Positive and Negative Values

We want to answer the ethical question: “how should we live our lives?” This question is equivalent to many other differently formulated questions: “what is goodness?”, “what is the meaning of life?”, “what does it mean for something to be valuable?”, etc. The question presupposes that ethics is objective: i.e., that there is a single answer to this question.

It is obvious from the beginning that many different things are valuable: survival; social progress; art; science; love; the ability of every human to freely determine their lives; etc. So to solve the ethical question, we need to find a theory of value which synthesizes all of these things.

We should be suspicious of theories which leave anything out. For instance, a simple theory of value (widely held in Eastern mysticism) would say that becoming enlightened is the only valuable thing. But this theory results in us thinking that art, science, love, etc., are not valuable. This counts against the theory, because these are things that clearly seem valuable.

We are looking for an ethical theory which is parsimonious, but which when we unroll its implications, ends up ascribing value to almost everything that we already think is valuable. It is plausible to think that there are many valuable things whose value we don’t currently recognize; so if the values of an ethical theory are a superset of widely held values, that does not necessarily count against it. But the theory is less likely to be right if it fails to give value to a lot of things that we consider valuable.

To draw an analogy, if a scientific theory postulates many new facts beyond currently accepted ones, that is more likely to be acceptable than if it denies many currently accepted facts. There is not an absolute rule against denying accepted facts, and theories do not have free license to postulate new facts. So we are discussing a general heuristic rather than a hard rule.

So this is our first challenge for an ethical theory: to place value on almost all of the things we currently consider valuable.

Now let us analyze the space of values a bit. Some values have to do with solving problems: ending hunger, disease, and poverty; resolving inconsistencies in our knowledge; ending unhappiness and suffering; etc. Let us call these “negative” values. Other values have to do with creating things that are good: having fun; making beautiful art; discovering new knowledge; etc. Let us call these “positive” values.

In the space of negative values, we already have a pretty good idea of what the values are; the question is mainly one of how to achieve them. We can see the problems; the main challenge is seeing the solutions.

There is also, to an extent, a problem of seeing the problems. Consider, for instance, a rich person who does not realize on a gut level that the world is full of poor people who are suffering and do not deserve to be poor. Consider a person who is caught in a false belief system and does not realize that they are wrong. Consider a person who is so sexually repressed that they do not realize that they are sexually repressed.

A similar case is the one where we perceive a problem only dimly. We have some kind of hardship, but we do not see the full magnitude of the problem. For instance, consider a person who sometimes feels a slight chest pain, and does not realize that they have lung cancer. Consider also a scientist who occasionally gets unexpected results in their experiments, but does not yet realize that the unexpected results mean that their theories are fundamentally mistaken and they require a paradigm shift.

So sometimes we have problems and fail to see them. But this is not the main-line case. Mainly we see problems and fail to solve them. We know what our negative values are, and the challenge is achieving them.

In the space of positive values, we have the same problem of figuring out how to achieve them. But we have a more serious problem of figuring out what they are. Our problems, at any given time, are finite. But our potential for creating goodness is infinite.

To make this idea clearer, imagine an Earth in which all of the major problems have been solved. There is no hunger, no poverty, and no disease. There are no social ills, no emotional problems, and no interpersonal problems. People do not have to work. Imagine, furthermore, that the people on this planet will live forever, and their task is simply to enjoy eternity as much as they can. What should these people do?

One answer would be, “this Earth would be boring, and the best way to make it more interesting would be to reintroduce those problems.” But this is a poor answer. Surely we can make this Earth interesting in a more palatable way?

It is worth mentioning, also, that these people are not bored, not paralyzed by their freedom, and not in existential angst about the meaning of their lives. They do not have any major existential problems. So there are no problems that would be solved by reintroducing hardship.

I do think that an interesting existence necessarily involves problems. A problem-free existence would be lacking in the kind of drama which can make us passionate about life. But the proper reaction to this is not to introduce problems for their own sake. Instead, we should introduce problems whose resolution has the potential to yield good things. The problems should be sub-problems of, “how do we make the world more fun?” rather than problems for the sake of having problems.

So the one question facing these people is how to maximize the positive value of their world. What should they do?

Obviously they would go to parties, make art, love each other, engage in religious activities, do math and science, and in general do every cool thing that one can think of. But mightn’t there be better things they could do with their time? Maybe things that are many orders of magnitude better?

If we are serious about the problem of positive value, we will ask ourselves for a general theory of value, which is correct, and which tells us what would be the best thing for these people to do.

The problem I have posed may seem impractical, since we do not live in the world that these people live in. But it is not impractical. Particularly in the first world, each of us sometimes finds ourselves in the situation these people are in. We find ourselves, at a given time, not hungry or sick, in a good mood, without any work we have to do. What do we do then?

“We should solve the problems that Earth has” seems like an inadequate answer. Certainly this is one of the things we should do in this situation, but it is not the only thing. To see why, imagine a world in which everybody did this. Quickly our problems would be solved. But once they were, we would find ourselves in a problem-free existence with no art, no music, no movies, no philosophy, no religion, etc. We would be alive and well, but we would have nothing to live for. So the general problem of positive value reappears as relevant to us.

The problem of positive value is part of the general problem of value. We would be wrong to pursue only it. I have gone to pains to point it out because it is a bit harder to notice than the problem of negative value. If you ask a person to think of a general theory of what needs to happen, they would quickly think that starving children in Africa need to be fed, and depressed people in America need to become happy; but it would probably take them longer to think that there is a limitless possibility for goodness which we do not know how to actualize.

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