The idea of rational regret was brought up in my Value Theory class as a challenge to value monism. Value monism claims that there is ultimately one type of intrinsic value, and everything that has value derives its worth from that single intrinsic value. Strict utilitarianism defines human happiness as the only intrinsic value, things like life, relationships, people, etc. all derive their value from the amount of happiness they instantiate.
Rational regret makes this claim: it is possible, when deciding between X and Y, to choose X (while being morally justified in choosing X) and rationally regret that you did not choose Y. For example, imagine that I am choosing between breaking a promise to a friend and helping a neighbor in trouble. If I choose to help my neighbor, I am valuing the discontinuation of his/her trouble higher than the value of keeping a promise to my friend. Rational regret claims that it is possible for me to rationally regret my decision, even though I was morally justified.
If the claim is correct, and I can rationally regret my decision, what does my regret show? If value monism is correct, the value of both eliminating trouble and keeping a promise is ultimately reducible to a single value, such as happiness. Lets say I know choosing to help my neighbor will have a net +10 gain in aggregate happiness, while keeping my promise will have a net +9 gain in aggregate happiness. Choosing to help is thus the morally right choice; however, what am I regretting in choosing to help my neighbor? I may regret my situation, and lament that I could not do both. The claim of rational regret goes farther — it states that I can regret my decision, even in the same situation. If value monism is correct, however, I would be regretting that I made the singularly right decision. Effectively, I would be regretting that I did not do the wrong thing.
It seems counter-intuitive to claim that I can only regret my situation, and that regretting my choice amounts to a wish that I did the wrong thing. The only way to avoid this and maintain rational regret is through value pluralism — if there are multiple types of value that are not reducible to an ultimate value, then there may be no clear answer when choosing between different types of value. When I choose between the value of helping my neighbor and keeping a promise, I am judging two distinct values. If I must subjectively choose which value I prioritize (which my ethics theory claims), then my decision merely reflects a choice between values that could have gone another way. If either value could be justifiably chosen (if I see compelling reasons to favor either value), then I can rationally regret my choice to prioritize one value over the other. Perhaps looking back, I realize that I should have valued promises more. This gives better grounds for my rational regret than simply regretting my situation; instead, I am regretting a choice I made (that I could have done differently), and there are morally defensible grounds for choosing either option.
“Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come,we are not.”
There are variations of the above quote, but the message is consistent: whenever I exist, I am not dead. Whenever I am dead, I do not exist. There is no situation where I both exist and am dead.
This might seem like common sense, but it’s actually important to understand. I think it supports an important point made by Nagarjuna-we irrationally project a substantive identity onto ourselves, and this identity is the cause of our fear of death.
The substantive identity Nagarjuna rejects is the self-it is the being we take ourselves and others to be, a being that connects our young selves with our older selves, persists through time essentially unchanged, and possesses the mental states/physical states we associate with ourselves. For example, the Christian idea of a soul claims that we exist independently of the mind and body, and it is the soul that goes to heaven/hell once the physical body dies. As Nagarjuna argues, there is no evidence for such a self/soul, we only have our mental states and falsely believe there is a being independent of those states (see http://fensel.net/2013/03/24/my-response-to-nagarjunas-view-of-emptiness/ for a longer explanation of this argument).
When we fear death, I believe we generally picture ourselves as a soul (even in a non-religious sense). In life, our soul is able to perceive events through our bodies-once our bodies are gone, our soul loses its connection to the world. The question “where do we go when we die” assumes this point of view. “We” are the souls in our bodies, that still could go somewhere after the connection to the physical world is gone.
The Epicurus quote rejects this picture of a soul losing its connection to its body. We are not an entity above and beyond our physical mental states. Once those mental states no longer exist, we no longer exist (we simply are our mental states). The fearful picture of death as this empty abyss we plunge into is wrong-there is no “we” left after death that could plunge into an empty abyss.
Thomas Nagel makes an important point against Epicurus-understanding death as a negative state we exist in is wrong, but there is still a loss in death-namely, unrealized opportunities for life. If I die when I’m 30, but could have lived til 80, death prevented me from having 50 extra years of life. I cannot explain the loss fully by explaining my death at 30-I have to allude to the lost potential.
If we take both Nagel and Epicurus’ views, I think we’re left with a common sense view of death that is both reassuring and correct. Death is not an inherently negative state-we do not suffer after we are dead and there is no soul that becomes lost without a body; however, we can still rationally want to avoid death due to the positive value of the experiences we could have by living. However, fear is not the way we should treat potentially lost opportunities. Fear is a dread of something negative happening-we are afraid of pain, because pain is a negative state that we directly experience. Not winning the lottery, on the other hand, is not an inherently negative experience-it is the absence of a positive one. Analogously, the best way to look at death is the loss of an opportunity-something to be avoided, but not feared.
