Jmeqvist posted an excellent entry on the inability of interpersonal reasoning-based dialogue to resolve all value conflicts in a polity, and although I disagree with his thesis, today I want to touch on a difficulty for moral/value discourse he points to, and what consequences it suggests for metaethical theorizing.
Jmeqvist notes that value conflict resolution seems near impossible when there is incommensurability between two value sets. In such instances the basic values of one person are radically different from another, such that discussing policy matters that ride on these values gain no traction; these persons are effectively talking past each other. No one can deny that such conversations do occur – I’ve certainly experienced this feeling when advocating for more egalitarian distributions of wealth when in debate with a (brilliant, mind you) libertarian. The question that concerns us here is whether, after enough reasoned discourse, we might begin to not talk past each other, perhaps by locating and assessing our basic values, thereby opening up the possibility of revising our value beliefs and thus, our assessments of morality and politics.
Of central importance to addressing this question is considering whether a state of affairs has value objectively or subjectively. A state of affairs has value subjectively if that state of affairs has value only because a subject believes it to be valuable. Now, if all value is subjective there still can be convergence on values in a polity due to it being possible to convince all persons of certain beliefs, and thus, certain values. Nevertheless, such convergence is less likely if value is subjective rather than objective (where objective value is value that something has in virtue of the actual facts about that entity, rather than what a subject believes about that entity, as with subjective value). So our question becomes: is value objective or subjective, and if value is objective do we have epistemic access to it through reason?
I think it is obvious that if a state of affairs has value then it does so objectively – it might be possible, however, that, per an error theory, because of the metaphysical makeup of the world, value does not exist on an ontological level due to there not being value-properties. Value must obtain for entities objectively, or it must objectively not obtain for any entities. Value must be objective because if value were subjective then an entity would have value due to the occurrence of our belief, not because of the truth-value of the belief, which would entail that our belief is neither true nor false. But a belief must be truth-functional, so it follows that I don’t actually have a belief about the value of an entity, which contradicts the subjectivism thesis, revealing the absurdity of such a position.
The difficult question here is whether we have real epistemic access to objective facts about value through reason. I tend to think that reason does provide us epistemic access to objective facts about value, but that we begin from self-evident general propositions to more specific propositions – in other words, a foundationalist moral epistemology. Still, the self-evident propositions I have in mind (such as: “pleasure is better than pain”) are so general as to lead to differing conclusions on more specific propositions. So even if there is objectivity to value, it is possible for there to be errors in reasoning that lead to widely diverging values. This explains why there is disagreement on a wide range of value conflicts without it necessarily being the case that there are no objective facts about the value of states of affairs. But more to the point, that errors in reasoning from self-evident value propositions to more varying specific conclusions have caused widespread disagreement on values suggests that value sets might not be so incommensurable. Through reasonable dialogue we might uncover where someone took a wrong turn in reasoning, and thus resolve the value conflict.