The Variety of Values: Essays on Morality, Meaning, and Love, by Susan Wolf

Jane O’Grady on a collection that stresses the importance of creativity, beauty and self-fulfilment

May 7, 2015

Why should moral values uniquely prevail over all others, asks the philosopher Susan Wolf throughout this collection of her papers spanning 33 years. In the Dutch still life reproduced on the book’s cover, the half-filled goblet, half-eaten, raisin-disgorging pies, and mould-gathering spirals of lemon peel were probably meant, says Wolf, as a Calvinist reminder of how transient are the “lower pleasures” of food, drink and sex. Glistening with light and reflections, however, wine, pewter, pastry and fruit also convey, in loving meticulousness, the succulent beauty of corruptible things, forming a costly work of art. To this ambivalent “variety of values”, Wolf emphatically responds “It’s all good”; whereas, paradoxically, being a “moral saint” is not.

Advocating a pluralism of values, Wolf criticises the dominance in moral philosophy of utilitarianism and Kantianism, each of which, in its own way, requires us to “adopt as our sole standard of action that which will be best for the world as a whole”. They thereby sidestep the non-moral values of creativity, self-fulfilment and whole-hearted love, except insofar as these promote the general happiness, or respect reason. But surely, Wolf says, “we are required…to do something for the world but not everything”. We do not, and should not, love friends only to the extent that they are part of the general good. This might sound familiar, and Wolf does indeed discuss Bernard Williams’ famous remark that the utilitarian who has to calculate amounts of general happiness before rescuing his wife, rather than a stranger, has “one thought too many”.

However, her own challenge to impartial morality, Wolf claims, goes beyond that of other philosophers, who present self-interest and self-fulfilment as the only alternatives to moral motives. She stresses the importance of non-moral values in giving our lives meaning and as doing so precisely because they are healthily external to us and intrinsically valuable, independent of our own arbitrary, subjective valuations. We don’t love an opera only commensurately with the pleasure it gives us. “Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.” Meaningfulness, like love, often conflicts with happiness, but both are nonetheless desirable. We don’t love an abstract quality (kindness, beauty) through, or in, a person or artwork. If we did, then a person or painting that possessed a superior version of the quality would be preferable. Rather, we love the unique specificity of that attribute so intrinsic to him or it, in the way she or it embodies it. Ideally we love others with the “loving attention” Dexter gives Tracy in the film The Philadelphia Story, not despite but with their flaws. And isn’t it rightly human to favour those we love?

But how do we decide when morality is permissibly trumped by love’s partiality? Wolf acknowledges this difficulty. She herself would not jump the queue for her husband’s liver transplant, she says; but that is hardly a helpful gauge for other people in a similar predicament. As for adjudicating the claims of self-fulfilment, for instance the paedophile who pleads that his life lacks meaning unless he molests children, Wolf thinks she can refute him by saying that his life would still be meaningless if he did, which seems glib and unconvincing. Maybe, though, this open-endedness befits her pluralism. Anyway, the criticism that a moral theory doesn’t tell us when and how to apply it applies to all moral theories.

The Variety of Values: Essays on Morality, Meaning, and Love

By Susan Wolf
Oxford University Press, 288pp, £59.00 and £26.99
ISBN 9780195332803 and 2810
Published 12 February 2015

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