My view is reasons internalist: the only valid reasons for action are ones that connect to an individual’s internal motives/psyche/values. This view contrasts with reasons externalism, which claims that people can have a reason to do X even though that reason does not connect at all to their internal motives.
As noted by Bernard Williams, trying to define external reasons is difficult if not impossible. Attempts either try to find a link to the individual’s motives (thus becoming internal reasons) or they seem to lack any meaning at all (they are just commands, that are either accepted without question or cannot be given compelling reasons).
The dis-advantage of reasons internalism is trying to form categorical (or necessary) laws that people must follow. We naturally think there is a law “do not murder children”, and that the justification for this law is not contingent on the presence of certain psychological traits that give a person a reason to not kill children. But, if reasons internalism is true, there must be something in our individual motives that connects to a reason not to kill children.
Kant tried to get around this problem by finding a law that would be both 1. Categorical and 2. Connected to an individual’s internal motives. He thought that his categorical maxims were laws that any rational agent could reason to for themselves. Since the laws apply to all rational beings, the laws are categorical for all rational beings.
There are problems with Kant’s argument, namely in his transition from “one rational agent finds goodness in X” to “all rational agents must be able to find goodness in X”. To me, it seems the main problem with Kant’s argument is his original goal: to find out what the nature of a categorical law would be like, if it exists. His argument is thus committed to the original problem: finding a necessary law, rather than finding out what is rational from our internal perspectives.
Instead of such a law, my approach is that morality should be treated as a rational choice. Over-simplified, we restrict our own actions based on our values-I do not kill children because I value their lives, and this value gives me a reason not to commit murder. I choose to keep this value (and thus, keep the restriction on my action) because having values is rational. So, it is rational to adopt values, and the values I adopt give me reasons to act consistently with promoting those values.
This approach cannot establish any categorical laws. Even if we could find one set of values that is the most rational (and I don’t think this is true), there is still at least the basic assumption needed that one should always be rational (not a difficult premise to accept, but a difficult one to establish as necessary).
The reason I prefer this approach is that laws carry a major flaw-since the only command is to follow the law, there is no reason not to get away with as much as the law allows you to get away with. Most theories are very strict because of this, in an attempt to disallow this from happening. However, this over-strictness creates ridiculous obligations-utilitarianism condemns every single person on earth, because no one perfectly acts on the principle of utility (same problem with deontology).
The advantage of treating morality as a rational choice is it lowers the bar for establishing moral rules. Further, it makes more sense from our individual perspectives-you should act morally because you do not want to harm things that you value, and you should value things because it is rational to value things. The bar to establish normative statements (like “you should not kill children”) is then to show why it is rational to value children, and why you should control your actions based on your values (positions that are much easier to defend than a categorical law-see my posts on Korsgaard for the rationality of adopting values). These arguments start from your perspective and work toward the values, they do not try to change your perspective to accommodate a set of values distinct from who you are as a person.
(End note) There are problems with treating morality as a rational choice. Namely, deciding which values are the most rational. When someone chooses not to value children, we cannot make the statement “you should not kill children” (as this is a normative statement, that links a value with an action). Without that value, the statement is false. However, we can still say it is wrong to kill children (we still value them, and our value is not contingent on everyone else also valuing children). Further, we can still criticize the person for not valuing children. These criticisms must take a different form than simply “you are acting wrongly” or “you should not do X”, because they apply to a different category of things (the statement “you are acting wrongly” means “you are harming something that I significantly value” and the statement “you should not do X” means “you value Y, and doing X will harm Y”). A criticism of not valuing children cannot take these forms (they both criticize actions, not values). To criticize values, you cannot use values if you want any form of debate (this would just devolve into “I value X”, “I do not value X”, with no possible resolution). Instead, you have to use value-neutral methods to criticize values. So far, I have thought of a few methods-criticizing the scope of someone’s values (a person’s values are too limited), criticizing the lack of consistency, or showing how a value is based in something that lacks empirical evidence (like valuing God or an afterlife).
Nagarjuna argued that nothing exists with svabhava, roughly translated as “inherent essence”, “independent existence”, or “exists from its own side”. His arguments against svabhava are complicated and spread out-Nagarjuna often uses reductio ad absurdum arguments, showing that the assumption of svabhava leads to incoherent conceptions of causation, motion, and knowledge.
To understand Nagarjuna’s point, it’s important to understand what the “svabhava” he rejects really means. When Nagarjuna says that nothing exists with svabhava, he is saying that everything is empty-he is not saying, however, that everything has the trait of emptiness (a confusing distinction, but important). Nagarjuna advocates a middle path, rejecting both “X has svabhava” and “X has not svabhava/emptiness”-because both have the presupposition that there is an “X” that could possess the property of svabhava or emptiness. However, the rejection of svabhava is the rejection that there is any such “X” that could posses properties, at least in an ultimately real sense.
Since nothing exists with svabhava, Nagarjuna’s argument claims that all identities we take to be real are ultimately conventional-they exist only from our viewpoint. Consider the identity of constellations. The Big Dipper only exists from our viewpoint-if we looked at the same set of stars from a different angle, the shape would be entirely different. Further, if we had chosen a different set of stars, a different constellation would exist. Since the identity of the constellation depends on our conventions, constellations do not exist with independent essence, or svabhava. Nagarjuna’s argument against every other identity rests primarily on this view: identities depend on our conventions, so nothing exists with independent essence.
The common conception of svabhava, as it exists in people, is captured by the notion of a “self”: a being that persists over-time, possesses properties and personalities, and links my 21 year old self with my 5 year old self. A good example to understand our common-sense notion of a self is to look at the idea of a religious soul. A soul exists independently of the human body/brain, constitutes the “real” identity of a person, persists unchanging through time, and possesses all the properties of the person. It is more fundamental to a person’s identity than his/her properties, and exists behind the perceivable properties.
With similarities to some of Hume’s arguments, Nagarjuna points out that such a self/soul cannot be found in introspection. Any time we try to find it, we identify it with one property- a thought, a state of thinking, perceptions, etc. However, we can never establish an identity behind these properties, we can only try to claim that one property is somehow constitutive while others are instantiated (see http://fensel.net/2013/02/25/constitutive-identity/ to see the problem with this approach).
No matter which objects we choose, we never find an identity behind properties that can constitute an ultimately real identity. We only find properties, and if we cannot find svabhava in properties, then we cannot find svabhava at all. Each time we pick out an identity, we are either doing so conventionally, arbitrarily choosing a property as constitutive (thus resulting in an only conventional identity), or positing an identity that exists independently of all perceivable phenomenon. None of the three gives evidence for real identities, but we naturally project identities onto objects, that we believe exist independently of our minds, due to the way we construct properties in our minds.
If Nagarjuna’s argument is convincing, then what follows? Over-simplified, the realization that nothing exists with svabhava is supposed to lead to nirvana. Suffering is caused by attachment to things (such as the self, objects, etc.), nirvana is attained through avoiding this attachment, and thus nirvana avoids suffering (this is very, very over-simplified). Once you realize that identities are ascribed conventionally, you realize that any attachment you have to those things must only work within the sphere of conventions. However, does it follow that it is better, or more rational, to avoid attachment to these things because they can only work within the sphere of conventions?
I think Nagarjuna’s argument does show how a detached perspective is necessary to some extent. We shouldn’t project identities onto things from our minds while simultaneously denying our own role in projecting those identities. However, attachment to identities does not bring only suffering-it can also bring enjoyment, particularly the higher pleasures John Stuart Mill focuses on.
To accommodate Nagarjuna’s view of conventional identities, while denying that attachment is irrational, I want to paint a rough picture of how setting ends can work rationally. If all identities are ascribed conventionally, I think it follows that any values we put in those identities are also conventional (this was already my view before studying Nagarjuna-in different language, it says that we set our own ends; we decide which goals are valuable and thus worth pursuing). So, not only do we have to decide how to distinguish objects as distinct entities, we have to decide how much value to place in those distinct entities. Each time we put value into a conventional entity, we are forming an attachment to that identity. When I conventionally ascribe an identity to another person (I see them as one unchanging entity), I place a value in that person and form some level of attachment to the continued existence of that person. If the person dies, my attachment will cause suffering. However, as I’ve argued for in my evaluation of Korsgaard’s constructivism, my attachment can also enable me to experience meaning, or purpose. The question for each end I choose, or each attachment to a conventional identity I choose to make, is this: does the meaning/purpose I derive from that end outweigh the suffering I experience because of that attachment?
My view is that, by and large, it is worthwhile to form attachments to these conventional identities-the purpose outweighs the suffering. Since the purpose outweighs the suffering, forming attachments is rational, even though the identities do not exist in some ultimately real sense.
