Some philosophers opposed to consequentialism think that one of the basic mistakes that consequentialists make is to think that all value is located in states of affairs. (E.g., there are remarks to this effect in T. M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other; in R. M. Adams’s Finite and Infinite Goods; in Philippa Foot’s "Utilitarianism and the Virtues"; in Bernard Williams’s Utilitarianism: For and Against; and so on.)
Now, I am no friend of consequentialism (au contraire, in fact …), but this attack on the idea that the locus of value is states of affairs seems to me a hopeless manoeuvre for the opponents of consequentialism to make. As I shall argue below the fold, locating all the values that one proposes to talk about in states of affairs is a completely harmless "housekeeping" move which makes no substantive difference to one’s overall ethical theory.
As I intend to argue on another occasion, the crucial issue that really divides consequentialists and their opponents is whether the only appropriate response to values is to promote them, or whether other responses are sometimes more important — such as honouring or respecting values, not harming them, acting in a way that expresses one’s cherishing of them, and so on.
Of course, it is quite true that a lot of things other than states of affairs are valuable in various ways.
- An intellectual achievement is not a state of affairs, but it can be admirable, and so valuable in one distinctive way.
- A landscape or a painting is not a state of affairs, but it can be sublimely beautiful, and so valuable in another way.
- An individual human being is not a state of affairs, but an individual human person has a certain sort of dignity that makes him or her valuable in yet another way.
But whenever something x that is not itself a state of affairs has a given evaluative feature V, there is a simple way in which we can identify a corresponding state of affairs S(x) that has a corresponding evaluative feature V’.
Then, in building our ethical theory, we could just forget about the fact that strictly speaking, it is not only states of affairs that are valuable — since instead of talking about the valuable thing x, we can just talk about the correspondingly valuable state of affairs S(x) instead. In other words, the valuable state of affairs S(x) can serve in our theory as a proxy for the valuable thing x.
This move will certainly not have any deep explanatory significance, but it will at the very least be quite a harmless move to make. More positively, it may actually be useful as a "housekeeping" move: it may simplify the presentation of our ethical theory, and facilitate the articulation of illuminating principles about values and their practical significance.
This is how to identify the corresponding state of affairs for any valuable thing x (assuming that x is not itself a state of affairs).
I assume that whenever something has a certain evaluative feature V, it has some other property P that makes it the case that it has V. Then the state of affairs that corresponds to the valuable thing x is the state of affairs of x‘s having P. This state of affairs may not itself have V, but it has a corresponding sort of value — viz., it is a state of affairs that makes it the case that something has V.
So, whatever else may be wrong with consequentialism, there is nothing wrong with the way in which only focuses on the kinds of value that are located in states of affairs. States of affairs are all that we ethical theorists need.