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Waiting for Wednesday - Values and Facts: The "Truth" Connection

Having finally finished the book I wanted to write on the problem of moral valuation (why moral judgments count and how they are made and why we should and do make them), a lot of things are clearer to me now than before. I took a number of stabs at the problem over the years, culminating in my earlier book, Choice and Action, but I came to feel, afterwards, that I had left too much on the table, too much unexplained. And so I set out to correct that by writing Value and Representation: Three Essays Exploring the Implications of a Pragmatic Epistemology for Moral Thought. The intention of this second book on the subject is to lay out a systematic case for the way in which moral judgments work in our lives and to show how we can reason to those conclusions we intuitively feel have a moral ground.

If moral judgments are to be seen as anything more than how we happen to feel about anything, at any given moment (feelings being caused by the effects of things upon us because of how we are made or trained to respond), then there must be a way of showing that reasoning counts and that our reason-based judgments regarding our moral decisions rest on a reliable rational ground. Otherwise moral claims and beliefs can be no more than subjective ideas relevant only to the one who holds them. It is only the ability to give and respond to reasons in our behavior that distinguishes moral claims from claims based on personal feelings.

But for moral judgments to make sense, they cannot rest on the merely superficial reasoning that allows us to ascertain the best ways to get what we want. Prudential judgments (about what gets us what we want) cannot sustain the moral claims which urge us to set another’s concerns above our own, a manifestly moral inclination in all human cultures, for when it is not in our interest or we have not been so trained then no moral blame can attach to our actions if we act contrary to such motives.

Our moral judgments can never rest on a foundation of beliefs impressed on us from outside alone because coercion, whether overt or covert, vitiates the potency of moral claims in all cases. Being moral is about having the power to choose what we do and choosing correctly. So, what does support the sort of moral claim in which we set aside our own interests for those of others when we make it, the sort we think of as altruistic or disinterested (in our own needs and concerns that is)? And how can we discern those reasons which warrant our acceptance as a reason to act thus and differentiate them from those which don't? Why, after all, shouldn't we, rather, join forces with murderers and thieves if it suits our purpose, or if that’s what we have been taught is okay to do -- or if we just happen to feel the sort of motivation (antipathy towards another) that prompts us to murder or otherwise do harm?

The whole point of the moral dimension of valuation seems to be that we suppose we ought not to do things like causing harm to another gratuitously—or just because it benefits us. This isn't, strictly speaking, found in only one or a few human cultures, by the way, because a review across cultures shows such standards of behavior dealing with this sort of thing are quite widespread in human life and history. This is not always explicitly realized but, whether or not ours is a European-based culture with a Judeo-Christian background or a Buddhist or Hindu culture, or Confucianist or Taoist, the same sort of precepts come to the fore. Each of these disparate systems of belief, spread widely across the planet, contains and promotes a recognition of others as persons, as being, that is, in a relevant way like ourselves. Each of the aforementioned belief systems counsels its adherents to look out for the Other by avoiding doing to the Other what we would rather not have done to us. While human experience has not always made this notion explicit in the way these aforementioned belief systems do, there is evidence that this sense of the other as deserving of our concern (and of our having a responsibility to exercise it) is rather deeply embedded in human life and this not merely because of its presence in such a wide variety of human cultures and for such a prolonged period in recorded human history.

Examples of this principle of treating the other like ourselves can be found in the papyrus record of ancient Egypt and in the preserved documents of the now largely lost religion of the Persians, Zoroastrianism. Either there was extensive cross-pollenization of these ideas in earlier times as humanity grew and developed, leading to shared similarities like this, or there is something in human nature itself which gives rise to this sentiment in diverse locations and time periods around the globe. There is, that is, a certain kind of universality in human experience, which is just to say some sentiments in human life transcend particular cultures and nations to manifest more broadly in our practices and teachings. The idea of treating others like ourselves may well be built into the human genome, a function of the kind of creatures we are. But if so, that is just to say we have this potential to care about others within us. The moral issue, of course, is to actualize it when it isn't obviously present or is suppressed.

Concern for others may well be rooted in our primate nature, an aspect of our behavioral inclinations built into us by evolution to enable us to form and sustain connections with others of our kind so that we can live in groups, a valuable form of life for our kind of creature since we are less well equipped physically than the predators with whom we were obliged to compete in prehistoric times. Such sociability then seems to have morphed, with human development, into our modern forms of civilization. Along with these come the codes of behavior that characterize complex group living of the sort we have in our contemporary civilizations. These codes, besides carrying injunctions that may sanction or reject certain kinds of foods and interpersonal activities, also generally include the more abstract notion that showing concern for others is of value to members of the group. But how do we balance concern for members of our group with our own and which groups will matter to us since human life, especially in our modern era, allows many different groups to interact and co-exist. Moral judgment is directed to the other but is it merely the other who is part of our group?

Moral judgments cannot be explained entirely in this fashion because, if we lack the requisite social instincts or inclinations, then no argument can require us to act on our own to try to develop them—or to behave as though we already possessed such instincts. Moral valuation may be grounded in certain instinctive capacities possessed by humans in common with other primates or other social mammals, but it is not enough to sustain it if we are to rest our claims for it entirely on that because, if we don’t have those particular inclinations, then we are free of any moral claims against us. In that case, the idea of moral judgment and morally sanctioned actions must fly out the window for we cannot then be said to be under any sort of obligation to curb our behaviors in ways that recognize the needs of another. And even if others can force us to do so by law, that cannot solve the moral problem for then it is not moral judgment that is in play but something quite different. A pathological criminal, in such a world, can be contained and controlled like a carnivorous beast in the midst of its prey, but he cannot be expected to constrain himself—nor can he be an object of blame among us if he doesn’t. If coercion is all that’s in play, it’s no longer moral judgment that matters but only the force that can be marshalled against the brute.

Valuation itself seems to be a necessary element in human life, reflecting the sort of cognitive capacities we have developed (based on our capacity to use sounds and symbols to talk about things). In this case, moral valuing, if it is valuation, must, itself, be an aspect of this broader activity. But where are we to look for the explanation of valuing itself then? Where can we discover what valuing consists of? Is it just having feelings of affinity or disaffinity for some things, and expressing them through our behaviors? Arguably, any animal can do that. We would not say of the dog, waiting at home for its owner to appear, that it values its master any more than we would say, as Wittgenstein suggested, that it is expecting him to return on Wednesday. Knowing that there is a Wednesday, which follows a Tuesday and comes after Monday, requires a cognitive capacity the dog simply does not possess. The dog can want to see its master and behave accordingly if it has reason to think the master is nearby (a familiar sound or scent). And it can even pine for a master who is gone. But it cannot put words to the matter, cannot announce or consider its loss as such, or explain it, or imagine what might be. Nor can it grasp that two days hence its master will come.

The dog lives in the moment of its immediate experience—and, to an extent, so do we. But we have what the dog does not which is to say we have the capacity to conceive of a world beyond this moment and place. We can think about tomorrow and the next day and the one after and we can think, as well, about the days that have already come and gone. We have a kind of memory the dog lacks because we can conceptualize our experiences while the dog and other non-language using creatures have only an unarticulated recall sparked by momentary events and issuing forth in immediate behaviors. The dog cannot imagine its master in the context of an extension of time and location beyond the moment and place in which its life occurs.

Animals lacking language certainly have recall but they do not have the ability to formulate a narrative about the past or what is to come. Their picture of their world is limited to the here and now of their experience. But it is precisely this capacity, to conceptualize a world, that makes feelings into values.

