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« Truth, Belief and Moral Reasons | Main | Logic, Value and Our Moral Claims »

Value, Self-Interest and Moral Reasoning

In a paper available on academia.edu, Marc Champagne argues for a naturalized ethics via the idea of the "umwelt" or surrounding world which he ascribes to the Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexkull, and which he filters through Ayn Rand's objective egoism. According to Champagne,

In an effort to bring substance to the right-headed suggestion that values are rooted in the biological and conform to species-specific requirements, we present a novel conception that strives to make explicit the elemental structure underlying umwelt normativity. Building and expanding on the seminal work of Ayn Rand in metaethics, we describe values as an intertwined lattice which takes a creature’s own embodied life as its ultimate standard; and endeavour to show how, from this, all subsequent valuations can in principle be determined.

In essence, he argues that the Humean notion of an is/ought dichotomy collapses once one recognizes that every living thing (being a system that's self-sustaining and so inclined to "pursue" its own survival by its very nature) exists in a world with a normative dimension. Everything in such an entity's world is subject to an attraction, repulsion or neutral charge for that entity. It's something to which the entity is either drawn or from which it flees or it is something towards which the entity is indifferent, in the background so to speak. This, he argues, is as true for plants as it is for animals though animals, of course, are differently constituted to interact with their world. For the ant, he writes, the stem of a flower is a highway to its "hunting ground," to us it's what supports a flower while to a cow it's part of its meal. Different organisms have different needs and so different means of responding to the elements of their world. This, he suggests, is Uexkull's "umwelt," the kind of world each organism exists in.

Thus, on this view, value is just the attraction/repulsion charge which any distinguished thing in the surrounding world of the organism has and this charge is always there, always a part of the world of that organism, i.e., it comes with the territory of being a living, self-sustaining system such as we and all the plants and animals of our universe are. As a result, the species-specific facts of what we are are already embedded with valuation. It's not that value is something we add to the world in the sense that we could, as easily, added something other than what we find in the world, however, because our values are predetermined by our needs as certain kinds of creatures. To borrow another of his examples, to the toad the fly is food, to the fly the toad is death. Value is thus equated with the needs/interests of the particular entity. Human needs and interests, he argues, are to be situated in just this same sort of phenomenon.

Simplifying his view somewhat one might say that he jumps from this notion of value as what any entity needs to the specific idea of values as found in human beings by way of the thoughts of Ayn Rand and Aristotle. He argues that Rand rejected Kantian categoricalism in favor of the recognition that all imperatives are hypothetical, i.e., if you want x then you should do y if and only if y is the best way to get x. What y is, for any creature, however, is determined by what that creature is. In the case of humans, our imperatives are driven by a more complex array of valuations however, one, he thinks, that introduces a third dimension not available to other creatures, namely the capacity to think about things, i.e., to represent what one is reacting to, and to interpret, assess, and draw conclusions from it. This leads to the addition of a third component in the value relation, i.e., the standard for action.

In this case he is suggesting that any action we take, as conscious thinking creatures, involves consideration of that act and, more, of its implications in a conceptual way. Thus, where other creatures operate within value relations that consist of the wants and needs expressed by their systemic "selves" in reaction to the phenomena of their "umwelts," humans exist in an "umwelt" which they can picture and understand in a conceptual way. This introduces the idea of the standard. While other creatures exist in a world of bi-polar valuations consisting of the approach, avoid and neutral charges which various phenomena carry for them, humans exist in an "umwelt" that includes standards for actions that generalize behaviors for more than the immediate moment, i.e, they say what we ought or ought not to do in imagined scenarios, in possible scenarios, extending across time and space. Champagne argues that this creates a kind of logical latticework which produces the more complex and sophisticated forms of valuing humans do, as compared to the valuing done by all other living things on the planet.

Granting that there is something strange about speaking of a toad valuing a fly or the fly disvaluing the toad or even of a dog valuing a nice walk in the park, to the extent that valuing is taken to be the kinds of relations Champagne describes, and nothing more, this makes a kind of sense. Indeed, valuing, if we reject the idea that it's about noticing certain value properties in the things we encounter in the world, does seem to be describable in this way. Valuing surely isn't anything more at bottom that this kind of attraction/avoidance pressure that is exerted on creatures because of their nature and what the items so "valued" consist of. But is that what we mean by "valuing"? In fact the peculiarity of speaking of instances of valuing being manifested by toads and insects and dogs suggests that that isn't what valuing is in fact, or at least it's not what we mean by "valuing." We can certainly grant that valuing stands on a foundation of wants and needs in the organism without agreeing that that is what a term like "valuing" denotes. Of course we can agree to expand the notion to this level but that doesn't help a heck of a lot in getting at how valuing works in us.

Valuing, when we use the term for ourselves, involves what Champagne considers the tripartite latticework of 1) the item in the world, 2) the charge it carries for the entity that recognizes it (positive, negative or neutral), and 3) the generalization that is the standard which the entity applies to it.

