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Two Kinds of Value Pluralism



I argue that there are two distinct views called ‘value pluralism’ in contemporary axiology, but that these positions have not been properly distinguished. The first kind of pluralism, weak pluralism, is the view philosophers have in mind when they say that there are many things that are valuable. It is also the kind of pluralism that philosophers like Moore, Brentano and Chisholm were interested in. The second kind of pluralism, strong pluralism, is the view philosophers have in mind when they say there are many values, or many kinds of value. It is also the kind of pluralism that philosophers like Stocker, Kekes and Nussbaum have advanced. I separate and elucidate these views, and show how the distinction between them affects the contemporary debate about value pluralism.



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1 See e.g. Chisholm, Roderick, Brentano and Intrinsic Value (New York, 1986), p. 4 ; Lemos, Noah, Intrinsic Value: Concept and Warrant (New York, 1994), p. 99 ; Elinor Mason, ‘Value Pluralism’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, <> (2015), p. 6.

2 See e.g. Stocker, Michael, Plural and Conflicting Values (New York, 1990), pp. 167–8; Kekes, John, The Morality of Pluralism (Princeton, 1993), p. 17 ; Nussbaum, Martha, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (New York, 2001), p. xxix .

3 My interest in this article is pluralism about value. But even within value theory there are many kinds of pluralism. I want to discuss pluralism about intrinsic value, rather than pluralism about extrinsic value, prudential value, legal value, or some other kind of value. Some philosophers believe that the concept of intrinsic value should be replaced with some other concept, such as final value. I take no stance on this issue here: the term ‘final value’ may be freely substituted for the term ‘intrinsic value’.

4 Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica, rev. edn, ed. Baldwin, T. (New York, 1993), p. 111 .

5 See Moore, Principia; Brentano, Franz, The Origin of our Knowledge of Right and Wrong, trans. Chisholm, R. and Schneewind, E. (London, 1969); Ross, W. D. The Right and the Good, ed. Stratton-Lake, P. (New York, 2009).

6 Hurka, Thomas, ‘Monism, Pluralism and Rational Regret’, Ethics 106 (1996), pp. 555–75.

7 Lemos, Intrinsic Value, chs. 5–6.

8 Fred Feldman makes a similar point; see his ‘Basic Intrinsic Value’, Philosophical Studies 99 (2000), pp. 319–46.

9 Zimmerman, Michael, The Nature of Intrinsic Value (Lanham, 2001), p. 173 .

10 Olson, Jonas, ‘Intrinsicalism and Conditionalism about Final Value’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 7 (2004), pp. 3152 , at 49. Olson's view is about final value, but we can translate; see n. 3. See also Darwall, Stephen, ‘How Should Ethics Relate to (the Rest of) Philosophy?’, Southern Journal of Philosophy 41 (2003), pp. 120 , at 4; Lemos, Intrinsic Value, pp. 67, 99.

11 Of course, to say that a kind of thing is intrinsically good is not to attribute intrinsic value to the kind itself, but rather to some member(s) of that kind.

12 There is an important parallel here between axiology and the normative ethics of behaviour. As Ross reminds us, we do not want to know merely which actions are morally right – we also want to know why. Thus a theory of right action that gives only necessary and sufficient conditions for the moral rightness of actions is necessarily incomplete. Such theories need to be supplemented with some claim about what makes right actions right – some account of the right-making features of actions. I believe that something similar is true in axiology.

13 We may wish to make an exception for mixed goods, i.e. those things that are intrinsically good but have parts that are intrinsically bad. We may wish to say that such things are not good because of their good-making properties, but because their good-making properties defeat their bad-making properties. Thus, on the account I prefer, hedonism does not entail that containing more pleasure than pain is a good-making property. Rather hedonism entails that containing more pleasure than pain is the property something has when its good-making properties outweigh its bad-making properties.

14 It may be necessary to insist that no disjunctive or otherwise gerrymandered value properties appear in the set, depending on how we understand the because of or in virtue of relation. I do not believe that this restriction is ad hoc. The good-making properties of a thing should provide the ultimate explanation of its goodness. But the explanation of a thing's goodness cannot end with a disjunctive property – a thing instantiates a disjunctive property only because it instantiates one or more of its disjuncts. For this reason, I do not believe that disjunctive properties can be good making.

15 Suppose a philosopher puts some things on his list because they are episodes of pleasure containing 10 hedons, others because they are episodes of pleasure containing 11 hedons, and so forth. Is such a person a value pluralist? No. While our philosopher cites many good-making properties, they are all degrees of the generic property being an episode of pleasure (containing n hedons). When I speak of good-making properties above, I mean to speak of these generic properties. We can say then that our philosopher's theory is a form of monism because it entails that there is just one generic good-making property, such that all the specific, degreed good-making properties cited are degrees of this generic property.

