In my last post, I promised to discuss what kind of reasoning one might employ to justify a rights based ethic. Whilst this post won’t do that entirely, it is one of a few arguments which will get the ball rolling. What I aim to argue is that extreme skepticism about objective value naturally results in a non-initiatory pacifism of the sort I previously advocated, and that complete skepticism about subjective value is impossible.
All purposeful human action must be performed in accordance to values which the actor holds. This is essentially tautology; any action that is performed without reference to values cannot be meaningfully considered purposeful. Taking lead from Kant, we will say that ethical discussion only makes sense in a context of such “free actors”. This does not mean that an action is free only if one sits down, pauses and engages in an internal debate about value. It simply must be the case that there has been some kind of conscious engagement in the decision making process. Weighing up of options is not necessarily an overt, concerted period of reflection and deliberation. People typically make decisions about action on the fly in a very intuitive manner, but this does not mean that they act automatically. Seamless, intuitive, on the fly decision making is not the same as robotic, unfree action, although the difference may not be overt, because an individual has the ability to control the former and could have behaved differently, whereas the latter will always run in the same way. I will not here argue for metaphysical libertarianism, but I will simply assert that any kind of ethical debate is meaningless without it. It is as absurd to engage in ethical condemnation of an action which was not freely chosen as it is to explode in a furious moral tirade against the table on which you stubbed your toe. Again, just as ethical discussion requires purposeful human action, purposeful human action requires ethical discussion; an action which is performed without reference to values and therefore ethics is not one of a free actor. In other words, genuinely amoral action is impossible for a free actor, as it is impossible to act freely and deliberately without reference to values.
The argument that it is impossible to freely act amorally is not one which should need a great deal of pushing. My action to sit here and type this post required me to make a decision that I would do just that. Like any decision about acting, that necessarily involved assessing the worthiness of the action, and whatever alternatives sprang to mind, in accordance with a set of values. One might protest that, as it is possible to perform significant and widely impacting actions by carelessness or simple accident, free action gives an insufficient account of ethics. I would argue otherwise. In instances of genuine accident, where there is no way that the perpetrator could have known their action would cause harm, it is not appropriate to condemn their ethics. Carelessness is a slightly different point. Genuine carelessness requires that one was aware of the risks of one’s behaviour, and chose to continue anyway. As such, although a careless action may not always be freely chosen in itself, behaving carelessly in general requires you to freely adopt a kind of meta-rule that “it is ok to generally act carelessly”. It may be the case that a person never considered such a meta-rule. However, somewhere along the line, they must have therefore adopted another meta-rule of “I don’t have to introspect about my actions”, possibly in conjunction with a rule of “I do not need to consider the impact my actions may have on others”. Ultimately, when pursued far enough, careless behaviour can be traced to an initial value judgement and is therefore appropriate for ethical discussion. In the almost certainly impossible scenario that someone had at no stage in their life made any value judgements whatsoever, it would no longer be appropriate to condemn their actions. It would be questionable to what degree they should be considered worthy of ethical consideration themselves, however, as such a feat would only be achievable by some sort of biological automaton.
We can now start to consider subjective and objective values. Consider a rule of the form “it is ok for me to do to myself what I think it is ok for me to do to myself”. More precisely, the logic of such a rule could be seen as “I should act according to subjective values so long as such subjective values are held by those affected”. There are two parts to this proposition, “I should act according to subjective values” and “as long as such values are held by those affected”. It is impossible for a free actor to object to the former. Obviously, a free actor who is skeptical of objective value cannot oppose this point; any action, including objection, would be a demonstration of their agreement with it. All action is an undeniable demonstration that the actor believes they should act, and if they are skeptical of objective value then they must be acting in accordance with subjective values. A possible alternative is someone who acts according to objective values which their subjective values eventually led them to. This is something which I would like to devote an entire post to, but for the time being I will simply note that, for such a person, their initial subjectivity is unavoidable, and it would be bizzare for them to completely condemn a process which led to supposedly objective truth. The only alternative remaining would be to suggest that a person can arrive automatically at a complete set of objectively correct values. Even if this were the case, such a being could no longer be considered free. Every action they undertook would be the product of external, objective laws and could not be considered their own action. As such, even if such a being did exist, along with their dubious set of objective values, they would not be an appropriate target for ethical discussion. Any move to block the second part of our proposition would involve criticising it in light of one’s own subjective values or in light of some set of objective values. To do the former is obviously incongruent. It would involve claiming that “a person should prevent people from acting in accordance with subjective values which do not correspond to their own subjective values”. Such logic is self-refuting. Anyone who intervened with another person’s action on such a basis would necessarily be acting in a way which was not in agreement with the subjective values of their counterpart. To put this more clearly, anyone who forcefully intervenes with another person on these grounds would necessarily be acting in a way which should be prevented under their own logic. To force one’s own subjective values on another is, therefore, absurd. Even if one elevates themselves, on the basis of their own subjective values, to a higher plane than ordinary people, their violence would not cease to be absurd. For as long as they do not appeal to some objective value, they are doing nothing which the victim of their violence could not also do in contradiction. Their logic of “if you subjectively value yourself above other people you should force your subjective values on others” is firstly self-referential, and secondly contradictory under the same reasoning as used previously; if the victim subjectively values themselves as more important then they should be acting to prevent the agressor. A similar line of argument can be used against any justification an agressor might use for their violence, so long as it is not an objective universal law.
