How Can There Be Truths About How To Live In The First Place?


‘How does the world work?’ and ‘How should I live?’ are two fascinating and important questions.

At first glance, they appear to call for separate inquiries, but if the world contains truths about values, they actually don’t.

If objective values exist, then a complete inventory of all that is true about the world will also provide rough initial solutions to the problems of how to live.

For instance, the explanation for why one should not lie, would be that it’s a fact about reality that dishonesty is objectively bad.

If there are such facts, then, in writing the book of the world, we will alsocome across truths about how to live:

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

Ethics isn’t epistemology

“But Maarten,” you might respond, “surely you’re joking.”

Bridging these two questions like this sounds interesting, but isn’t it obviously a fantasy?

When one looks at life from the outside, there is no room for values in the world. The universe doesn’t house some special particles whose energy and momentum — or whatever — establish how I should act.

Don’t be silly — ethics doesn’t work like that.

So then what are objective values?

OK, I get this.

But isn’t it also obvious that objective values do exist?

Think of physical pleasure and pain. Imagine the pleasures of food, drink, sleep, sex, warmth, and ease; the pains of injury, sickness, hunger, thirst, cold, and exhaustion.

Now ask yourself: what value, if any, ought to be assigned to pleasure and pain when we consider them from an objective standpoint?

It is, I believe, implausible that pain and suffering have no value that can be objectively recognized.

If they don’t, there’s nothing objectively bad about these conscious states.That would mean that I have no reason to take aspirin for a severe headache and that, looking at it from outside, you couldn’t even say that someone had a reason not to put his hand on a hot stove, just because of the pain.

But clearly, pain and suffering are objectively bad.

What seems to be going on here is that we cannot withhold endorsement of the most immediate subjective value judgments we make concerning the contents of our own consciousness. We regard ourselves as too close to those things to be mistaken in our assessments.

If we take that seriously, it means that no objective view can overrule our subjective authority in such cases.

That pleasure is impersonally good and pain impersonally bad are proposals about the existence of objective values that one really needs reasons to doubt rather than reasons to believe.

An impasse?

We seem to have arrived at a contradiction.

On the one hand, positing values as part of the fabric of the world seems to be incompatible with the modern scientific worldview.

On the other hand, there are cases where it’s implausible to reject appearances suggesting the existence of objective values as mere appearances.

I think this reveals that, as human beings, we can view ourselves and our values from two very different standpoints.

On the one hand, from a practical standpoint, we understand ourselves as beings who are capable of recognizing what is valuable.

On the other hand, from a theoretical standpoint, we understand ourselves and our values as part of the natural order, making objective values look like entities of a very strange sort.

The question is what to do about this. Where does the search for harmony between the two stances take us?

A way out

We want to make sense of values being real without being real objects; we want our judgments about values to be both (1) true and (2) compatible with the scientific worldview.

The first requirement entails that we do not want to believe in an illusion when we believe in the impersonal value of something.

The second requirement entails that values do not exist independent from consciousness — they are not an aspect of the external world.

Can we apply objectivity to questions about value?

To do so, we should not think of objectivity as an accurate representation of an external part of the world. Rather, let’s understand ethical objectivity in terms of taking up an impersonal point of view.

Instead of bringing our thoughts in accord with an external reality, we try to bring an external view into the determination of what we value.

The question we try to answer is not ‘What can we see that the world contains, considered from this impersonal standpoint?’, but, ‘What is there reason to value, considered from this impersonal standpoint?’.

If objectivity means anything here, it will mean that when we detach from our individual perspective and the values that seem acceptable from within it, we can sometimes arrive at new conclusions about how to live, rejecting some values we previously held as false appearances.

But our beliefs about truths about values can never be said to match the actual world.

In that sense, there’s no truth that will set us free.

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