Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Moral Problem and Nozick's Theory of Value

Gyges of Lydia finds the Ring

The moral problem was first clearly articulated by Glaucon in Plato’s The Republic. It can be summed up with a simple question: Why be moral? If I always do the right thing, will I be rewarded? Are people really motivated to do good? Glaucon was doubtful. He recounted the myth of the Ring of Gyges to support his point. Imagine you were given a magical ring that rendered you invisible. Under the cloak of invisibility would you not — like the shepherd in the myth — do all manner of evil?

Philosophers have struggled with the problem over the years. Some argue that doing the right thing is its own reward. Some argue that we should do the right thing lest we risk the wrath of God. Others pose more abstruse and technical solutions, claiming that doing the right thing is essential if we are to be rationally consistent.

In his book Philosophical Explanations, Robert Nozick proposes a unique answer to the question: he argues that if we don’t do the right thing then we live less valuable lives. To support this he develops an odd theory of what it means to live a valuable life. I find this theory intriguing and I haven’t seen many people discuss it.* So, in what follows, I want to summarise and evaluate its key features. I won’t be overly critical — indeed, I find Nozick’s defence of it to be almost too sketchy and programmatic to enable much criticism — but I will try to give a reasonable account of its main aspects. This requires me to condense 50 pages of Nozick’s text into a short article. I’ll try my best.

I will proceed as follows. First, I will look at Nozick’s critique of other solutions to the moral problem, specifically the inconsistency/rational contradiction solutions. His comments on this are, in my view, illuminating and worth sharing. Second, I will outline his theory of value — the organic unity theory — and explain how he justifies it. Third, I will consider the merits of this theory and how it is supposed to solve the moral problem. As we shall see, the solution is a modest one but maybe that’s the best we can hope for.

One interpretive comment before we begin: the discussion that follows presupposes that we can make some moral judgments and some value judgments. In other words, it presupposes that people generally agree on what the right thing to do is (don’t cheat, don’t kill without justification etc) and are capable of making some shared assessments of what is valuable. The challenge is to explain the grounding for these judgments. If you are sceptical about the capacity to make the judgments in the first place, you won’t be overly impressed by Nozick’s theory.

1. Being Moral on Pain of Contradiction

One of the most popular philosophical solutions to the moral problem is to argue that we ought to be moral if we wish to avoid rational inconsistency. This solution can be taken in a variety of directions but they all share the same general form:

  • (1) Agent S (perhaps qua agent) is committed to X.
  • (2) Being committed to X entails being committed to doing the right thing.
  • (3) Therefore, agent S is committed to doing the right thing (on pain of self-contradiction/inconsistency).

For illustrative purposes, consider one of the more philosophically technical and sophisticated defences of this view: Alan Gewirth’s principle of generic consistency (as defended, subsequently, by Deryck Beyleveld). I have covered this on a previous occasion. In brief, it claims that if you act purposefully to achieve a goal (which is the essence of rational agency) you must believe that this goal is good. This, in turn, commits you to the belief that you have a right to the pursuit of that goal. And this, in turn, with some additional reasoning (insert hand-waving here), commits one to recognise the same right in other rational agents. This gives us a basic principle of moral respect for others.

I’ll say nothing about Gewirth’s argument in particular. What interests me here is that all such arguments, as Nozick’s points out, have a problem. They assume that people have a motivation to avoid inconsistency in their expression of rational agency, but it is not clear that people, in general, have this motivation or that it is particularly strong.

Go back to the brief sketch of the argument from inconsistency that I outlined earlier on. What Nozick is saying is that there is a missing premise in this argument:

  • (1) Agent S (perhaps qua agent) is committed to X.
  • (2) Being committed to X entails being committed to doing the right thing.
  • (*Missing Premise*) Agent S is committed to being consistent in his/her beliefs, desires and actions.
  • (3) Therefore, agent S is committed to doing the right thing (on pain of self-contradiction/inconsistency).

When we evaluate that missing premise we find it lacks the desired motivational oomph. Philosophers, as Nozick points out, may be committed to being rationally consistent. But not everyone feels so strongly about it. Indeed, it is not even clear that reflective and well-educated people always want (or are capable of being) entirely consistent. Many of us, for example, accept that we are fallible in forming beliefs about the world. This means that we must believe that some of our current beliefs — beliefs that we are otherwise committed to — are false. But believing in your own fallibility and believing in your own specific beliefs is inconsistent. Yet we all do it, all the time, and don’t know how to avoid it (this is, technically, a paradox that has puzzled philosophers over the years).

