walto’s paper on prudential values

The journal Philosophia recently accepted a paper by TSZ commenter walto, entitled CHOICE: An Objective, Voluntaristic Theory of Prudential Value. Congratulations to walto.

Our discussion of walto’s previous paper was cut short due to censorship by the moderators. Let’s hope they have the sense to stay out of the way and allow open discussion to proceed this time.

Prudential values are a good topic for TSZ, and a nice change of pace from our usual discussions of objective moral values and whether they exist. Hence this thread.

You can download walto’s paper here.

I’ll save my remarks for the comment thread.

188 thoughts on “walto’s paper on prudential values

  1. walto:

    As he says at the bringing of his talk, freedom/autonomy is a central feature of what we mean by well-being.

    The Kafka quote they included with my existentialist gumballs:

    You are free and that is why you are lost.

  2. keiths: Your “official” definition of CHOICE says nothing about success:

    CHOICE. For all possible states of affairs S (and persons P), S is intrinsically prudentially good (for P) at t if and only if (i) S is freely chosen (by P) at t; and (ii) pursuant to one or more physical laws, the obtaining of S will, under ordinary conditions, causally contribute to the subsequent increase either of the total (P’s) capacity for free choice or by an increase in the alternatives that are available to be freely chosen (by P).

    If you want to apply a success criterion, you should amend the “official” statement to include it.

    You do mention success elsewhere in the paper, but the only example you give of a successful choice appears to be this one:

    How can an addict’s or suicide’s successful acquiring of a
    dangerous drug be good for her, even if and when it is desired?

    By that criterion, success amounts to obtaining what you choose.

    Also, when you write…

    Taking something you don’t like/want is hardly a success.

    …you are (perhaps inadvertently) acknowledging that CHOICE doesn’t stand on its own, but is instead an add-on to desire satisfaction (DS) or hedonistic (HED) theories of prudential value.

    This is good. I’ll have to be clearer about this. Thanks.

  3. walto,

    In the first section of the paper, you write concerning subjective moral values:

    But it is nothing compared to the accusatory glares likely to result from the assertion that whether or not the pre-emptive razing of a populous city containing a nuclear facility is appropriate is purely a matter of personal taste.

    To label a mass killing as “a matter of personal taste” will understandably elicit outrage, but I think the outrage will stem more from the implication that the deaths are trivial, and not so much from the assertion that there is no objective answer to the question of whether the deaths can be justified as a way of achieving a greater good.

  4. In that same section, you write:

    While perhaps some phenomenalists have held that a complete description of the states of perceivers are all that make “London is in England” true, realists of both common-sense and scientific varieties can be expected to deny that.

    This gets to the heart of one of my disagreements with Neil, who thinks that truth is merely conventional.

    The truth of “London is in England” depends on at least two things: 1) the linguistic conventions connecting “London” to a particular city and “England” to a particular geographic region; and 2) whether the designated city is contained within the designated geographic region.

    #1 is a matter of linguistic convention, but #2 is not. That is, the statement “London is in England” could be rendered false if “London” referred to a different city and “England” referred to a different geographic region, but the fact that the particular city we happen to call “London” is located in the particular region we happen to call “England” is not a mere matter of convention. The latter is independent of our naming conventions.

  5. keiths,

    I would like those who think that prudential values are trumped by moral considerations to at least always acknowledge publicly that they are advocating for something that will make a person or society worse off. If they still want to take there position, so be it: at least they’ll be upfront about the fact that their proposal may not benefit anybody’s welfare.

  6. walto,

    I would like those who think that prudential values are trumped by moral considerations to at least always acknowledge publicly that they are advocating for something that will make a person or society worse off.

    Not if their moral system is consequentialist. And even if their system is based on deontology or virtue ethics, it won’t necessarily make a person or society worse off.

    Also note that if you think it is right to follow a scheme like CHOICE and wrong to reject it, then CHOICE ends up being a moral system as well as a theory of prudential value.

