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Enquiry III

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  • The Enquirer continues to ponder the notion of a value-free universe. She comes to the realisation that the world seems to be saturated experientially and linguistically with values. She entertains the possibility that a race of Destroyers of Illusion who use language differently has discovered that values are unreal and that there are only likings and dislikings. She discovers nevertheless that she does know at least one fact about what is good.

    My working hypothesis is that I inhabit a value-free universe in which different people perceive different moral qualities in actions, events, situations, and persons in the same way that they perceive or do not perceive a good taste in broccoli. The world as I now see it contains an enormous variety of objects, living and non-living, as well as animals and people. They possess many qualities that can be discovered and described, but there is nothing actually right or wrong in this world and there are no obligations. No actions are demonic or saintly, cowardly or heroic, for to describe actions in this way is to imply that they are bad or good, wrong or right. There is absolutely nothing that we are morally obliged to do or to refrain from doing. It is as absurd to say ‘Everything is morally permitted’ as it is to say ‘Some actions are not morally permitted.’ Nothing is either permitted or not permitted.

    It now occurs to me that there are two entirely different ways in which I might try to understand and apply the proposition that the universe is value-free. I could understand it to mean that it is philosophically correct to take a detached perspective on the struggles of a young faun in the jaws of a lion, or on the growth of a cancer in someone’s body, or on torture or abortion. I could understand the proposal to imply that is appropriate to regard these events and situations as happenings in the world that just are, without seeing them as ‘bad,’ and that I should suspend my normal emotional reactions, my judgemental impulses. But if the world is really value-free, then it cannot be ‘philosophically correct’ or ‘appropriate’ to regard it in one way rather than in another. Whatever way I regard it—judgementally or nonjudgementally—is just the way I happen to regard it.

    There is another way, however, to understand the proposal that the universe is value-free that is perhaps freer of implied prescriptivity. Let me try to imagine a world that is like our world in every way except that the people in it, having realised that there are no moral facts and no moral knowledge, never make moral judgements, and never tell others what they ought to do or are allowed to do. They never assert statements like ‘You ought not to tell lies to your mother’ or ‘You should make occasional donations to charity.’ They do, however, express their preferences, hopes, and fears. For example, a person belonging to this alien linguistic species might say ‘I hate it when you lie to your mother!’ or ‘I wish more people would make donations to UNICEF!’ These latter statements are genuine claims. They are true or false depending on whether the person who utters the words in quotation marks really has the emotions or wishes they report themselves as having.

    These aliens, I shall suppose, see things as they really are and only as they really are. While they occasionally make mistakes, their mistakes are factual ones about properties and relations that could be instantiated in the world but that are not. They are not under the illusion that their objects of moral appraisal can actually possess such properties as being right or wrong, morally permitted or forbidden, morally courageous or morally cowardly. Indeed, they deny that objects and living beings can possess any features of goodness or badness, appropriateness or inappropriateness, suitability or unsuitability for purpose, normality (as opposed to averageness) or abnormality.

    I shall call these people the Destroyers of Evaluative Illusion, or the Destroyers for short. They maintain that most of us live in a world of illusion, projecting our likings, dislikings, and preferences onto the world, that we ‘see’ our targets of appraisal as possessing evaluative properties that they do not possess. The language of the Destroyers, I might further suppose, contains no evaluative terms, only descriptive terms. They employ the term ‘red’ but not the term ‘good.’ They may describe a person as ‘weighing 150 lbs,’ but not as ‘malicious.’ And it seems to me that I can readily classify terms according to whether the language of the Destroyers could contain them (or equivalents for them) or not. For example:

    Found in the Destroyers’ Language

    Not Found in the Destroyers’ Language









    On my current hypothesis, the Destroyers can know a room to be dark, a watercourse to be damp, a tree to be deciduous, a fence to be damaged, and a theorem to be demonstrable in classical mathematics, and they can assert in language that these things are so. But, lacking an evaluative vocabulary, they cannot say that an action is ‘despicable,’ or a policy decision ‘disgusting,’ or that a person is ‘duplicitous.’ To ‘describe’ actions, policies, and persons in this way is to imply that they ought to be some other way, and this is, in their view, an illusion that their purified language does not support.

    But now, I have to wonder whether my notion of a suitably purified language really makes sense. Can I actually classify terms as descriptive and evaluative? Are there really two exclusive, non-overlapping categories here? ‘Deciduous’ seems to be a purely descriptive term, drawn from the science of botany with its technical language, but many everyday terms seem to be descriptive but at the same time evaluatively ‘loaded.’ On reflection, ‘damp’ is a term that usually has somewhat negative evaluative connotations. Damp towels and damp ceilings are usually ‘worse’ than dry ones. But garden soil could perhaps be ‘nice and damp’ where seeds have been planted. To describe a room as ‘dark’ is usually to imply that it is worse than a lighter room—and perhaps to imply that one ought not to buy a house with such a dark room; whereas to describe a film as ‘dark’ is often to imply that it is a good film, one that ought to be seen. And where do terms like ‘zesty’ and ‘languorous’ belong in the descriptive-evaluative scheme? Zesty is pungent-tasting, but in a good way, and languorous is slow, in a good way. Do the Destroyers avoid using these terms? Do they never describe a citrus drink as ‘zesty’ or a movement as ‘languorous?’

