Why should values be agent-relative?

Heumer’s critique of Ayn Rand’s “The Objectivist Ethics” begins with

…premise 1 [Value is agent-relative; things can only be valuable for particular entities] begs the question.
One of the central groups of opponents Rand is facing is people who believe in absolute value, and not just agent-relative value. The absolutist view is that it is possible for some things to be good, simply, or in an absolute sense; whereas agent-relativists think that things can only be good for or relative to certain individuals, and that what is good relative to one individual need not be good relative to another. (N.B., this should not be confused with what are commonly called “moral relativism” and “cultural relativism.”)
Rand bases her ethics on the agent-relative position, but she offers no argument for it, only a bald assertion.

Why indeed should value be agent relative? The answer lies in Rand’s claim that

The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?
(emphasis in original)

The clue to the answer is in the question “Why”. If X is an absolute value (not just agent-relative), one can ask “Why is X an absolute value?”. There are three possible responses:

a) God said so:
This is unacceptable to me since the existence of God is an arbitrary claim and I do not want to elaborate further in this post (especially since this is not Heumer’s response).

b) It is self-evident:
It is impossible to argue with someone who really means this. If a particular proposition seems self-evident to him and it does not seem self-evident to me, how do we argue? I can only say that apart from the axioms in metaphysics and epistemology (‘Something exists’, ‘I am conscious’, ‘entities have identity’ and ‘I have free will’) no proposition which is not a direct observation is self-evident to me. For example, ‘the sky is blue’ is self-evident because it is a direct observation. But I have no sense organ that senses value – no sense organ that tells me that the sky is valuable. If someone who gives this answers (It is self-evident) really means it, then we have fundamentally different natures – so that I do not even know what he means when he says ‘It is self-evident that X is an absolute value’. But I don’t believe this. To see why consider just one example of a self-evident value that Heumer cites – justice. Heumer claims that it is self-evident that “It is unjust to punish a person for a crime he didn’t commit.” It is obvious that different people have widely varying understandings of the concepts ‘crime’ and ‘justice’. For example, I don’t think it is just to punish or compensate people for crimes that their ancestors committed or suffered. But the whole concept of affirmative action depends on doing just that. Therefore even if the affirmative action advocates say that they believe it is unjust to punish a person for a crime he didn’t commit, they mean something very different from what I understand by it. The only way to say that justice is a self-evident value is to broaden the concept so much that it becomes useless. 

c) The question why is not appropriate:
There are some things about which really does not make any sense to ask why. For example, it makes no sense to ask “Why does anything exist at all?”. Is the question “Why is X an absolute value?” like that, atleast for some X? If so, then the why immediately turns into a how – “How do you know that X is an absolute value?” One answer to this could be that it is self-evident, but I have already dismissed that. Another answer could be that it is axiomatic (like the four axiomatic propositions I stated above). But just claiming that something is an axiom is not sufficient. Even axioms have to be validated. An axiom can be validated by assuming that it is not true and then looking at the implications. If the axiom is true, one immediately reaches a contradiction or an absurdity. I won’t actually demonstrate this for the four axioms I stated. Anyone should be able to see that this is so. For what X does the proposition “X is not an absolute value” lead to a contradiction or an absurdity? I know of no such X (and none of the supposedly self-evident principles that Heumer cites – more on them in another post – indicate the existence of any such X). Anyway it is not my task to prove that no such X exists. Obviously I cannot (just like the existence of God). It is upto someone who believes that such X exist to identify them. Even one example would be enough.

But if one actually wants to answer the ‘why’, one will have to say something of the form “because it [verb] [noun]” where noun is some purpose. And only agents can have purposes. Atleast I cannot think of any other way to answer the ‘why’. If one does give the “because it [verb] [noun]” answer, then X is a value relative to the agent who has the particular purpose and not in any absolute sense.


6 Responses

  1. Perhaps you have covered this point elsewhere.

    Quoting your excerpt from Heumer:

    > “…premise 1 [Value is agent-relative; things can only be valuable for particular entities] begs the question.
    One of the central groups of opponents Rand is facing is people who believe in absolute value, and not just agent-relative value. The absolutist view is that it is possible for some things to be good, simply, or in an absolute sense; whereas agent-relativists think that things can only be good for or relative to certain individuals, and that what is good relative to one individual need not be good relative to another.” [Bold added for emphasis.]

