At my urging, MTSP (the PoT-associated discussion group) is tackling Thomas Scanlon’s book, What We Owe to Each Other. In the second chapter, Scanlon endorses the so-called “buck-passing” view of value (BP).
On this view of value, instead of value being something basic in the broadly normative realm, is a derivative property that is a function of normative reasons (or normative pressure to respond to various things in relevant ways). The ultimate normative explanatory “buck” gets passed to reasons (having reason to exhibit some response to something, there being some degree of normative pressure to do so), hence the spiffy (or annoying) name. Roughly, BP says: if X is valuable (say, impersonally valuable) then X is such that it is appropriate to respond to it in various ways (and so one faces normative pressure, of some relevant sort, to respond to X in these various ways – e.g., by caring about it, respecting it, admiring it, being in awe of it, taking steps to promote it, etc.).
More specifically and precisely: X being valuable comes to X having non-normative, non-evaluative features such that, in virtue of X having those features, one has reason to respond to X in specific ways (by having specific attitudes, by taking specific sorts of actions). Because the formula here mentions and predicates non-normative properties of X in a straight-forward way, it lines up with our predicating value of objects.
The BP formula, we are often reminded by the proponents of BP, is precisely the way in which the evaluative property of X being admirable or scary is not identical to, but is a function of, X having properties such that, in virtue of X having them, it is appropriate to admire X or be afraid of X (e.g., because the thing is large and coming at me quickly, fear is an appropriate response). My impression is that most philosophers today hold a version of the buck-passing view (specifically, a fitting-attitudes view) of evaluative features like admirability, being scary, being honorable, etc. (pick any type of attitude and add ‘-able’ or ‘-worthy’ to it and you’ll get a word, perhaps one from English, that refers to these sorts of evaluative features, more or less to normative standards that govern what to have the attitude in response to). The buck-passing view of value can be viewed as simply extending this formula or model, treating being valuable (“valuing-worthy”) as precisely analogous to being admirable (“admiration-worthy”). There is obvious appeal here to any interest – or fetish – one might have for explanatory unity or simplicity or reduction.
In contrast, on the traditional value-based theory of value and value-associated reasons (TV), if X is valuable, then one has reason to realize or promote X, the normative pressure here amounting to one’s action being – just as mere circumstances might be – instrumentally valuable relative to achieving valuable X. (We might imagine a variation on the more traditional view of value, TV*, according to which value is associated with having reason to do things other than realize or promote X. On such a view, value-based normative pressure in a called-for response would not come to instrumental value in the response, but rather some other value-relational feature in the response – though I’m not sure just what such a feature would be.)
I want to examine two specific, fundamental cases of value and see how the BP explanatory approach to them fares (officially independently of whether BP itself, as a general view of value, is true). The first case is this: the disvalue to an agent of that agent undergoing an event (or engaging in an activity) that causes her to be in pain. (Disvalue to an agent, or agent-relative disvalue, does in this case, but need not, concern benefit or harm to the agent or the agent’s overall well-being. It is thus a rather abstract, stipulated concept and property that might not correspond neatly to anything in English. Perhaps the closest thing in English is ‘good for’ an agent, though this usually denotes benefit or well-being. It is close to what Scanlon calls being choiceworthy for an agent.)
Say I’m stung by a bee. This event is disvaluable to me. According the BP approach, this comes to the bee-stinging event having the feature of causing me pain and, in virtue of this, it being appropriate for me to respond in various ways. Let’s focus on one central, relevant response: the behavioral response of avoidance (e.g., doing things to make the pain go away). There is an important sense in which the normativity here is explained by the value on the BP approach (the BP approach can accommodate our intuitions here): the value specifies the features in virtue of which the thing that calls for the avoidance response, calls for the avoidance response. It is instructive to contrast this explanatory schemata with the TV-type explanatory schemata, which says: insofar as avoidance behavior secures the valuable state (the pain going away), the agent has reason to engage in that behavior in virtue of that behavior, as mere circumstances might be as well, being instrumentally valuable (via promoting the pain going away or being avoided). It would be instructive, in a more-detailed treatment to examine these two (and perhaps some kind of TV* type) competing explanatory schemas in light of our relevant intuitions and other relevant context. But, without getting into these weeds, so far, so plausible for the BP approach to bee-sting type cases (cases of value in painful events that might befall the agent or activities that the agent might engage in).
But now consider the painful experience itself and its inherent value to the agent (read ‘inherent’ as not instrumental and also not valuable in any other derivative way that might be possible). In this case, the official BP formula articulated above does not work. For we cannot (or cannot plausibly) predicate some feature of being in pain in virtue of which there is normative pressure to respond with avoidant behavior. For being in pain is at once the item that is valuable (and appropriately responded to with avoidant behavior) and the feature in virtue of which the avoidant behavior is appropriate (as a response to being in pain, not to being in pleasure, not to the sun coming up in the morning). But this, in turn, robs the BP approach, in this case, of being able to explain the normative pressure (something important about the normative pressure) in terms of the value. For there is nothing informative that it can say about why the avoidant response is to a response to pain (not pleasure, not the sun coming up in the morning, etc.). In other words, instead of being able to say (i) ‘the avoidant approach to X is appropriate due to X, in virtue of being an instance of the agent being in pain, being disvaluable to the agent’ (the explanatory pattern for the bee-sting case), the BP approach here can only say (ii) ‘the avoidant response to being in pain is appropriate in virtue of the pain being pain’. So the fundamental case of pain itself being disvaluable to the agent who has it requires a revision of any general BP formula (or admitting a special formula for this case, keeping the standard formula for the others).
This goes against at least the general-level intuition that citing the value of a thing can explain (or explain something about) the normative pressure attaching to relevant responses to the thing. But I’m not sure this is a big cost, or even, ultimately, any cost at all for the BP approach (to this fundamental case). For, on the BP approach, a case such as this (where the valuable and responded-to item and the feature in virtue of which this item as against some other calls for the response are the same thing) will have to be handled in this way. More importantly, I don’t think we have a strong intuition that the disvalue to me of my being in pain explains why (all else being equal) I should take steps to stop the pain (or to avoid being in pain prospectively). Rather, at least to me, the idea that the disvalue-to-me and the to-be-avoided-ness are identical seems intuitive. And this cuts against any expectation that the value should explain the normative pressure. I’m inclined, then, to view this consideration as an interesting wrinkle in a general BP approach (and for the present case in particular). How this case needs to go does not seem to be a super-strong objection to the general BP approach (or to the BP approach to this special, fundamental case).
(This post is meant to both partially answer David Riesbeck’s challenge to defend the BP approach to value, or Scanlon’s case for it, and, more importantly, to deal with some cases that I remember, last time I thought much about the BP approach to value, being among the most challenging for it to handle. Though I have lingering doubts, I’m inclined to accept BP as a general account of value.)