    Thinking further along these lines, I realise that many ordinary nouns, as well as ordinary adjectives, have evaluative connotations or can only be explicated with the help of words like ‘good,’ ‘wrong,’ ‘ought to,’ ‘must,’ or ‘mustn’t.’ Take the words ‘criminal’ and ‘film star.’ To say of a person that she is a criminal is to imply (rightly or wrongly!) that she is a wrongdoer, doing things that she ought not to do, and perhaps to imply also that she ought to be punished or rehabilitated, rather than let go scot-free or ignored. To say of a person that she is a film star is to imply that she has admirable qualities, such as beauty and acting talent, that are deserved or possibly undeserved. ‘Talent,’ I ordinarily suppose, is both good to have and good to observe in action.

    Implications of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ seem to permeate statements that at first glance are purely descriptive. Take, for example, the statement ‘X beat up Y.’ It is a bare statement of fact, one might think, not an evaluation. Yet it implies that X did something to Y that was bad for Y, though perhaps good for the victims Y had been bullying. Even the statement ‘X gave £5 to Y’ seems to have evaluative connotations; something good or bad was done here. My first impulse on hearing or reading this statement is to think that X did something good for Y. For I know that money is useful and that gifts of money or the repayment of loans are often appreciated. But on reflection I can see that it is possible that giving Y £5 might have been bad for them, if Y was expecting or hoping for more. Or X might have been the victim of a hold-up. The event of giving described could not have been ‘neutral,’ even if the statement does not logically imply either that something good was done for X or for Y or that something bad was done.

    Does the value-free world of the Destroyers, which I suppose to be exactly like our world, except linguistically, contain ‘criminals’? Surely it must contain people who stab others on lonely streets with knives and take their wallets, or who get into their houses when they are not home and make off with things. Do the Destroyers see nothing wrong with this? Do they not mind damp towels or value water for its excellent thirst-quenching properties?

    On reflection, I can see that these absurd conclusions need not follow. Perhaps the Destroyers, rather than speaking a purified language, simply use and understand my usual vocabulary in a way consistent with the hypothesis of a value-free world. When one of the Destroyers says ‘This towel is damp,’ she is understood by the others to mean: ‘This towel is slightly wet and I do not much like it this way and I predict that others wouldn’t like it this way either.’ When another of them describes a new drink as ‘zesty,’ he means: ‘This new drink is mildly acidic and I like it and I would like it if you and other people liked it too.’ As I imagine them, the Destroyers know that criminality is not ‘wrong’—because nothing is really wrong—but they know that they and others do not like it when they are the ones stabbed or whose possessions are removed. So when one of them uses the word ‘criminal,’ they mean ‘a person who does certain things I do not like done to me and that others do not like having done to them.’ The term ‘film star’ in their language means something like ‘a person who acts on screen in a way that many people like.’ The Destroyers can even understand terms like ‘election’ in a roundabout way. Where we naively think of an election as a choice of the person believed to be the best–suited for some occupation or task, these people know that no one can really possess the property of being ‘best-suited’ for anything. To them, an ‘election’ is the choice of some person who is most liked when imagined in a specified occupation or task. ‘Smith won the election for party leadership’ for them means ‘Smith was determined to be the person most liked by the electoral body when imagined in the role of party leader.’

    The Destroyers, it seems, can think and say everything we can think and say. There is a translation for everything from our language to theirs. For example:

    ‘Tigers are ferocious’ » ‘Tigers do things with their teeth and claws to other animals that the other animals do not like and that I and other people sometimes don’t like either.’

    ‘Bone is resilient’ » ‘Bone has a springy quality that I and others like’

    ‘Water quenches thirst’ » ‘Water changes the condition of a thirsty person from one he doesn’t like to one he likes better.’

    ‘X morally wronged Y’ » ‘X did something to Y that I don’t like and I would like it if others didn’t like it either.’

    The Destroyers consistently understand such claims by reference to their preferences and those of other living creatures rather than in terms of properties actually possessed by actions, events, situations, and persons. When the Destroyers describe tigers as ‘ferocious,’ they are under no illusion that the behaviour of tigers has the property of being ‘bad’ for their prey in the same way that their coats have the property of being striped.

    But when a child discovers that tigers are ferocious or a medical student discovers that bone is resilient, it doesn’t seem to involve a discovery about likings. No introspection, no consulting of their feelings, is involved. Rather, the child finds these things out by observing tigers in the wild or reading about their behaviour, and the medical student finds them out by studying bone and perhaps subjecting it to certain tests. And when I wonder whether a course of action is ‘morally acceptable,’ I am not wondering whether I like it or not. Suppose a factory owner ‘likes’ to imprison or shelter his workers at their sewing machines behind a barbed-wire fence for 12-hour workdays; the workers don’t like it, and I don’t like his liking it. It seems that I can investigate the claim ‘The factory owner‘s arrangements are morally unacceptable,’ whereas I don’t need to investigate the claim ‘I don’t like the arrangements the factory owner likes that the workers don’t like.’ My wondering concerns whether I and others ought not to like the arrangements or may like them. But these ‘oughts’ and ‘mays’ have no meaning or application in a value-free universe.