  7. keiths: Not if their moral system is consequentialist. And even if their system is based on deontology or virtue ethics, it won’t necessarily make a person or society worse off.

    No, not necessarily. Possibly.

    It doesn’t matter if they’re consequentialist or not . The point is that their moral claims might be inconsistent with people being better off. I think they need to acknowledge that.

    keiths: if you think it is right to follow a scheme like CHOICE and wrong to reject it, then CHOICE ends up being a moral system as well as a theory of prudential value.

    If you mean “morally right” by “right” then I’d have to be appealing to some moral proposition–whether CHOICE based or not. If you mean correct, then I don’t need to be appealing to either a CHOICE-based or other moral theory.

  8. walto,

    The point is that their moral claims might be inconsistent with people being better off. I think they need to acknowledge that.

    Fair enough, as long as you acknowledge that CHOICE may lead to choices that are immoral (by various standards of morality).

    It’s also important to note that CHOICE (societal version) may at times be inconsistent with particular individuals being better off, and that even CHOICE (individual version) may make people worse off in cases where more choice isn’t better, as in the retirement plan study.

    keiths:

    if you think it is right to follow a scheme like CHOICE and wrong to reject it, then CHOICE ends up being a moral system as well as a theory of prudential value.

    walto:

    If you mean “morally right” by “right” then I’d have to be appealing to some moral proposition–whether CHOICE based or not.

    I gathered from your comment that you would (morally) disapprove of anyone arguing against CHOICE for moral reasons, since they would thereby, in your opinion, be advocating for something that could make people worse off.

  9. From the paper:

    We might just say, “Well, values are like artifacts. Acts of valuation—like wanting, enjoying or hating something—create values in the same way that acts of painting create pictures. Once created, both types of artifact endure.

    This is close to my own view. Values, as the name implies, require valuers. We can speak of values that no one has ever held, but then we’re really talking about potential, not actual, values.

    The endurance question is trickier. Values, like archaic word meanings, endure in one sense if they are remembered, even if no one still values or means them, but one could also argue that they are no longer values or meanings since they are no longer valued or meant.

    Alternatively, we might define “objectivity” in such a way that “I like grapes” is objective; after all, that statement is true if and only if I exemplify the property of enjoying grapes, and that is something that can be taken to be a completely objective matter.

    Yes. Whether “I like grapes” is true or false is an objective question, though “grapes are good” is a subjective statement.

    Incidentally, I made a batch of carbonated grapes the other day. They’re (subjectively) delicious!

    ETA: I’m going to try carbonated pomegranate arils later today.

  10. walto,

    In the paper, you write:

    J is a subjective judgment of some person S that P =df. (i) J is a judgment by S that some contingent proposition P is true (or legitimate), and necessarily, it would be passing strange if J were wrong.

    Suppose S believes that “people exist”. It would be “passing strange” if S were wrong, but do you really think that “people exist” is a subjective judgment?

    P.S. The carbonated pomegranate arils were good, but they went flat quickly ’cause they’re so small.

  11. keiths:
    walto,

    In the paper, you write:

    Suppose S believes that “people exist”.It would be “passing strange” if S were wrong, but do you really think that “people exist” is a subjective judgment?

    Oooh, that’s a really good counterexample. I’m going to have to add something. Got any ideas?

  12. walto,

    How does this do to handle it:

    J is a subjective judgment of some person S that P =df. (i) J is a judgment by S that some contingent proposition P is true (or legitimate); (ii) the occurrence of J is consistent with both the truth and falsity of P; and (iii) it would be passing strange if J were incorrect.

    The idea is that (at least if “people” is construed as “sentient beings” i.e., the only things that can make judgements) if there were no people, S could not judge that P.

    What do you think?

  13. walto,

    Oooh, that’s a really good counterexample. I’m going to have to add something. Got any ideas?

    Well, as you know from our past discussions, our ideas regarding ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ don’t exactly line up.

    For instance, you mention a person who regards sewing machines as evil, writing

    If it is clear that S could be wrong about her sewing machine contention, it must be an objective judgment—though, of course, one that could be false.

