4: The Fourth Dimension

1. Inclusion and Transcendence

To many moderns, the first three dimensions of value exhaust the dimensions of human value—as the three familiar dimensions of ordinary experience exhaust the dimensions of space. What might be meant by a fourth dimension of value is not so easily described; and many thinkers would deny it exists at all. But, while the existence of a fourth dimension of value may be controversial, it seems to be presupposed by much of what humans have had to say about the good and the right.

Without such a dimension, for instance, what we call ethical or moral value would not be what most people take it to be. To say this is not to say that all value people call ethical lies in the fourth dimension. The virtues and excellences that comprise third-dimensional value (loyalty, honesty, courage, and the like) are an important part of many ancient and modern views of ethics.

But a crucial part of what we call ethical or moral value does I think lie in the fourth dimen­sion. And this part of ethical value includes (of special importance) the part explored in the earlier section on Ethics which implies that each person is to be treated as an end by every other person and no one as a mere means. Fourth-dimensional value, to put a name on it, is objective or universal (and hence non-relative) worth. It is not merely what is believed to have worth from this or that particular point of view, in this or that form of life, for this or that per­son or society or culture, but worth that should be recognized by everyone from every point of view.

Viewed in this way, fourth-dimensional value (if it did exist) would include the other three dimensions of value, yet would also transcend them.

To see how it would transcend them, suppose there is a group of persons who agree with you in large measure about what is necessary to live a happy or flourishing human life. The problem is that these people care only about whether they and their group or society or culture attain such a life and do not care whether you do. Suppose their society attains high degrees of excellence in science, art and civic life and other goods in the first three dimensions among themselves. But they attain these goods and their own flourishing only by marginalizing or exploiting other groups, includ­ing yours.[1] Perhaps your margi­nalized group is the product of ethnic clean­sing.

You may have no disagreement with these people about what is needed for human flou­rishing in the other three dimensions of value or about what makes them and other humans happy. It is just that they have a good measure of what is needed to attain such happiness and you do not, and they do not care that you do not. They don’t acknowledge any “right” of yours to be treated as an end or with respect in any sense by others, or to be allowed to pursue happiness as you choose. Such acknowledgment of worthiness for consideration by others, independently of what you could do for them, is an example of the recognition of fourth-dimensional value.

We can see from this example how fourth-dimensional value transcends the third dimension. Third-dimensional value may tell us what a flourishing or happy life would be for individuals or groups. But it is not evident that persons living such a life, as a condition for their flou­rishing, must recognize the worthiness of other individuals or groups for a flourishing life as well. Recognizing such worthiness would project us from the third dimension of value into a fourth dimension.

Perhaps the well-being or flourishing of certain individuals and groups might depend on the flourishing of some particular other persons or groups who could assist them significantly or cause them harm. In that case, enlightened self-interest would demand some concern for those other persons or groups. But that would be a selective and self-interested concern of the sort that sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists call “reciprocal altruism” (cooperating with others for mutual benefit); and thus it would be a relative (third dimensional) interest based on what others could do for them and for the flourishing of their form of life.[2] It would not be a universal (fourth-dimensional) concern based on the objective worthiness of the others in themselves for consideration from other persons.

Many biologists and evolutionary psychologists now tell us that such reciprocal altruism is the basis for the evolution of cooperation in the human species. Reciprocal altruism is also made the basis for some well-known modern contractarian theories of ethics that take their inspira­tion from Thomas Hobbes as well as from modern game theory.[3] On such views, enlightened egoists (or groups) would seek to avoid living in a Hobbesian state of nature of continual conflict with other individuals and groups by making a tacit or explicit social contract in which they agreed to cooperate with one another for mutual benefit.

A social contract of this kind may be a step in the direction of ethics. But it still expresses a relative, third-dimensional, concern based on self-interest. If some persons or groups were too powerless to help or hurt them, there would be no reason in the logic of reciprocal altruism alone why the powerless groups must be included in the contract—no reason why they could not be marginalized or exploited.[4] There remains a gap here between what is needed for the flourishing of one’s own form of life in the first three dimensions of value and what may be owed to others in the fourth.[5]

2. Human Nature, Natural Law and Classical Virtue Ethics

One may think this gap between the third and fourth dimensions might be bridged in another way, if one could show that what was good for oneself and one’s own form of life was in fact good for all humans. That is, one may think the gap between the third and fourth dimensions of value might be bridged by an account of human happiness or flourishing that was universal, applying to all humans and not only to oneself or one’s group. For then it seems one would have an account of the non-relative good from all points of view that the fourth dimension requires.

Finding such universal requirements for human happiness or flourishing was in fact the goal of so-called natural law theories of ethics as well as of many classical theories of virtue ethics that have their roots in ancient thinkers such as Aristotle.[6] Such theories sought to establish what forms of life were best for all humans by appealing to a common human nature and the ends and virtues that were essential to the fulfillment of this nature. In some natural law theories, including many modern ones, doing this would involve identifying goods sought by all humans based on common human traits, needs or interests in all cultures and identifying the kinds of lives that would best satisfy beings with such traits, needs or interests.[7]

Many versions of virtue ethics likewise seek to identify common traits of character that would lead to flourishing lives for any humans.[8] Rosalund Hursthouse, a modern proponent of the classical approach to virtue ethics along with Philippa Foot and others, defines a virtue as “a character trait a human being needs for eudaimonia, to flourish or live well.”[9] The assumption of classical virtue ethics, as Julia Annas (another of its defenders) has pointed out, was that, given our human nature, the cultivation of certain virtues was necessary for any kind of flourishing human life. [10]

There are two important claims that I think need to be made about these ancient natural law and virtue ethical traditions. The first is that we can and should acknowledge a basic truth that underlies them: Appeals to human nature have much that is essential to teach us about the human good. As a consequence, the search for common human goods, needs and virtues must be an important part of any inquiry into ethics—where ethics is conceived broadly (as it was for the ancient thinkers) as the search for the “good life.”

If, for example, it is a universal human requirement for flourishing and happiness that children be loved and nurtured when young (as it surely is), then societies in which child abuse and neglect are common are going to produce much misery and disorder. Humans ignore such knowledge of human nature at their peril. Such appeals to human needs and to virtues neces­sary for flourishing lives played a role in our discussion of the first three dimensions of value; and they are an important part of ethics broadly conceived.

But the second claim that needs to be made about these venerable natural law and virtue ethical traditions is equally important: While appeals to human nature and to virtues required for a flou­rishing life must be an essential part of any inquiry into ethics, such appeals will not alone get us to the ethical aspects of the fourth dimension of value. And this is so even if the require­ments for happiness or flourishing are universal and apply to all humans. For, even if it could be shown that one or a few forms of life would best satisfy all human needs and interests, it would not necessarily follow that humans ought to care whether all persons besides themselves and their favored circle (family, kin, tribe, culture, race) attain such a life.

3. Two Kinds of Universality

To fully understand this point, we must consider an important distinction, not often emphasized in ethical discussions, between two kinds of claims about universality, one in the third dimen­sion of value, the other in the fourth. Suppose it is true (as mentioned earlier) that

(1) <Being loved and nurtured when young> is a good for all humans in all human forms of life.

Then <being loved and nurtured when young> would be a universal third-dimensional value for humans because it would be a value common to all human societies, cultures and forms of life; and third-dimensional value is the domain of different societies, cultures and forms of life.

But now consider a different claim. Suppose an unfortunate child in a distant land and culture has been abandoned and we want to say

(2) <This abandoned child’s being loved and nurtured when found> is a good that should be recognized by all persons from all points of view as worthy of being realized (whether or not the persons are of the same culture, society, ethnicity, race, religion or form of life of, or care about, this child).

If this claim is true, then <this abandoned child’s being loved and nurtured when found> would be a universal fourth-dimensional value, something that should be recognized by all persons from every point of view as a good worthy of being realized, whether or not all persons do in fact recognize it.

Claim (2), which identifies a universal fourth-dimensional value, is stronger than claim (1). Persons may reject claim (2) even if they accept (1). That is what is done by those enlightened self-interested persons mentioned earlier who only care about their own group (family, clan, society, race), but not about others outside their group. These persons may acknowledge that being loved and nurtured when young is something all humans need for happiness and flou­rishing (thus accepting claim (1)); and so they strive to love and nurture their own children. But they do not acknowledge that the happiness of strangers who are not in their favored group is a good or right they must also recognize as worthy of being realized (thus rejecting claim (2)).

Perhaps these self-interested persons are wrong. Perhaps a condition for their own flourishing or happiness is that they recognize the right of all other persons and groups to be happy or flourish as well. But it is far from obvious why this must be so; and further considerations would be needed to show it to be so. Simply to define human “flourishing” or “happiness” so that the happiness or flourishing of some persons or groups requires recognizing the right of all other persons or groups to be happy or flourish begs too many fundamental questions of ethics.

There remains a gap that needs to be filled between describing what is required for any humans to be happy or flourish, and saying whose happiness or flourishing should be recognized by other persons as worthy of being realized. And this is a gap between the third and fourth dimensions of value.

4. Inclusion: Particular and Universal, Relative and Non-relative, Values

This distinction between two kinds of universality not only throws light on how fourth-dimen­sional value (if it existed) would go beyond or transcend the third and lower dimensions. It also shows interestingly how the fourth dimension of value may also include the third and lower dimensions of value, while transcending them.

To see this, consider claim (2) once again about fourth-dimensional value. If <this abandoned child’s being loved and nurtured when found> is a fourth-dimensional value, then the child’s being so loved and nurtured should be recognized as a good worthy of being realized by all persons from all points of view. But note that the child’s being so loved and nurtured would not be worthy of being recognized as good by all persons, if being loved and nurtured was not in the first place a good in some lower dimension of value for this child (rather than something bad for the child).

Indeed, the fourth-dimensional value consists in the child’s being so loved and nurtured when found, since the child’s being so loved and nurtured is what should be recognized by all per­sons as a good worthy of being realized.

The fourth dimension is thus not merely an abstract dimension. It includes all the concrete value rea­lized by individuals in the other three dimensions of value that is worthy of being recognized as good by all persons from every point of view. If someone’s experiencing joy, like the child seeing the squirrel (a first-dimensional good), or fulfilling a practical goal (a second-dimensional good) or attai­ning an excellence in some practice (a third-dimensional good) is worthy of being recognized as good by all persons, then something that is a value in one of the other three dimensions is “raised up” to the fourth-dimension.

The good so raised up or transfigured would then have not only relative value for those beings who have the experience or attain the excellence. It would also have objective or non-relative worth that should be recognized by all others.

Not all value in lower dimensions need be so raised up to the fourth dimension. Some may instead be overridden in the fourth dimension. Consider, for example, the joy a torturer takes in torturing his victim. If, as many ethical theories would imply, the joy the torturer takes in this act should not be recognized as good by everyone (clearly not by the torture victims and those who care about them), then instead of being raised up as a good to the fourth-dimension, the torturer’s joy would be excluded or would become bad in the fourth dimension (something worthy of not being realized).

Any such claims about overriding would have to be justified by ethical argument, to be sure. Indeed, affirming the very existence of a fourth dimension of value would require ethical argument, as noted. The example is merely meant to show how value in lower dimensions might be overridden, as well as included, in the fourth dimension, if fourth-dimensional value is possible at all.

Note also that if some values were so raised up to the fourth dimension, and not overridden, they would be values that are, in different senses, both particular and universal, and both relative and non-relative (or absolute). The child’s experience of joy when found is a particular good for the child and those who care about her. But if raised up to the fourth dimension, it would also be a universal good, worthy of being recognized as such by all persons from all points of view. It would be a particular good when viewed from the first dimension (from the child’s point of view) or from the second dimension (from the points of view of the child and those who care about the child), but universal when viewed from the fourth dimension.

Similarly, when viewed from the first and second dimensions, the child’s experience of joy would be a relative good for the child and those who care about her. But if raised up to the fourth dimension, it would also be an objective or non-relative good worthy of being recog­nized as such from every point of view without ceasing to be a relative good for the child and those who care about her.

These remarks do not, of course, yet show that there is anything like fourth-dimensional value. We are trying to understand what such value would be like, if it existed. But it is important to try to do this. For one may conclude too hastily that there is no such thing as fourth-dimen­sional value because one has the wrong idea of what it is.[11] How finite beings like ourselves might access the fourth dimension of value from our necessarily limited points of view and forms of life is a question to be addressed in the next section.

[1] Hardin 1995 is an instructive study of the genesis and dangers of such groups, whose adherents Kai Nielsen calls “classist amoralists.” In a subtle work, Vogler (2002) argues in similar vein that, while we may have reasons to be moral, it does not follow that we have “all things considered” reasons, so that it is possible to be both reasonable and vicious. Astute reviews of Vogler that agree on this particular point, include Driver 2004, p. 847 and Buss 2008, p. 478.