    I admit to being as confused as ever about the possibility of evaluative knowledge in light of these further reflections. On one hand, I think that the non-moral evaluative statements ‘John knows that artichokes are delicious’ and ‘Marcia knows that cobras are dangerous’ could be true if either sentence was uttered or written in a particular context. The first statement could be made by the parent of a child with sophisticated tastes; the second by the parent of a child who reads nature books. And if John knows that artichokes are delicious, and Marcia knows that cobras are dangerous, then the claims are true, at least in the context in which the relevant thoughts are had and the relevant sentences uttered. On the other hand, I don’t see how John can know that artichokes are delicious, if there are cultures in which artichokes are spurned as inedible, or how Marcia can know that cobras are dangerous if there are cultures that keep a tame cobra around the house to eat rats. In these other contexts, Jack might be said to know that artichokes taste terrible and Miranda might be said to know that cobras are useful and friendly. It looks as though evaluative claims are ‘true’ or ‘false’ relative to particular cultures and that ‘knowledge’ depends on human likings, preferences, and circumstances.

    Turning to moral properties and moral knowledge, I am equally torn. I am tempted to say that Mary can not only believe but know that the factory owner’s arrangements are morally wrong. But factory owners and their social circle proceed as though they know that there is no problem with them, and many capitalists would deny that what Mary believes is correct.

    Despite my ongoing uncertainty and confusion, I have now established a number of important things.

    First, I recognise that my normal vocabulary for describing the world—the vocabulary I use when I am not thinking of it in physical and chemical terms—contains not only evaluative terms like ‘good’ and ‘wrong,’ but also nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs that have evaluative connotations or implications when they appear in sentences that are used to make statements. The Destroyers have paraphrases for everything I say and write with this vocabulary, but I have not yet determined whether their paraphrases are really adequate—a problem I can defer until later.

    Second, I no longer see a reason to suppose that beliefs that depend in some way on my Neurological Constitution and on Cultural Transmission are invariably false. My common-sense knowledge about the colour of snow, the temperament of tigers, and so on depends on both of these features, and I see no reason to deny that I know that snow is white and tigers are ferocious. Miranda, living in her culture of tame cobras, can know that they are useful and friendly, even if Marcia, living in her culture, knows that cobras are dangerous. At the same time, these observations do not help me to understand morality better, for morality does not seem to be simply a matter of common sense. And I am not entirely satisfied with the notion that Miranda, living in her culture, could know that torture is wrong, while Marcia, living in hers, could know that it is right.

    At this point, turning my attention inwards, I find in myself—despite these worries—a certain conviction about what is good. The conviction is that my existence, at least for the time being, is better for me than my non-existence. Accordingly, the following statement, when uttered by me, is one in which I have complete confidence.

    ‘My continued existence, at least right now, is good for me.’

    I am also reasonably certain that anyone who is not in terrible emotional or physical pain can make the same judgement about their own existence.

    Now, in uttering these words, or writing them, or merely thinking this statement, I have not deduced the fact that it is good for me now that I exist from the more general premise ‘For everyone in the world, it is good for them now that they exist.’ In fact I am sure this latter claim is false—there are people in the world suffering terrible torments who, at the moment, would be better off not existing and who wish they did not exist. But so what? I only judge that it is good for me that I exist now.

    Nor am I asserting that my existence is in some absolute way a good thing. If someone were to insist that my continued existence is no better for the universe, that the universe is not a better place for my existing in it, I might have no argument against them. Maybe the world would be improved by my deletion from it. Nevertheless, I cannot doubt that for me, existence now is better than annihilation now.

    Could I be wrong about this even if I am unable to doubt it?

    The Destroyers will say that even if I know about myself that it is better for me to exist now, all that statement means is ‘I like existing.’ Or ‘Right now, I’d rather exist than not.’ Perhaps they are right. I will investigate this possibility later. Meanwhile, their paraphrase doesn’t imply that I don’t know that existing is better for me.

    Doubtless both my Neurological Constitution and Cultural Transmission play a role in my conviction. An instinct for self-preservation seems to be a characteristic of all living things; few animals that did not take steps to prevent injury to themselves or death are to be found amongst my ancestors. All animals have some means of avoiding or defending themselves against threats and a built-in instinct to do so. And I am constantly warned about dangers to my existence by parents, friends, and authorities and given advice on how to avoid them. These warnings and urgings no doubt contribute to my sense that my life right this moment is valuable. Accordingly, my positive response to the thought of my continuing to exist and my negative response to the thought of my ceasing to exist arise from the interaction of my mind with a presentation to my consciousness in the form of a thought. But, as I have already established, all my thoughts seem to arise in this way and that does not prevent me from sometimes knowing what is the case at least where I am concerned.

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