Friday, May 06, 2022

Everything Is Valuable

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a talk by Henry Shevlin titled "Which Animals Matter?" The apparent assumption behind the title is that some animals don't matter -- not intrinsically, at least. Not in their own right. Maybe jellyfish (with neurons but no brains) or sponges (without even neurons) matter to some extent, but if so it is only derivatively, for example because of what they contribute to ecosystems on which we rely. You have no direct moral obligation to a sponge.

Hearing this, I was reminded of a contrasting view expressed in a famous passage by the 16th century Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming:

[W]hen they see a child [about to] fall into a well, they cannot avoid having a mind of alarm and compassion for the child. This is because their benevolence forms one body with the child. Someone might object that this response is because the child belongs to the same species. But when they hear the anguished cries or see the frightened appearance of birds or beasts, they cannot avoid a sense of being unable to bear it. This is because their benevolence forms one body with birds and beasts. Someone might object that this response is because birds and beasts are sentient creatures. But when they see grass or trees uprooted and torn apart, they cannot avoid feeling a sense of sympathy and distress. This is because their benevolence forms one body with grass and trees. Someone might object that this response because grass and trees have life and vitality. But when they see tiles and stones broken and destroyed, they cannot avoid feeling a sense of concern and regret. This is because their benevolence forms one body with tiles and stones (in Tiwald and Van Norden, eds., 2014, p. 241-242).

My aim here isn't to discuss Wang Yangming interpretation, nor to critique Shevlin (whose view is more subtle than his title suggests), but rather to express a thought broadly in line with Wang Yangming and with which I find myself sympathetic: Everything is valuable. Nothing exists to which we don't owe some sort of moral consideration.

When thinking about value, one of my favorite exercises is to consider what I would hope for on a distant planet -- one on the far side of the galaxy, for example, blocked by the galactic core, which we will never see and never have any interaction with. What would be good to have going on over there?

What I'd hope for, and what I'd invite you to join me in hoping for, is that it not just be a sterile rock. I'd hope that it has life. That would be, in my view, a better planet -- richer, more interesting, more valuable. Microbial life would be cool, but even better would be multicellular life, weird little worms swimming in oceans. And even better than that would be social life -- honeybees and wolves and apes. And even better would be linguistic, technological, philosophical, artistic life, societies full of alien poets and singers, scientists and athletes, philosophers and cosmologists. Awesome!

This is part of my case for thinking that human beings are pretty special. We're central to what makes Earth an amazing planet, a planet as amazing as that other one I've just imagined. The world would be missing something important, something that makes it rich and wonderful, if we suddenly vanished.

Usually I build the thought experiment up to us at the pinnacle (that is, the pinnacle so far; maybe we'll have even more awesome descendants); but also I can strip it down, in the pattern of Wang Yangming. A distant planet without us but with wolves and honeybees would still be valuable. Without the wolves and honeybees but with the worms, it also would still be valuable. With only microbes, it would still have substantial value -- after all, it would have life. Let's not forget how intricately amazing life is.

But even if there's no life -- even if it's a sterile rock after all -- well, in my mind, that's better than pure vacuum. A rock can be beautiful, and beauty has value even if there's no one to see it. Alternatively, even if we're stingy about beauty and regard the rock as a neutral or even ugly thing, well, mere existence is something. It's better that there's something rather than nothing. A universe of things is better than mere void. Or so I'd say, and so I invite you also to think. (It's hard to know how to argue for this other than simply to state it with the right garden path of other ideas around it, hoping that some sympathetic readers agree.)

I now bring this thinking back to Earth. Looking at the pebbles on the roof below my office window, I find myself feeling that they matter. Earth is richer for their existence. The universe is richer for their existence. If they were replaced with vacuum, that would be a loss. (Not that there isn't something cool about vacuums, too, in their place.) Stones aren't high on my list of valuable things that I must treat with care, but neither do I feel that I should be utterly indifferent to their destruction. I'm not sure my "benevolence forms one body" with the stones, but I can get into the mood.

[image source]


Philippe Bélanger said...

Does this also apply to objects that cause harm? Let's say Bob has a gun and is about to kill Alice. It seems like we would be better off if the gun didn't exist. Arguably the gun is therefore not valuable.

Kaplan Family said...

Great point! Totally agree! Thanks for posting about the great WYM!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Philippe: I would suggest that it's valuable but that its destruction is justified for the sake of protecting other more valuable things.

Kaplan: I predict a Wang Yangming resurgence!

P.D. Magnus said...

Eric, I think that your answer to Philippe is the right move to make given your position: The gun is valuable but it would be better (all things considered) for it not to exist. However, I'm not sure whether I find that plausible— especially when thinking about other cases like cancerous tumors.

