Contextual Value (Part I)

After last week’s marathon discussion on KiwiBlog about value and morality, I’ve decided to write a brief explanation of the contextual nature of morality. My main point is to address the common mistake that contextual or subjective morality is no morality at all.

My position is that morality is subjective (or contextual – I use the terms interchangeably in this context) by definition. It is logically necessary that morality is contextual. “Absolute morality” is, upon examination, a contradiction in terms.

The domain of morality is choice, and its operative words are “good” and “should”. Which happen to rhyme. To say that an option is good is to say that one should do it.

Of course, the words “good” and “should” are used to refer to choices that have nothing to do with morality. “You should strike the match away from your body” is not a moral statement in most people’s books. “It’s good to use iodised salt in New Zealand” isn’t either. So let’s examine what these kinds of uses of “good” and “should” mean in order to be clearer about other uses.

In these cases, values are at work, but not moral values. By “values” I mean any standard by which the preferability of options can be evaluated for the purposes of choosing how to act. Obviously, morality is a subset of values – it is a standard by which the preferability of options can be evaluated.

To make clear what is meant by “you should strike the match away from your body”, the implicit meaning of “should” must be expanded in the context of the sentence. This is done with the simple question: why? The answer to the question “why should I…?” is a justification.

Why should you strike the match away from your body (A)?
Because doing so minimises the risk of being burned (B).

However, in saying this, one is implicitly assuming that being burned itself is not preferable. To explain A with the answer B implies C: “You should minimise the risk of being burned.” Naturally, this raises another question.

Why should you minimise the risk of being burned (D)?
Because being burned is painful, damaging to your clothes and harmful to your health (E).

Obviously, again, the answer E to question D implicitly assumes several other statements: You should avoid pain, you should avoid damage to your clothes, you should avoid harming your health.

This goes on and on. They all reach the same logically necessary end, an example of which is usually already found in the first implied value: “You should avoid pain.”

Why should I avoid pain? I just do. There is no prior justification for avoiding pain. It is simply a fact of my existence that I find pain unpreferable and its absence preferable. Certainly there can be explanations for the presence of this value in my mind – evolutionary biology, for example. But explanations are not justifications. The fact of some causal chain explaining the presence of a value does not render that value good or bad – it is not a justification – unless there is some preceding value at work, in which case we have not really reached the logical end of the questioning process. If we have found the base value at work, causal explanations will not be value justifications.

(For example, imagine someone who held the value “I should act however I have evolved to want to act”. In his case, the explanation that our pain avoidance is the result of evolution actually provides a justification for avoiding pain. But if, when asked why he should act however he has evolved to act, he answers, “I just do,” with no further justification, then we have again found that foundational value at work. Note that this is a very unlikely scenario. My point is that if a causal explanation provides a justification, it’s because some even-more-prior value is at work.)

Rolling back to the question of how to strike a match, our answer is ultimately, “You should strike a match away from you because you value avoiding pain.” The insightful reader will note that I have made another assumption there – that the person to whom I am speaking values avoiding pain. Someone who, through some quirk of genetics or conditioning, values experiencing pain rather than valuing avoiding pain, may say instead, “I should strike a match towards me.”

So the statement with which we began – “You should strike the match away from your body” – becomes, when the implicits have been made explicit, “If you value avoiding pain, you should strike the match away from your body.”

If we are to describe the goodness or badness (preferability or unpreferability) of the option completely, we take, “It’s good to strike the match away from your body” and expand it to, “It’s good-to-Ryan-in-terms-of-pain-avoidance for him to strike the match away from his body.”

Three elements are now clear:

  • The base value(s) – that standard or those standards by which preferability of an option is judged, which cannot themselves be justified in terms of any prior values.
  • The subject – the person who holds that value or those values.
  • The evaluation – whether the option is good or bad/preferable or unpreferable.

All three are necessary to make explicit a statement of value when it comes to decision-making. Without the subject, we can only say whether or not an option is preferable if someone holds the value. Without the value, we can only say that the option is preferable to the subject.

There’s no way I could cover all of this in a single post, so I’ll post again soon with how belief/knowledge/predicted consequences come into it, and how habits and the experience of preferability comes into it. Probably only then will I be able to say what I mean to say about “absolute morality”.

EDIT: Five years later, and I still haven’t done this. Get used to it.