Sunday, Sep 19, 2010: “Questions of Value: Session 1”

St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary
“Questions of Value, Session 1”
An In-Depth Discussion Led by Wayne Harper
Sunday, September 19, 2010


* NOTE:  The materials offered were borrowed and adapted for our use from two primary sources: ‘Questions of Value’ taught by Patrick Grim and ‘The Quest for Meaning: Value, Ethics, and the Modern Experience’ taught by Robert Kane. Both are courses produced by The Teaching Company.


                                               Questions of Value*

The really fundamental questions of our lives are not questions of fact or finance but questions of value.’ Patrick Grim, Ph.D.


What is it that gives something genuine value? What is worth striving for; what makes life worth living? Are there values that transcend cultural differences? Is there objective value or is all value subjective? Is ethics possible without religion? If the universe is deterministic, can there be real choice or moral responsibility? What happens when values conflict; what do we owe others? Is anyone ever better off dead?

Question: These are just some of the fundamental questions dealt with in ethics and value theory. Can you think of any other questions of value that intrigue you?

We will examine fundamental questions of value, and how they impact our lives. Our goal here is not to close debate but to open it, not to resolve questions of value but to delve into them. No stance or position need be assumed dogmatically and all positions are open to further scrutiny and thought. Rest assured all of us are capable of taking on this project. Since this is a forum, all are encouraged to speak what’s on their mind.

Perhaps it’s best to define value and get that out of the way. From Webster’s New World Collegiate Dictionary:

1. a fair or proper equivalent in money, commodities, etc., esp. for something sold or exchanged; fair price or return 
2. the worth of a thing in money or goods at a certain time; market price 
3. estimated or appraised worth or price; valuation 
4. purchasing power; the fluctuating value of the dollar
5. that quality of a thing according to which it is thought of as being more or less desirable, useful, estimable, important, etc.; worth or the degree of worth 
6. that which is desirable or worthy of esteem for its own sake; thing or quality having intrinsic worth 
7. the social principles, goals, or standards held or accepted by an individual, class, society, etc.

Though ethical values will be of essential importance in our discussions, we will also certainly touch on aesthetic, pragmatic, cultural and religious values (see atchs). This leads to another definition which perhaps more closely applies to our efforts here.
Axiology: Axiology is the study of values in general – any and all kinds of values – and their interrelationships. Axiology delves into the nature of value itself.

Why question value? Why bother? Socrates held that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ A bit harsh perhaps, but this much we know: The unexamined life – by default a more limited life – will never know whether it is worth living. This is reason enough to examine questions of value. But wait, there’s another challenging reason. By testing our values, we hope to discover how we might better get along with each other. 

Facts vs. Values:

Questions of fact play a major role in our lives. As individuals we need to know the ‘facts’ – reality. Collectively, we also want to know general facts. For example, are we alone in the universe? Scientific exploration is a way of getting at the facts. The realm of value is explored or developed differently.

To get a sense of this difference, consider the following. One could have a complete factual picture of the universe yet not know the first thing about value. Moreover, one could know all the facts and still not know which facts are important, or whether any of the facts are important. Which facts are important and why they are important and what use we should make of those facts, those are questions of value. 

The point is this. All facts share the same status; no one fact is any more important than another. If we think one fact is more important than another, than we are making a value judgment. But that’s what humans do; we evaluate and sort facts in terms of value. Thus the existence of other intelligent life in the universe is of value to us because we value both life and intelligence. 

Question: Can you imagine viewing the world entirely on factual terms devoid of value?
There is food before you. You are hungry. But you see no value in eating. What do you see? What of those suffering depression or with autism? What about the narcissist?

The contrast between fact and value can be made more personal. Consider that your life, as you have lived it, has taken one path up to now. The future is still unknown. But countless other paths were open to you had fate allowed or you simply chose otherwise. What if you took a different spouse, a different job, etc? So it’s not too difficult to look back on your life and imagine it as a series of branching paths with choices — a tree diagram. Your actual life is one course through the tree. But imagine you can see the entire tree with all its possibilities for your life – choices made, choices not made, choices yet to be made, and their factual consequences. Now what? 

In this thought experiment it’s possible to know all the contingencies of your life past, present and future, and know the consequences of all possible choices. But here’s the rub. You can possess all these facts and still not know either what you should have done in the past or what you should do now. Questions of what you should do are questions above and beyond questions of what did happen, what will happen, and even what will happen or would have happened if. Questions concerning what you should do are questions of value.

Question: Do you buy this argument? If not, why not? Wouldn’t knowing the consequences of our choices dictate those choices? If I knew buying a lottery ticket would result in me winning a zillion dollars, I should buy that lottery ticket. Or should I?

The young and old perceive the forking tree of life choices differently. The young see all the possibilities in front of them. The old are haunted by what might have been. Agree?

Question: Your life – viewed as a branching tree – begins and ends with singularities: birth and death. All roads lead to Rome, so to speak. So, does it really matter what path is taken?

Facts and Values:

The distinction between facts and values has a long philosophical history. Plato examined the kinds of disagreements that lead to ‘hatred and wrath’ and those that do not.

Question: Can you figure out what conclusions Plato came to?