A bigger worry (I think) is not about the contrast between existing and not existing but instead about the contrast between this existing and that existing. Why prefer a distant rock planet to those same atoms but in the star itself? A hurricane and a gentle rain are both possible configurations of the atmosphere. The alternative to terrible weather isn't void, but different weather.

Luke Roelofs said...

So I worry about how compatible this sort of highly extended morality is with the sort of 'recognition of subjectivity' that I would regard as important to liberalism. If I think tattoos are beautiful and make the world richer, but some people think the opposite, we shouldn't debate which of us is 'right', we should accept that these are our preferences, and that the morally best course is one which we're able to both satisfy our preferences as much as possible.

Why this is relevant is that it suggests we need to apply a sort of blanket scepticism to our gut feelings about beauty and richness, and try to base morally on something 'behind' them - namely, on the preferences they express, or the valuing nature that creates those preferences. And I think for a lot of people that fits neatly with a sort of sentientism: sentient beings have that capacity to value, to care one way or another about what happens, at least in rudimentary form.

Which isn't necessarily an objection to you or WYM, so much as it's a reason to think that you may need some sort of panpsychism (or panprotopsychism?) for these intuitions to survive the acid test of liberal subjectivity-recognition.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

That is indeed a beautiful if not profound passage from Wang Yangming. And I agree that human beings are creatures that somehow stand apart, that they are “special,” but that uniqueness is for better and worse: atomic bombs, war, torture, slavery, toxic wastes, environmental degradation and destruction, etc., etc. among the numerous examples of our capacity for bringing, if your will, evil into the world, of our stubborn penchant or debilitating disposition for demonstrating an appalling (immoral, unethical) inability to deeply appreciate and work with the natural world. I still find Paul W. Taylor’s Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics (Princeton University Press, 1986) to be a pioneering and inspiring work that takes us in a fundamentally different direction. This also called to mind the infamous “straw dogs” (chugou 刍狗) passage in the Daodejing:

Finally, permit me to share a poem that was part of our wedding ceremony on the summer solstice in 1980:

Prayer for the Great Family

Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day—
and to her soil: rich, rare and sweet
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Plants, the sun-facing, light-changing leaf
and fine root-hairs; standing still through wind
and rain; their dance is in the flowering spiral grain
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Air, bearing the soaring Swift and silent
Owl at dawn. Breath of our song
clear spirit breeze
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Wild Beings, our brothers, teaching secrets,
freedoms, and ways; who share with us their milk;
self-complete, brave and aware
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Water: clouds, lakes, rivers, glaciers;
holding or releasing; streaming through all
our bodies salty seas
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to the Sun: blinding pulsing light through
trunks of trees, through mists, warming caves where
bears and snakes sleep— he who wakes us—
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to the Great Sky
who holds billions of stars— and goes yet beyond that—
beyond all powers, and thoughts
and yet is within us—
Grandfather Space.
The Mind is his Wife.
so be it.
(after a Mohawk prayer) — Gary Snyder

Arnold said...

I like profound and gravity...
...profound can be, before-found for searching feeling values...thousands of years old...
...gravity of the situation, for relativity of feeling values...billions of years old...

Sahar Joakim said...

When the concept of moral community arises (e.g., lessons on normative theories… or animism), this post is perfect to have student read, consider, and respond. Thanks, Eric!

CK Chan said...

This echoes what Feng Zikai said in his artwork: these(myriad things under the heaven) are endless treasures of the creator.

Philosopher Eric said...

I must agree with Luke Roelofs — the perspective here does seem to get quite panpsychistic. And I’m impressed that he objected on the grounds of liberalism. My own way of illustrating this would be to imagine another world across the galactic core. It evolves life and sentience, though the sentience is only half the scope found on our planet — the negative kind!. Thus nothing would ever feel good there but rather anything from horrible suffering to neutral. In a sense this world would still be awesome, though I know that you wouldn’t hope for it to exist professor. Doing so might even be considered evil.

I do think that I have a way to salvage your presented perspective however. This would be to reserve the “value” term for sentient function, as well as acknowledge that this can be either good or bad for an associated experiencer. Then we could identify an awesomeness dynamic constituted by stuff that we’d consider interesting.

Arnold said...

The value of hope from learning to stay with the gravity of oneself...
...seems a practicable emergent...

Matti Meikäläinen said...

Just when I was about to delete this blog from my browser bookmarks, you say something that totally captures my attention—“Everything is valuable. Nothing exists to which we don't owe some sort of moral consideration.” So, I’m not only surprised but I quite agree—perhaps not to the point to claiming “beauty” in a rock that is not experienced by anyone, but pretty darn close.