This quarter I’ve been studying a work of buddhist metaphysics, Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika (Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way). Nagarjuna’s main thesis was the rejection of svabhava (the idea that things exist with an essence, or fundamental identity).
In one of his arguments, Nagarjuna argues that we wrongly take certain properties to be constitutive, rather than instantiated, due to the structure of our language. A constitutive property is one that defines an object’s identity, whereas an instantiated property is one that an object happens to have. For example, the constitutive property for my identity might be the property of being alive, while the property of being male is instantiated. In effect, something can lose an instantiated property and remain the same thing, but nothing can lose a constitutive property and remain the same thing.
To see Nagarjuna’s point about language, I’m going to use my professor’s example: a heavy red sphere. Due to our language, we take “sphere” to be the object’s identity, and “heavy” and “red” to be properties of that sphere. On this reading, the property of “spherical” is constitutive, and the properties of “heavy” and “red” are instantiated. Nagarjuna’s point is that our selection of the property “spherical” as constitutive, rather than “heavy” or ‘red”, is purely arbitrary. It would make just as much sense (or as little) to say “a heavy spherical redthing” or a “spherical red heavything”. The reason we take one property to be constitutive, rather than instantiated as the others, is our tendency in language to use one property as a noun, and the others as adjectives.
This line of reasoning works equally well on the properties of any other person or object. Is it any less arbitrary to call myself a “male, tall, living being” versus a “tall, living, man”? Because of this, no property seems to be sufficiently constitutive of an identity. The one property I choose to identify with is just a choice of language, not a metaphysically interesting claim.
The argument is aimed to prove Nagarjuna’s main point: there is no essential identity (either in ourselves or in any objects), and that any identity we pick up can only be true conventionally. I am still working through Nagarjuna’s argument, so I don’t have a great objection to him as of yet. I wanted to bring him up, however, because I find him really interesting and want to write more posts on him in the future.
Axiological moral theories define what actions are right in terms of what actions are good (contrasted with deontological theories that define what is good in terms of which actions are right). Consequentialist theories, such as utilitarianism, generally are axiological. Utilitarianism defines goodness with aggregate human happiness, and the right action is the one that promotes the most good.
There are issues when you try to put obligations into a moral theory. It’s one thing to say “X is good”, and another to say “you are morally obligated to do X”.
There are two separate questions here: what is good, and what relation our obligations have to what is good. The first question is difficult, and there are a number of problems in defining goodness (most importantly the internal vs. external reason issue). Since I want to focus on the second question, I will just assume that there is some standard for goodness that can be measured. But, as I will argue, we cannot infer what we are obligated to do simply from knowledge about what is good.
Consider the standard dilemma case where you have to choose between two options. Option A will result in 10 units of goodness, and Option B will result in 5 units of goodness. Purely in terms of goodness, Option A > Option B.
Does it follow from Option A > Option B that you are morally obligated to do Option A (assuming there are no options better than A)? Strict utilitarianism claims you are-you are obligated to do the morally best action in every scenario. However, as standard arguments against utilitarianism show, this would place unrealistic obligations on people. No matter what you are spending your money on, chances are you are not the person in the world who most needs that money (someone else could get more happiness/utility/goodness from the same amount of money). So long as you are not the person most in need of that money, there is an alternative action to you spending your money that creates more happiness/utility/goodness. If you are always obligated to do what is morally best, then you will always be obligated to donate your money.
Instead of the strict rule “always do what is morally best”, perhaps we are only obligated to do actions that have a net good (or, less strictly, only obligated not to do actions that have a net bad). Consider Option A and Option B again. Although A > B, B is still a net good (+5), so B is morally permissible under this rule. So the charity issue can be solved-although it would be better to donate, you are still creating good with your action (you are benefiting yourself), and thus your action is morally permissible.
To see the problem with this view, consider an employer laying off some of his/her employees. The business can survive with or without these employees, so the rest of the company’s employees are safe regardless of the choice made. The employer lays off 5 employees, and ends up increasing the company’s net profit. Did the employer do something morally wrong? Common sense says no-employers lay off their employees all the time, and we generally accept it as a fact of life (though there are cases where our intuitions differ, depending on the nature of the company). However, it is clear that the jobs are more important to the employees than the profit is to the company (and since this is a hypothetical, I am guaranteeing that more happiness/utility/goodness would result from the employees not being laid off).