    I gather that you do think she might be wrong about that, and that her judgment is therefore objective. To me, by contrast, “sewing machines are evil” is the epitome of a subjective judgment, because it is a matter of personal opinion that cannot be resolved objectively without making further assumptions. It fits the following dictionary definition of “subjective”:

    1. based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.
    “his views are highly subjective”

    I’m trying to set that aside and think about how I would approach this if I were in your shoes, but I keep running into issues.

    For instance, you write:

    The strangeness of being wrong about such “subjective” claims as “This looks green to me” (or “Scallops taste good to me”) is a function of a “psycho-epistemic” principle that makes some types of knowledge even “easier” to come by than such Moorean achievements as “This is a chair.”

    Yet you also write:

    Alternatively, we might define “objectivity” in such a way that “I like grapes” is objective; after all, that statement is true if and only if I exemplify the property of enjoying grapes, and that is something that can be taken to be a completely objective matter.

    I know you’re not advocating the latter approach, but it actually makes the most sense to me. That’s why I wrote:

    Yes. Whether “I like grapes” is true or false is an objective question, though “grapes are good” is a subjective statement.

  14. walto,

    How does this do to handle it:

    J is a subjective judgment of some person S that P =df. (i) J is a judgment by S that some contingent proposition P is true (or legitimate); (ii) the occurrence of J is consistent with both the truth and falsity of P; and (iii) it would be passing strange if J were incorrect.

    The idea is that (at least if “people” is construed as “sentient beings” i.e., the only things that can make judgements) if there were no people, S could not judge that P.

    What do you think?

    I don’t think (ii) helps, because humans are fallible, J could be right or wrong, and the occurrence of J is therefore always consistent with both the truth and falsity of P.

  15. There are indeed several disconnects between us here. But probably not quite as many as it seems. One or two are only apparent; they’ve just resulted from unclarity on my part.

    But there are basic differences too. You make ‘grapes are good’ subjective, and yet entirely reducible to ‘I like grapes’ which you take to be objective. That doesn’t work, I don’t think.

    I also think one is reducible to the other, but I make both of them subjective: very likely true if and only if one thinks so.

    On the other matter, the idea is that if there are no sentient entities, there could be nobody to judge anything–fallibly or not.

  16. walto,

    You make ‘grapes are good’ subjective, and yet entirely reducible to ‘I like grapes’ which you take to be objective. That doesn’t work, I don’t think.

    Depending on the intent of the speaker, ‘grapes are good’ isn’t necessarily reducible to ‘I like grapes’. He or she might be asserting that grapes are intrinsically good, independent of anyone’s tastes. That’s what I was getting at with my comment.

    Somewhat ironically, “I like grapes” is actually an objective statement about my subjective tastes, and “grapes are good” (in the sense described above) is a subjective statement about a purportedly objective fact.

  17. Elaborating on that theme, I think that “more choice is always good” is an example of the latter: a subjective statement about a purportedly objective fact, faced with counterexamples of the sort mentioned by Schwartz.

    The selling point of your paper is objectivity. For it to succeed, you’d need to show that those counterexamples are illusory and that it really is better, always, to have more choices.

  18. I’m afraid that neither of your last two posts make much sense to me, so I guess this is a good place to quit.

  19. walto,

    I can elaborate.

    I wrote:

    Depending on the intent of the speaker, ‘grapes are good’ isn’t necessarily reducible to ‘I like grapes’. He or she might be asserting that grapes are intrinsically good, independent of anyone’s tastes. That’s what I was getting at with my comment.

    This also works for your sewing machine example. Your (odd) person saying ‘sewing machines are evil’ might be claiming that sewing machines are objectively evil, independent of personal opinion, or she might simply mean that she subjectively considers them to be evil.

    keiths:

    Somewhat ironically, “I like grapes” is actually an objective statement about my subjective tastes, and “grapes are good” (in the sense described above) is a subjective statement about a purportedly objective fact.