Assuming this isn't just to be treated as a linguistic quibble, the real problem then becomes seeing how the latticework model Champagne argues for works to explain the activities we find in ourselves which we call valuing and, in particular, moral valuing. Here Champagne invokes Rand and Aristotle to argue that for human beings that which has value is not just survival but survival in a certain kind of world, one that is suitable to rational beings like us. It is the drive to achieve this, he argues, that underwrites our moral domain. He writes:

Whereas in Kant’s philosophy we find epistemological solipsism coupled with an assignment of ethical primacy to the Other (Kant countenancing other minds in practice but not in theory),in Rand we find a complete reversal, in so far as she readily acknowledges the reality of the external world yet insists that each person must make their own (eudaimonistic) fulfilment their chief moral concern (Hunt 1999). page 24

Moving to Rand, Champagne argues that:

. . . if we are to understand why there are values to begin with, she argues that we must recover the immanence implicit in embodiment, and grant full metaphysical primacy to particular lives (Rand 1997: 561–562; 2005: 108).Hence, this first-person scale knows nothing about the God’s eye view of species (for example, Arnhart 1998) — much less the tale and prospect of their diachronic development (see Rand 1963: 37). Social Darwinism, Eugenicism, Utilitarianism, or anything else along those lines thus has no moral purchase whatsoever on a Randian view.

Champagne argues that we can depict the core value relation for creatures with our cognitive capacities as a triangle, involving three linked points: an object (descriptive), a standard (descriptive) and an object appraisal (normative). Each conceptual valuation which we undertake using our cognitive capacities results in this tripartite relation uniting us as subjects with the objects of our acquaintance and the ideas we form of them. He then argues that we can treat each triformed relation as a new conceptual picture and so as the basis for a new standard and, in this manner, we build up complex valuational systems which organize the world we find ourselves in (our "umwelt"). The umwelt is, of course, a given, being a function of how things are and how we are as part of everything else. But part of our particular umwelt is this very ability to picture everything else in our umwelt, along with, of course, ourselves. In other words he is making the point that we can value not only the things in the world around us, the way animals do (on the simplistic idea of valuing he has already invoked), but also the concepts we have of those more stripped down (because more basic) value relations available to lower forms of life. Thus our human level values, understood as conceptual pictures of more basic relations, become for us further objects of valuation, hence the cognitive capacities we have enable us to build a complex valuational structure not available to creatures without our cognitive capacities. It's within this complex system that he aims to locate a basis for moral claims, relying on Rand's embrace of the Aristotelian notion of eudaimonia as defined by our natures as human beings.

Now the axioms legislating a lattice are themselves fairly noncommittal. For example, they entail that an engine is a value for a car. Such triviality is a consequence of seeking to achieve a minimalist rendering. The triads gain their substantive normative content, however, when considered in their totality as an interconnected web of value-relations. Sitting atop such a lattice is a privileged supremum, namely one’s individual life. This is the ultimate “telos” which, according to Randian metaethics, makes all values possible. Strictly speaking, then, the car engine just mentioned would be devoid of any normative charge. For if one asks why it should be regarded as a “good” thing to ensure the ongoing existence of the car, one will be led to a regress without end (for example, this is needed for that, that is needed for this, and so on). What we would have, in effect, would be a brute chain of consequences devoid of any binding normative force. Only when one contemplates one’s own life is such a regress halted (Rand 1997: 561). “[T]he animal may be considered as an organism actively anticipating staying alive” (Cock Buning 1997: 186). . . .the axioms themselves are ultimately answerable to a creature’s will to live.

Champagne continues:

Why is this particular object worth keeping? There is no straight-forwardly communicable answer to this — in a sense, we must plead the seventh clause of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and stay mum on the issue (see Binswanger 1992: 100). At any rate, if a person does not see why she should live, she may test the alternative at her leisure. But assuming that a conative urge to live is present, the fact of one’s own life becomes a prized fact, something entirely sui generis. “Bluntly stated self-production is already and inevitably a self-affirmation that shows the organism as involved in the fundamental purpose of maintaining its identity” (Weber, Varela 2002: 116; see also Campbell 2002: 310–314).

Quoting Rand, he goes on:

To live is [man’s] basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice

But man's further choice, made possible just because he is a man and not a toad or fly or a dog yearning for the out of doors, is one of how to live. And here Champagne argues that Rand grounds the how choice in the what choice, i.e., that survival alone is not enough for human beings must have, besides their continuation as living things, the freedom to pursue their own interests, too, and recognizing this freedom (or, at least, the need for it) in oneself implies recognizing it in others of like constitution on a minimally rational basis. That is, one cannot be free to live rationally (defined as with full regard for one's own interests) if one lives in a world which prevents that. Therefore, one presumes from Champagn's approach to Rand, that our choices and the things we do ought to be governed by whatever it takes to live in and sustain such a social milieu, such a human world.

Alluding to Rand's views Champagne adds:

. . . the choice to further one’s ongoing existence is most emphatically not deducible from rational considerations. “Hume’s infamous ‘is’/‘ought’ gap is a consequence of his assumption that the connection of facts to values would have to be established deductively, syllogistically. Rand’s approach, in contrast, is inductive: she analyzes the presuppositions of ‘value’, thereby retracing the steps required to form teleological concepts, such as ‘goal’ or ‘value’” (Binswanger 1992: 96). Biological life being what it is, those steps lead back to a “pre-discursive” element that can only be described as voluntaristic.