If a philosopher talks to an immoral man about the inconsistency of his beliefs and practices, will he care? Nozick doubts it:

Consider now the immoral man who steals and kills to his overall benefit or for some cause he favors. Suppose we show that some X he holds or accepts or does commits him to behaving morally. He now must give up at least one of the following: (a) behaving immorally; (b) maintaining X; (c) being consistent about this matter in this respect. The immoral man tells us, “To tell you the truth, if I had to make the choice, I would give up being consistent.” 
(Nozick 1981, 408)


I think there is something to this critique. I doubt that most people care about rational consistency in the way that philosophers sometimes suppose. That said, I suspect that many people wouldn’t be as glib as Nozick’s hypothetical immoral man appears to be. I suspect that many people accused of immoral behaviour — behaviour that they themselves might have once classified as immoral — simply rationalise or justify it to themselves. They believe that it serves a higher good or, in some cases, that it is the moral thing to do. This desire to avoid moral cognitive dissonance, which seems widespread, might suggest that people care about consistency more than Nozick’s suspects.

2. Being Moral is More Valuable

Despite his scepticism about traditional philosophical solutions to the moral problem, Nozick does believe that there is a solution to it. At least, a solution of sorts. The cost of immorality, according to Nozick, is that one lives a less valuable life. And this can lead to important contradictions or inconsistencies in itself insofar as the pursuit of immorality destroys some of the value people purport to care about pursuing in their lives. This is true even if the immoral person does not feel the cost of immorality in their own lives:

The immoral person thinks he is getting away with something, he thinks his immoral behavior costs him nothing. But that is not true; he pays the cost of having a less valuable existence. He pays that penalty, though he doesn’t feel or care about it. Not all penalties are felt. 
(Nozick 1981, 409)


The plausibility of this hinges on Nozick’s belief that there is some unifying theory of value that we can use to assess the cost of immorality. What might that theory be? Nozick has an interesting proposal and method for answering this question. True to the methodology he follows throughout his book Philosophical Explanations, he starts with some general judgments of value that he and others seem to have and works from them to a theory that might explain those judgments.

The general judgments are assessments people have of the relative worth of different things. These are what Nozick calls “value rankings”. Looking first to the arts, Nozick argues that when people judge the relative worth of different artworks, they seem to rate artworks that unify diverse material more highly than those that do not. By this he means that paintings and sculptures that seem to unify different forms, textures, colours, tones, themes (and so on) are more aesthetically valuable than those that are more simplistic and monotonic. Similarly, he argues in the assessment of scientific theories, people rate theories that unify and explain diverse data more highly than those that only explain one or two phenomena (think about why Newton’s theory is better than Kepler’s). Finally, in the realm of biology, Nozick notes that organismic biologists use degrees of unity to explain how different plants and animals are formed and the relative degrees of unity displayed by these organisms seems to match with our ranking of the relative worth of organisms. For example, according to most value rankings, humans are valued more highly than worms and this correlates with the fact that humans are more complex, diverse but nevertheless unified organisms.

So what’s going on across these different domains? What general principle or theory explains the different value rankings? Well, I’ve given away the answer to some extent already. Nozick claims that ‘organic unity’ is the general property that can explain the different value rankings. Nozick doesn’t ever really define this concept with precision. You have to read between the lines. Roughly, organic unity seems to be achieved through a combination of diverse elements or aspects that are unified in some way that they can work together as an organic whole. For example, a human being consists of billions of different specialised cells, along with a small ecosystem of bacteria, working together as an organic whole. Hence they have a high degree of organic unity and hence a high degree of value. Organic unity comes in degrees and always involves a tradeoff between diversity and unity.

In short, Nozick supports the following argument (which he never explicitly formulates):

  • (4) People have value rankings of objects/entities across different domains, e.g. arts, sciences, biology, social systems.
  • (5) The best explanation of these different value rankings — i.e. the property that explains why people rank objects/entities in the way that they do — is degrees of organic unity.
  • (6) Therefore (probably) degrees of organic unity represents our underlying theory of value across multiple domains.

I won’t comment much on the logical form of this argument except to note that it is an inference to best explanation and, like all such inference, is defeasible and probabilistic in nature.

