Thursday, February 4, 2010

Some pre-SPC Thoughts on Value

Just to get the proverbial ball rolling, here is a little bit on the nature of “value” for your consideration. If you like this and totally agree, or hate it and want to argue, or if it even sparks the merest passing interest, I invite you, dear reader, to join Philosophia Religioque one week from now, next Thursday night, February 11 for the Student Philosophy Colloquium!
So just to be fun, I want to present something perhaps extreme here. Many may think that, if presented the questions “What is ‘value’? What makes something ‘valuable’?” an answer like, “I think the concept of value is purely subjective,” would be a little controversial to say, that most people really believe and put great stock in, say, the value of their savings account. That to say that it is just a figment of your imagination, and that money is just green paper, would be a novel concept –– maybe not for us educated folk, but the others out there, wouldn’t they have some qualm with the notion that all value is subjective? I do not believe that it is necessarily the case. I think there are not a large amount of people who truly believe otherwise. Most will work within the system in any case, but relatively few have deluded themselves into thinking the numbers comprising their brokerage account translate into “real,” objectively quantifiable value. In our long and glorified American tradition, individualism and liberty (and plurality) of thought and belief is nothing new to us. Personalization, distinctiveness, and independence is common to our very nature. It is not surprising then that we think that “value” is as subjective a notion as religion, truth, and beauty, etc. It is not surprising for one to consider that “value” is what I make of it, or what society makes of it. “Man is the measure of all things” and we can say what is valuable and how much; it is also common to hear something analogous to a quote from Hamlet: “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” There is nothing valuable but thinking makes it so; value is in the eye of the beholder. Opinions make up the value of an object–– it’s all subjective.
Well, I want to shy away from that, for I think it’s much more exciting to do something less common and widely accepted. Instead of going the “value is objective” route, however, I will argue that “value” is non-existent, and hopefully you’ll see how this is different from it’s being considered subjective. Saying the proposition that “value is purely subjective” is not enough; I would deny inherent value entirely. That phrase itself, “inherent value,” doesn’t, in my opinion, even make sense. Nothing is valuable in and of itself –– there is nothing intrinsic to something called “value” that would exist in the fabric or quintessence of the thing. If we think of everything as having a platonic form, what is essential to that form, what is its essence, has nothing to do with some quantifiable “value.” That is completely apart from an object, like the form of a bottle of water, or from a concept, like the form of justice. “Value” is an empty idea that doesn’t really refer to anything. It is not something revealed or recognized, because it is not there to begin with.
This is different than saying that value is subjective, that we assign a value to some thing, or person, or idea, or action based on context and circumstance, based on its scarcity or our wants or needs. When we’re thirsty and then drink some water, someone might say that the water was very “valuable” to me then, because I was thirsty and I needed it. And because it was valued that specific amount at that specific time, but will surely not be the same for someone who is not thirsty, or even to you after your thirst is satisfied, value must be subjective or relative. And indeed we could say that even people could have a sort of quantifiable value – You value your best friend more than a complete stranger. What you mean is that you value what they mean to you, what they do for you and your life, and how they’ve influenced you or provided for you. People can make us happy, make life a better place, and some, will mean more than others. Does that mean that, because your value is subjective to my feelings or proximity to you, that you, maybe my enemy, as a person actually have less value based on my perception, that your value has more to do with others than with you yourself?
Making “value” subjective is like putting everything on a scale or, better, on a number line, so that it is a continuous measurement that could be positive, negative, or zero. I could say that, to me, this apple is z amount, whereas the color blue is this, and playing a game of tennis is that. But I cannot conceive of things having this idea of “value,” so that even if z amount is zero, it still by some strange way “has” this strange thing called “value.” In what way does it “have” it? Value is instead better thought of as nonexistent and neutral, which is not to say a numerical zero. There is again no thing we call “value” in the essence of something; it is just used in such a way in our language as to give the appearance that all things in space and time, and including space and time (“time is money,” right?), “have” it and that we can assign it to objects, actions, and ideas, like some other adjective like “dark,” “big,” or “just.” It is used as to give the appearance of what is in reality nonexistent, but still, this is a useful illusion we use. We can make normative claims as to what should be valued, and to what extent. It may be a needed term for society to function expediently and well, within a single society itself or in relation to others.
If a car x is worth a cost y to me, we’re using the idea of “value” primarily in reference to a monetary number, but can keep in mind the worth of transportation or good feelings of independence and whatnot, too, and add that in the calculation. What does that ultimate price represent? Maybe a sum of cash. And what is that? I’m no economist, but I guess money is supposed to be representative of other, concrete precious things. And what are they? A bar of gold is so valued not because of its color or use as a paper weight, but for its scarcity on the earth. It is rare; and so is each individual person, so we say they’re “invaluable.” But let’s say we really bought into the idea that gold was very valuable. Well, just for a quaint example, for believers of the Christian faith, in heaven gold is the new asphalt, that’s what the streets are paved with. And you can ask Midas or Silas Marner (major cool points to you if you actually know that allusion) what the real “value” of gold is. It seems an endless series of “valuables” to quantify everything: from an object to a person’s opinion to dollar sign to an amount of gold or some other resource to… what?
There is, ultimately, nothing inherent in something that makes it valuable. The idea of “value” does not refer to anything in existence that is anything more than an appearance we assign to things, actions, ideas, and people in our language and thought. If I am in some other universe where I experience the essence of a thing, and I do not see it per say, so that it is not beautiful or ugly, and I do not have any sense of feeling, so that it is not pleasant or painful, there just is the essence of the object by itself without any other use or context for it, there would simple not be a “value” that I’d experience (or give it), because value does not exist. If you were to experience a tree, say, in its essential form, apart from your own senses, and I asked you, “What is the inherent darkness of the tree?” You couldn’t answer. So too do things lack some notion of “inherent value,” if I asked you the “value” of that tree, because it does not exist. There is neither darkness nor value to it. That sole essence of an object does not even have a “value” of zero, but no value whatsoever.
What do you think? If this has been at all enjoyable or thought-provoking, I invite you to let those thoughts marinate for the next week, and then come and join us for the SPC on Thursday, February 11. Hope to see you!