That is, human beings have a certain freedom built into their natures that is not found in creatures lacking human cognitive capacities. Therefore, to live a proper life for a human being (in the Aristotelian sense), humans must live a life that affirms their freedom and this stands finally on their freedom to look to their own needs including, but not limited to, the need to survive.

. . . cutting off the uppermost value of the lattice, life (which we might express as S0), ipso facto dismantles the network of interdependency which binds together every triad beneath it. When it goes, everything else goes. “It is actually by experience of our teleology — our wish to exist further on as a subject, not our imputation of purposes on objects — that teleology becomes a real rather than an intellectual principle” (Weber, Varela 2002: 110). Using a common terminology which goes back to Kant, we may thus say that, from a Randian perspective, “[m]oral ‘imperatives’ are thus all of them hypothetical. There are no ‘categorical imperatives’, no unchosen duties” (Gotthelf 2000: 84). Regardless, the consequents entailed when the antecedent of this all-important conditional is affirmed are not at all a matter of choice, and depend on the facts at hand (most notably the nature of the objects appraised, and what kind of creature one happens to be).

One thing that struck me here was the interesting similarity between this account and the one I've been working toward, in fits and starts here. I've argued, for instance, that valuing is to be understood as a dimension of our cognitive capacity that makes reasoning, itself, possible and that it stands on our more basic preferences, needs, desires, and so forth. Valuing, I've suggested, is an elaboration of the more basic approach/avoidance mechanisms in living things and that, once we introduce a certain level of cognitive capacity it manifests as an essential element in all rational thought, in reasoning itself. Without the ability to sort things we see via various valuation gauges, we cannot move from thinking to acting. Animals which don't think still act and still have a mental life at some level of realization which accompanies their actions in the world. But to the extent we have a mental life that can conceive of and depict the world we also have a capacity to depict our preferences, needs and so forth. On the view I've offered here that is, valuing just is that depicting of ourselves in relation to the world via our inclinations and disinclinations towards it. It's the cognitive elaboration of our basic normative connections to the world.

On this view, once we get past certain differences in terminology, my view and the one presented by Champagne are not so far apart though where we do part company, I suspect, is re: the mechanism he adduces to explain how our normative connections to the world become moral judgments. Contrary to Champagne who, following a Randian strategy of grounding all value judgments (including those we treat as "moral") in the needs and desires of an organism for its own continuation in the world, I've argued that moral valuing, at least in a large class of cases (though probably not all), involves assessing intentions of agents in terms of what they do or plan to do. And intentions, I've suggested, can only be understood as aspects of agents, of the selves which constitute the ongoing stream of the agent's mental life. Thus intentions are not stand alone entities in a mental world which each of us somehow possesses, but merely momentary occurrences in the mental life of the continuing subject.

The view I've put forward holds that we judge (and so evaluate) the intentions qua the self of each agent in terms of how it relates to (sees) others. The grounds of those moral claims which are other-regarding stand on how we are moved to see the other, i.e., on the presence or absence of empathy in us, which is seen to be both a natural and appropriate condition for subjective creatures like ourselves -- that is, for those having a certain cognitive capacity (the ability to see others as subjective agents, too).

While there is no logically compelling argument to make one acquiesce to the demands of empathy in any situation, or even to nurture it in oneself (to the extent it may be absent), there is at least a factual reason, namely that recognizing other subjects, which our type of cognitive capacity enables us to do, involves seeing the world as the other sees it, i.e., it involves standing in the other's shoes.

So choosing empathy, and, therefore, those actions which are in accord with it or tend to foster it, is a decision we make to the extent we may come to think that being what we are matters since we can always reject any appeal to live up to whatever we are. But the reason not to reject is found in the nature of what such a rejection entails, i.e., a falling away from our own potential, a truncation of our own possibilities. This, of course, is a valuation question no less than those involving when and where to apply empathy are. Only at this level the valuation depends not on prior standards of valuation (as we suppose our moral standards to rest for their own justification) but on a moment's recognition that it's better to exercise our capacities in full than to suppress or undermine them. This has affinities with the spiritual dimension of our lives more than with the merely empirical because it involves introspective considerations about the self.

Thus on the moral view I've been putting forward in these posts, caring about others stands on something more than the elaborated self-interest offered by Rand and others. Without dismissing the significance of self-interest to any living thing, which Rand emphasizes almost exclusively, my argument suggests that certain kinds of living things, namely those which are like us in a cognitive way (if any are) attain an added capacity, i.e., a level of thinking which extends the self-interestedness we find in ourselves to others, thus prompting us to take an interest in their self-interest, too.

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    Prompted by the thesis that an organism’s umwelt possesses not just a descriptive dimension, but a normative one as well, some have sought to annex semiotics with ethics. Yet the pronouncements made in this vein have consisted mainly in rehearsing accepted moral intuitions, and have failed to concretely fur-ther our knowledge of why or how a creature comes to order objects in its environ-ment in accordance with axiological charges of value or disvalue. For want of a more explicit account, the

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