The Pandemic, and the Question of Value in Nature

Is valuing always a human activity (is it something relative to our purposes), or is value something — say some quality or class of qualities — to which we can become more sensitive? Do we project it, or do we discover it?

Stephen Asma has written an articulate piece for The New York Times about the dramas we tell around the moral status of SARS-CoV-2. You should go read it; it’s worth your time.

Then, you should read Mary Midgley — nearly anything by her — to consider his assertions about value and metaphors from an entirely different perspective.

Asma’s article concludes:

As a naturalist, I resist the theological version of human exceptionalism, but as a philosopher, I’m inclined to recognize that nothing has intrinsic value until we humans imagine it so. Since we cannot find our species’ value objectively by looking at the neutral laws of nature, then we must just assert it. And simply affirm that the universe is more remarkable with us in it.

It is good that he “affirms” that the universe is more remarkable with us in it. It is unfortunate that he cannot go so far as to say that we add value to it. It is also unfortunate that he cannot see his psychologizing of valuation for the metaphysical move it is, and that he cannot see that the bleak imagery he strives to use for his no-poetry stance is essentially another set of metaphors, camouflaged as hard facts. Ensuring empirical controls over poetic use — and that our poetic images are vulnerable to correction — is quite a different matter than endorsing unfettered metaphors — even if they happen to be politically expedient and evolutionarily well-rooted. It is also quite a different matter than a priori asserting that one set of metaphors, disguised as the absence of metaphors, is simply the truth.

Asma really wants to affirm that we have value, but also seems to think that this affirmation is a useful fiction. I do not think this is true; I also do not think that this is a livable position, and so I suspect — of course I do not know — that Asma doesn’t really, at a deeper level, think it is merely a useful fiction. Better answers need to be offered about value.

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24 thoughts on “The Pandemic, and the Question of Value in Nature

  1. “as a philosopher, I’m inclined to recognize that nothing has intrinsic value until we humans imagine it so.” I would hesitate to assert this. I believe that value exists before we perceive it. We do not create it but rather recognize it. I see it as an analog to the rights enumerated in the first ten amendments to our federal Constitution, the Bill of Rights. The Constitution does not grant them; it acknowledges their pre-existence.

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  2. Yes. Well Asma, it must be noted, finds it necessary to proclaim his naturalism stance. And this carries, perhaps unconsciously, an indwelt aversion towards anything verging on the poetic or romantic or noumenal. The only interiority permitted is logic, which can then be transformed into objectivity away from the sphere of subjectivity.

    Never looked at MM seriously, but really liked her takedown of Richard Dawkins in her review of his ‘God Delusion’ some years back, both for it’s wit and no-nonsense sensibility,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Midgley is fun. She’s no Jonas or Scheler or Heidegger or Putnam, but she’s great, and often makes me laugh with an insight about something through an angle that I likely never would have considered on my own. I’ve been dipping my toes in David Lewis lately, specifically with an eye to value. Do you know him?

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      • No, do not. I’d say in recent years I’ve veered more strongly towards a sympathy for moral realism after a study of Virtue Ethics, and more therefore of an idea that ‘value’ can be rooted there and move closer towards a universal, objective heading, provided one cultivates the perceptions to see it.

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          • Well, I started with Plato & Aristotle, looked into the Stoics a bit, and also Confucius and a 20th century Chinese thinker called Lin Yutang — who came recommended by two valued sources: a girlfriend in China during the 90s and Raymond Smullyan the polymath magician/pianist/mathematician. I then looked into Aquinas a little and Robert Sardello, a modern guy who writes very contemplatively and comes at it from a spiritual direction. There was also along the way a really nice paper from Thomas Nagel which harmonized with this theme though I cannot recall the name at the moment. Haven’t looked at McIntyre yet, but looked into Philippa Foot and Elizabeth Anscombe, both good writers/thinkers. I wrote a sort of ‘laying the groundwork’ piece a few years ago on the topic which you can see here: https://skirmisheswithreality.net/2015/10/28/3-approaches-to-ethics/
            I have been working on and off on a newer longish piece about the case for universals within the virtues (i.e. non-culturally-specific), which I eventually will publish on my blog. (In the middle of six other things however :) ) Cheers!

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  3. Yes, we add tremendous value, but it’s only ever value for humans (aside from some reparation attempts, ‘gardening’ and acts of kindness towards animals). But we also take away value, both from other humans and the planetary life as a whole (cutting down rainforests, coral bleeching, industrial farming, holocaust, war, slavery).

    So I’m not sure the stress should be on ‘add’.

    Or am I missing a particular definition of ‘value’ here?

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        • It is correct that we cannot be without activity — even rest and contemplation are kinds of activity for us metabolizing creatures who have feet in time. Humans are, of course, capable of all different kinds of activities. Are their kinds of activity that are unique to human beings, or which human beings do differently and uniquely compared with the same activity in other higher mammals, and which mark us, at least potentially?

          When others start to say things like “it doesn’t really matter whether we are here, we add no value, but I value our being here”, that difference is not really theoretical; it is _theoria_ which grounds an attitude, a whole disposition, comportment, a way of life for individuals and even cultures, and perhaps even some political policies. Likewise, the inverse. The question is whether the strong affirmation of value holds water.

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          • I’m not sure I understand, as our being here consists of actions, and as you say even contemplating that is an action. I agree with the last sentence, but I still don’t understand why you introduced the dichotomy in your first reply.

            As for differences with animal: recursive language probably, self-consciousness to a degree, and joint-attentional cooperation. These also lead to stories (including religion). I’ve read & reviewed Becoming Human a couple of weeks ago, I think you might like that, and it was an eye-opener. I’m also halfway in Why History Gets Things Wrong by Rosenberg, I’ll review it soon hopefully, and while it has its problems, it also touches on these questions.

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      • Dan and Chip Heath are phenomenal authors.

        Switch, and The Power of Moments are two of their books that I’ve been studying for cooperate-level changes at my job.

        Upstream, a book they released this past March, is something I just started today!

        Other good books are High Performance Habits, How Emotions are Made, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do…

        And plenty more. I list a lot of my recommendations, as long as why, on my About page.

        I think it’s important to note that the time when Philosophy was a big thing, was a time where books were not so easily printed (no printing press), and they were much more difficult to come across.
        This made books things read repeatedly and studied deeply, this, more time spent thinking, is at the heart of how philosophy occurs. Deep thinking, with no crutches, just pen, paper, and actively contemplating.

        Big ideas, deep meaning, actual change. That’s what I’m all about 😊

        Liked by 1 person

      • Wonderful! It is a skill that is often over looked, writing and thinking are so closely related.

        I find that writing often helps me discover what it is that I’m thinking.

        Writing is a conscious activity that tends to use language that you would think with, so you can influence (consciously) and practice more effective ways of thinking, such as removing automatic negative thoughts and training more effective thought patterns by writing.

        Writing is my greatest tool in developing clarity and awareness. Two pivotal pieces of my content.

        Writing makes great thinkers of us all.
        Thank you for sharing such a gift to those you teach! 😄

        Liked by 1 person

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