michael papazian said...

If I wanted to argue that something does not exist, I would begin by first trying to define that thing and then proceed to either show that the definition is absurd or does not describe anything known to reside in reality. I am fairly confident that there are no unicorns on earth, but only because I have an idea of what unicorns are supposed to be and am not aware of any documented instance of someone finding such a being. In the case of value, though, I am at a loss to decide whether it exists or not and if it does exist, whether it's subjective or objective. I can only begin to consider these questions after determining what value is supposed to be.

Your argument reminds me of J.L. Mackie's argument from queerness. Mackie argues that whatever moral properties are supposed to be, they would be rather strange entities and, thus, unlikely to exist. Likewise you seem to think that there's something odd about value, whatever that is, being an inherent property of an object. But why should such reasoning be convincing? Many facts about the world are incredible but nonetheless facts.

Andrea Lowry said...

Dr. Papazian, thank you for your comment. Clarification would certainly be an improvement, and It would be better to begin by defining “value,” and going from there, but I think my argument rests upon a supposition I (and most others) have in the meaning of “value” altogether, so I would in effect be working to “prove” the problem from my own “problematic” definition, problematic at least as so far as the claim you defended at the meeting tonight. If there is no way to get past the objections to your argument, my claim, and definition, may be coherent in themselves, but if you are correct, the entire concept of “value” (and I think maybe too for the large majority of people) must change, which is a possibility. But as I see it now, by definition, I can’t buy your claim. So here it is, and then you can rip it all to shreds, point out its flaws, and obliterate it completely, and then show us your argument from tonight and how we should start seeing things!

Here’s what I mean. By the nature of what “value” is, it entails a relationship. There must be a subject involved. You cannot speak of “value” by itself without its pertaining to something else, some other thing/entity/process/subject – this makes it subjective – there is a necessity of a subject or some other thing that goes with it. It is like an adjectival attribute like color, as we mentioned, or similar to a transitive verb which requires an object: value can only be used as in a relationship, as it relates to something outside itself. It is not a “thing” itself at all. It only has meaning as a concept or a word in a relationship with something not itself. There is no such possibly conceivable thing as “intrinsic value,”
because what value “is” can only have meaning or existence with something else, and cannot be “it” stand-alone, in and of “itself.” If there is value, V, then there is necessarily something not value, ~V, – you cannot have just V without a relationship between itself and something else. It does not exist independently, inherently, intrinsically, singularly, etc – it cannot be the subject itself, but there must be something else to make meaning or sense of “it.”

Just a rough sketch of the impasse as I see it, which is likely flawed itself. But there we are. Zach, go ahead and attack as well, and anyone else!

PS: did we answer the question of whether objectivity is valuable? Is it objectively valuable? Is the answer a value claim or an objective one or both?

michael papazian said...

Andrea, your comment concerns intrinsic value and its coherence. You may be right that value is a relational property. One can hold that all value is relational and still believe that value is an objective feature of the universe. So the relational status of value does not entail the subjectivity or the non-existence of value. By analogy, there's no such thing as just temperature; there is temperature at a particular place or time, 42 in Rome but 45 in Cartersville. But this is not to say that there isn't an objective temperature at each location. But maybe you think that that relation must be a relation to an individual's feelings or preferences. Perhaps that would make values necessarily subjective. But it seems I can be wrong about the value of something. I may think that philosophy has enormous value but turn out to be wrong about that judgment. I thought it could solve the world's problems, but find that it doesn't.

Objectivity has enormous value. It allows people to make judgments relatively free of bias and prejudice. But I could be wrong about that.

DunceScotus said...

Can anyone here say "self-referentially incoherent"? If value does not exist, then knowing/discussing that value does not exist is not itself valuable. Yet the author pursues this question as though it were valuable. She really can't have it both ways. If there is no such thing as value, then why bother with her project?