16 Hurka provides a similar, though much less detailed, proposal; see his ‘Monism’. My account is also similar to the elegant solution offered by Feldman; see his ‘Basic Intrinsic Value’. Indeed, in most cases Feldman's account provides the same judgements as the view I describe. But Feldman's theory is, I think, more complex. It is also apparently incompatible with a number of increasingly popular theories about intrinsic value, such as particularism about intrinsic value (i.e. the view that only concrete particulars bear intrinsic value). Further, it delivers counter-intuitive verdicts when combined with the thesis of organic unities. I therefore believe that the simpler view I state here is preferable for our purposes.

17 See Kekes, Morality; Stocker, Plural; Nussbaum, Fragility; Berlin, Isaiah, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, Liberty, ed. Hardy, H. (New York, 2002), pp. 166217 . Other philosophers endorse similar views: see e.g. Galston, William, The Practice of Liberal Pluralism (New York, 2005); Taylor, Charles, ‘The Diversity of Goods’, Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. Sen, Amartya and Williams, Bernard (New York, 1982), pp. 129–44; Williams, Bernard, Moral Luck (New York, 1981); Hardy, Henry, ‘Taking Value Pluralism Seriously’, The One and The Many: Reading Isaiah Berlin, ed. Hardy, H. and Crowder, G. (Amherst, 2007), pp. 279–92.

18 See Kekes, Morality, p. 38 and Stocker, Plural, p. 168. Nussbaum's pluralism is also clearly inspired by Aristotle; see Fragility, pp. xxix, 294.

19 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Ross, W. D., ed. Broadie, S. and Rowe, C. (New York, 2002), pp. 99100 .

20 See Stocker, Plural, pp. 169, 184–94; Nussbaum, Fragility, p. xxix.

21 Mason, ‘Value Pluralism’, pp. 9–11.

22 Brentano, Origin, p. 18; Zimmerman, Nature, pp. 84–97.

23 I here follow Kekes's Morality, Kelly's ‘Impossibility’ and Klocksiem, Justin’s ‘Moorean Pluralism as a Solution to the Incommensurability Problem’, Philosophical Studies 153 (2011), pp. 335–50: I assume that value incommensurability entails, or is equivalent with, value incomparability. To say that the values of two things are incommensurable is to say that their values cannot be correctly represented on a common scale. To say that the values of two things are incomparable is to say that these things do not stand in any axiological relation to each other (e.g. better than, worse than, etc.). I believe that incommensurability and incomparability cannot come apart. But a defence of this position would take us too far afield. However, if we do believe that these concepts can come apart, then I believe we should link strong pluralism to incomparability, as these commenters, and others, have done. See Mason's ‘Value Pluralism’ for a review of the use of the term in connection with strong pluralism.

24 I borrow this example from Chris Kelly. See his ‘The Impossibility of Incommensurable Values’, Philosophical Studies 137 (2008), pp. 369–82.

25 Kekes, Morality, p. 21.

26 Galston, Practice, p. 11.

27 Stocker writes: ‘I agree that if values are plural, they must be incommensurable, since I understand “plural values” to mean pretty much the same as “incommensurable values”.’ See his ‘Abstract and Concrete Value’, Incommensurability, Incomparability, and Practical Reason, ed. R. Chang (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 196–214, at 203. Hardy writes similarly that, ‘pluralism means . . . that ultimate human values are irreducibly many; that they cannot be translated into a single super-value; and that they are sometimes (or often) incommensurable’. See his ‘Taking’, p. 285.

28 Some might object. They might agree that it is impossible to create a scale that measures more than one quality but claim that we can always merely sum the quantities in question. For example, suppose there are two irreducibly distinct kinds of intrinsic goodness, G1 and G2. Surely, for anything that is intrinsically good, we can calculate the amount of G1 + G2 it has. However a scale of G1 + G2 is not a value scale. It is simply a scale of G1 + G2. Likewise, we could construct a scale that measures the sum of a person's temperature in Fahrenheit and their I.Q. But such a scale would not measure their temperature, or intelligence. Of course, one could insist that our G1 + G2 scale measures some new kind of value. But this will not help us to compare G1 and G2 unless both kinds of value can be correctly analysed as mere components of G1 + G2. And this is not possible: it would conflict with our assumption that strong value pluralism is true; G1 and G2 would not be fundamental kinds of goodness, but simply many components of one ‘super-value’.

