I’m increasingly coming to see a wide gulf between people who see values as relative to agents and those who see values as independent of agents. We might call the first sort of person a “value relativist” and the second sort a “value absolutist”, but we must be careful to avoid assuming that value relativists think there are no psychological facts about how much an agents values something. I love spinach, in other words I value it highly among foods, whereas you may hate spinach. The value of spinach is relative, as it differs between us, but it’s a truth that I value it highly, and as a truth this is “absolute”.
Maybe the distinction between value relativists and value absolutists is completely obvious to everyone already. – I confess it hasn’t been obvious to me till quite recently.
Practically everyone thinks “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” – it’s just whatever is appreciated as beautiful, so it’s relative to whoever appreciates it. Value relativists go further and say that the same applies to all values: something is only valuable because some agent or other regards it as valuable, in other words he regards it as worth pursuing in action. And an agent only regards something as worth pursuing if he or she in fact pursues it, however attenuated their pursuit may be. It’s valuable to him because he prefers it. His choices reveal his preference for it.
Value relativists – like me – tend to be opposed to paternalism. ‘Paternalism’ is the word for forcing people to do things “for their own good”. For example, paternalists don’t just oppose smoking because it harms passive smokers, but because it harms smokers themselves by damaging their health. Value relativists who oppose paternalism think damage to the smoker’s health only counts as harm inasmuch as the smoker pursues good health. And he can’t pursue good health with all that much ardour if he smokes! So if harm is involved here, it results from some sort of internal conflict of desire, or else from ignorance on the part of the smoker. In the first case he somehow both wants good health and at the same time doesn’t care much about good health, perhaps as a result of addiction. In the second case he wants good health but isn’t aware that smoking is bad for health.
So two approaches are open to the paternalist: he can openly defend one value over another – such as good health over the pleasure of smoking – by assuming that values are absolute, and therefore can be ranked independently of individual agents. Or he can invoke his supposedly greater knowledge than that of the agent. As a paternalist, he regards himself as entitled to persuade not just through the use of reasons, but through the use of force.
Paternalists tend to avoid overt value absolutism because it leaves them with the problem of saying where absolute values come from, and why those who do not share such values should adopt them. Instead, paternalists nearly always focus on the supposed ignorance of agents they would apply coercion to. That is, they tend to defend coercion by saying that an agent often doesn’t know what’s in his own best interests. In other words, they argue that the agent has false beliefs about what is good for him.
Well, it is certainly true that everyone has some false beliefs. Not so long ago cigarettes were advertised with doctors’ endorsements as being good for the health. False beliefs were involved there, because cigarettes are in fact bad for the health. Paternalists in effect claim to have knowledge that others don’t have, just as all of us nowadays have knowledge that doctors didn’t have a hundred years ago.
Is it legitimate to use force against ignorance in this way? I don’t think so, for several reasons. First, any attempt to force someone to act in a way his own internal motivation does not underwrite is morally questionable. The agent might even regard the forced behavior as morally forbidden, in which case the paternalist is like a missionary forcing his weaker charges to act “against their conscience”. This use of force undermines autonomy. Second, attempts to impart beliefs by means of force are psychologically questionable: the aim here is a sort of “brainwashing”, and in the real world any such aim is unlikely to succeed. “Brainwashing” is mostly a fantasy from spy movies. Third, attempts to impart knowledge by coercion are epistemologically questionable. Knowledge is generally understood as true belief sustained by rational reasons and/or reliable processes, and yielding to force can hardly be counted as either. Furthermore, as JS Mill eloquently argued in On Liberty, it is always possible for any of us to be mistaken, and to presume to decide matters for others is in effect to assume one’s own infallibility. Which is ridiculous, because no one is infallible, including the Pope.
This doesn’t only apply to paternalism, but to any attempt to force behaviour, beliefs or knowledge on the as-yet unconverted. So-called “skeptics” who would override parents’ judgements by forcing them to have their children vaccinated or operated upon would do well to reflect on the threefold evils just described.
As I said, despite dubious ethics, dubious psychology and dubious epistemology, paternalists are generally more comfortable treating the discussion as being about true or false belief rather than about desires and values, which are neither true nor false. Value relativists should decisively move the discussion back into the realm of values, where it belongs, because this isn’t really a factual issue. That is, it’s not an “is” question of whether I know what’s good for me, but an “ought” question of what I want. If I want to smoke, no one can gainsay that, because in effect I create my own values.
Let’s reject the hypocrisy of paternalists who claim to act with more knowledge or better beliefs than the people they coerce. They should be seen for what they are: old-fashioned absolutists who are trying to impose their supposedly absolute values on others.
The value-relativist-versus-absolutist divide doesn’t just emerge in paternalism. It also lies behind Isaiah Berlin’s famous two concepts of freedom. On the one hand, there is “negative” freedom, the ability to do what you actually want to do by virtue of an absence of external obstacles. On the other hand, there is “positive freedom” – if it can be called “freedom” at all – which is essentially being “empowered” by wanting the right things. But the only way there can be “right things” independent of agents actually pursuing them is if values are absolute. These absolute values are skeletons in the closets of those who assume a positive concept of freedom as well as paternalists.