And while I’m here let me submit a brief counter-perspective to the comments of Luke Roelofs and Phil Eric. I think you are both correct to support your misgivings as stemming from a philosophical “liberal” frame of reference. Luke expressed it clearly as “…the morally best course is one which [each of us are] able to satisfy our preferences as much as possible.” This indeed fits our modern-day philosophical liberalism—clearly expressed by, for example, John Rawls. It’s a liberalism that asserts the priority of the right over the good. It posits a person’s individualism as primary with total freedom to choose one’s own values, ends, and hence obligations—assuming an equal right in others. What could be wrong with that?

I think this is an incomplete way of looking at things. There is much to question. But let me just restate what I expressed in an earlier comment under “Dehumanizing the Cognitively Disabled.” We are simply not free in an atomistic and unfettered sense as John Rawls and so many liberals assume. I submit that we are, instead, situated in this world. And it is impossible to exist otherwise. We are political animals born into a world of relationships—a complex set of ready-made obligations created by our inescapable interconnections—connections with all of humankind and all of the world.

I don’t want to belabor this so let me close with a little tease of a quote from the gentle Mary Midgley: “… scientists no longer think in terms of hard, separate, unchangeable atoms at all but of particles that are essentially interconnected. And, on the social side, attempts to treat people as disconnected social atoms have repeatedly turned out very badly. Yet we still find it very hard to reshape both these thought-patterns. Like a lot of other ideas which we owe to the Enlightenment, they have come to be accepted as necessary parts of rationality.” I admit it’s not a indisputable syllogism, but perhaps it’s a place to start thinking a bit differently.

Philosopher Eric said...

I’ll agree with you Matti that what we’ve said could be further completed. I didn’t mean to suggest that anyone truly is “free”, or that we liberals must prefer the right over the good, even if that’s sometimes how things go. In fact I’m a determinist in an ultimate sense. Still I do consider us to make choices from our own tiny perspectives. That’s the sense in which someone might be judged as “good” or “evil”.

With this inclusion I wonder about your thoughts on my suggestion for the professor’s post? Any problem saying that everything is “awesome” rather than actually “valuable”? And would you thus consider it evil to convert a less awesome lifeless non-sentient planet into one in which a vast array of awesome life exists that is sentient, but only ever suffers anything from slight to tremendous horrors?

Matti Meikäläinen said...

Phil Eric,

My point was simple, as I think was Wang Yangming’s. In short, Midgley’s reference to “connections” is a better way to understand reality as opposed to (what one critic of John Rawls labeled) an unencumbered self that is totally free to choose his or her own values, ends, purposes and obligations. That unencumbered self is, however, a very stubborn illusion of our times. But to take it further, everything in our connected world is valuable. I take the meaning of Wang Yangming as “benevolence forms one body” with all existence. And, if you noticed, in similar fashion the creation story of Genesis repeats one phrase over and over—that God saw that it was “good” as to each part of creation. This is a very old concept.

As I said my point was simple. You’re introducing a new level of complexity. I’m unprepared to go there. It seems you’re getting into a discussion of evil. I would need a little more preparation to participate in that discussion.

James of Seattle said...

I’m pretty much with you here, so I just wanted to give my perspective of why. I think it’s about goals. The best, most moral thing to do is identify goals and cooperate with those goals to the extent that they don’t compromise our personal goals excessively. This obviously covers all life, but what about rocks? Rocks don’t have goals as usually defined, although if you squint and look sideways you could get persistence as a goal. But even without it’s own goals, we can consider the potential goals of entities which may come upon this rock in the future. Beauty, and others, might thereby be a sufficient consideration.

[just sayin]

Christopher Devlin Brown said...

It seems like view you express in this post might run into the "repugnant conclusion", which is a problem for certain sorts of utilitarianism. As I understand it, the repugnant conclusion is the view that it is always better for there to be more rather than fewer valuable human lives, so we ought to strive to maximize the number of humans who are alive, even if doing so would significantly decrease average wellbeing.

Even if your view doesn't run into the repugnant conclusion (perhaps you can say there is a sweet spot of just the right number of highly complex lifeforms, or something), I suspect that there are some hedonistic constraints on what sort of good world you would like to find on the other side of the galaxy. Suppose that as we add more complexity to that planet, it acquires only more pain and terror, and no pleasure.

