Can we (literally) perceive value?

Julian asked:

Can we literally perceive ‘value’?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

My first thought is, Why the qualification ‘literally’? What does it really add to the question?

The reasoning must go something like this. Of course, there’s a ‘sense in which’ we make many value judgements without first engaging in a process of ratiocination. We ‘see’ that a job has been well done, or that a person deserves our help. Or we ‘hear’ that a cover version of a well-known song adds or subtracts to the quality of the original. Moreover, these value perceptions are not random or arbitrary but given extra weight by agreement with others in a large proportion of cases.

The problem is that someone who holds a subjectivist view of value judgements can agree with all that. David Hume remarked on the way we naturally ‘project’ our subjectivist preferences onto things, giving raise to the illusion that our value judgements correspond to something real, in addition to the physical properties of the objects we ‘literally’ perceive.

Well? Is there something there? What would count as a good argument for the existence of an objective ‘something’ over and above the physical properties of objects?

Three disparate thinkers who come to mind in relation to this question are Iris Murdoch (The Sovereignty of Good, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals), Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Lila) and John McDowell (in his seminal article ‘Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?’, 1978, responding to Phillipa Foot ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’, 1972).

I’ve chosen these three because they present arguments that are substantive and challenging, rather than merely shuffling around ideas about what is ‘subjective’, ‘intersubjective’ or genuinely (‘literally’) objective. As a subjectivist about values, I am willing to admit the possibility that I may be wrong, that I may have underestimated the strength of one or more of the arguments presented below for the objective view.

First, Murdoch. In The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch emphasizes the compelling phenomenology of value perception which totally at odds with what she sees as the only alternative to a Platonic, objective view: the existentialism of Sartre and Heidegger. The reader is invited to recoil at the horrors of embracing the existentialist position that we ‘create’ our own values through our own free, unconstrained choice.

I am moved by this, but merely alluding to the phenomenology (viz. Hume) is not enough to convince me. Psychologically, I am fully willing to admit that I could not stand back from my life and ‘choose’ any values I liked. But existentialism does not require this. All it requires is the logical possibility that a situation could arise which led me to reassess the value I had previously placed on something, for example, the value of human life. Maybe it would take a science fiction scenario that is very unlikely to arise in the real world. Thank goodness for that! is all I can say.

The merit in Pirsig’s position is that he is prepared to embrace the metaphysical view that what he terms ‘Quality’ is more real than mere facts. Right from the start, our very ability to discern objects or deal with our environment requires ‘quality perception’ or focus on what is essential or important, for example, an innate sense of what it is to perform an action well or badly. Factual knowledge and ratiocination come after.

In his Metaphysics of Quality, ultimate reality IS Quality, which Pirsig says is the source of both ‘subjects’ and ‘objects’. Here, Pirsig steps outside the American pragmatist tradition (Dewey, James) who would give cautious approval to the idea that ‘facts’ or ‘truths’ arise out of our sense of what works well or badly in practice. All I can say is that I am not convinced, either by the traditional pragmatist view or the metaphysical add-on. If Plato’s ‘Forms’ really did exist then we would surely have to be objectivists about values, and similarly with Pirsig’s ‘Quality’. But that is the very proposition that needs to be established. Failing that, all that one has to fall back on is the phenomenology, or what value perception ‘seems like’. That’s not enough.

McDowell’s case that moral values are a kind of ‘secondary quality’ like colours or tastes or smells has the merit of emphasizing our embeddedness in a Wittgensteinian ‘form of life’. Someone who was unable to agree with our moral judgements would necessarily lack the powers of discrimination that we possess. Ethically, they would suffer from the equivalent of ‘colour blindness’. In other words, there is something there, in reality, that they cannot perceive.

But must this necessarily be the case? The stakes have been raised, but the moral sceptic has a response. Grant that a true monster of moral nihilism, in order to function successfully in human society — undetected, hypocritically ‘agreeing’ and ‘disagreeing’ with our moral judgements without actually believing in them — would need to have undergone induction into our ‘form of life’, training in ethical perception. Having undergone the training, however, in principle they would be free to cast aside all they had learned without losing the ability to anticipate accurately what ‘mere’ humans would judge to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

As I said, I could be wrong in my assessment of any one of these three thinkers, all of them deserving of the greatest respect. Or, maybe I’m wrong about all three. Also, that is not to rule out that there may be other arguments that I have not considered. At present, however, my view is that we do not literally perceive values, even though it seems to us, phenomenologically, ‘as if’ we do.

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