An email from a student (X), who gave me permission to share with the class.
Hi Prof. Loy,
This is X and I am one of your students in GET1029 this semester. I have some doubts that I don’t know if I should bring it up during tutorial but it’s keeping it awake at night so I thought I might just write an e-mail to ask you first.
1. The first topic discussing value theories have a big assumption that, everything in this world intrinsically contains value, ie something must be good or bad. So as a nihilistic person myself, who believes in that the illusion of well-being is merely a biological mechanism to ensure the survival of a life being, my stand is that why aren’t we scrutinizing this assumption? Because it is in my opinion a very strong argument against all three theories that we have discussed, as it directly challenges the ground that these theories stand upon.
2. And let’s say I accept the assumption that everything contains intrinsic value. One of the “worries” of the Objective List Theory is that different people may have a different list of things that constitute well-being, and different weightage/mixtures for the same list. My question is that, could it be that well-being might not have a universal benchmark, but is instead defined by the perception of each individual? So, the bigger question is that, is it acceptable for a philosophical theory to accept that the “one, whole story” about well-being just does not exist?
I would very much appreciate if you would allow me to pick your brain on these issues that I have!
Good to hear from you!
The assumption surely isn’t that everything in this world intrinsically contains value. Maybe some things are good, and some are bad. Yes, it’s entirely possible that nothing is either good or bad. Which will make the theories systematically false. But notice that even so, this will just mean a judgment that the PPT is false, the DST, and the PST are false, and the OJTs are false. So in one sense, you situation isn’t completely different from someone who isn’t already committed to the idea that nothing is intrinsically good but remain unconvinced by each of the theories piecemeal—except that, unlike you, she hasn’t made up her mind about the larger question. On the other hand, if you have already made up your mind that nothing is intrinsically good, then, you of course believe that each of the theories is false. But this isn’t a (non-question begging) argument for the conclusion that PST or DST or PPT is false.
Incidentally, it’s not obvious to me that your position must require rejecting the idea that there are intrinsic goods. Perhaps what you have in mind is a more metaphysically robust conception of the good? But neither the PPT nor the DST/PST are like that. In fact, they aren’t difficult to accommodate within a biological framework. Unless you reject the idea that there are such things as pleasure and pain, or that we desire things. Keep in mind that what’s intrinsically good here just means something that is good by itself (for us) rather than derivatively. The ambition of a theory saying that pleasure is good by itself for us (for instance) is exactly to dispense with a more robust metaphysics.
There are two “different people, different strokes” issues at stake that shouldn’t be confused. One, if a theory’s ambition is to systematize our intuitions, it needs to deal with the obvious fact that people have different intuitions about what’s good/bad. Two, a very commonsense intuition shared by most is exactly that different things are good/bad for different people. (Analogy—different people have different ideas about how to measure height vs. different people have different heights.) These two points cause trouble for theories in different ways.
The first makes it hard for a theory to honestly base itself upon everyone’s intuitions—something’s will give eventually. Some intuitions will likely have to be rejected. But again, this is a problem only if the particular theory’s ambition is to systematize our intuitions–to tell one general story on the basis of ‘everyone’s’ intuitions.
The second, on the other hand, can be accommodated within a general framework—think back to the height example again. It’s precisely if we all adopt a common reference (e.g., “meters”) that we can talk in a more careful way about different having different heights. So likewise, the PPT/DST/PPT all have good ways to accommodate this sort of differences—different people experience different pleasures, different people have different desires/preferences. Can an OJT do this? Not impossible, but it will depend on the specifics. We’ve also not gone into enough details with a specific OJT to really do this carefully.
But the important point to notice is that having a general framework isn’t literally the same as laying down a “universal benchmark”. The best general frameworks should be able to capture both what’s common and what’s not. So, going back to your last comment about not accepting that ‘one, whole story” about well-being exists—if by that, you mean rejecting the idea that the same things are good for everyone, then, the theories do try to accommodate that—even if pleasure is the only intrinsic good, different people take pleasure in different things, for instance. Remember: the fact that something is objective—it’s truth isn’t merely a matter of his, or yours or my feeling or say so—doesn’t entail that it is also universal. On the other hand, if by that last comment you mean that no theory commands universal agreement—indeed, that’s true. But that’s quite different from saying that, in principle, no theory is objectively true.
Hope that helps?
Follow up from X:
Hi Prof. Loy,
Thank you for the prompt and thoughtful reply!
>>But this isn’t a (non-question begging) argument for the conclusion that PST or DST or PPT is false.
Yeap I agree that my premises are not necessarily true and that it doesn’t lead to the conclusion that any of this theory is false. I was just wondering that since we started off with theories that try to identify and quantify well-being, without questioning the very existence of well-being, aren’t we neglecting the flip side of value theories? My analogy would be like we are discussing whether Loch Ness Monster is a mammal or a reptile, without discussing whether it exists in the first place.
>>Keep in mind that what’s intrinsically good here just means something that is good by itself (for us) rather than derivatively. The ambition of a theory saying that pleasure is good by itself for us (for instance) is exactly to dispense with a more robust metaphysics.
This is one of my doubts I have in mind. Maybe it is due to my lack of understanding of metaphysics, but If the proposition of “pleasure is good by itself” aims to dispense with a higher-level meta-concept(and let’s assume it is true), doesn’t that mean that pleasure is actually derivative from whatever meta-concept that induces pleasure?
>>Analogy—different people have different ideas about how to measure height vs. different people have different heights
Very helpful! So is it correct to say that DST and PST are trying to find a common (and non-instrumental) way to measure different people’s different heights? Whereas on the other hand, OLT seems to me that it is trying to say “I’m not going to measure height directly, I but I’m gonna find out a comprehensive list of every body part that contributes to my height, eg. my legs, torso, head and so on”.
Your point is taken. Well taken, in fact. The choice is mainly pedagogical though—because for the most part, people generally do have opinions about what’s good/bad. So it’s a good way to start the discussion. Secondly, it takes a bit more philosophical chops to do the meta-level discussion. All things considered, it’s a bit easier—more manageable given the aims of the module—to be more narrow. I don’t think this will satisfy every student, but it’s a balance I have to find 😀
[On the “whatever meta-concept” thing] Not really. It just means that there’s a lot less to “X is good by itself” than what a more metaphysically minded person would prefer.
[On the last analogy] Yeah, that would work 😀