To illustrate: the bare rock planet is unfeeling. We can imagine that beings which are minimally sophisticated enough for phenomenal consciousness possess a minimal amount of pain and terror but no pleasure (perhaps they are the products of malevolent aliens, or just products of cosmically bad evolutionary luck), and that as the complexity and sophistication of life increases, the amount of pain and terror increases, but there is never an increase in pleasure or happiness. Such a hellish planet strikes me as quite bad—far worse than a planet with no complex life on it. To justify this intuition, I believe some hedonistic principle is required. Such a hedonistic principle, I take it, would go against the spirit of the view you describe in this post, since such a hedonistic principle would plausibly allow us to judge that some lives are valuable and others not as based on their capacity for certain sorts of subjective experiences (I'm a Singer fan btw, obviously).

Christopher Devlin Brown said...

PS I just saw that the latter part of my comment is somewhat redundant from what Philosopher Eric said in a post above. I suppose I should read the previous comments more carefully before posting.

Charlie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charlie said...

I can't help, but personally, to think generally about aesthetics. There is an analogous problem in art, in terms of what constitutes art, what constitutes beautiful or good or valuable art. Perhaps modern perspective is that what constitutes art is something being called art: e.g., a phone book as poetry, bits of everyday speech, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, etc. So you sort of push things to the extreme, and this produces a certain kind of aesthetic experience/ecstasy of the everyday: everything is beautiful/everything is meaningful.

The flip side is differentiation. And at least from a subjective experience the former is much more enjoyable and interesting, but is something lost? Does the second (differentiated) state of saying some things are valuable/some things are beautiful and somethings are not have any value?

Philosopher Eric said...

No worries Matti!

It’s good to hear that you’ve independently reached the same reasoning which I’ve used to illustrate that not everything should be considered “valuable”, and even if we might effectively consider it “awesome”, or “interesting”.

On Derek Parfit’s repugnant conclusion, I like to handle it this way. If reality itself can be repugnant (which seems quite plausible to me) then an effective utilitarian description of reality ought to have various repugnant implications.

Regarding a fundamental principle of axiology, consider this one: It’s possible for a machine that is not conscious, like a brain, to produce a positive/negative value dynamic from which to drive the function of a machine that is conscious, like yourself.

Howie said...

If I understand your point, you are saying that existence in itself is valuable- others have expressed this attitude- I think it is more in line with the religious notion that life is good or Buber's I-Thou, than the Greeks' sense of wonder- and it is an attitude more than an argument- and so you lead by example rather than prove by argument. Further I'd say yes rocks are cool, but interesting in the scientific sense differs from valuable in the ethical sense- I'd also ask whether there is a hierarchy of value-
I'm with you I have my foot in the door and I'm enjoying the view, but the glasses I have on don't see everything you see

Arnold said...

Isn't quantum mechanics a value of understanding then, but only in our-dimension...
...the sum of measurement is in understanding observation's value...

Observation on earth-gravitating knowledge and understanding (being) here now...
...timelessness, finite, infinite...

I wonder what Daniel Dennett (my age) might think of old age quellings...
...towards learning in our time...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all these interesting comments, folks!

P.D.: Guns and cancer are tricky since they are associated with harms to things we care about more than we care about guns and cancer. My inclination is to think that this trips up our intuitions. On whether it's better for atoms to be in a rock planet or in a star, I don't have a clear feeling about this, but I don't think I need to. My claim that the rock planet is valuable is not a claim that it's *more* valuable than a portion of a star, but rather that it is valuable full stop -- and for that assessment I think void probably is the right contrast.

Luke: An interesting angle into panpsychism. I would resist the first step, though. Let's not ground everything in preferences. That makes things too contingent on what the preferences happen to be -- the old relativism problem for strong forms of liberalism.

Patrick: I agree (though I confess I haven't read Taylor). And thanks for sharing the beautiful poem. Gary Snyder has such a great eye and voice!

Phil E: Some lives might be so miserable as to not be worth living, I agree. But I would resist the tendency to value lives primarily in terms of the amount of pleasure or suffering. Value is so much more than that, and we often reasonably choose suffering for the sake of other values -- for example, to be good parents or to have meaningful accomplishments. (Yes, I know a utilitarian might say that those choices are only rational if they increase pleasure in the long run, including perhaps for others; but I don't think that must be so.)

Christopher: Right, see my reply to Phil E. To add a bit: I do think that pleasure is good and suffering is bad -- a hedonistic principle -- but I don't endorse the view that those are the *only* things that are fundamentally good or bad. I hope I can avoid "repugnant conclusions" by giving things appropriate weight.

Charlie: How about a bit of each? Everything is valuable, but differentiate among the valuable things. Some are more valuable than others.