And what could motivate such a project anyway? The most charitable interpretation is that in a rather confused way she is showing how hard it is to think clearly about intrinsic/inherent value.
Not as hard as she thinks, maybe, but still pretty darn hard.

In short, does value exist? Well, do you care about anything?

Zach Sherwin said...


While I may or may not agree with the original post per se, I don't think that your critique quite succeeds. You give the following arguments:

1. If [value does not exist], Then [knowing/discussing that value does not exist is not itself valuable].
2. The author pursues this question as if the pursuit was valuable (the negation of the consequent of the first premise, if you allow for double negation)
3. Thus, value exists.

Alternatively, you might have presented, depending on how it should be read:

1. If [value does not exist], Then [knowing/discussing that value does not exist is not itself valuable].
2. It is necessarily the case the author was motivated from a sense of value (from the rhetorical, "what could motive such a project, anyways" statement).
3. Thus, value exists.

However, I don't believe that the second premise in either argument is accurate. In the first, it appears-- based on limited context, and please forgive me if I am incorrect-- that you confuse "value" with "preferences". Contextually, the author denies that value is equivalent to preferences. I might have a preference which makes me inclined to watch an episode of "Lost" this evening, but that does not necessarily entail that I attribute value to either lost or my watching it-- unless you consider value to be synonymous with preference, in which case the word "value" has a different reference when used by you than when the original author used it. I'm sure the author would not disagree that she had a preference to write this post, but that does not entail she considers the writing of it or the result of the writing valuable, per se.

The second interpretation of the argument is similar to the first, and, I believe, makes a similar mistake. It seems to me that one can form coherent notions of what could motivate such a post, outside of value as the motivator. For example, suppose that the author is extremely verbose (I presume I'm allowed a self-referential jab) and posted not because they consider the post valuable, but because they prefer it. Alternatively, the act of posting or the results of posting might be enjoyable, but one need not value enjoyment unless by "value" you mean "prefer" or "preference" (depending on the context). And I believe I touched on why that would not be a legitimate argument above.

I might have misunderstood your arguments, however-- or I might have failed to accurate convey them and created some sort of straw man. Feel free to correct them as need be.

Thanks for the post!

DunceScotus said...

Let me address Zach Sherwin, who did not unpack my argument as I would. I asserted that Lowry's position on value is self-referentially incoherent. I still think that's true, but let me unpack things a little differently:
1. Lowry's action of denying the existence of value and inviting us to consider this denial is intelligible only if Lowry values knowing truth and/or engaging in argument.
2. If Lowry values knowing truth and/or engaging in argument, then value exists.
3. Therefore, either Lowry's action is unintelligible or value exists.

I suspect you will concede the second premise (and whatever additional premise I may need—if any— to get to the conclusion). Your concern will be with the first premise. I don't know what to do to convince you of its truth other than to say whatever Lowry may mean by value and her preference/value distinction, investing the time and energy involved in composing and presenting her position is going to look much more like engaging in an activity one values than like satisfying a simple preference.(Or else random twitches.) She didn't just scratch an itch. How could we make sense of what she was doing unless we assume she is expressing or enacting a value in her act of arguing?

What was behind my query about what could motivate this project was this: I don't think philosophy is a game. And I don't think for a minute that Lowry seriously denies the existence of value. (If she does, she ought to take a walk up to the reservoir some evening around sunset or she should read the news about 1 million homeless in Haiti with the rains coming. Either should cure her of her skepticism of value.) So why play the game of denial? What could motivate that? Maybe some real puzzles about intrinsic value? That's about as much as I can make of things, but maybe you or Ms. Lowry see something I don't.

michael papazian said...

I agree with DunceScotus that Lowry faces a problem of self-referential incoherence that has not been adequately handled by Sherwin. But in defense of Lowry, I would add that the exercise of arguing for a conclusion that you do not accept (and perhaps cannot accept) has a venerable history in Western thought. Surely Zeno's arguments against motion are self-referentially incoherent. For how can one argue without moving? Yet his arguments stimulated rich discussions of the concept of motion and change which continue even today, abundant evidence of which may be found in Wesley Salmon's collection of essays on Zeno's paradoxes (written, I trust, by people who all believe in motion). Perhaps Lowry will not be the next Eleatic, but the game she is playing may still count as serious philosophy.

DunceScotus said...

I don't think all expressions of skepticism are merely playing a game. I must defer to Mr. Papazian whether Zeno was playing a game. But in embracing a skeptical methodology, Descartes surely was not playing a game. And Hume's skeptical conclusions were deadly serious. So what would make philosophical reflections a game—not that games are always a bad thing—and what would make certain philosophical reflections merely a game?

I've not thought much about this. But I suspect it has a lot to do with context. And I suspect it also has a lot to do with content. And method. This is to say that my denying motion seems different from Zeno's denying motion. And one's denying that value exists feels a lot different to me than one's denying that motion exists.

So, back to the question of motivation. Why did Zeno deny motion? What was he trying to accomplish in his denial? Why that project? Likewise with Lowry, what is the project that underwrites this denial of value?