1: Dimensions of Value and the First Dimension

1. The Good has Multiple Dimensions

The moral sphere theory of the previous section on Ethics is only a part of a theory of value or the good. It concerns how we should treat others in the process of living our own lives and seeking our own good. But it does not tell us beyond this what sorts of lives we should live and what other values we should strive for. It is therefore not a complete account of the good or of “how we should live.”

In seeking that more complete account, we may take a cue from the ancient Greek philosophers who meant by the study of ethics something broader than merely how we should treat others. The study of ethics meant for them a wider inquiry into the nature of the good and the good life in general. The questions for these anci­ents were not only “What obligations or duties do we have to each other?” but also “How should we live?” “What should we strive for?” “What is the best form of life?” “What ends or goals are ultimately worth pur­suing?”

This broader inquiry into the nature of the good or value is what we must now consider. It is an inquiry for which the modern age presents special challenges that have made it more difficult than the ancients assumed it to be.

For most ancient and medieval thinkers who addressed these value questions prior to the mo­dern age, it was assumed that theoretical and practical inquiry, fact and value, scientific expla­nation and purpose, merged in an overall quest for wisdom. Knowledge of facts about the natu­ral world and human beings would also tell us what was good and valuable. Theoretical or scien­­tific inquiry into the nature of things would also answer practical questions about how to live; and explanations of why things behaved as they do, including humans, would tell us what ends or purposes they should pursue.

The modern age, by contrast, is characterized by what the 19th century philosopher Hegel called “sunderings” of these and many other contrasts. There has been a tendency in the modern era to pry apart considerations of fact from value, theoretical inquiry from practical inquiry (about the good) and scientific explanation from purpose, with the consequence that the unified quest for wisdom of the ancient philosophers was threatened as well.

A chief culprit in this process, as is well-known, was the rise of modern science. As the modern era evolved, explanation of objec­tive fact about the cosmos increasingly became the province of the new natural sciences of Gali­leo, Newton and their successors, which described a physical world devoid of values, final causes and purposes.

The situation was somewhat different for the behavioral and social sciences which came on the scene later in the modern era. Anthropologists, sociologists and other behavioral scientists did have to talk about human values and purposes in their studies. But they embraced a kind of va­lue neutrality of their own in the name of scientific objectivity. Social scientists might tell us what persons or societies or cultures believed was good or right or wrong. But they could not say what really was right or wrong. That would amount to injecting their own values and points of view into their research—an offense against the scientific ideal of objectivity.

So, while objectivity in the modern natural sciences seemed to imply an absence of value in the world described by them, in the behavioral and social sciences, it amounted to something quite different. Objectivity in these human sciences suggested a value relativismtoo much value, too many cultures, forms of life, views of right and wrong, with no non-neutral way of deciding between them.

It is ironic that ideals of scientific objectivity in both the natural and human sciences, which had inspired the ancient quest for wisdom about the cosmos and human nature, should have thus promoted in modern times subjectivist and relativist views about values and ethics. But that is an important part of the modern story. And it is a part of the modern story I want to now ad­dress: How, if at all, can that ancient quest for wisdom about the objective good and right be pursued in the light of these subjectivist and relativist challenges of the modern era?

To address this question, I think we need to return one more time to the ancients for a clue and, in particular, to Aris­totle’s claim that “‘good’ is said in many ways.” By this he meant that the notion of good or value is no simple thing with a single definition. The good, I will argue, has different meanings and appears in multiple dimensions, each of which has to be understood before one can ade­quately address questions about what the good life is.

To begin this task, I suggest we consider human value in four dimensions. Each higher dimen­sion of value would include, but go beyond, lower dimensions as, say, a three-dimensional space includes two-dimensional surfaces and one-dimensional lines. This spatial metaphor is crude, but we shall see that it is instructive.

2. The First Dimension: Basic Value Experiences

The first dimension of value is experiential value. The 17th century philosopher Baruch Spino­za gave us important clues about the nature of this kind of value, I believe, when he noted that our first encounter with good and evil is through experiences of certain characteristic kinds, such as joy (laetitia is the term used in Spinoza’s Latin text) and sadness (tristitia).[1]

Let us call positive experiences of these characteristic kinds (such as joy) “basic value experi­en­ces” and the negative ones (such as sadness) “basic disvalue experiences.” Basic value ex­pe­riences would include joy, delight, amusement, pride, sensory pleasure, enjoyment, com­fort, exhilaration, romantic love, contentment, ecstasy, and the like, while basic disvalue experien­ces would include sadness, loneliness, frustration, pain, boredom, grief, humiliation, anxiety, embarrassment, fear, disappoint­ment, despair, and others.

