What Should We Value?

One question ethical philosophers tend to ask all the time is the one in the header: what should we value? It’s an attempt to cut off people who argue that ethical philosophy is over, since we can determine the best way to achieve our values with science. The problem with that, philosophers point out, is that our values aren’t necessarily the best ones, and that failing to critically reflect on the value of our values often leads to some pretty horrific actions.

The problem here appears to be finding some kind of criterion to judge values by, which is an immediate red flag. There are obviously many criteria we could use here; how are we to judge between these? We need a second-order criterion – but which to choose? Before we start that, we need a third-order criterion, and so on. You get the point. If we’re not careful, the question “what should we value” will lead us down an ancient Greek rabbit hole.

If you, like me, accept Foot’s theory of hypothetical imperatives – in short, that our values are the only thing that determines what we ought to do – the question makes even less sense. Obviously our values determine all relevant uses of the word ‘should’ for us; to turn around and apply that back to our values is an error of recursion. The only way we can assess our values is by reference to our other values, which quickly turns into a process of finding out what we really do value most of all.

As loath as I am to agree with the scientific philistines who want to see moral philosophy folded into science, I’m forced to accept the conclusion that the is/ought distinction (if we accept Foot’s theory) doesn’t seem that important after all when we try to determine what we should do. After all, we value what we value.

Does this mean that sufficiently advanced psychology could figure out our exact values and thus make our ethical decisions for us? I don’t think so – but rather than resting on the solid ground of the is/ought distinction, I’m resting on the much shakier idea that our values and real-life situations are too complicated to ever be modeled adequately by a scientific process.


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