Friday, 22 August 2014

The idea of a fixed scale of values

Listen to the claims made ("The Great Debate: Can science tell us right from wrong", Nov 6th 2010, Arizona State University, USA) by a prominent "new atheist" that values must, ultimately, be grounded in "the way the universe is". Sounds ok. But the notion is that there is a determinable constellation of "matter" or stuff in the universe which we can identify with (that corresponds to) value. In this way, he asserts, values are facts, and such facts are means to state, "objectively", that X way of life is of greater worth than Y way of life.

I won't mention this man's name, because every mention of it provides him with a bit more oxygen of publicity. He is Dr H.

This idea of a constellation of stuff in the universe corresponding to a value, so that we can say that such and such constellation represents greater "well-being" than that other constellation, this is to be preferred over that, is not new.

I reproduce here a comment I made on this video.
It is to remind me that once I experienced the profound pull of this idea, in the form that all artistic expression must be judged according to some or other fixed scale (pointing to its moral value).
It's also to remind me that great thinkers have dealt with it, whose writing has helped me, for example Isaiah Berlin's "The Divorce between the sciences and the humanities", in which he deals at length with the idea of "one true answer to all proper questions".
It's also to remind me of the urge, which comes from a kind of fear of (complex) feeling, to render things in unambiguous terms, somehow finding poetic forms a deliberate mis-representation of the truth. Think of Bentham's method of "paraphrasis".

"Take the part of his address 10.06 to about 11.10.
Here he re-asserts the existence of a fixed scale of moral worth, being a scientifically-determinable fact of the world, by which one would be able to say that "this way of life is morally superior to that way of life" or "this way of life is of greater value than that".
In my view this concept pre-supposes that every expression of "how things should be", or of "how to be human" (and we do see cultural difference in the world) is translatable into any other such expression so that, however different they may be, they can be compared to this notional scale. This in turn pre-supposes some sort of common "basic elements" or terms to which all expressions can be reduced - i.e. be re-stated unambiguously - so that they can be so compared. In my view there are no such "basic elements". (Dr H proposes that these "basic elements" are to be found in brains, or some observable constellation of matter that corresponds to optimum "well-being". And what criteria would he use to assert that "this and not that" constellation of matter corresponds to the greater "well-being"? Again, this calls on the concept of a fixed scale, now of "well-being", which somehow exists as a fact of the world. Ad infinitum. It is an ideal, and for that reason, not a fact. And also, for that reason, it is an aspect of thinking and philosophy is the discipline to address it, not science.)

This is the "fixed scale"-concept which Dr Blackburn refers to in his reply.
I believe it is more than likely that it is an idea (supporting a philosophical standpoint) that comes to the aid of someone for whom difference - the co-existence of incompatible values - is uncomfortable.
That, on its own, wouldn't be a problem. But as a philosophy claiming general assent, I think it is a very bad idea, and to be opposed, for the above reasons, but also because it lends to the culture that wields it a basis for asserting its own moral worth above that of all others."

Bentham was the originator of modern utilitarianism.
And there is a fair argument for saying that this man exhibited characteristics which are associated with the term "Asperger's Syndrome". Indeed this possibility has been explored by psychologists Philip Lucas (US) and Anne Sheeran (UK) in a paper which can be found on-line. The psychologist community likes to call Apserger's part of the "Autism Spectrum", and describes individuals who are "on the spectrum" as "mind-blind". 
I'm not altogether comfortable with naming these things and talking about brains, rather than persons, because it is clear, I think, that brains develop in tandem with mind. I believe brains are affected by thought and feeling, and these are things which are to do with socialisation and culture. "ASD" maybe. But I would direct readers to the very interesting talk (part of a series of lectures) given by former Archbishop Rowan Williams "Material Words, Language as Physicality" :

I also direct readers to a critical review by John Gray of another effirt (by Jonathan Haidt) to ground morality in science, this time in evolutionary psychology. I mention this here because the review calls up utilitarianism.

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