We may think of these basic value and disvalue experiences as prima facie good or bad respec­tively. That is to say, they are good or bad in the first instance, unless they are overridden in some higher dimension of value. For example, the delight a small child experiences when she first sees a squirrel is one thing, the delight a terrorist takes in torturing his prisoner is quite another. Spinoza and many others would say that in the latter case, the delight of the torturer is not a good at all, but an evil.[2] Employing our dimensional metaphor, we would say that the torturer’s delight would be overridden and become bad when viewed from a higher dimension.

Spinoza’s way of describing such overriding was to say that many of our ordinary experiences of joy or delight, such as the torturer’s, are based on “inadequate” or “confused” ideas, which distract us from higher or true goods. Thus, we often tend to value present goods over future ones because the present ones bring immediate joy or pleasure, even when the present goods may in truth be the cause of much greater future evils.[3] In such cases, the immediate experien­tial joys or pleasures are overridden when viewed from a broader perspective and become bad.[4]

Indeed, this general idea that experiences which are good in some contexts may be overridden and become bad in other contexts is not unique to Spinoza’s view, but is commonly expressed in the philosophical tradition. For example, Aristotle says “the pleasure proper to a morally good activity is good, the pleasure proper to a bad activity evil.”[5] Thomas Aquinas says that “something may be good according to a particular judgment which is not good according to a wider judgment, and conversely.”[6] And Immanuel Kant denies that pleasure is good when experienced by someone who lacks a good will (for example, one who takes pleasure in the misfortunes of others).

But why, we might ask, are these basic value experiences viewed by many persons as initially good (or bad) so long as they are not overridden? Here Spinoza provides us with another clue when he notes that our first encounter with good and evil is through such basic value and disvalue experien­ces. We initially learn what good and evil means in terms of them.[7]

We might say, in other words, that basic value experiences (such as the child’s delight at seeing the squirrel) are like windows through which value first enters our human world.[8] They are the first word on good and evil, though not necessarily the last word.

The poet Friedrich Schiller made this point for basic value experiences when, in his “Ode to Joy,” he called joy “the beautiful torch of the gods, daughter from Elysium.” The image con­veyed is of joyful moments in life as sparks of light in an otherwise dark world, providing fleeting glimpses of the good. This was an image captured by Beethoven in his Ninth Sym­phony, in which Schil­ler’s Ode to Joy was set to some of most joyous music ever written.

In a very different place and time, a man named Siddhartha Gautama, whom we know as the Buddha, made a similar point about basic disvalue expe­rien­ces: They are the experiences, he intimated, through which evil first enters our human world. A short time after undergoing en­lighten­ment, the Buddha proclaimed “four noble truths” to his followers, the first of which was that all existence was suffering, where by suffering he meant experiential evil in one form or another—sadness, frustration, grief, pain, loneliness, and so on.

One does not have to accept everything these figures, such as the Buddha or Spinoza, say about value, nor agree with their (very different) philosophical and religious views, to appreciate their insights about value of this experiential kind: Our first intimations of good and evil come through certain characteristic basic value and disvalue experiences, such as joy and sadness. They are like windows through which value first enters our human world—the first word on good and evil, but not necessarily the last word. Such experiences constitute what I am calling the first or experiential dimension of value.

3. Prima Facie, or Defeasible, Goods

There are several important things to note about value in this basic experiential dimension. First, at this elemen­tary level, value is already plural. Many philosophers have wanted to re­duce all basic value and disvalue experiences to “pleasure” and “pain” respectively. But this over­sim­plifies these experiences. Feelings of delight or amusement or pride are quite differ­ent from each other and from the plea­sures of taste or smell. Yet all of these are basic value expe­riences. Boredom is a very different experience than sensory pain, and both are quite unlike loneli­ness or humiliation or grief. Yet these are all basic disvalue experiences.

In sum, there are many different modalities of value experience, positive and negative; and it is worth emphas­izing that value is already plural, even at this most ele­men­tary level.[9]

A second thing of note about this first experiential dimension of value concerns the question of whether the value in it is “merely subjective” or whether there is some objectivity to it as well. This is an interesting question. For, there is an obvious sense in which basic value and disvalue experiences are subjective: They are conscious experiences that (like other conscious experien­ces) are directly accessible only to the subjects who have them (leaving aside unusual pheno­mena such as telepathy).

