# Value, reasons, self

Assume it is possible to generate an impartial theory of value: a true description of what is valuable, where those truths do not depend on any particular perspective.

With this assumption made, one might think that, to answer the question of how to live, one should:

  1. Get clear on what is valuable, impartially considered
  2. Live in whatever way will bring about the most valuable consequences

In an important respect, this would make you “selfless”. Your actions would be a function of what the theory says is valuable, the state of the world, and your ability to influence future states of the world.

A self-including procedure might be:

  1. Get clear on what is valuable, impartially considered
  2. Get clear on what you value
  3. Consider both kinds of value when deciding how to live

On this procedure, the question of how to balance personal and impartial values will be hard. Intuitively, one may wish to cheer on the pursuit of both kinds of value. But insofar as there are tradeoffs, the person who thinks we should make the world as good as it can be will regret the opportunity cost of concessions to individual personality.

Jonathan Dancy, reflecting on Parfit, suggests that one resolution to the Repugnant Conclusion might be to agree that while, impartially speaking, a “Repugnant” world would be better than our own, it does not follow that we have reason to bring it about:

The Repugnant Conclusion is a result in the theory of value: a large enough world at a very low average level of well-being will always be better than a much smaller world with a much higher average level of well-being. But we should bear in mind the relevance of this to decisions about what we have reason to do. Parfit himself came to accept Scanlon’s buck-passing conception of value, according to which the fact that something is of value is the same fact as the fact that we have reasons of certain sorts (to protect, promote … it). And his phrase (in Reasons and Persons) ‘better in the sense relevant to choice’ reveals a nascent tendency towards what one might call a deontic conception of value, since ‘relevant to choice’ seems to mean something like ‘relevant to what we ought to (decide to) do’. But if we reject such conceptions of value, we have room to suggest that though a repugnant world would be better than the present smaller world, that fact gives us no reason to prefer it, to work towards it if we can and so on. After all, the fact that a child, if I were to have it, would have a good quality of life is no reason to have that child—though it might perhaps intensify (or act as an enabler for) any reasons I do have to have that child. By contrast, the fact that, if I had a child, that child’s life would not be worth living may be—probably would be—a reason not to have that child. But this need not determine our answer in the positive case. [1]

This line of thought seems compatible with a self-including procedure. But it still leaves us with a tough question about how we should relate to the impartial perspective. Should it inform our personal values? Should we re-shape our value function in its image, insofar as we can?

Another response is to reject the distinction between personal and impartial value: “it’s all just personal values in the end”. Nietzsche held a position like this, and so did Bernard Williams. In Dancy’s formulation, the opposition here is:

  • Subjectivism: we have most reason to do what would most achieve what we want.
  • Objectivism: we have most reason to do what would be best.

Apparently, Parfit was “alarmed by” subjectivism in the views of people he respects, and “repeatedly returned to” proponents of these views, “most notably Bernard Williams”, whose paper “Internal & External Reasons” generated “endless discussions” between Parfit and Dancy. Apparently On What Matters Volume 1 covers this topic at length… I guess I better read it.

[1] https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/documents/890/19-Memoirs-03-Parfit.pdf

Last updated: April 2021