There are two main arguments to address at this point. The first is to claim that you don’t care about values, and as such don’t have to be constrained by them. This argument is absurd, because it only makes sense if the person making it believes in certain values. To argue such a point is effectively saying “I don’t have to be constrained by values, because I don’t value being constrained by values”. It is using one’s own subjective valuation to justify why subjective valuations don’t matter; it is a conclusion which denounces its own argument. It would make just as much sense to wander the streets, attempting to debate passers by on the proposition “I don’t believe in arguing”. The second, similar, stance is to take this further and to deny that values have meaning altogether. Returning to earlier, this is an impossible move for a rational actor. Anyone who at any point engages in purposeful action must by definition make value judgements and act upon them. Only a human in a completely catatonic state is able to avoid doing so. To act at all is to make value judgements. Even if you decided that all values were meaningless, that life was also meaningless, and so attempt to avoid all future action, you would still be choosing to do so. If you killed yourself, your final act would be in contradiction to the line of reasoning that led to such a decision. Now, it may very well be the case that all values are meaningless. The point is that, even if it is true, it is impossible for anyone to actually behave in accordance with this. Furthermore, as a free actor, you could only arrive at the conclusion that the world has no value as a result of your own reasoning. Yet, to actually believe your conclusion would be to impart some sort of value to your thought process. It is illogical to believe the world is without value, because belief of any kind presupposes certain types of value. If you think the world is valueless because of a thought process, you are imparting value to that thought process. The only way to avoid this would be by automatically believing the world was meaningless and remaining constantly immobile, in which case you would not be an appropriate subject for moral discussion anyway. Even if you, without considering the topic at all, immediately declared and believed that the world had no meaning, you would still have arrived at this conclusion via a meta-rule of “it is ok for me to jump to conclusions without thinking”, which requires value judgements to be made.
The consequence of this is that interpersonal violence can never be justified by appealing to subjective values, or indeed by decrying the existence of value. Therefore, the only possible justification for violence is to raise the values by which you propose violence to objective status; to declare them to be a universal law which stands true regardless of the opinions of mere human others. It should be noted that this means all those who denounce objective value, outside of those values I have argued must be universal on account of their alternatives being contradictory or impossible, must also be pacifists. That is not to say that they are unable to defend themselves if violence is committed against them. To commit violence against another on subjective grounds is to act under the logic that “you should force someone with different subjective values to act according to your subjective values”. Whilst this has already been argued as flawed, we can still consider its consequences for the defender. By using defensive violence, you still act in accordance with the logic “you should act according to subjective values so long as such subjective values are held by those affected”, because the person who committed violence against you has demonstrated that they hold the (albeit inconsistent) value that such violence should be done. From their perspective, it is impossible to protest your defensive violence without going against their own logic that violence is acceptable. Indeed, the only way they could consistently protest against your defensive violence would be to stop being violent themselves, in which case your own violence has served its purpose.
This brings us to a close for now. I have argued that the natural consequence of extreme skepticism about value is a pacifism which does not stretch to an inability to act defensively. This, of course, does not provide a complete answer to those who claim to have objective reasons as to why their violence is justified, for example by an appeal to religious value. It will also be necessary for me to begin discussing the other framework values, which are universal on account of being presupposed by the nature of free actors. Such issues will be discussed in future.