Yet there is an interesting, if qualified, sense in which the value of such experiences can also be said to be objective on the above account of them. To explain this, we have to consider a familiar sense in which it has sometimes been claimed that all values (not only basic value experien­ces) are “merely subjective”: Subjectivism about values in this familiar sense is the view that there are no matters of fact in the world to which judgments or statements of the form “x is good (or bad)” or “x is right (or wrong)” correspond. That is, there are no objective facts or features of the world for such judgments to be true of.[10]

Consider now basic value and disvalue experiences with this definition in mind. If a young man Jon experiences joy at the reception of a gift, it would be true to say that

“<The experience Jon is now having> is (a first dimensional) prima facie good for Jon.”

This judgment or statement is true by virtue of the nature of the experience John is having, specifically by virtue of the felt quality of that experience. If he were experiencing pain or humiliation at failing to receive a gift, rather than joy, the claim would be false.[11] So the statement is saying something true about John’s experience and not merely expressing the feelings or attitudes (of approval or disapproval) of those making the statement, as many subjectivists about value would claim.

To be sure, the good ascribed to experiences in such statements is highly qualified. But, if “good” may be said in many ways, as Aristotle noted, then judgments and statements of value will often be qualified in various ways: “X is good (or bad) (in some respect or manner) (for some purpose) (in certain circumstances) (for some person)…” And first-dimensional value is a qualified kind of value.

First, Jon’s experience is only said to be prima facie good for Jon—good if not overridden in some higher dimension or when viewed in some broader context of Jon’s life. It may turn out to be bad when viewed in a broader context. It is thus what philosophers would call a defea­sible good—one that may be “defeated” or “overridden” and hence rendered not good in certain circumstances.[12]

Yet, in saying the experience of joy is prima facie good in this sense, we are saying something objectively true about its potential value: The experience of joy is objectively good for Jon unless it is overridden in a higher dimension. And if the experience is not in fact overridden in a higher dimension, we are also saying something that is true about its actual value: If it is not in fact overridden in any higher dimension, the experience is objectively good for John.

This point is especially important because, as I will argue later, when one moves to higher dimensions of value, some basic values experiences may be overridden, but many will not be. The everyday joys and pleasures of receiving a gift or delighting in a visit to the park, and many more basic value experiences, may thus be significant ingredients or parts of good lives more broadly conceived.

Aristotle noted this point when he said that, while pleasure is not the ultimate good, pleasurable experiences will normally be a part of the good life. Basic value experiences, qua prima facie and defeasible, are only the first word on value, not the last word, as noted. Yet, if not over­ridden, they may also be significant features of the last word on value as well.

4. Objective and Relative Good

There is another, equally important, way in which value in this first experiential dimension is qualified. Basic value or disvalue experiences are also said to be good or bad for the subjects who have the experiences. Jon’s joyful experience is prima facie good for Jon. The experience may also be good for some others as well, e. g., for those who may care about John. But that is not required insofar as the experience is merely a first-dimensional good.

Value in this first-dimension is thus not only prima facie, but also relative, value. That is, it is good (or bad) for those beings who have the basic value or disvalue experiences (and perhaps also for those who care about them). Philosophers often speak here of agent-relative value, meaning what is good (or bad) for various agents or persons.

What is important to recognize, however, is that value can be relative in this agent-relative sense, and still be objective value. And this is the case for first-dimensional value as well. If Jon’s experience of joy is not overridden in any higher dimension of value, then it is objectively true to say that <The experi­ence Jon is now having is good for Jon and those who care about Jon.> If the experience was not in fact overridden, this state­ment would be saying something objectively true about the value of John’s experience and not merely expressing the feelings or attitudes (of approval or disapproval) of those making the statement (as some subjectivists would claim).

Similar claims could be made about basic disvalue experiences. If they are not overridden, it would be objectively true to say they are bad for the persons who experience them.

We thus have an interesting result here. Basic value and disvalue experiences are subjective experiences, in an obvious sense mentioned earlier: They are conscious experiences that, like other conscious experien­ces, are experienced directly only by the subjects who have them. But this does not mean that such experiences cannot be objectively good or bad for the persons who have them, when they are not overridden in higher dimensions of value. In other words, while basic value and disvalue experiences are subjec­tive experiences, it does not fol­low that their value or disvalue is merely subjective. They are subjective experiences that, if not overridden, can be objectively good or bad for the persons who have them.

Being good or bad for certain beings means the value or disvalue of such experiences, though it may be objective, is also relative value. But we shall see later that such experiences may also turn out in some higher dimen­sions to be more than “merely” relative value or disvalue. Values, I will argue, may be relative (i.e., good for certain beings) without being “merely” relative. This is yet another consequence of taking seriously Aristotle’s claim that “‘good’ is said in many ways.”

