Natural Values? : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Can there be knowledge of right and wrong? Or is the idea that values can be the object of knowledge a grand illusion? Thomas Nagel, in his new book, comes down solidly on one side of this argument. Commentator Alva Noë weighs in with his thoughts.
NPR logo Arguing The Nature Of Values

Arguing The Nature Of Values

Ice cream: just a treat, not a values statement. Wayne Perry/Getty Images hide caption

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Wayne Perry/Getty Images

Ice cream: just a treat, not a values statement.

Wayne Perry/Getty Images

Thomas Nagel, in Mind and Cosmos, despairs of finding a place for values in the world as it is described by physical and biological science. This gives me today's theme. (See my last two posts — here and here — for more discussion of Nagel's important new book.)

I like chocolate. You prefer vanilla. This is a difference between us. But it isn't a disagreement. It isn't the sort of thing that leads to argument. Preferences of this sort are brute matters of feeling.

But not so when it comes to preferences in other domains. For example, let's say you like Lady Gaga, and I, well, I don't. Now we have something to talk about, something to think about. "How could you like Lady Gaga?" I ask. And I think to myself, maybe you don't know much about music. Or maybe you don't really like her; maybe you just mean that she's an adequate soundtrack to your workaday life. For your part, you wonder to yourself whether I even get it, whether I have a clue about the playful way this singer manages to contrive her image and position herself in the world of pop.

And so it goes. Art is a domain of feeling and response. But it is also a domain of argument and disagreement. (Kant said this.)

And so for many other domains where values are at stake.

Is it wrong for people of different races to marry and have children? What about people of different religions? What about people of the same sex?

Some people have strong feelings about these matters. And if there are differences here — and there are! — they add up to substantive disagreements. It is impossible to give up the feeling that what is at stake here precisely is the question of right and wrong. And so it is hard to give up the conviction that, when it comes to values, there is such a thing as right and wrong. We are a far cry from chocolate and vanilla.

It isn't about you and me, after all. It's about Lady Gaga, or music, or culture ("pop culture"). It's about family and love and race and marriage. The field of value is very big; the field of value is one where there is lots to argue about, lots to think about it.

Can we speak of truth in the domain of values? Do some of us just know better than others of us? Are some of us right and some of us wrong?

This brings us to the crux of the problem. It is dogmatic to come down on either side of this question.

Those who say "yes" there is such a thing as truth here must admit, surely, that value facts — pertaining to art and morality, for example — are not like facts in other domains. Are there three three chairs in this room? The facts decide. Argument stops. But what are the facts that make it the case that Lady Gaga leaves a lot to be desired as a pop star?

Those who say, "no" there is no matter of truth in the domain of art and value, have for their part to acknowledge that our commitments in these areas are not like our ice cream preferences. If I can't say why I don't like Lady Gaga, if I can't give you reasons why she's no good, then my claim loses any force it might have. I owe you a justification for my response.

Thomas Nagel is a realist about value. He thinks that questions of value are like questions about how many chairs there are in the room. And he despairs of making sense of our capacity for insight into such questions if we think of ourselves merely as animals who have evolved according to familiar Darwinian processes of selection. Insight into value, after all, unlike ordinary perceptual knowledge, confers no increase in fitness. If we are moral realists, he reasons, then evolutionary theory doesn't tell us how we came to be what we are.

One might have reasoned in the other direction, as Leiter and Weisberg are correct to observe, in their review of Nagel's book. If the Darwinian story does not fit with realism about values, then realism about values must be wrong. And indeed, if what I have said above is along the right lines, the idea that there are value facts, as there are facts about how many chairs are in the room, is one-sided and dogmatic. It gets the place of values in our thought and talk about values wrong.

The failure of value realism should not be confused with the victory of anti-realism. It certainly is not a ground for thinking that values are just a matter of feeling, a matter of mere preference. Lady Gaga really does come up short, after all. (Or, if you prefer, she really is magnificent.)

Is it an illusion to think that there can be knowledge about such things? I reject Nagel's conviction that the truth of what he calls the neo-Darwinian understanding of human nature hangs in the balance here. And yet I think Nagel may be on to something. Values and their importance for us require explanation, and it isn't clear that the Neo-Darwinian conception is much help here.

"So much the worse for values" is not a live option.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe