PHIL 151: Human Nature, TA Clint Jones
April 8, 2002
Why do we do the things we do? As I put forth in my previous paper, this is the central question behind the study of human nature. And while it may seem that such a simple question deserves an equally simple answer, such does not turn out to be the case. In considering an answer, several avenues offer themselves up to inquiry. This paper shall examine one such avenue in particular, namely that of reason.
For the most part, human beings are reasonable animals. We find solutions to problems and make choices every day of ours lives. To many people, it is the faculty of reason that separates us from other living things. Reason can be linked to behavior through values. The term is defined just as one would think. The objects of rational thought are assigned a degree of positive or negative value that allows us to make logical choices between alternatives. One might be charitable, artistic, or loyal because one assigns a high value to charity, art, and loyalty, etc. In a way, value systems are much like number games, with the goal of attaining the highest possible value in any decision.
That human beings have values cannot be debated. Values are reflected in everyday words such a good and bad or right and wrong. The quandary lies in whether these values can be attributed to internal or external factors. For example, do I believe murder is wrong because of an arbitrary system of internalized values or is murder intrinsically bad regardless of whether or not I think it is? Obviously, this is no simple question.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel characterizes values as agent-relative and agent-neutral (Nagel 102). Quite simply, an agent-relative value applies to one or more individuals in a given situation. For example, pregnancy would have a positive agent-relative value to a married couple trying to conceive but a negative agent-relative value for unemployed teenagers. On the other hand, an agent-neutral value applies to anyone, regardless of the situation. Nagel argues that pain has negative agent-neutral value, and thus gives anyone good reason to do away with it (Nagel 108).
This paper will follow closely along Nagel’s line of argumentation on the latter point. As you’ll see, the existence of agent-neutral values cannot be proved or disproved.
II. Nagel’s Argumentation
According to Nagel, pain has negative value beyond individual interest. When one views pain objectively, one discovers that it has agent-neutral value because one is motivated to end it regardless of any vested interest in the pain itself (Nagel 110). Nagel details a scenario to explain this.
“Consider how strange is the question posed by someone who wants a justification for altruism… Suppose he and some other people have been admitted to a hospital… â€˜I understand how my pain provides me with a reason to take an analgesic,’ he says, â€˜and I understand how my groaning neighbor’s pain gives him a reason to take an analgesic; but how does his pain give me any reason to want him to be given an analgesic?” (Nagel 109)
In response, Nagel states that, “This question is crazy… The answer is that pain is awful. The pain of the man groaning in the next bed is just as awful as yours. That’s your reason to want him to have an analgesic” (Nagel 110). He goes on to justify this claim by stating that such an answer is obvious and, being accepted as wholly possible by the rational mind, must be falsified rather than proven (Nagel 111). In essence, according to Nagel, agent-neutral values such as this are true until proven false, rather than the other way around.
To begin, one must agree on what the term “objective” entails. After all, according to Nagel’s argument, agent-neutral values only become apparent when one considers the world objectively, and would thus fall apart quite easily under an improper definition. According to Nagel, “objectivity is advanced when we step back, detach from our earlier point of view toward something, and arrive at a new view of the whole that is formed by including ourselves and our earlier viewpoint in what is to be understood” (Nagel 97). Thus, Nagel’s objectivity is achieved when one withdraws from one’s own perspective and views the world with oneself as just another person in it.
The first contention arises here, for is this truly objectivity? One is led to ask, can you really detach yourself from your own perspective? However detached you ever become, can you truly depart from all of your individual inclinations and beliefs? The answer, in direct opposition to Nagel, is no.
Simply put, the very act of perception is a value judgment. I can disregard my own beliefs and look at the world with fresh eyes, but they will still be my eyes. A shoe will still be a shoe as it appears to me; the color red will be apparent only as I have ever seen it. However subconsciously, my objective self will still retain much of my ordinary self by virtue of the fact that I am still the perceiver. In essence, true objectivity is impossible.
Even assuming objectivity is possible, Nagel’s objectivity is hardly true to its name. To take on a viewpoint devoid of individual opinions and perspectives would render everything utterly valueless. In response to this “objective nihilism,” Nagel can only say that, “To find out what the world is like from outside we have to approach it from within” (Nagel 115). Thus, he acknowledges that complete objectivity yields no value judgments of any kind, and requires a degree of subjectivity to produce any useful insight. This demonstrates that true objectivity, even if it were possible, would be utterly useless.
These two points offer convincing evidence not only against Nagel’s agent-neutral pain but also agent-neutral values in general. However, there are yet more holes to be exposed in his theory. Nagel’s assertion that, “Pain is awful,” begs a number of counterexamples that, taken as a whole, cast doubt over the entire value judgment (Nagel 110).
Take as a first example the masochist. However perverse, the masochist is capable of transforming his pain into something pleasurable (or at the very least desirable) rather than awful. All moral objections aside, does the masochist’s pain have negative or positive value? Obviously, Nagel would argue that it still has negative value because it is pain. However, any reasonable person would look at the masochist’s pain and see that he was hardly suffering because of it. On the contrary, due to the specific nature of his disorder the masochist would be enjoying it. Assuming that the pain itself was not harming the masochist, no reasonable person could conclude that it was a bad thing, individual value judgments against such enjoyment notwithstanding.
This objection applies to almost any pain in which there is no suffering, or in which the joys outweigh the pain itself. After all, if pain ceases to be awful in any sense of the word, then it cannot logically be something to avoid, ease, or remove. Let us consider the catatonic, for example. A person with this particular psychosis may very well experience any pain inflicted upon him but would obviously not care or show signs of caring, and certainly would not need an analgesic. One must then logically conclude that pain devoid of suffering is not necessarily a bad thing.
Yet another contention arises when one considers the pain of wrongdoers. Consider for a moment how many people would encourage the pain of criminals like Adolf Hitler or Osama Bin Laden. The sheer social outcry against such people would not only condone but also celebrate any suffering laid upon them. Even many of those people not directly affected by their crimes would place a high positive value on their pain. This cannot be agent-relative, because such persons have no direct interest in the criminal in question. If pain in general is supposedly a bad thing, why is it considered so good by so many in such instances?
One final criticism of Nagel’s theory of agent-neutral values arises when one considers the arguments he uses to justify it. Quite simply, Nagel claims that, “once this (agent-neutral value) is seen as a possibility, it becomes difficult not to accept it. It becomes a hypothesis to be dislodged…” (Nagel 111). He goes on to say that any arguments presented against this assertion, “would need justifications of a kind that seem totally unavailable in this case” (Nagel 111). In other words, according to Nagel the potential and unfalsifiability of his hypothesis predispose it to truth.
This is a major fallacy in Nagel’s logic. One can argue that all things are possible, but that does not make all things true. On the same token, just because a theory has no countermanding evidence does not make it true by default. This contention would be weaker if Nagel’s theory had some sort of empirical backing, but unfortunately it does not. Nagel admits that the existence of agent-neutral values lacks a “logical demonstration,” which, while it fails to directly disprove his hypothesis, still reflects very negatively upon it (Nagel 111).
Naturally, one can offer ready counterpoints in defense of Nagel’s theory. With respect to pain without suffering, one might simply postulate that Nagel meant pain as suffering. The two, after all, do go hand-in-hand, and can easily be regarded as synonymous. Even if Nagel had intended the physical sensation of pain as his meaning, one could easily alter it along the lines of suffering to immunize it against this sort of criticism.
Additionally, the use of psychological disorders, while still applicable, does predispose this same line of contention to objections. Obviously masochists and catatonics are not common or natural, and the theory could potentially be adapted to rule out such cases, although it would lose some weight because of the normative condition.
Regarding the inability to reach conclusion on agent-neutral values, the same arguments against Nagel’s assertions work for them. Quite simply, neither side of the issue is capable of presenting a definitive argument. The existence of agent-neutral values can neither be falsified nor proven, and remains possible if not probable despite the current arguments.
The physical sensation of pain can obviously have neither positive nor negative agent-neutral value given the previous arguments. The value and agency of suffering, however, remain to be fully explored. With regards to agent-neutral values as a whole, it seems apparent that no reasonable conclusion can be reached. Without solid arguments for or against agent-neutrality, no meaningful exploration of its existence (or lack thereof) can be undertaken.
What, then, does this say about value systems and, consequently, about human reason? Unfortunately, defining human motivation along this avenue appears to dead-end. Given that the origin of any value judgment may or may not be agent-relative, one can never know whether an action or belief springs from some universally applicable motivation. This leaves us very much in the dark on a number of issues (i.e. the existence of divinity, the justifiability of morality, etc.), and effectively puts the exploration of values back to square one.
Nagel, Thomas. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values. 1980.