In summary, values in this first experiential dimension are experiences of various kinds (basic value or disvalue experiences), such as joy and sadness, that are prima facie good or bad by virtue of their affective or felt qualities, though the experiences themselves may be directly accessible only to the subjects who have them. Every time you or any­one feels pain, the gap between fact and value has potentially been bridged—even if only initially for you. The good or evil of the experience is still only relative for you and it is prima facie, or potentially, over­ridable when placed in a broader context. Experienced pain, for example, may be neces­sary to attain some higher good. But when not so overridden, it may be objectively bad for the being who has it.

5. The Naturalistic Fallacy

One may object that these claims follow because we have defined basic value and disvalue experiences as good and bad respectively, even if only in a prima facie sense. And in doing so, it may seem that we have run afoul of G. E. Moore’s well-known “naturalistic fallacy”[13]—the fallacy of defining the good in terms of merely natural facts. By natural facts, Moore meant facts that are “the subject matter of the natural sciences and also of psychology,” which would include psycho­logical experiences, such as pleasure or pain.[14]

To show it is a fallacy to define the good in terms of such natural facts, Moore appealed to his well-known open question argument, which would go as follows when applied to basic value experiences.

Psychological facts about human beings, Moore argues, such as their experiencing joy or plea­sure, cannot be good by definition. For, given any such psychological fact, such as Jon’s now experiencing pleasure, we can know that it is a fact (that Jon is having this experien­ce) and yet we can sensibly ask “But is it really good (that Jon is now having such an experience)?” The answer to this question might be yes or no, depending on the circumstances—what the pleasure was taken in, what further implications it might have for Jon’s behavior, and so on. Yet, Moore argues, this question would not remain an open question, if such experiences were good by definition. For then, sim­ply knowing that Jon was having such an experience would be sufficient to ensure that it was really good.

Philosophers have raised a number of potent objections to this open question argument.[15] But I want to raise a different objection here specifically related to basic value experiences. Moore’s argument is pointing to something important about such experiences, but I think he draws the wrong conclusion from it. The reason the question “Is it really good?” remains an open ques­tion in cases of joy, pleasure, and other basic value experiences, I would argue, is that such experiences are by definition only prima facie or defeasibly good—good in the first instance, if not overridden. Their value is in principle overridable in other dimensions of value; and so they may not be “really” good in the sense of “all things (or all dimensions) considered” good.

This thought is supported by reflecting on examples of basic value experiences where the an­swers to Moore’s question “Is it really good? are negative: To say that Jon’s experiencing joy is not good if taken in the misfortunes of others or that pleasures which distract a mother from taking care of her ill child are not really good, is to say that the joy and pleasure in these cases is overridden by some greater good, such as ethical duties to others, and so are not all things considered good.

Simply to say therefore that someone is having these experiences is not sufficient to ensure that they are “really” good in an all things considered sense. We need to supplement Moore’s in­sights with some thoughts altered and adapted from Spinoza. Basic value and disvalue expe­rien­ces, such as joy and sadness, are prima facie good or bad because it is through such expe­riences that we first learn what good and evil mean. It is through them that the notions of good and evil first enter our human world. But, at the same time, such experiences are only the first word on the meaning of good and evil, because value has no single meaning. What is good in the first dimension may also be good in higher dimensions, but it may not be.

We may thus acknowledge that Moore’s open question argument is pointing to something important without drawing his conclusion from it. The conclusion Moore draws is that the good is not definable in naturalistic, including experiential, terms. Whereas the conclusion I think we should draw from the argument is that “good” cannot be defined in one fell swoop. The good must rather be defined in stages—in different dimensions and hence with various qualifications.

If value is viewed in this way, the possibility is left open that value in some of these dimen­sions may be definable in naturalistic or experiential terms, even if all values are not so defi­nable; and this possibility of being definable in naturalistic or experiential terms would turn out to be particularly likely for the first and most elemental dimension of value through which, as Spinoza pointed out, we gain our first intimations of good and evil.[16]

[1] Spinoza 1996: 76-7 (originally published 1677). (One does not have to accept Spinoza’s entire theory of value, much less his metaphysics, as I will not, to make use of some of his prescient insights about these experiences, or “affects” of the mind, as he calls them, in Books III and IV of his Ethics. Among my departures is that Spinoza believes all experiential goods are ultimately only apparent goods (involving “confused” perceptions). I will argue that experiential goods need not all be merely apparent.

