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From Valuing to ValueReview - From Valuing to Value
Towards a Defense of Subjectivism
by David Sobel
Oxford University Press, 2017
Review by Robert Zaborowski
Sep 5th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 36)

The book under review is, as a matter of fact, a collection of 14 papers Sobel published in 1994-2011 to which one new chapter (Ch. 1: Subjectivism and Reasons to be Moral, pp. 16-42), an Introduction and a general (?) Index have been added. Of the fourteen chapters, two are co-authored with David Copp and one is an updated version of a previously published review. As such this book adds little to the existing literature but it may be useful to those interested either in Sobel's work or doing research on similar topic. The collection's strength is weakened by a lack of editorial work[[1]] which would provide more coherence and unity among the chapters beyond occasional cross-references, and, also, by a lack of the general bibliography. One may note a certain repetitiveness of various chapters (for instance, the last paragraph of p. 72 and the 1st of p. 73 (On the Subjectivity of Welfare) are very similar to the 1st paragraph of p. 88 (Well-Being as the Object of Moral Consideration); compare also the passage verbatim p. 130 and p. 153). The lack of an update is patently disturbing at the end of Ch. 7 where we are told by Sobel that he couldn't "read Robert Johnson's excellent "Internal Reasons and the Conditional Fallacy" [...] since it was too late to take it into account here" - I suppose this was the state of affairs in 1999 but not anymore in 2016.

The formal aspect left aside, the book must be praised for several qualities. As Sobel states in the Introduction, the collection is "about trying to understand what would make one answer to such questions [e.g. "Is graduate school for me? Should I ask him to marry" etc.] better than another" (1). The best answer is conveyed by subjectivism, that is a view that "things have value because we value them" (1) and, no doubt, Sobel's book is a successful attempt at such understanding and very fine one indeed, first, because of his extremely detailed analyses, often going into types, sub-types and even sub-sub-types of solutions envisaged and perused, next, because of his exemplary discussions of arguments and counterarguments, at times causing a vertigo, and, last not least, because of his self-criticism. Sobel more than once suggests and analyses to what extent and in which kind of cases subjective theories have an advantage over objective theories. His criticism of subjectivism is confirmed not only by phrases about "a more balanced assessment of subjectivism than is typical" (11) or about being "sharply critical of the standard subjectivist position" (12) but also by his approach and method throughout the book. This feature makes the book worth reading by anyone interested in learning or seeing how philosophy may or should be practised impartially. Although Sobel declares himself as a subjectivist and wants his contribution to be a defense of subjectivism, he does not refrain from pointing out the flaws and weakness of subjectivism nor does he commit himself to its apology. As a result we are offered a philosophical material duly emptied of philosophical ideology. In this sense this is an honest work. He undertakes to destroy the false myth about subjectivism rather makes a final plea for it, since he writes: "many complaints against subjectivism are based in misunderstanding [...] and [...] I sometimes manage to show that some of those objections are simply mistaken. But that is quite different from showing the view to be true." (9) In the end, what Sobel arrives at, is most often, a critical view of subjectivism which is no more than a better option than other philosophical positions, especially because "subjectivism's rivals [...] have their own implausibilities and counter-intuitive consequences to deal with" (11).

It is impossible for me to discuss all that is worth mentioning in this review[[2]]. Let me rather make some more general points pertaining to a selection of themes, theses and examples contained in Sobel's book. In my opinion, anyone wanting to know more about the full information account of well-being and of desire, sacrifice and self-sacrifice, fragile and superfragile reasons for acting will no doubt find the book useful and thought-provoking. It also provides an inspiring discussion of the concept of direction of fit (but again without taking into account papers published since 2001), of past experiences helping shape future experiences, of the impossibility of comparing, either in series or in parallel, alternative sorts of lives, and, for that reason, of impossibility of providing a full information about one's life. Issues such as the so-called obscuring factors (Sobel doesn't use this label), e.g. a thing's taste or look depending on a context, causing versus allowing, why and when false beliefs may be justified, the distinction between rationality and having a reason, past desires versus future desires, the distinction between belief and desire being not normative but descriptive are treated perceptively and wisely. I suppose that many are ready to agree that reasons when interiorized are stronger than purely external reasons. For instance I don't "brutalize the vulnerable" (11) because I agree I shouldn't do so is a weaker reason than I don't do it because I deeply believe it. Such case may be probably tested strongly enough by circumstances, let's say, of a choice in which only one of two options may be followed and in which the two options are motivated by unequally deep beliefs: the deeper belief will be given priority and a corresponding act will ensue. A question arises as to whether a full information is possible at all or, if rather, only a fuller information is plausible and then it may be sufficient an information. This may be relevant not only to the question of not having all information at hand but, also, to a question of being determined or prejudiced by a portion of knowledge one possesses and is unable to be get rid of (in a word: an inability to bracketing what one knows).

It is noteworthy that Sobel does not refer to thought experiments. This may be because for a subjectivist it is odd to speculate, for instance, about one's mind being transferred into another's body insofar as the newly located brain could not deny entirely its new receptacle's former history: if I were you, I would be any longer I but you, or maybe a mixture of both (this is what was treated a long time ago by Th. Mann in his novel "The Transposed Heads"). Sobel rather deals with presentable situations, e.g. "asking of Joe [who "has two healthy kidneys and can live a decent but reduced life with only one"] to give up a kidney that he is morally permitted not to give" (240-41).

Since a review should include also critical remarks, I will address two issues. First, it is striking that affectivity (or: emotions) as such is absent in the discussion. The Index has no such entries and with two exceptions, a very short one about passions in Hume (see 121-122) and another fine point about "psychological states with propositional content that at least arguably are neither beliefs nor desires" (166, examples being hope and fear) there is nothing more. The omission of affectivity is almost made explicit in the following: "[...] I have in mind psychological states such as liking, desiring, valuing, preferring, wanting, loving, caring for, being devoted to, cherishing, craving, etc." (3). One may wonder if "etc." comprises affective states other than liking and loving. Apparently, Sobel doesn't use or avoids the categories of affectivityemotions and similar and I don't find an explicit clarification concerning this omission which I consider curious insofar as affectivity is often identified as the main domain or even the bulk of subjectivity. Sobel focuses on caring - but is this an affective genus for him? Caring is a factor of making things valuable to us: "Caring about stuff makes stuff matter. In a world without anything that anyone or anything cared about, nothing would matter" (1). Two remarks come to mind here:

i) how to know why a person cares for this rather than that if neither this nor that has an intrinsic value (see Sobel's oft-recurring example of chocolate rather than vanilla ice-cream being preferred)? It is a matter of taste. But should we think that matters of taste are determined constitutionally or by a kind of a personal history or something else?

ii) Explanation of preference by means of caring needs not be peculiar to subjectivism. For instance compare B. W. Helm's claim about emotions understood as "rational responses to things we care about" (Emotions and Motivation: Reconsidering Neo-Jamesian Accounts 2010, 303). In this context a question arises as to the sense in which caring is to be taken - biological? cultural? social? all together? other/s?

If therefore Sobel's aim is to spell out "what it makes sense for us to do and why", I think he answers the what question to a fuller degree than the why question because to the answer he gives another why may be again addressed.

Second, absent is the figure of Protagoras, who, I like to think, is better understood as subjectivist or individualist rather than - as commonly this is the case - relativist. (Sobel doesn't use the label of relativism or only incidentally (e.g. "how is makes sense to live is relativized to individuals and their concerns" (2)). And I wonder what Sobel would say about the difference between his and Protagoras' position, if the latter be interpreted as subjectivist and not relativist. Maybe he would sympathize with Protagoras, more so because, as we seem to know, Protagoras' claim pertains to matters of taste and not to scientific knowledge or mathematical truths.

I may be convinced by Sobel and even sympathetic to his arguments, especially if a significant part of affective area were incorporated in the core of his position. But if I agree that values stem from valuing and valuing from private, individual or subjective concerns, I still don't know why I prefer chocolate to vanilla ice-cream (or: why does chocolate ice-cream give me more pleasure than vanilla ice-cream?). Moreover, it is unclear how it is that a number of people have a similar preference about spending holiday in a fine resort rather than at the bus stop in an ugly and noisy place. In a word, if subjectivism explains a lot it doesn't explain all. It may be a better option than objectivism, especially in the realm of matters of mere taste. But things of mere taste are things of a special (ontic or only epistemic?) category unless all things may be, in the end, reduced to this category. I don't see what is Sobel's thought on this. The case of matters of mere taste is, as Sobel shows, the most difficult of all to explain by objectivism. But if all other kinds cannot be reduced to this category, the other kinds of things are different and not that much of a problem for objectivists. Still, there are tastes that many or almost all will find odd or abnormal or perverse. Otherwise, we should condemn words as oddabnormal and perverse when applied to taste. Subjectivism is, therefore, less radical than objectivism but, it seems, it tells us more about what people are (instead of what they should be). It looks as if subjectivism is in a closer relation with the experience of human life and its practice. If Sobel stats that "[s]ubjectivism might crudely be characterized, I like to think, as a Kantian view shorn of wishful thinking." (10), I take it that subjectivism is more revealing psychologically. Since "Kantian views [...] add the claim that all agents are somehow necessarily committed to morality" (10), we must recognize that in an everyday life Kantian views fly in the face of facts. Subjectivism has then more to tell from descriptive rather than normative point of view.

I think that Sobel's book has a much welcome side-effect: his presentation of subjectivism shows that it is not what it is commonly taken to be. An intelligent subjectivist is as much human and altruistic as other philosophical camps' partisans are expected to be. He has a different, more profound and personal motivation to be such a person. If the main aim of Sobel's collection is to fairly reassess the strengths and weakness of subjectivist accounts (see 117), his project is, I think, successful and worth considering.

 

____________________________________________

 

[[1]] It may put or puts a reader on a wrong track. E.g. in Introduction we find a reference (6, n. 10) to a paper now being a chapter of the book but without mentioning it. Instead its original bibliographical address is indicated (the same see 276, n. 4). In other cases a different policy is applied. It is also unexpected to see a number of misprints and errors, e.g. "it is also seems" (8); in a quote from J. S. Mill: "the two very different ideas of, of happiness, and content" (67); the same quote is given different references in n. 45 and n. 52 of Morality and Value. As it is, it looks as if papers are simply put together without much editorial concern about the final result.

[[2]] I feel a bit uneasy about this review because I may now see my copy entirely annotated with remarks, underlinings and questions while the review touches only upon a very limited number of them.

 

© 2017 Robert Zaborowski

 

Robert Zaborowski, thymos2001@yahoo.fr, University of Warmia and Mazury


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