[2] See Wright 1994, Kitcher 2006, for overviews. E. O. Wilson 1975 is a seminal study. In an important work, Sober and D. S. Wilson 1998 relate altruism to group selection.

[3] Baier 1958, 1995; Gauthier 1986; Kavka 1986; Skyrms 1996; Axelrod 1984; Kitcher 2006; Alexander 2007; Hampton 2007.

[4] These points have been made by many critics of contractarian views. See perceptive overviews by Sayre-McCord 2000, Ashford and Mulgan 2007 as well as essays in Paul, Miller and Paul (eds.) 1988 and Vallentyne (ed.) 1991.

[5] In an important work, Joyce (2006) makes a related argument in a different way. He makes a strong evolutionary case for individual and group benefits of tendencies to make moral judgments, but argues that this evolutionary explanation falls short of justifying the “practical clout” we assign to moral judgments, which leads him to challenging skeptical conclusions about morality. Hauser 2005 also makes a case for the evolutionary origins of our moral sense.

[6] See Annas 1993 for an overview of ancient views.

[7] Modern natural law theorists include George 1993, Finnis 1980, Grisez and Shaw 1974, Budziszewski 1986, Braybrooke 2001, M. Murphy 2001. Hittenger 1987 is a critique. On the traditional natural law theory of Aquinas, see e. g., O’Connor 1967, Lisska 1996, Bowlin 1999. Copp 1995 defends an original “society-centered moral theory” that also emphasizes universal human needs, and has some affinity to (and differences from) some modern natural law theories. Copp compares his view to Braybrooke’s in an insightful essay (2009). Kellenberger 2001 also emphasizes common human traits despite cultural diversity.

[8] Annas ibid. See, e.g., contributors to Crisp and Slote (eds.) 1997 and Statmen (ed.) 1997, and Sherman 1989, S. Brown 2004, Adams 2006.

[9] Hursthouse 1999: 3; Foot 2001. Others who take this broadly neo-Aristotelian approach to virtue include G. Taylor 2006 and Gottlieb 2009. Taylor’s 2006 is an insightful discussion of “vices” from this perspective. Becker 1998 offers a modern Stoic version of virtue ethics.

[10] Annas ibid.: 515-16. Some modern theories of the virtues, including Slote 2001, Driver 2001, Hurka 2001 and Swanton 2003 depart from this classical approach to varying degrees. (Hurka regards his view as a theory of the virtues but not a virtue ethics in the strict sense.) Lovibond (2002), like many of these others, argues that the cultivation of virtues allows us to fulfill needs for certain human goods. For critical discussion of modern virtue ethical views, see Solomon 1988, Terzis 1994, Harman 1999, Doris 2002, Copp and Sobel 2004. Sreenivasan 2002 is a response to the influential critique of virtue ethics by appeal to social psychology of Harman and Doris. Stuhr and Wellman (2002) is a useful overview of recent debates.

[11] One has to be cautious, for example, in referring to fourth-dimensional value as “absolute” value, for it is common to associate the term absolute with what is certain: Absolute values are often assumed to be those one knows with certainty. But no such impli­cation attaches to fourth dimensional value. An objective or non-relative good, i.e. a fourth-dimensional value, is some­thing that is worthy of being recognized as good by all persons from all points of view. Simi­larly, an objective or non-relative truth would be something that is worthy of being recognized as true by all persons from all points of view.

Nothing in these distinctions implies that objective or non-relative values (or truths) must be knowable with certainty. If Einstein’s general theory of relativity is absolutely true in this sense, then it is worthy of being recognized as true from all points of view and hence from the points of view of all persons in all societies, whether or not all persons can understand it or agree with it. Those who deny its truth and believe some other theory about the nature of space and time have an incorrect atti­tude towards it. And so it is with objective or non-relative values. If there are such values, they are worthy of being recognized as good from all points of view and hence by all persons in all societies, whether or not they are actually so recognized. And being goods of such kinds does not necessarily imply they are, or can be, known to be so with certainty. What matters in the search for fourth-dimensional value, as in other areas of inquiry, is whether we can have good reasons to believe or assert that at least some things have such value, even if the claims fall short of certainty. This is a possi­bility that is worth exploring.

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