[2] For excellent discussions of these issues, with views differing from mine, see Lemos 1994, M. Zimmerman 2001. Other works on value that have informed my thinking in these chapters, despite differing views, include Bond 1983, Griffin 1986, Broome 1991, R. Miller 1992, Mi. Smith 1994, Sumner 1996, R. Adams 1999, Hurka 2001, Bloomfield 2001, Railton 2003, Shafer-Landau 2003, Helm 2001, Oddie 2005, Crisp 2006, Kraut 2007, Kupperman 2007.

[3] Spinoza 1996: 149. If our ideas were not confused, we would see things from the perspective of eternity and “the mind would want the good its conceives as future just as it wants the good it conceives as present.”

[4] I mention Spinoza’s view here not to endorse its details, but to illustrate what “overriding” of experiential values would be like. Claims about overriding must be justified by some arguments or other; and such arguments will be considered when we consider higher dimensions of value.

[5] 1983: 1175b.

[6] Aquinas 1950: vol 1, question 19, articles 6 and 10.

[7] Ibid., 120. “The knowledge of good and evil,” he says, “is nothing but an affect of joy or sadness, insofar as we are conscious of it.”

[8] I have defended such a view of these experiences in Kane 1988, 1997, 1998.

[9] The inherent plurality of value is effectively defended with different qualifications by a number of recent philosophers; and I think it is important to emphasize, as some of these authors do, that plurality may extend even to this experiential level of value. Kekes 1989, Stocker 1990, E. Anderson 1993, Milgram 1997, Raz 2003, among others. Berlin 1965 is a classic defense. Chang (ed.) 1997 is an excellent anthology on the topic. Crisp 2006 (p. 102) argues that even hedonists should avoid the too narrow language of pleasure and pain and use the broader language of enjoyment and suffering. Mayerfeld (1999) argues in interesting ways for the moral importance of suffering broadly conceived.

[10] Subjectivism so understood is thus a non-realist or anti-realist view about values and there can be both cognitivist and non-cognitivist versions of it. Certain non-cognitivist versions of subjectivism, such as emotivism, insist that judgments, such as “x is good or bad,” “x is right or wrong,” express feelings, attitudes or sentiments (of approval or disapproval) of those making the judgments rather than claims about the world that could be true or false. Cognitivist versions—such as the “error theory” of J. L. Mackie (1977)—allow that evaluative or ethical judgments can be true or false, but insist that all such judgments are in fact false, since there are no evaluative or moral facts in the world for them to true of.

[11] The statement would also be false if his experience were value neutral, not accompanied by any positive or negative “affect,” and neither true nor false, if John were not having any experience, in which case the subject term would not refer.

[12] It may be hard to imagine such overriding with so simple an experience as joy at the reception of a gift. But suppose the gift had been intended for another person whom Jon disliked and Jon had changed the names on the card so that the gift was given to him.

[13] Moore 1903: 13.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Frankena 1939; Harman 1977: 19-20, among others. A. Miller (2003: chapter 2) provides an excellent overview of debates about the argument, as does Baldwin 1990.

[16] In an influential essay that discusses Moore’s open question argument and other topics in 20th century ethics, philosophers Stephen Darwall, Allan Gibbard and Peter Railton concede that Moore’s argument is not “a proof of a fallacy,” as he assumed.[16] But they argue that Moore was nonetheless “on to something” important with his open question argument. The reason, they suggest, why Moore’s question “Is it really good?” so often seems appropriate when consi­dering experiences of pleasure and pain and other natural facts, is that Moore’s ques­tion alerts us to the fact that “attributions of goodness have a conceptual link to the guidance of action.”[16] Thus when persons ask of natural facts, such as experiences of pleasure, whether they are “really” good, what they are asking, according to Darwall, Gibbard and Railton, is something like the following question: “Is it clear that, other things being equal, we really ought to, or must devote ourselves to bringing about experiences of pleasure?” And answers to such ques­tions, they suggest, will normally be: “It depends.” It depends on what persons take pleasure in (gambling? addictive drugs? torturing?), on whether the objects of pleasurable experiences are themselves good, on whether such experiences inhibit or enhance the pursuit of other long term goals or distract from the pursuit of more important or comprehensive goods, and so on. As we shall see in the next three Parts, these are just the sorts of questions that arise when we ask whether the value of basic value experiences is or is not “overridden” in higher dimen­sions of value. Whether experiential goods are or are not overridden normally depends on what role such experiences play in “the guidance of action.” Or more generally, as I shall argue, it depends on what role such experiences play in “plans of action” and “ways of life,” notions that played such an important role in the preceding section on Ethics.

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