Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Facticity of Values

Some theories of ethics hold that there are moral facts, either existing independently or implied by other facts. While this may or may not be so, we can invert the analysis and note that there is a connection between our values and future facts. This is mediated by two assumptions: first, that we act to pursue those values; and second, that the world is at least partially responsive to our actions. We might call this idea that our choice of values has consequences the facticity of values.

Just as we can use knowledge to attempt to predict the future state of the world, we can make predictions about the consequences of pursuing a particular value, or a set or hierarchy of them. However, our choices are only one factor in any particular circumstance, and such predictions are at best stochastic in nature. We gain more reliable insight from the analysis by assuming that values are to be pursued consistently over a period of time. As with any prediction, these are also subject to knowledge error, implying that they should be accompanied by a measure of the degree of confidence we have in them.

Suppose that by some means we have arrived at a set of values that we tentatively intend to pursue. We have a variety of means of examining their implications. For example, we could observe the lives of others (whether personally acquainted, documented historical figures, or through testimony) who have pursued similar values and note whether there is a pattern in the consequences. We could apply psychological or sociological theories, or philosophical beliefs about human nature. Or we can test the waters by actually pursuing these values ourselves and attending to the results.

In the course of such an examination we may find that our selected values are mutually consistent and supportive. However, we may instead find that there is some conflict – whether of great or lesser import – among them. Or, in seeing the consequences we may discover that we have neglected to account for a value that we in fact hold dear.

Let us consider an example. Suppose that among our highest values is to have and show compassion for other people. Then imagine that a close friend suffers from severe substance addiction. He is out on the street, and has no money, and asks for financial assistance – allegedly for food or shelter, but as likely to be used to procure the offending substance. The psychological notion of enabling, wherein someone who helps another to reduce the immediate consequences of their behavior thereby makes it possible for that behavior to persist, suggests an evident conflict in values. It seems that our compassion is self-defeating in this instance.

To aid in determining consequences, we can begin with a taxonomy of areas where conflict is likely to manifest. Physical implications are those that result from natural laws, including not only laws of physics but also of biology. For example, if I value athletic achievement, the effect on my body must be considered. Psychological implications can relate to self or other. For example, my actions may embed in me a habitual behavior, or hurt the feelings of my friends. Sociological implications relate to the response of society to our actions, or to influences we might have on society. The former includes such effects as ostracism or incarceration. Regarding the latter, historically such influences were mostly taken into account if one were in a position of power and influence (e.g., in determining the values by which the President of the United States should abide), but increasingly individuals consider the behavior of companies in which they invest or from whom they buy products.

Now, supposing that we have discovered an apparent conflict in our proposed values by means of assessing their consequences, how shall we respond? We are of course free to either ignore or postpone resolution of the issue. But this leaves us in a position of acting against our own values. If we seek to consciously and deliberately pursue our values, we must seek resolution.

A first step is to review our confidence in the predicted consequences as well as the probability that they will occur. If we have low confidence that the prediction is correct, then we might either work to improve that confidence or defer a decision until more information can be obtained. Common but pernicious is to reduce our assessment of confidence in the prediction so as to preserve the existing value structure. This is especially seen in cases where values are selected as a complete package (e.g., through religion), creating a defensive inclination. Note that this creates a secondary conflict of values, because the package of values is itself treated as a value that is in conflict with predicting their consequences. In such cases, to remain rational we must simply discard the analysis as irrelevant, rather than denying the knowledge it provides.

If the prediction of a conflict is likely to be correct, but is very low probability, we may be able to treat it as a special case. Otherwise, to maintain a coherent set of values, we need to either modify their relative priorities, or to elaborate them with greater specificity of circumstances, or perhaps rethink the structure as a whole. In the substance abuse example above, we might resolve our compassion conflict by, for example, making a distinction between compassion aimed at short- and long-term results, or by distinguishing between communicating compassion as opposed to acting on it.

In all this, we can distinguish between values themselves and our pursuit of them. Presumably, if we do not pursue a value then its predicted antagonistic consequences will not, or are less likely, to occur. By retaining that value in an idle state, if we then come by new knowledge, or circumstances change, such that we change the predicted consequences, then we may at that time wish to pursue it.


  1. One of the things that I have observed over and over is that people are very easily able to hold two competing values and never question the fact that they are in opposition.

    To me, religion is rife with this. For instance, a friend who is deeply religious would say that he completely believes "Thou Shalt Not Kill." Yet he had no problem with guns in the house, and took great pride in the fact that he had shot an intruder (a very drunk person who had the wrong house). You also see this greatly in people who hold Christian beliefs but believe vociferously in the death penalty.

    And, of course, the true test is in how people act vs. how they say they will act. Often those two things are completely different.

    1. Outside the context of religion, such issues are fairly easily repaired. It is the distinct valuing of the package, as it stands, that causes this problem.

      The say/act distinction is why I point out that this is mediated by actual pursuit of values. What people say their values are is largely meaningless unless you know them well.

      My purpose in writing this, though, is not to critique how others manage their values. Rather, it is intended to add to the thinking process we all can use in contemplating our own.

  2. I neglected to point out why coherence matters.The reason is essentially the same as why we would like to have values in the first place: to have a way of making decisions consciously. Of course, we are free to just behave intuitively. To the extent there are things we actually want, though, such an implicit approach seems less likely to get us there.


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