Plato’s student, Aristotle, pursued wisdom. Wisdom seeks comprehensive answers to the questions of ‘what is’ (questions of fact) and ‘why’ (questions of value). According to Aristotle, to fully understand anything – to have wisdom about it – you must answer four questions. These four questions pertain to four ‘causes’ or ‘modes of explanation’.

1. Material cause: what’s it made of?
2. Formal cause: what’s its inner form or essence? (its in-form-ation) 
3. Efficient cause: how is it brought about?
4. Final cause: what’s its purpose or the good that it seeks?

Consider a sailing ship. It consists of wood, metal, rope, and cloth. These are its material cause. A sailing ship is a wind-driven conveyance that exhibits water resistance, buoyancy and stability upon the water. These are the formal cause. Sailing ships do not self-assemble. What are needed are skilled workers to put all the pieces together properly. This is the efficient cause. The ‘good’ that a sailing ship seeks is in the mind of its designer; its purpose or final cause is to travel upon water, accomplishing the tasks for which it was designed.

The rise of modern science beginning in the 15th century undermined Aristotle’s ‘teleological’ or purposeful view of the world. This rise of modern science (refer to Galileo, Bacon, Newton, etc.) sought the material and efficient causes of all things but rejected (or avoided) Aristotle’s formal and final causes which address value or purpose. Thus fact was sundered from value.

Question: What do you think Aristotle might say about ‘intelligent design’?
Values and Modernity

The history of values goes back as far as you wish to go. Ancient societies, at least initially, were sufficiently isolated (by way of language and/or geography) which allowed them to develop their own unique worldview. Values were established in a number of ways: tradition (experience), decree (reason), and sacred writ (revelation or myth), etc. Over time these societies matured; unified and confident in their common ‘point of view’.

However, the advent of the modern era or ‘modernity’ in Western Civilization (since the 15th century) has challenged many of the assumptions held by the ancients. Wherever the culture of modernity has spread, it threatens traditional values, religious beliefs, and ways of life. This has created confusions and disagreements about values that continue up to the present; and can lead to skepticism about values, or worse, nihilism. The problem?

Pluralism: the prevalence of competing points of view on matters of fundamental belief and value. We live in a world of conflicting voices, philosophies, religions, traditions, practices, beliefs and values.
o The ‘global economy’ transports cultures and values as well as goods.
o Open, democratic societies are intrinsically pluralistic.
· Uncertainty: the difficulty of determining which of the competing views is ‘right’ from within any given view.

Pluralism and uncertainty lie behind much of our disagreements and confusions about values. They can lead to the following:

Subjectivism (of values): the view that judgments about good and evil, right and wrong, do not describe objective facts of the world, but represent only individual or subjective expressions of feelings or emotion, desire or preference, recommendations or condemnations.

Relativism (of values): the view that all judgments about good and evil, right and wrong, are valid for only some persons or times or societies or particular points of view, but not for all. In short, there is no one truth applicable to all. 

Many people respond to pluralism and uncertainty by simply asserting they are certain of the truth of their own view; they know in their heart, or they may cite the authority of the Bible, or give some other justification. What one thinks is the true or right way to live for oneself or anyone is one’s private morality. It often conflicts with public morality; i.e., what we owe others even if they disagree with our private morality. Indeed, such conflict appears to be the price for living in a free society. Where the distinction between private and public morality ceases to be, we find totalitarian societies. 

Question: OK, what do we owe others? Where and how do we draw the line?

Ethical/Moral values
o Core values: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, citizenship. 
o Truth
o Justice
o Wisdom
o Can you list others????

Social/Cultural values
o Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (also property)
o Family
o Freedom
o Equality (Is freedom and equality possible?)
o Privacy
o Education
o The American Dream (What is it? Prosperity?)
o Others????

Pragmatic values
o Nature (environment)
o Experience
o Knowledge, reason, logic, creativity
o Skill, excellence
o Utility (an abstract measure of worth or satisfaction in terms of what one values)
o Security
o Others????

Aesthetic values
o Beauty
o Quality
o Pleasure
o Antiques Road Show
§ Rarity – how does scarcity affect value?
§ Value added – the hat made of ribbon.
§ Provenance – Elvis 

Religious values
o Faith, Hope and Love
o Compassion, empathy, forgiveness 
o Obedience, devotion, humility
o Charity, ‘Golden Rule’
o Others????

Be honest • Don’t deceive, cheat or steal • Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do • Have the courage to do the right thing • Build a good reputation • Be loyal — stand by your family, friends and country 
Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule • Be tolerant of differences • Use good manners, not bad language • Be considerate of the feelings of others • Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone • Deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements 
Do what you are supposed to do • Persevere: keep on trying! • Always do your best • Use self-control • Be self-disciplined • Think before you act — consider the consequences • Be accountable for your choices 
Play by the rules • Take turns and share • Be open-minded; listen to others • Don’t take advantage of others • Don’t blame others carelessly 
Be kind • Be compassionate and show you care • Express gratitude • Forgive others • Help people in need 
Do your share to make your school and community better • Cooperate • Get involved in community affairs • Stay informed; vote • Be a good neighbor • Obey laws and rules • Respect authority • Protect the environment