    Likewise “according to my subjective standards, sewing machines are evil” is actually an objective statement about my subjective standards — it’s true if and only if sewing machines are evil according to those same subjective standards.

    In other words, the judgment regarding sewing machines is subjective, while the statement regarding the judgment is objective and independently verifiable.

    By contrast, “sewing machines are objectively evil” is actually a subjective statement. It’s not independently verifiable.

  20. keiths: she might simply mean that she subjectively considers them to be evil.

    That would mean, presumably, that she doesn’t like them. That’s the main reason I’d say that “subjectively considering something to be evil” is the same thing as making a subjective judgement.

    The way to look at this, I think, is to consider first the truth-conditions of the assertions. Take “This is good.” If goodness is subjective, then if S believes that this is good, that statement (when uttered by S) is true. If goodness is objective, then, believing that this is good is consistent with the statement being false as well as true. The key here is not confusing truth with objectivity.

    Now consider “I like this.” This is true if it is believed. I take most things that are true if they are believed to be subjective. As I said in the bit you quoted in the paper, one may take them to be objective, if one likes, but they’re unlike most empirical statements in being true whenever they’re believed.

    When you say that someone might THINK that something is objectively evil–if we suppose that evil is not objective, then that statement (which is an objective matter of philosophy) is false–whether the person likes this thing or not. If this person is correct that evil is an objective property that this thing has, then what she says is true, regardless of what she (or anybody thinks about it).

  21. keiths:

    Your (odd) person saying ‘sewing machines are evil’ might be claiming that sewing machines are objectively evil, independent of personal opinion, or she might simply mean that she subjectively considers them to be evil.

    walto:

    That [the latter] would mean, presumably, that she doesn’t like them.

    It would presumably mean more than that since you can dislike something without considering it to be evil.

    That’s the main reason I’d say that “subjectively considering something to be evil” is the same thing as making a subjective judgement.

    I agree. The distinction I’m drawing is between the subjective judgment itself and a statement about that subjective judgment. “I subjectively consider sewing machines to be evil” is actually a statement of an objective truth about the speaker’s judgment (assuming she isn’t lying).

    The way to look at this, I think, is to consider first the truth-conditions of the assertions. Take “This is good.” If goodness is subjective, then if S believes that this is good, that statement (when uttered by S) is true.

    It depends on what S means. If he means “This is objectively good”, then his statement is false. If he means “I subjectively consider this to be good”, then his statement is true.

    If goodness is objective, then, believing that this is good is consistent with the statement being false as well as true. The key here is not confusing truth with objectivity.

    That’s one of our biggest differences. I consider truth and independent verifiability to be essential aspects of objective judgments.

    I think the example I used in an earlier discussion was “Barack Obama has eight legs.” To you, that’s an objective judgment. To me, it’s hopelessly subjective. It purports to be objective, but it’s false and it isn’t independently verifiable.

    Now consider “I like this.” This is true if it is believed.

    Under normal circumstances, yes. But there’s still some logical distance between the liking and the belief. The liking is the truthmaker for “I like this.” The belief is not.

    When you say that someone might THINK that something is objectively evil–if we suppose that evil is not objective, then that statement (which is an objective matter of philosophy) is false–whether the person likes this thing or not. If this person is correct that evil is an objective property that this thing has, then what she says is true, regardless of what she (or anybody thinks about it).

    Agreed.

  22. From the paper:

    I will only add the remark that to the extent that “idealization” is required, it seems difficult to maintain the position that one’s position is strictly voluntarist. That is, if an increase in value resulting from additional information makes some desire more prudentially valuable, then, according to voluntarist principles, this increment must itself have been created by one or more valuations, and it is hard to see what arguments might be used to defend that highly counter-intuitive claim.

    What if one regards the satisfaction of well-justified desires as more valuable than the satisfaction of poorly justified ones? Couldn’t that explain the increment?

  23. keiths,

    I would say that to that extent one has discarded voluntarism for something else that involves idealization (here, via justification).

