1. Saying that something has value is different from saying what it is. It is to say, “It would be worth it to will this kind of what.”
2. You need not have willed something or be able to will it in order to recognize its value. That you have certain attributes and abilities, that you have air to breathe, that you exist at all — you find value in these things inasmuch as you would will them.
3. You have only your own will and your own valuations, just as you have only your own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.
4. You see that others find value when the signs they show of finding it prompt the empathetic extension of your point of view and recognition of value as they find it.
5. When they will the same kind of thing you do, this itself is the sign. I value chocolate ice cream, and I see by your eating it that so do you.
6. It happens that people find the same kind of value in different kinds of thing — he likes chocolate ice cream, she likes vanilla. The things can differ markedly — the value of a canal to a Venetian is the value of a road to a New Yorker. In such cases the signs of value are similarities between the kinds of circumstance in which the different kinds of thing are willed — eating dessert after dinner; driving a car or taking a gondola to the store.
7. For different kinds of thing to offer the same kind of value means only that they stand in similar relations to those who find their value, not that they are identical or that one of them cannot be superior to the other in any respect — cars are faster than gondolas, but both are transportation.
8. Value is given, not chosen or deduced. It is not up to you whether and where you find it (though what you do from there isup to you).
9. You find value rather than decide on the basis of criteria to find it, for you must already find value in the criteria for them to be such. For example, you must already find that being cold in the snow is no good in order to accept “It’s warm inside” as a reason to go in.
10. There is reasoning about value, but it never gets beyond presenting some sort of what and its connections with other whats (including other persons and whatever whats of theirs you can form some empathetic idea of). From there you just trust that value will be found as you find it yourself.
11. The whats we present include kinds of experience — you will suffer if you do that; you’re liable to injure yourself and have a lot of pain. You have only your own sufferings and pains, and your own valuations of them. But the words “suffering” and “pain” have meaning because there are public signs of suffering and pain that you recognize in others and that they recognize in you. This has permitted you to name and talk about suffering and pain, joy and happiness, and other things that manifest themselves through what can be shown.
12. We do not concede that something has value simply because we see someone willing it. It is a question of empathetically placing yourself in his kind of shoes, not in his shoes. The difference between “his” and “his kind” is not the psychology of the situation as best the public signs allow us to understand it — wanting to injure oneself masochistically — but the decision about what to do from there — indulging or abjuring this desire.
13. The recognition of value for others as the value youwould find if you were in their kind of shoes is the foundation of ethical objectivity. You act ethically when you refuse to destroy value as you would find it in other shoes, or to deny it when called upon to do so. Unethical conduct, by contrast, usually takes the form of a relativism by which you act upon your desires just because they are yours. It can also be a destruction of value for its own sake — radical as opposed to selfish evil. And moral error is possible, for important whats may go unnoticed, and we may misunderstand the minds to which they point.
14. The Golden Rule avoids being an empty formalism because value is given, not chosen, and because the finding of it is accompanied by public signs. The signs allow empathetic extension, which allows you to recognize the value others find, and then conscience prompts you to respect it should there come any question.
15. As for why you heed conscience, it’s like asking why you find value — there is no why, you just do. Or you just don’t, which is to say that the problem of evil is a real problem. (John Derbyshire, I am closer to your way of looking at ethics — though not to your ethics — than you realize. I’m just laying out whats here; I can’t explain how to value them any more than I can explain how to apply a mathematical operation [as opposed to giving you an instance of its application or a symbolic generalization of such instances]. I do think we disagree here: You value tradition as its own dispositive what, whereas I value it as an extremely useful distillate of the whats that others have valued and therefore a good place to start lookingfor value. To defend tradition simply because it is tradition strikes me as “special pleading,” an abdication of responsibility, and a suicide of the intellect.)
16. Moral skepticism is possible in a way that epistemological skepticism — how do I know that the world is real, that I’m not dreaming it all up, etc.? — is not. If everything is an illusion, “not being an illusion” has no meaning. If I, whether awake or asleep in the everyday sense, am in some special philosophical sense always dreaming, then I don’t know what it would mean not to be so dreaming, i.e. what it is I am doubting and how I would recognize the truth or falsity of my doubt. The doubt is nonsense because it makes no difference anyway. (Compare Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty.) On the other hand, we well know temptation as a distinct alternative to conscience. Some people seem not often to be moved by conscience or to recognize value. It looks sort of like we’re all going to die and it’s all going to sort of end (whatever that may mean). And there is a clear difference between seeing the world nihilistically and seeing it full of good and beauty, but this difference cannot be expressed in terms of what is seen. Perhaps the only possible dissolution of these problems is faith: not a belief in some proposition of fact, but a willingness to create and preserve value, and a trust in conscience and the good, no matter what.And perhaps this is a gift eventually due to everyone (whatever that may mean) rather than a choice or a deduction.