Valuing is about taking our feelings into the domain of the world and putting them up against other feelings we may have—and against the feelings others have. Valuing is about sorting the relations of the things in the world, in terms of their effects upon us, to ourselves. Here valuing moves beyond what we feel and would express to become what our feelings and their expression mean to us in the wider world in which we see ourselves as standing. Valuing is thus a form of relating to the world.

If experiencing the world through our senses is made possible by our ability to organize and differentiate between elements of experience, if knowing a world is about the relations of things to things, as discovered through our senses, then valuing is about the relation of those things to ourselves.

The most basic form of valuation we can have turns out to be about the true and the false. This is basic because every creature's ability to survive and propagate in the world depends on its getting the world it comes into contact with right. What is true is what works for it in a myriad of ways. This is the pragmatic conception of truth but it is not quite as simple or naive as its detractors have often claimed. Indeed, its most famous exponent, William James, insisted that the pragmatic explanation of truth is not just about whether some beliefs satisfy us more than others (though he famously, and controversially, allowed that sometimes truth can just be about whatever helps us get by in life, even in a purely psychological sense). Truth, on the pragmatic view he supported, is a systemic matter, not a merely propositional or sentential one. It is a function not of particular beliefs, or statements expressing them, but of the capacity of the overall system, in which those statements find their meaning, to enable us to get by in the world.

James rejected the correspondence notion of truth for a coherentist account but not, he was clear, one that is insulated from the world, entirely contained in its own internal relations, one claim dependent on nothing else but all the others within which it takes its meaning. The pragmatic theory of truth James espoused hinges on the idea that the system of beliefs and statements, within which each of our statements takes its place and achieves meaning, matters more than each individual statement does. Obviously, some parts of the system must "touch ground" with the real world, as he put it, if any such system is to be of use to us in making our way around the various environments we find ourselves in. But not all need to and most may not, at least not all the time when any single statement is uttered and taken to be true or false. James did not discard the connection between our words and the world. He only proposed a more complex way of accounting for it.

Truth on this view it turns out is, at bottom, valuational. It’s not a different sort of animal than goodness or beauty or any other valuational concept but just one more variation on the valuational continuum. In fact, it is the most basic. A true belief and the true statements that express it just is a belief or statement that works within whatever system we have come to rely on for depicting our world. And it is true or false to the extent it supports that system if and only if that system is also efficient in guiding us in the world. Thus, truth, because it is a means of assessing the efficacy of any statement or belief for its ability to guide us in action, is the most basic form of valuation because it is the truth value of our beliefs that makes all other valuations possible. This is seen if we recognize that to have beliefs about things at all requires the ability to think about things and, to have that ability, we must be able to tell the true from the false. In James’ pragmatic sense we do that in terms of the overall effect of the system of statements within which any claim takes its place and can be seen to have meaning.

While all claims of value, including claims of truth value, hinge on our capacity to verbalize and so conceptualize a world that goes beyond our immediate surroundings, truth value alone rests on occurrences in the life of the animal which do not, themselves, require conceptualization. The dog or other non-linguistic beast knows to avoid some things and seek out others and it does so without wondering whether doing that reflects a true belief or not. Indeed, beliefs, as such, play no part for the dog or other such creatures. Thinking about one’s actions as resting on beliefs is impossible without a language in which to frame reasons for action, without, that is, the sorting mechanism of truth vs. falsehood which language supplies. To wonder about anything, we must have language. But the truth of the dog's environment nonetheless affects it, for creatures who cannot anticipate or react timely to events that pose a hazard for them are not likely to survive very long. Anticipating and reacting do not require verbal ability although recognizing them in a rational way does.

Thus, truth is basic to our natures because it is the basic non-linguistic form of behavior which underlies all our other behaviors. Valuing, which is the conceptualization of truth relations, the most basic form of valuation, becomes possible only when we have a world built of concepts in which differentiation and sorting according to benefits to ourselves becomes possible. Concepts, for their part, demand the ability to depict which language makes possible and so it is concepts that provide us with things to be sorted.

