Axiological Voluntarism

Whaling Grounds in the Arctic Ocean by Abraham Storck (1654-1708)

We can divide stances on the voluntarism of entities from a class K in two varieties; a "strong" variety stating that tokens of K are always chosen and a "weak" variety which is sufficed by the modal claim that any token of K is in principle choosable. To analyze stances of voluntarism, we need to have at hand a theory of action and freedom.

I characterize axiological voluntarism in analogy to doxastic voluntarism, the thesis that beliefs are under voluntary control. A proponent of doxastic involuntarism could state, for instance, that our beliefs are irresistible - among the cognitive-affective capabilities that are under our personal control, there is none that can be used for belief choice. You can't really choose whether to believe in the existence of God, that the Sun is hot or that the Earth is flat. I believe this to be correct (and I have not chosen to believe this!).

Axiological voluntarism is by analogy the thesis that we can choose our values.

Even without reflecting on what values are, the weak variety of voluntarism rings greater plausibility. That values can be chosen by a moral agent does not imply that all his values have been chosen. We get the suspicion that most values are acquired through a mixture of phylogenetic and ontogenetic inertia without much reflection. Instinct and custom, not autonomous will, are responsible for most of the axiological portfolio of the average moral agent.

In moral ontology, values, virtues, and goods are often conflated. Words such as 'justice' and 'courage' are routinely used to name both values and virtues. Although these terms are prima facie all semantically intertwined, I hold that their specification and differentiation is warranted for the foundations of any normative discipline. I take the following approach; the concept VIRTUE necessarily refers to an agent's psychology. The description of virtues necessarily involves psychological entities such as abilities, traits, skills, dispositions, capabilities or competencies. For instance, virtues can have a relational structure with one of these types of items as relata (Owen Flanagan's position, for instance, is such a theory [1]).

I take goods to be the kind of entities that can be achieved. They are the end result of processes. Goods range from the "tangible", "concrete" or "countable" to the "intangible", "abstract" or "uncountable". Depending on your implicit general ontology, this gives a plurality of types of goods. The good produced by the process of juicing orange is orange juice. 'Orange juice' is a mass term designating an orange substance that exists in the Umwelt of Homo sapiens. An important good produced by the valorous behavior of members from a military unit is honor [2]. 'Honor' in this sense designates a type of non-observable and uncountable state or property of men in particular historically situated social hierarchies.

If values are neither things that can be achieved, produced or obtained and are not prototypical psychological entities, what are they? Conceptions of VALUE abound. I'll mention some.

The folk conception appears to have a Platonistic bent; at the level of surface grammar, values and ideals are usually referenced as abstract particulars y, such as "The True" or "The Socially Just".

Mario Bunge ([3], Chapter 1) analyzes values with n-adic evaluative predicates which include as relata at least one evaluator and one object of its evaluation. To abstract away particulars such as "The Beautiful" and "The Nutritious" is just a strategy to compress information about a property with a complex relational structure. The simplest case would be the relation xVy where x values y but one could add as many indexed terms as one likes. Bunge's ontology of objects is pluralistic in that things, states, events, and processes are all kinds of object. In Bunge's conception, depending on how you characterize the evaluative predicates, some values are not chosen. For instance, ceteris paribus, it is an objective fact of the matter that chicken liver is nutritiously valuable to an arbitrary human being.

Paul Katsafanas ([4], Chapter 5) brings forth a complex relational view of values in his exegesis of Nietzschean metaethics; a moral agent x values y if and only if x has an affective orientation of positive valence z induced by a drive w toward y and x does not disapprove of this affective orientation. To truly grasp this definition, is it mandatory to understand the sophisticated Nietzschean philosophical psychology of drives. This conception is axiologically voluntaristic due to the inclusion of the desiderata of personal approval - assuming that this attitude is under personal control.

For me, the most interesting characterization of value comes not from philosophy but from clinical psychology, in the radical behaviorist research program of ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy; [5], Chapter 11, [6], Chapter 11).

ACT is unique in clinical psychology by being vigorously explicit concerning its philosophical upbringings, sporting a philosophy of science, action, value, and mind solidly grounded in the tradition of American Pragmatism.

Under my sketchy (and decisively unorthodox) interpretation of ACT, for an agent x a value is a family of possible future life paths or histories h_i(x,\tau), where \tau is a time interval spanning from the present moment to the time of the agent's death. Over the course of these directions, we find the ongoing realization of a particular type of activity A. For instance, the value "Adventure" is constituted by the life directions where the agent would enact goals related to physical risk, the perception of danger, exploration of novel environments and excitement. Values are neither the goals nor the outcomes of completed goals - they are the journey.

In ACT, values inform the selection of decision variants in decision-making contexts and are freely chosen.

So, why should we care if we can choose our values? Since the practical reasons should be obvious, here are some academic reasons: axiological voluntarism is something that is mandated by many philosophical theories. For instance, the Nietzschean process of "transvaluation of all values" and the cornerstone of political liberalism under which an agent should be able to rule his life and pursue happiness as he sees fit all presuppose axiological voluntarism.

[1] O. Flanagan, "Moral science? still metaphysical after all these years," in Personality, identity, and character, D. Narvaez and D. Lapsley, Eds., Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 52.
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pages = {52},
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publisher = {Cambridge University Press},
title = {Moral Science? Still Metaphysical After All These Years},
year = {2009}
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[2] P. Olsthoorn, Military ethics and virtues: an interdisciplinary approach for the 21st century, Routledge, 2010.
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title = {Military ethics and virtues: An interdisciplinary approach for the 21st Century},
year = {2010}
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[3] M. Bunge, Treatise on basic philosophy volume 8: ethics: the good and the right, Reidel Pub. Co.: Boston, 1989.
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[4] P. Katsafanas, The nietzschean self: moral psychology, agency, and the unconscious, Oxford University Press, 2016.
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[5] S. C. Hayes, Get out of your mind and into your life: the new acceptance and commitment therapy, New Harbinger Publications, 2005.
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[6] S. C. Hayes, K. D. Strosahl, and K. G. Wilson, Acceptance and commitment therapy: the process and practice of mindful change, Guilford Press, 2011.
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