There are a couple of potential misconceptions of the argument. Nozick himself addresses these so I’m just going to summarise what he says. First, in saying that degrees of organic unity represents the best theory of value across multiple domains, Nozick is not claiming that organic unity is the only thing that is valuable. There could be other valuable states of affair (e.g. experiencing pleasure). He is, however, arguing that organic unity explains most of what is valuable across multiple domains and hence is the most general and important dimension of value. Second, one reason why Nozick isn’t precise about what organic unity consists in is because he thinks it can take different forms across different domains. In general, it involves the unification of diverse phenomena but what those diverse phenomena are, and what it takes to unify them, could mean something different in different contexts. For instance, in the case of human biology, organic unity might involve the collaboration of billions of specialised cells toward the goal of continued survival and reproduction. In the case of human rational agency, it might involve diverse beliefs, desires and intentions being fitted together into a coherent life plan or identity.

3. Evaluating Nozick’s Theory of Organic Unity

What should we make of Nozick’s proposal? There is one obvious problem with it. In claiming that organic unity is what best explains our value rankings across multiple domains, Nozick doesn’t offer much in the way of evidence to suggest that our value rankings do in fact correlate with the property of organic unity.

Somebody once said that you should always check the footnotes to an academic book. That’s where the bodies are buried. Nozick buries some bodies in his footnotes. In supporting his claims about value rankings across different domains, Nozick does cite sources that appear to support his perspective on aesthetics, biology and philosophy of science. But he does not attempt a systematic survey of the relevant fields nor does he engage with contrary views. The result is an argument that is, to put it frankly, underwhelming.

From my own perspective, I think Nozick is probably right about the relative worth of scientific theories: in general we do favour theories that unify more diverse data. But there is something of a tradeoff when it comes to the virtues of different theories. We also want theories with good predictive/explanatory power and sometimes they can be more complex and limited in scope than we would like. When it comes to aesthetics, I’m not sure whether he right. I don’t know enough about aesthetics and theories of artistic worth. I’m probably something of a subjectivist when it comes to judgments of aesthetic value: I’m not sure that objective value exists in that domain. That said, I typically prefer artworks (movies, songs, pictures) that have some pleasing tradeoff between simplicity and thematic depth. For example, in movies, I tend to prefer simple storylines that raise lots of questions or provoke intense thought and speculation. I don’t like overly complex narratives. Maybe that’s just me though. Finally, when it comes to biology and the relative worth of different beings, I think Nozick might be right to suggest that organic unity is an important marker of value but I think it is complicated. I’m not averse to the idea that there is some hierarchy of value between animals and plants. I do think a human being is more valuable than a worm. But it gets much trickier when it comes to assessments of the relative worth of humans and, say, higher primates or the relative worth of different humans. For example, I would be very sceptical of the idea that organic unity could be used to measure the relative worth of human lives. Indeed, the idea that some human lives are worth more or less than others is anathema to me. At the same time I doubt that all human lives are equal with respect to their ability to unify diverse elements. So I’m not sure what to do with that claim.

Fortunately, this is not all that Nozick has to say. He doesn’t simply claim that his theory offers the best explanation of value rankings across different domains. He goes on to formulate further desiderata that a theory of value should satisfy. Some of these are highly abstract and Nozick spends more time formulating them in highly abstract terms than he does defending the claim that his theory satisfies them. I’ll simplify quite a bit and focus on the three main desiderata that he discusses:

The Pluralism Desiderata: The best theory of value should explain why value seems to be plural and, nevertheless, why philosophers are obsessed with providing unitary theories of value.


The Valuing Value Desiderata: The best theory of value should explain why we think it is a good thing for people to promote, care for, celebrate (etc) valuable things, i.e. why we value values (and, conversely, why we think it is a bad thing for people to destroy, breakdown, eliminate (etc) valuable things).


The Allure Desiderata: The best theory of value should explain why we find valuable things to be alluring and inspiring.


The argument is that the theory of organic unity satisfies these desiderata. Let’s see how this works.

The pluralism desideratum is probably the most straightforward. Philosophers have long commented on the apparent pluralism of values. Humans seem to value many different things: friendship, pleasure, knowledge, family, sex, beauty, truth and so on. Despite this many philosophers are obsessed with trying to find a single dimension of value that explains these plural values. Nozick argues that his theory helps to explain this philosophical dance with value pluralism. On the one hand, given that value is constituted by organic unity, we should expect it to take plural forms: since what counts as organic unity across different domains can mean different things, and there are many different forms that organic unity can take. Organic unity in art is distinct from organic unity in human life, and so on. On the other hand, given that value is constituted by organic unity, we can understand why philosophers try so desperately to find a single theory that explains all forms of value: organic unity is the single explanation.