    Perhaps I have missed something in the larger context. However, Heumer’s statement, as is, is a misrepresentation of Ayn Rand’s ethics, that is, her principles applicable to all men, everywhere, at all times. In her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” Ayn Rand discusses philosophical values as applicable to man — which is an abstraction. She is not saying these values apply to some individuals and not to others. They apply to all men.

    Strictly personal values, rather than philosophical values, might be said to be “relative” to (that is, chosen by) particular individuals. One man might prefer blue, another red, and still another green. These are not the subject of philosophy but of psychology.

    If Heumer doesn’t make the distinction between philosophical values, which are (contextually) absolute for all men, and personal values, which can arise from the unique experiences of each individual, then Heumer is attacking a straw man.

    The distinction between particular and universal — between a unit and an abstraction which subsumes that and other units — is made clear in Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

    Objectivism cannot be understood without studying ITOE, which presents Ayn Rand’s most revolutionary advance, her theory of concepts. That advance permeates her whole philosophy, just as the theories of concepts do in other primary philosophies. See (or listen to):
    – “The Four Giants of Philosophy,” Andrew Bernstein, a look at the way in which a theory of concepts affects the rest of a philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Rand).
    – “Two False Theories of Concepts,” Gary Hull.

  2. I understand the distinction you are making, but I think it is useful to refute a subjectivist. While Heumer does not make the distinction explicitly, I think it is because he doesn’t need to. He is an intricisist, not a subjectivist.
    Heumer claims that ethics is a-priori knowledge – so, when he is talking of ethical values, he is talking about the values of the abstraction man.

    Elsewhere he writes:

    We can phrase the conflict another way, in terms of the idea that individuals are ends in themselves. Let A be an egoist, and let B be the egoist’s next-door neighbor. The egoist regards his own life as an end in itself, and he says B ought to regard B’s life as an end in itself. But, insofar as A is concerned only for furthering his own life, A can not, himself, treat B’s life as an end in itself. A’s sole value is A’s life; therefore, A can value B’s life, if at all, only as a means (i.e. if B’s life furthers A’s).

    Notice that here, the Objectivist doctrine that rational people’s interests never conflict, even if it were true, would provide no help. That the life of my next door neighbor should be valuable as an end in itself and that also, it should be valuable only as a means to further my own happiness, is a contradiction, regardless of how well my and my neighbor’s happiness may harmonize.

    I intend to write on this further, but I don’t think the distinction you made is useful to address Heumer’s view.

    I realize that I need to read ITOE and will do it at some point. Thanks for the references.

  3. I haven’t delved into Heumer’s views too closely but from what I have read at NoodleFood and here it sounds like he is a typical academic leftist. They usually argue that ethics is the product of evolution (ala Dawkins, Dennet, and Sam Harris) and therefore altruism and egalitarianism is “built in” to man and should be reflected by society. The more political of them then go on to argue that in light of these “evolutionary realities” welfare state and egalitarian politics is both natural and moral and that “free market ideologues” are basing their flawed theories on an ethical theory (egoism) that is not conducive to man’s nature. This is pretty standard university leftism. It sounds like this describes Heumer as well but I haven’t read enough of him to know.

  4. Derrick,
    He is not a leftist. If he were I wouldn’t have bothered. He writes:

    Probably the most controversial parts of Objectivism are these five claims:
    (1) Reality is objective.
    (2) One should always follow reason and never think or act contrary to reason. (I take this to be the meaning of “Reason is absolute.”)
    (3) Moral principles are also objective and can be known through reason.
    (4) Every person should always be selfish.
    (5) Capitalism is the only just social system.

    …This is bound to make my disagreement with Objectivism seem small, at least to most non-Objectivists: I agree with 1, 2, 3, and 5. In fact, I regard each of those propositions as either self-evident or else provable beyond any reasonable doubt through philosophical argument and (in the case of #5) historical evidence. I would even go so far as to say that the continuing resistance to these facts is due essentially to evasion. And I regard #1 as so obvious as to be beneath a philosopher to argue.
    (emphasis mine)

  5. Thanks KM. You’re right. He’s not a leftist. Sounds more like a libertarian then if he agrees that capitalism is the only just social system. Heumer is an interesting case. When I have time I am going to look at his arguments in more detail.

  6. Heumer is an interesting case.
    Indeed he is.

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