29 Kelly presents a similar argument in ‘Impossibility’.

30 See Brentano, Origin, pp. 29–30, 33.

31 This is the reading of Brentano I prefer. See Origin, p. 30, especially the end of sect. 32.

32 I am grateful to an anonymous referee for advancing this powerful objection.

33 The other popular approach is epistemic: according to such views, in cases of vagueness it is not our language or the world that is vague or indeterminate – it is rather that we are, in a sense, necessarily ignorant. See Williamson, Timothy, Vagueness (London, 1994) for a powerful explication and defence of such views; Roy Sorensen provides a brief summary in his ‘Vagueness’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, <> (2013). This epistemic approach to vagueness roughly corresponds to the practical, epistemic reading of Brentano given above. Such views are therefore inapplicable to the critic of Incommensurable Values – incommensurability, as we have understood it, is not epistemic.

34 See Lewis, David, On the Plurality of Worlds (Oxford, 1986), p. 212 .

35 See Williamson, Vagueness, p. 251. To be clear, Williamson does not believe in vagueness of this kind – he is only trying to make sense of it.

36 Michael Dummett for example, writes: ‘the notion that things might actually be vague, as well as being vaguely described, is not properly intelligible.’ See his ‘Wang's Paradox’, Synthese 30 (1975), pp. 301–24. This view is widely held – see e.g. Lewis, David, ‘Many, but Almost One’, Papers in Metaphysics and Epistemology (New York, 1999), pp. 164–82; Sainsbury, Mark, ‘Why the World cannot be Vague’, Southern Journal of Philosophy 33 (1994), pp. 6382 .

37 RussellVagueness’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 1 (1923), pp. 8492, at 85.

38 This worry seems especially acute in our case. Suppose that it is indeterminate whether insight is better than love because the better than relation is vague. To what degree, then, do these two goods stand in the better than relation? .5? .6? How could we ever answer such questions, even in principle?

39 See e.g. Colyvan, Mark, ‘Russell on Vagueness’, Principia 5 (2001), pp. 8798 ; Barnes, Elizabeth and Williams, J. R. G., ‘A Theory of Metaphysical Indeterminacy’, Oxford Studies in Metaphysics 6 (2011), pp. 103–48.

40 Berlin, Isaiah, ‘Introduction’, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford, 1969): p. ixlxiii, at l.

41 See Galton, Practice, p. 15; Kekes, Morality, p. 76.

42 Kekes nearly admit this; he says that such rankings will be ‘relative but not arbitrary’. They are not arbitrary because these conceptions are open to rational criticism ‘at least on one ground; namely, on how they compare with respect to the realization of primary [i.e. intrinsic] values’ (Morality, p. 78). But such criticism would itself be groundless unless we can compare the values of the things these conceptions rank.

43 See Kekes, Morality, pp. 67–74. Kekes does consider other forms of ‘monism’ before coming to this conclusion, but these views are drastically different from the kind of views that philosophers like Moore and Lemos have advanced.

44 Kekes, Morality, pp. 67–8.

45 Kekes, Morality, p. 69.

46 Kekes, Morality, p. 73.

47 Of course, I do not mean to assent to the idea that by merely giving reason to reject classical hedonism and preferentism, Kekes has thereby shown that no theory that is monistic in both senses may succeed. Novel forms of hedonism and preferentism have been developed, and these theories are much more difficult to defeat. See e.g. the hedonistic views developed in Feldman, Fred, Pleasure and the Good Life (New York, 2004).

48 Stocker, Plural, p. 3.

49 Moore, G. E., ‘A Reply to my Critics’, Philosophy of G. E. Moore, 3rd edn, ed. Schlipp, P. A. (La Salle, 1968), pp. 533677 , at 583.

50 It is also critical to state these views carefully; doing so may help dissolve contemporary disputes. The axiologies in Feldman's Pleasure are a good example. While Feldman's views are clearly not forms of strong pluralism, he claims that they are not forms of weak pluralism either. But Mason alleges in her ‘Value Pluralism’ that ‘Feldman's view is not a monist one.’ And Serena Olsaretti provides a similar argument; see her ‘The Limits of Hedonism: Feldman on the Value of Attitudinal Pleasure’, Philosophical Studies 136 (2007), pp. 439–50. If we apply our account of weak value pluralism we may hope to obtain a clear verdict. The same is true of historical debates: at least part of Moore's famous attack on qualified hedonism is his claim that Mill's theory is, in fact, a kind of pluralism and therefore cannot be a pure form of hedonism. Our theory can help us decide if we want to agree with Moore, or reject his complaint.

51 Many thanks to Eden Lin, Chris Heathwood, and audiences at New Mexico State University and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this article. I am especially grateful to Fred Feldman, Jean-Paul Vessel, Lisa Tucker, and an anonymous referee from Utilitas for all their help on this project.


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