Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Two kinds of fungibility

I was teaching Jennifer Whiting's "Impersonal Friends" this morning—I love that piece—and I was going into the usual distinction between the fungible and nonfungible. I generally illustrate this with heirlooms. While money is fungible, the ring inherited from great grandmother is not: if the ring were swapped out for another just like it, it wouldn't be as good.

As I was teaching, though, I realized that that's too quick. Suppose that in the first place great grandmother instead had a different but similar ring and it was passed down through the generations to us. That would make no difference to anything that matters to us. So the ring is broadly fungible: it can be swapped for another ring with relevantly similar historical properties. The same seems true of all heirlooms.

But are persons fungible in the same way? Here's a thought. If something rightly matters a great deal to me it matters objectively at least somewhat. It rightly matters a great deal to me that I exist. It thus rightly matters a great deal to me that all of my history wasn't swapped for that of another similar individual. Therefore it matters objectively at least somewhat. Hence I am objectively not fungible even in that broader sense.


Michael Gonzalez said...

If that other, similar individual had lived, instead of you, he would (plausibly) have mattered as much to himself as you do to yourself, no? The idea of "objectively" mattering seems rather sketchy to me. Wouldn't that be like objectively having an appearance? Saying that X "appears like such-and-such" or "matters" both seem to need to be followed by "to Y", where why is the subject who observes or values X.

Can you perhaps explain what you mean by "objectively matters"?

Alexander R Pruss said...

We say things like: "Fred doesn't care about the things that really matter." And we could say this even if Fred was the only person in existence.

Or, if you prefer, you can say x objectively matters iff everyone ought to be such that x matters to them.

Michael Gonzalez said...

So, substituting the definition of "objectively matters" into your original statement: If something rightly matters a great deal to me, it is at least somewhat the case that it ought to matter to everyone.

Does that seem right?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Rephrase: "If something rightly matters a great deal to me, it ought to matter at least slightly to everyone."

That sounds close to right. But I guess my suggested account of objective mattering does need to be modified:

x objectively matters iff everyone should be such that x would matter to them if they knew about x.

So, yes, it does seem right to me that if something matters a great deal to me, it should matter at least a little to everyone who knew of it.

It *may* be OK for things that have zero objective import to matter *a little* to a person. Thus, it's OK to have a hobby of collecting thumbtacks. But if something that has zero objective import comes to matter *a lot* to a person, she's gone off the deep end.

Michael Gonzalez said...

That is a very interesting insight, since it does follow that each of us is a being such that, if others knew about us, it would be right for us to matter to them.

I wonder what this does for the so-called "moral argument" for God's existence. That sort of argument seems predicated on the idea that things wouldn't have any intrinsic worth if there weren't some transcendant anchor point for moral values (viz. God's perfect nature). Maybe you could still run such an argument, but just say that the "rightly" part of "if something rightly matters to me" is somehow predicated on God?