions occur as ascriptions,' that they amount to ascribing. I have suggested, on the other hand, that a better way to understand his "intentionality" is in the way Dennett proposes it occurs, as something we ascribe but which is not really present in the world in any distinct, discernible form (no exemplifications of it). This particular debate will have to be set aside for the moment though.

The account of moral judgments then, which Hall offers, reflects a model he sets out to build re: how we stand in the world, i.e., as intentional entities, where intentionality is only defined as the condition of "aboutness," which is to say of being aware of things, thinking about things, sensing things, believing things, knowing things, etc. The things in each case may differ but, insofar as we relate to them in ways that reflect our acknowledgment of them as separate from ourselves in some way, they represent objects of reference for us.

Intrinsic in Hall's account is his claim that emotions just are values, that while Hume rejected the rationality of value discourse because he thought values no more than our emotions, Hall argues that emotions have a discourse, and the possibility of rationality, all their own. Value claims, Hall says, are disputable, not as what we feel or don't feel about any given thing (that is merely subjectivity) but about whether they are "justified" or not, "legitimate" or not.

He invokes these latter two terms to play the role "true" and "false" play in the perceptual/descriptive mode in which we speak of facts. (He makes an interesting point about facts, by the way, when he says they are neither in the world or in the sentences which purport to state them but in the relation between statements and the world, i.e., that a fact is just that condition in the world by dint of which any true statement is true. This seems to reverse the usual notion that true statements are true because they reflect facts.)

Among other problems thus far, I would say that his account of intentionality is very much lacking. He is not specific or clear enough to allow the reader to determine whether he views intentions as special kinds of properties (he speaks of them as "aspects" or "dimensions") or as just a way we have of talking about how we relate to the world around us (in terms of having awarenesses, in various forms, of parts of that world). He is also remarkably complex in the account he gives of how the language of valuing works, creating legitimacy/illegitimacy/non-legitimacy tables to parallel the truth tables of logic for descriptive language. This seems forced to me and not especially clarifying.

A deeper problem I would say, though, lies in his equating valuing with emotions (feelings). This seems to me to lose an important distinction because, while emotions certainly have a role in our assertions of value, it does seem to me that we make a distinction between how we feel about things and whether or not we think those things good. A far better and more realistic approach, I'd say, would be to recognize in emotions, in feelings, the raw material of the valuing process rather than to take emotions and values as the same phenomenon. After all, we typically do operate in value terms based on our needs, desires, feelings and so forth, but they are not all that we include in valuational claims. And, while Hall emphasizes that there is a factual component to what we believe about competing valuational claims (since what we do will depend on what we believe to be the case), he keeps the valuing activity itself firmly embedded in the realm of what we feel. But all our actions aren't driven by what we feel. Just as we sometimes allow a valuational judgment to overrule an emotional attachment we also sometimes act without feeling strongly one way or the other. Hall would count this as a kind of feeling, too, and ascribe this to the indifferent position he develops in the three-way distinction that he applies to value claims (in parallel with the truth table of assertoric logic) but, so far at least, I don't find that entirely convincing.

There's another and simpler way to account for the separation of emotion from fact which Hume proposed and Hall agrees with, while still retaining the intuition that value claims must be arguable, I think. It's to treat valuing as a part of the reasoning game, itself, i.e., to see it as the process of rating/measuring different things for comparison purposes, a possibility without which logic could not be employed as a tool for drawing conclusions about the things we should do. It's not so abstruse or creative as Hall's approach but one has to ask whether we should choose the more arcane approach over the more obvious if the obvious approach seems to be enough?

There certainly doesn't seem to be any deep question about what valuing can be or why we do it if we just think of it as just another part of the reasoning game. Nor does doing that oblige us to sacrifice the idea that emotions lie at the root of the valuing activity. If descriptive language captures (or is intended to capture) how the world beyond ourselves seems to be, the language of valuing provides us the tools to weigh and compare the features of that world for purposes of deciding on what actions to take. And, because we can treat as a referent (an object of reference) any sort of item we can speak of in a discernible way that is locatable in the world around us, we can value a host of "things" beyond particular objects in the world. These would include states of affairs (arrangements of and relations between particular objects) as well as statements and beliefs about things, rules and principles, and, indeed, the very feelings we have towards these and other kinds of things. An approach like this allows us to develop a picture of valuing that matches how we actually value the elements of the world in which we find ourselves.

On this view, valuing is an activity attached to the reasoning game and, to the extent it entails the actions we take, it is expressive of the states of feeling we have (emotions, etc.) toward the things around us (whatever we can differentiate sufficiently to treat as objects of reference) which serve as prompts for action. Thus emotions can be seen to have a role in moral valuation, just as Hall argues, but not as values themselves but as the raw material for the valuing we do.

Hume's account can be managed in this way so that his original insight about the non-entailment relation between is and ought claims is preserved while still offering a way to establish a reasoned basis for valuational (and especially moral) discourse. It can be done by distinguishing between the different kinds of referential objects we can value and examining the different ways in which we value them -- and showing how different kinds of valuational claims relate to one another and why some may overrule others.

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