Valuing is just the sorting of things as conceived in terms of their relation to ourselves, the valuers, but to be valuers we must have needs and wants and, more importantly, realize we have them. We must, that is, be subjects in a world who see their world but also their part in it.

Valuing on the level of truth claims is an expression of our most basic relation to the world but becomes explicit once it is expressible through language, an application of the need/satisfaction function to the conceptual elements of the world language enables for us. Valuing allows us to recognize and represent the things of the world which we are in active relation to. It is just this mechanism by which we sort our concepts, made possible as concepts by the fundamental valuational true-false distinction.

We begin by distinguishing between truths and falsehoods and proceed to other dimensions of valuation including things we take to be good for us vs. those which aren’t, both in terms of objects to be acquired or situations to be entered into or brought about. We desire, or feel a need for things and for the things we may think we need to do to get hold of them or make them a reality for ourselves.

All valuation begins with truth discernment, the first sorting we must do as living creatures, but human beings, because we have a cultural dimension to our lives, a dimension of complex behaviors beyond the moment-to-moment existence of the beast, a dimension which has relevance only in an extended world and is made possible by the cognitive capabilities that enable us to conceive our disparate sensory inputs as such a world, move beyond this level. We move beyond the recognition of the true and the false, to recognition of the ways things can affect us, affects which can be conceived as outlasting each individual moment. Because we have language we can think ahead and behind where we now are. We can think about the world beyond our immediate location at this particular moment.

The idea that value questions are not amenable to truth determinations is simply wrong because truth is just another form of valuation and, as the most basic form there is, it is the underlying ground for all the other claims of value we can make. The issue is not to be found in the idea that truth and value are incompatible or that claims of one sort do not imply claims of the other but that truth, itself, is a form of valuation and as such enables all other forms of value to become manifest. The idea that moral questions are cut off from claims of truth is misleading because, insofar as moral valuation is valuation at all, it comes from the very same place our truth claims come from—our relation to things in the world.

The moral form of valuation considers a level of things that can only exist when there is language and only if and when that language has reached a certain level of cognitive empowerment. We must have a language capable of showing a world but also of showing us as in it. The moral question involves looking not just at the things that are objects for us, objectives of desire or need which we can sort according to their anticipated impacts on us, it requires that we look farther, to the subjects that stand in the same world as those phenomena we recognize as objects. We recognize other subjects because we are built to do so and, in recognizing them, we enter into a new set of relations, a new level of connection with those objects which we also recognize as subjects like ourselves.

Moral valuation arises when we recognize that the world consists of subjects as well as objects and so come to see what subjects really are, what characterizes them as subjects and so makes them a different sort of object in our world. Moral valuation allows us to apply the valuational mechanism intrinsic in our language to subjects as well as to objects. It arises when being a subject becomes an object of inquiry for us no less than any other object in the world, when the dimension of existence that characterizes being a subject comes into our realm of interest and concern. Then the moral claims which others have on us come to the fore since it is at that point that we recognize their similarity to ourselves, their subjectness as equivalent with our own, and see that only through actions which acknowledge that subjectness can we fully embrace the kind of world we are an ineliminable part of. The moral notion that includes concern for the other arises when our linguistic capacities reach a point that enables us to redirect our attention to that phenomenon which distinguishes us, in our world, from other things and reminds us that subjectness is a shared condition, not a unique or isolated one.

Subjects must be in the world since, without the capacity to feel needs and recognize one's needs as part of one's world which characterizes subjectness as such, valuing itself does not occur. Only subjects can value and only subjects with the cognitive capacity to recognize their own subjectness, in themselves and others, can enter onto a level of judgment where moral valuation becomes possible. There can be no world at all without subjects capable of valuing, of seeing the world in relation to themselves, not even the possibility of truth and falsity.

Without language and the cognitive empowerment language makes possible, we are no better off than the dog waiting anxiously at the door for its master, unaware he will not return until Wednesday.

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