  24. Okay. Then how about someone whose desire becomes stronger when it is well-justified? That still sounds like voluntarism to me, because it is an increment in desire that creates the increment in value.

  25. walto,

    Yes, you make ‘objective’ a subset of ‘true’. I don’t use it that way.

    Do you really feel comfortable saying that “Barack Obama has eight legs” is an objective judgment?

  26. keiths,

    If it’s made more valuable as a result of the stronger desire (a position I don’t hold, as you know) it would still be voluntaristic. If it’s made more valuable by the additional justification, it seems to me not to be.

  27. walto,

    If it’s made more valuable as a result of the stronger desire (a position I don’t hold, as you know) it would still be voluntaristic.

    Right, and that’s why I question this paragraph from the paper:

    I will only add the remark that to the extent that “idealization” is required, it seems difficult to maintain the position that one’s position is strictly voluntarist. That is, if an increase in value resulting from additional information makes some desire more prudentially valuable, then, according to voluntarist principles, this increment must itself have been created by one or more valuations, and it is hard to see what arguments might be used to defend that highly counter-intuitive claim.

    [Emphasis added]

    I believe I’ve supplied an argument that can be used to defend that claim.

  28. keiths,

    I would say that o that extent one has discarded voluntarism for something else that involves realization (via justification).

    keiths:
    walto,

    Do you really feel comfortable saying that “Barack Obama has eight legs” is an objective judgment?

    Absolutely. Objective, but false.

  29. walto:

    I would say that o that extent one has discarded voluntarism for something else that involves realization (via justification).

    How so, when the incremental value is due to incremental desire? How does that fail to qualify as voluntaristic?

  30. keiths:

    Do you really feel comfortable saying that “Barack Obama has eight legs” is an objective judgment?

    walto:

    Absolutely. Objective, but false.

    If Buford claims that Obama has eight legs, is he being objective?

  31. I

    keiths: walto: if an increase in value resulting from additional information makes some desire more prudentially valuable, then, according to voluntarist principles, this increment must itself have been created by one or more valuations, and it is hard to see what arguments might be used to defend that highly counter-intuitive claim.

    Keith: I believe I’ve supplied an argument that can be used to defend that claim.

    As indicated, it’s not the additional info, it’s the additional intensity of the desire that makes the value change for the voluntarism. The info here acts only causally, as taking a long drive in a car might do for someone else. Perhaps it always serves to heighten his desires. We wouldn’t put cars in the definition to handle such people.

  32. keiths: If Buford claims that Obama has eight legs, is he being objective?

    Dunno what you mean by “being objective.” If you mean judging without bias, I’d have to know more about Buford to answer that. Propositions can be objective but people could in that sense be “unobjective about them.” Maybe Buford thinks 20,000,000 – 750 = something less than 18,000,000 largely because if it did, he’d owe less in tax. That wouldn”t make mathematical propositions unobjective.

  33. Incidentally, I see that while I’m talking about “objective propositions” here, I define “objective judgments” in the paper. And since the latter don’t seem consistent with judger bias, that looks like another addendum I’ll have to make to the definition.

    Crimity! 😣

  34. keiths:

    How so, when the incremental value is due to incremental desire? How does that fail to qualify as voluntaristic?

    walto:

    As indicated, it’s not the additional info, it’s the additional intensity of the desire that makes the value change for the voluntarism.

    Right, but the additional information is part of the causal chain:

    additional info -> additional desire -> greater value

    The additional info is necessary, but the voluntarism is intact.

  35. keiths:

    Do you really feel comfortable saying that “Barack Obama has eight legs” is an objective judgment?

    walto:

    Absolutely. Objective, but false.

    keiths:

    If Buford claims that Obama has eight legs, is he being objective?

    walto:

    Dunno what you mean by “being objective.”

    Whatever you mean by it. I’m trying to figure out if you’re using “objective” consistently. If “Obama has eight legs” is truly an objective judgment, then it seems to me that Buford is being objective in making that judgment.

    I would balk at saying that Buford is being objective, however. What about you?

