Value objectivists like myself tend to think of practical reasoning as the process by which an agent forms beliefs about what things have value, and then organizes those beliefs in order to act in a way that makes sense in light of them. But suppose you are skeptical about objective value – how, in that case, do you understand practical reasoning?
We find one way of understanding it in Harry Frankfurt’s recent work (especially in The Reasons of Love). On Frankfurt’s view, the roots of practical reason are not cognitive but volitional: rather than detecting things’ pre-existing values, we give them value by caring about them. Love, which represents the deepest form of caring, sets the limits to practical reasoning; it is in light of what one loves that one’s actions must make sense. Love, then, has a special importance for human agency. It also has a special value for human beings: for according for Frankfurt, loving things makes a person’s life better, by making it meaningful.
The claim that practical reason may be grounded in love, or caring, might be an attractive picture for people whose sympathies are broadly Humean. And the claim that love enhances the value and meaningfulness of one’s life might be attractive to many objectivists (including myself). The question though, is: can Frankfurt have both? In fact there is, I think, a conflict between Frankfurt’s views about what makes a person’s life better, and his claims about the value of love.
Here are the claims. (In the interest of space, I’m leaving out the textual support for attributing these claims to Frankfurt.)
(G) The value of A’s life is enhanced or damaged by the fact that P if and only if P is something that A actually cares about, or if the fact that P somehow has an enhancing or damaging effect on other matters that A cares about.
(L) In itself, the fact that a person loves something makes that person’s life better than it would otherwise be.
(G) sets the criteria which a consideration must meet if it is to be judged relevant to the goodness of a person’s life. (L) claims that a certain sort of consideration – that a person’s life contains instances of loving – is reliably relevant to the goodness of that person’s life. We should expect, then, that loving should meet the criteria set forth in (G). But is this indeed the case?
It is easy to see that this is not the case. For suppose there is an agent (call her Apathetic) who does not love or care about anything. Since Apathetic does not care about anything, the fact that she does not care about anything is not something that she cares about; nor does the fact that she does not care about anything affect anything that she cares about. Thus, the fact that Apathetic does not care about anything does not meet the criteria set forth in (G). I assume, however, that most of us would agree with Frankfurt’s judgment (expressed in claim (L)) that the fact that Apathetic does not care about anything makes her life worse than it might otherwise be. Thus, (G) seems to be false: in at least some cases the fact that a person’s life is P can damage the value (to her) of that life, even though she neither cares about P, nor about anything that is affected by P.
Apathetic is unusually apathetic, of course, but she is in no sense a conceptual impossibility. Of course, it is presumably true that an enlightened Apathetic, who was somehow in a position to appreciate the damage that the absence of love was doing to Apathetic’s life, would care about this failure to care. But for Frankfurt to make use of this possibility would be to open the door to all kinds of objective values. If the fact that a more enlightened Apathetic would not be apathetic about her own life is allowed to generate reasons for action, why should the fact that a genuinely enlightened Apathetic would care about other people’s lives not be allowed to generate (moral) reasons for action in a similar manner?
The point can also be made with a less extreme example. Suppose that Selfless, unlike Apathetic, does care about something: the welfare of her children, perhaps. It does not follow that Selfless must care about the caring itself. Suppose that Selfless is truly selfless and cares only for the welfare of her children. Given the choice between a situation in which her children flourish, but she no longer cares about them, and a situation in which her children suffer, but she continues to care (and thus regrets that they suffer), she would without hesitation choose the former state of affairs. As it happens, this is not her situation: the best way to ensure that her children flourish is to make certain that she is there to protect them, and she therefore regards the preservation of her own life as valuable – but only instrumentally valuable.
Selfless’s life, unlike Apathetic’s, has a purpose. Her life is therefore presumably better than Apathetic’s life. Does it follow that she must care about the caring that gives her life a purpose? Not unless she also cares about whether her life has a purpose, and Selfless is too selfless for that. She would, perhaps, prefer that her children’s lives were purposeful, since she wants them to be as well off as possible. She might therefore hope that her children find something to care about, the way that she has. But none of this implies that Selfless must care about the fact that she herself cares about her children – despite the fact that this does make her life better.
Thus, Frankfurt’s claims about the intrinsic value of loving, while correct, show (G) to be false. Loving is not only an intrinsic value but a kind of objective value: it tends to make a person’s life better whether he cares about it or not. The true issue separating Frankfurt from traditional moral objectivists is not whether there are objective values, but rather which objective values there actually are.