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.

Hypotheticals, egoism, intuition and Heumer

Via this debate on Aristotle The Geek’s blog, I came across this critique of Ayn Rand’s essay “The Objectivist Ethics” on Michael Heumer’s website. After reading through the mind-numbing (primarily because of its length) critique and disagreeing with it, I took a look at some other pages on his site and found this critique of egoism. Heumer is a self-described intuitionist (I will have to read more on his precise views on intuitions) and he constructs a hypothetical in which he claims that an egoist would have to murder a person for a very minor benefit. Then he claims that since it is self-evident that murder is wrong egoism cannot be true.

Consider the nature of his hypothetical

I just happen to have in my pocket a hand-held disintegrator ray, though. The gun will quickly disintegrate any person I aim it at. It is believed that victims of disintegration suffer brief but horrible agony while being disintegrated, but after that, no trace of them is left. …then I see this homeless guy ahead, just wandering down the street. …Assume that I live in a society in which homeless people are so little respected that my action is both legal and socially acceptable. Homeless people are regularly beaten up, set on fire, etc., with impunity. Passers-by even regard it as an amusing entertainment. So I will not be punished for my action. (emphasis mine)

Heumer claims that the fact that the events in such a hypothetical might never come to pass does not mean that we can reject the hypothetical itself (as he claims several Objectivists do). And he is right. There is nothing wrong with using hypotheticals to test theories. In fact, without the use of hypotheticals, I don’t think anyone can arrive at any useful abstract ideas. Though there is nothing wrong in considering the hypothetical, Heumer’s arguement simply does not hold. First, no rational egoist will actually murder a homeless guy on the street to save a couple of seconds (more on this later). Second, even if I grant Heumer – here is another hypothetical! – his claim that an egoist would have to murder the homeless guy in his hypothetical, Heumer’s intuitionism is not enough to reject egoism. Heumer’s intuitions did not arise in a world where the kind of events in his hypothetical ever happen (note the emphasized lines above). Therefore his intuitions are ill equipped to deal with his hypothetical. In fact, this is always true. Any intuition, by its very nature is ill equipped to deal with unusual situations. This is so irrespective of the source of the intuition – whether it be evolution or culture or experience.

Consider another hypothetical. Suppose Heumer actually lived in a society like the one he describes. Moreover, suppose that his ancestors also lived in such societies over the last 20000 years. As Heumer writes (correctly), the person framing the hypothetical gets to stipulate what goes on in the hypothetical. So I can very well stipulate this. What would Heumer’s intuition be if he grew up in such a world? Would it still be that murdering a person to save a couple of seconds is wrong? I don’t think so. Heumer’s hypothetical – far from being a proof that egoism is wrong – is actually a proof that intuitions are of limited use (at best) in judging an idea. Intuitions can tell you that a particular idea needs more or less thought. They cannot tell you whether a particular idea is right or wrong.

Would a (rational) egoist actually commit a murder to save a couple of seconds? Rand’s egoism (which is what Heumer is targeting) requires a person to be always rational. Rationality does not mean that one should weigh all the possible consequences of every conceivable action – presumably by assigning probabilities and utilities and then calculating some sort of expected utility. Rationality means that man must recognize that he cannot do such calculus because the world is an extremely calculated place. Rationality means that man must instead find principles on which to base his actions. Rationality means that man must not waste his time attempting to do some impossible calculus (calculating all the probabilities is impossible) to save a couple of seconds.

Finally, here is another hypothetical for Heumer (and for all those who like to create absurd hypotheticals to “prove” that egoism is wrong). Suppose that you are walking down a street with a gun in your pocket and see a person sitting on a bench just next to you with a bag beside him. You see a young boy in the window of a house on the other side of the street. The boy shouts and tells you that the person on the bench is actually a terrorist, that the bag beside him contains explosives and he is about to detonate them. What should you do? The challenge: based on your intuitions, tell me what you would do. Would the answer be the same if the location in the hypothetical were
a) a road in a peaceful village in rural America
b) a road in Pakistan on which the Pakistani president is due to travel
c) the road outside your own house with the boy being your neighbour’s son
(Hint: Does morality apply to such situations?)

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