  36. keiths:
    keiths:

    walto:

    Right, but the additional information is part of the causal chain:

    additional info -> additional desire -> greater value

    The additional info is necessary, but the voluntarism is intact.

    The causal chain is irrelevant to the analysis.

  37. keiths:
    keiths:

    walto:

    keiths:

    walto:

    Whatever you mean by it.I’m trying to figure out if you’re using “objective” consistently.If “Obama has eight legs” is truly an objective judgment, then it seems to me that Buford is being objective in making that judgment.

    I would balk at saying that Buford is being objective, however.What about you?

    I’ve already answered that. If he’s biased, he’s not objective, if not, there’s no reason for thinking he isn’t. He’s just wrong. I think I mean by “objective” roughly what you mean by “unbiased and either empirically verifiable or metaphysically necessary.” I don’t think “objective truth” is redundant. We’ve been over this ground before, no?

  38. walto,

    The causal chain is irrelevant to the analysis.

    How so? Your paper talks about “an increase in value resulting from additional information”. “Resulting from” sounds pretty causal to me.

  39. walto,

    I’ve already answered that. If he’s biased, he’s not objective…

    Yet you told us without qualification that “Obama has eight legs” is an objective judgment.

    And really, do you think anyone could objectively conclude, without bias, that Obama has eight legs?

  40. I think you’re inadvertently shifting between two definitions of “objective”.

    In the paper, you write:

    If it is clear that S could be wrong about her sewing machine contention, it must be an objective judgment—though, of course, one that could be false.

    Nothing about an absence of bias there.

  41. keiths,

    Right. I was thinking about the proposition rather than the judgment. I do think I should mention that objective judgments cannot be biased. I don’t see why a judgment that Obama has 8 legs must be biased. You need to read or watch more science fiction.

  42. keiths,

    The increase in value doesn’t result from the information, the increased desire could though. Suppose the absence of the info and keep the additional desire and you’ll see what the added value ‘results from.’

  43. walto,

    The increase in value doesn’t result from the information, the increased desire could though. Suppose the absence of the info and keep the additional desire and you’ll see what the added value ‘results from.’

    You’re ruling out indirect causes, but I don’t see why. Indirect causes conform to your description:

    That is, if an increase in value resulting from additional information makes some desire more prudentially valuable, then, according to voluntarist principles, this increment must itself have been created by one or more valuations, and it is hard to see what arguments might be used to defend that highly counter-intuitive claim.

    The additional value results from the additional information via its effect on desire:

    additional information -> additional desire -> additional value

    no additional information -> no additional desire -> no additional value

  44. walto,

    I don’t see why a judgment that Obama has 8 legs must be biased.

    What evidence does anyone actually have that could justify “Obama has eight legs” as an unbiased, objective judgment?

  45. keiths,

    Nobody actually has any as far as I know. As I’m sure you know, that doesn’t matter. If it’s biased it’s not objective.

    On the other post, lots of things can cause increases in intensity of emotions. As I said, maybe car trips do it for some people. It doesn’t matter.

    I won’t answer either of these a fourth time.

  46. walto,

    On the other post, lots of things can cause increases in intensity of emotions. As I said, maybe car trips do it for some people. It doesn’t matter.

    That’s right. It doesn’t matter. It’s still voluntarism if increased desire leads to increased value, whether the increase in desire is due to additional information, car trips, or anything else.

  47. walto,

    If it’s biased it’s not objective.

    Amending your definition of ‘objective’ to include ‘unbiased’ is a step in the right direction, but it also creates a new problem for you.

    Under your new definition, a biased judgment that Obama has eight legs is no longer objective. But it isn’t subjective, either, because you restrict ‘subjective’ to those things it would be ‘passing strange’ for us to be wrong about. It isn’t ‘passing strange’ for someone to be wrong about Obama’s eight-leggedness, after all.

    So a biased judgment that Obama has eight legs ends up being neither objective nor subjective in your scheme.

  48. Right. I’m already on that. Also had to take care of your clever counter-example.

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