That said, there are limits to how much pluralism can be explained by the theory of organic unity. Nozick distinguishes between two forms of pluralism. Strong pluralism holds that different values are radically different and cannot be reconciled with one another. In other words, it holds that there are ineradicable tradeoffs between different values. Weak pluralism simply holds that values take diverse forms but that it may be possible, under ideal circumstances, to satisfy them all. The theory of organic unity supports weak pluralism, not strong pluralism.

The valuing value desideratum is a little bit more complicated. Nozick spends pages and pages of his book explaining what this is in highly technical terms. He also formulates several different variants on this desideratum. In brief, the idea is that most people agree that we should be positively disposed toward valuable things. So much so that this positive disposition is seen to be a valuable thing in itself. To celebrate and promote valuable art, for example, is valuable. But why is this? Nozick argues that the theory of organic unity can explain why. As he puts it, the verbs that characterise the necessary positive disposition to values (celebrate, promote, care for (etc)) are ‘verbs of unity’. If you celebrate something you are joining yourself to that something in some way. Why is this a good thing? Well, because joining yourself to the valuable thing is to attain a new kind of organic unity with that thing. Contrariwise, disvaluing something of value involves disunifying or rupturing your connection from it. Hence, organic unity can explain why this is not valuable.

This is bit too abstract for my liking. It’s not obvious why this is a significant desideratum for a theory of value. Nevertheless, Nozick’s claim that the theory of organic unity can, at least in part, account for why valuing value is, itself, of value sounds somewhat plausible.

The allure desideratum is perhaps the trickiest of the three. It also brings us back, closest, to the territory of the moral problem as originally formulated. After all, if value is alluring then we have some reason to expect that people might be motivated to live valuable lives. But, despite reading the relevant portion of Nozick’s text several times, I’m not sure I know what he means when he claims that value is alluring. The idea seems to be that reviewing the historical record reveals that valuable people and valuable experiences and objects (etc) are inspiring to us. They hold some sort of allure across time and space. Sure, in some historical epochs (Nazi Germany for example) people were allured by evil things, but this can be explained away by some distortion of historical circumstance and from the ‘frustrated envy of value’ among certain groups of people:

For whatever reason, the person himself will not achieve or embody value, and he prefers that no one else achieve it either; he chooses to thwart or oppose others’ achievement of value, so that they too will not have the value he lacks. 
(Nozick 1981, 437)


Under the valuable conditions, free from these distortions or frustrations, value is alluring to us. How does organic unity help to account for this? As best I can tell, Nozick offers no defence of this claim. This is disappointing.

4. Conclusion and Final Thoughts

This article has covered a lot of ground in a relatively short space. It started with the moral problem: why be moral? It then looked at Nozick’s dissatisfaction with traditional philosophical solutions to this problem and his alternative proposal: living an immoral life comes at the cost of living a less valuable life. This solution, however, is minimal insofar as we may not be motivated to live more valuable lives. The cost of immorality, as Nozick puts it, is not always a felt cost.

This led us to consider Nozick’s theory of value. As we have seen, Nozick believes that organic unity is the property that best explains human value judgments across multiple domains. It is also the theory that satisfies other desiderata on a theory of value. Nozick’s defence of these claims is, at times, underwhelming. His theory is programmatic and sketchy. Not fully worked out or persuasive.

Nevertheless, I find it intriguing. It seems to me that there is something to the idea that organic unity is an important underlying dimension of value. Is it the only or most important dimension of value? Of that I am less convinced. One problem for me is that it doesn’t seem to have the same intuitive attraction as other underlying theories of value. For instance, if someone claims that subjective pleasure is the primary form of value, this makes sense to me. It seems intuitively obvious that subjective pleasure is intrinsically valuable. How could it not be? (Yes, there are many caveats to be added here, e.g. just because it is intrinsically valuable doesn’t mean it is always instrumentally valuable). To say that organic unity is the primary form of value, doesn’t have the same intuitive appeal. Why is value constituted by organic unity? I’m not sure anything more can be said apart from the fact that, if we follow Nozick’s argument, it provides the best explanation of our value judgments and practices.

Maybe that’s all we can hope for.

* Nozick isn’t the only person to discuss the importance of organic unity to a theory of value. G.E. Moore famously did this but Moore’s concept was much more limited in scope and specifically concerned the fact that a whole can have a different value than the sum of it parts. Similarly, Plato and Aristotle also discussed the importance of organic unity in literature: drama being a unification of diverse parts. These other concepts of organic unity have been widely discussed. Nozick’s, as best I can tell, has not.

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