Howie: Something about the word "hierarchy" bugs me. It sounds rigid and authoritarian. But yes, I'd agree that different things have different degrees of value. A human life is worth more than the life of carrot!

Charlie said...


I guess to me the issue is that the act of saying everything is valuable sort of destroys the ability to differentiate. The idea that everything is valuable, I think at least in an aesthetics context, derives from an application of the idea of beauty to all of experience. Whereas differentiation would say this move isn't allowed. So it feels strange to apply this kind of operation, and then to later apply differentiation, but with a more limited scope. It somehow feels inelegant. What would seem more interesting would be to provide an argument as to why this application of "everything is valuable" works in a very general scope, but not a narrow one and differentiation does not work in a very general scope, but only a narrow one

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Charlie: Interesting thought. I agree that there's something elegant (and radical!) about seeing equal beauty in everything, and that it's less elegant to say that everything has value without then saying that everything has *equal* value.

What is the principle of differentiation in value? In this post, I'm just inviting the reader to share my intuition. Recently I've been tempted to find a principle in thinking about what sort of things *would* be valued by highly intelligent, long-lived, social entities in general. (You could then of course push the question back by asking why use that as a yardstick, fair enough!) I think intelligence plus long life already invites and almost requires certain patterns of valuing:

Sociality then starts to get you norms of cooperation, helpfulness, honesty, etc., the foundations of ethics.

Philosopher Eric said...

I don’t actually consider myself a utilitarian. To me that position, anywhere from Bentham to the modern day Singer, seems unsalvageably moralistic. If anything I may be referred to as a psychological egoist. I’m concerned by what “is” rather than our various socially constructed notions of “ought”. I counter Hume’s “is – ought” problem by observing that in the end, is is all there is.

Consider how un notable it would be for you to present Wang Yangming’s position to your peers. Sure. But what if you were to suggest that psychologists could benefit from the man’s ideas as well? I think they’d smile politely but remain confused about how to effectively implement an “everything is valuable” premise into their work. Now imagine how ridiculous this premise would be considered if your audience happened to be economists! This relatively hard science has what psychology still lacks, or a founding premise of value from which to model behavior.

Just as philosophy will never invalidate the premise upon which the field of economics stands, i.e. sentience as value, I’m not saying that I’d like economics to invalidate the premise upon which the modern field of philosophy stands, i.e. indeterminacy. I’m saying that in addition to the wondrously indeterminate field of philosophy, science is in need of a respected community of professionals whose only purpose would be to provide science with founding metaphysical, epistemological, and axiological positions from which to do their jobs.

This is one of the reasons that I’d like more women and other “non-bros” to enter your field — some of them might have less desire to preserve philosophy’s past. And if anyone were to consider it sacrilege for there to be two opposing varieties of philosopher, no problem. This new kind of study might be referred to as something entirely different. I like the sound of “meta science”.

George Gantz said...

Great post - great conversation. Perhaps it is useful to think about the distinction between theoretical questions of valuing, and the aspirational question of how we relate and how we behave. One approach (reflected in a blog post for the Swedenborg Foundation and a subsequent interview by Off-The-Left-Eye) is to distinguish between intrinsic and instrumental valuation - and link the intrinsic to interconnectedness. This does get you to a universalist position (everything has value) with differences based on the strength of the relationships. This is a bit of theory --- but are we not really more worried about behavior? Is an approximate theory good enough if it results in more thoughtful behavior? Post: Interview:

Peace - George

chinaphil said...

I can think of a few categories toward which I would find it hard to work up any moral sentiment. One is the (somewhat distant) past. When I learn about ancient civilisations, I usually approach them with minimal moral feeling. After all, nothing we do now can change them; and they need not inform our current day actions or outcomes at all.
Another is things that can never be observed. I think I don't share your preference for there being "something" over a vacuum. I don't mind the existence of vacuum, and particularly in areas that no one can observe, I'd struggle to see moral significance.
Another area is ephemeral patterns. I'm thinking of the shapes of clouds or the swirling of milk, or the swirling of galaxies. They may well have aesthetic value (I love liquid ripples), but I can't see my way to ascribing moral import to any such thing.

Atanu Dey said...


First time visitor to The Splintered Mind. Fascinating blog.

You wrote, What I'd hope for, and what I'd invite you to join me in hoping for, is that it not just be a sterile rock. I'd hope that it has life. That would be, in my view, a better planet -- richer, more interesting, more valuable.

Made me wonder. What do you think of antinatalism? David Benatar argues that it is better to never have been.

Pardon me for the off-topic comment. Please keep up the great work.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Atanu! As you've guess, I disagree with Benatar. The good outweighs the bad!