So, in terms of goodness, not laying off employees > laying off employees. Additionally, laying off employees has a net negative effect-it causes more harm than it does good. Yet, intuitively, the action is not wrong. To claim otherwise would be to claim that employers are morally obligated to keep their employees so long as the company is sustainable. This view, I argue, shows how strong and counter-intuitive general links between goodness and obligation are. We cannot be obligated to always do what is morally best, unless every single person in America acts immorally constantly. We cannot be obligated to always refrain from net bad actions, unless capitalism itself is immoral.
My own solution, as argued in my previous post, is to distinguish between objective and subjective morality. We are obligated to do what we subjectively value most (we give ourselves our own moral laws). What is objectively good must take into account different subjective moralities, but you cannot go from “objectively best” or “objectively bad” to an obligation in all cases.
Generally, moral theorists consider objectivity to be a strength of a theory. It’s a positive if you can eliminate our subjective preferences from your moral theory.
The main appeal of objectivity in moral theories is its potential to resolve moral disputes-if two people disagree, an objective moral theory can claim that one of them is right and one of them is wrong (though I would personally argue that there can be some right and wrong within subjective preferences, I’ll stick to the conventional ideas for this post).
The problem I want to bring up is the idea that certain actions can be morally permissible for some people, while those very same actions might be morally impermissible for others (so what is wrong for someone to do is morally permissible for another). I will argue that these differences can be explained in terms of differing values, without appealing to full-scale individual relativism.
Imagine a case where 5 people are drowning in the ocean (all 5 people are innocent). 2 are drowning on your right side, while 3 are drowning on your left side. They are all far enough that you only have time to swim out and save one group of people.
If all 5 people are complete strangers, I would argue that you are morally obligated to save the 3 over saving the 2. I believe most people would intuitively agree with this claim, and anyone with a shred of consequentialism in them would have to agree.
However, imagine that the 2 people on your right are your significant other and your kid (or same age brother/sister, if you believe the age of the people matters). Is it wrong for you to save your wife/husband and family over the 3 strangers, simply because 3 outnumbers 2?
My argument, in a nutshell, is that you are morally allowed to save your own family even if it means allowing a greater number of deaths overall. The way I make sense of that claim is a reference to your own values. As a moral agent, you value the lives of strangers-you do not want them to die, and would save them if you could. But, you also value the lives of your wife/husband and family, and this value is not equivalent to the level that you value strangers. So your moral calculus determines that you value your wife/husband and family more than the strangers, so you choose to save your family.
Any theory that denies this conclusion would have to claim that it was wrong of you to value your family more than the strangers, and I think this claim is clearly wrong. No one has ever truly valued all people equally, and anyone who does will have no real relationships with anyone.
The problem I’m highlighting is that objectively (from a perspective independent of any subjective preferences), it is morally better to save 3 than it is to save 2. But by appealing to an objective perspective, you lose the value people place in their family/spouses, as those are clearly subjective preferences. This is why I believe complete objectivity is a mistake in moral thinking. Utilitarianism, in particular, is guilty of demanding that people abandon their subjective preferences for the objective perspective.
What I have hopefully shown so far is how people’s values can determine what is right for them to do, even if objectively the right thing to do is an entirely different option. If people can justifiably use their subjective values over objective values*, then I believe several other problems in ethics can be avoided (*I personally believe that “objective values” is incoherent).
Example problem: do we have obligations to future people? Ie, are we morally obligated to sacrifice now for the sake of future people, perhaps by conserving more resources? If we take the utilitarian approach, any action we do must maximize happiness for all people, weighing each of them equally. Considering how many people will exist in the future, any benefit we receive now could easily be outweighed by the sheer number of future people.
We can only maintain our current lifestyles, or even anything close, if we claim one of two things: 1. People in the future have less moral value than people who exist right now, or 2. What we are morally obligated to do is not what is best from an objective moral perspective. Going with 1 seems arbitrary: why does distance in time devalue a person, any more than distance in space would (and if value correlates with the distance in time, the value of people in distant futures would be unacceptably insignificant-credit: Derek Parfit). This post argues for 2: objectively, all people have the same moral value-but we don’t subjectively have obligations to future people on the same level as we do to our families or communities. From our own perspective, we can value those who currently exist more than those who will exist, and determine our obligations from there.
(End note: The main objection to my points would be: how do you determine which values are moral, and which are not, if everything comes down to the subjective perspective? Ie, if a person values death, how do you claim his/her murders were wrong? The short answer is I don’t know yet. The long answer is that we need to understand how we value things better, and how we can make sense of the process of choosing what to value. I see this process in a Kantian/Korsgaardian light, but my idea can only explain why we want to value things, not why certain things deserve to be valued more than others.)
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