Sunday, Sep 26, 2010: “Questions of Value: Session 2”

St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary
“Questions of Value, Session 2”
An In-Depth Discussion Led by Wayne Harper
Sunday, September 26, 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*

Are Values Subjective?

One question posed by the separation or sundering of fact from value for the modern era is whether there are any objective values or whether all judgments about good and evil, right and wrong are merely subjective expressions of personal feelings or attitudes. It’s been argued that facts are objective – out there in the world to be studied by science – while values are merely subjective expressions of personal taste or feeling. 

Two strands of modern thought have led many persons to subjectivism (i.e., the view that value judgments 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). 

Positivism: the view that all the objective knowledge we can have comes through science, that is through experimentation and observation.
Existentialism: a view that emphasizes individual freedom and responsibility; we are not entirely made by nature, but make ourselves by our own free choices. 

These philosophical schools of thought, particularly existentialism, are deep and complex – way beyond the scope of our project here. But a couple examples may help.

Bertrand Russell, the British logician and philosopher, was a ‘positivist’. He held all knowledge is limited to science and “science had nothing to say about values.” To say something is good is “the affirmation of a personal wish or desire” for it.

John-Paul Sartre, French playwright and philosopher, saw things differently: “existence precedes essence.” What does he mean? Man first of all exists, finds himself and defines his essence only after discovery of self. Sartre held that man is not created with a preassigned essence (Aristotle’s formal cause) by God or nature, but “man makes himself” by his own free choices. In such self-making, Sartre insists, there are no objective grounds to appeal to for certain ethical judgments of right or wrong. Confused?
Well, join the club. A specific example may help some. 

Sartre posed this hypothetical moral dilemma: Should a young man leave home to join the French resistance to the Nazis, or remain at home with his ailing mother? He is faced with competing values. Does he honor his mother, or does he combat evil? Now, what does human nature tell the boy to do? What do the commands of God tell the boy to do? What does ‘reason’ tell the boy to do? In the end the boy was forced to simply choose. And his choice was the ‘right’ choice. Why? Sartre claims we make our own values by our subjective choices and by taking responsibility for those choices.

Russell was a dedicated activist for world peace winning a Noble Prize. He protested the Viet Nam War and accused the US of crimes against humanity. Ironically, this raises the question of what causes one might be committed to if subjectivism is true. Russell admitted that if confronted by someone with an opposing view, he had no principled argument to show he was right and they were wrong because there was no objective right or wrong about the matter at all. Helpful? Probably not.

Question: Russell asserts that “science has nothing to say about values”. If so, then science has nothing to say about right or wrong. Are there scientific questions that we have an ethical obligation to pursue? Are there forms of scientific knowledge that would be ethically wrong to pursue?

Question: Fairness appears to be a universal value. How can fairness be subjective? I mean fair is fair, right?

Question: Has the recent recession changed your values? More broadly, are values subject to changing economic conditions?

Wow, that was pretty heavy stuff. If your head is hurting, don’t be alarmed. Questions of value are often subtle, deep and complex. But through thoughtful examination we hope to achieve clarity. OK, let’s get less serious.

Best & Worst

I love classical music, you can’t stand it. You love Hip-Hop, and I cringe. Well, so what. To each his own. Who am I to say Hip-Hop is bad and the classics are good? Who’s to say? 

Question: If subjectivism is true, can the ‘best’ or ‘worst’ of anything ever be determined? Who is the best athlete? What is the worst movie? The best pizza?

But imagine you’re invited to a wine tasting party. A party so elaborate that every wine that’s ever been produced is there to be tasted and ranked. They’re all there, and one of them has to be the best, one the worst. Can it be otherwise?

Everything Has a Price

Putting a price on something says a lot about what we genuinely value. It’s not always about supply and demand. It’s often about intangibles.

Question: The price of a commercial apple pie is clearly marked on the box. What price for you Grandma’s apple pie? What price for Grandma’s apple pie recipe? 

Question: The price is right! How much should … cost?

Question: Money. What does it mean to you?


OK, we asked if values are subjective – i.e., determined by personal preference. Indeed, many values are subjective. But the deeper question is whether all values are subjective, not just some. Now we’re asked a similar question: Are values relative? That is, are values valid for only some persons or times or societies, or particular points of view, but not for all? Well, the short answer is yes. Values change over time, and differ across cultures. But, as you might expect, the question is more complex then it first appears.

Are values relative? This question needs to be examined carefully. There is a great deal of insight and truth in relativism. However, there are some dangerous ethical mistakes as well. One form of relativism argues that an action wrong in one cultural context may be right in another. This claim is not merely about what is believed to be right and wrong, but about what really is right and wrong in different contexts. A couple of examples:

Usury: It can be argued that usury – borrowing money at interest – was a genuine vice during the middle ages (a sin in biblical times). But capitalism, by definition, is built on credit – borrowing money at interest. What is a vice in one case is not in another because of differing economic contexts.

Parental Obligations: In the Trobriand Islands of Papua, New Guinea, the male role model, ‘parent’, and legal guardian for Trobriand children is the mother’s brother – not the children’s biological father. Not sure what happens if the mother has no brothers. In America, a male’s obligations to his nieces and nephews are relatively weak. The point is, different social systems result in different care for children. 

But can a universal claim be made that all values are culturally relative? There are three ‘types’ of relativism that are often confused:

· Descriptive Relativism — cultures differ in fundamental beliefs about value.
· Ethical Relativism – actions right in one culture may be wrong in another.
· Prescriptive Relativism – it is wrong to pass judgment on other cultures.

There is a standard relativistic argument that links the three and is offered as ‘proof’.

· Step1: Different cultures differ in their fundamental ethical beliefs.
· Step2: An action right in one culture may, therefore, be wrong in another culture. There are no universal moral truths; what is right or wrong varies across cultures.
· Step3: Thus, it is wrong to pass judgment on those with different ethical values.

Question: Do you accept this argument? 

In order to support ethical relativism in step 2, we need a universal descriptive relativism in step 1; that is, there are no values that hold across cultures. Many values do hold across cultures. For example, no culture holds it is ethical to kill children for sport. On the contrary, all cultures hold it is not ethical to kill children for sport. Step 1 fails to get off the ground. What of the move from ethical relativism in step 2 to prescriptive relativism in step 3? Ethical relativism actually contradicts prescriptive relativism. If nothing is universally right or wrong (ethical relativism), then contrary to prescriptive relativism, it cannot universally be wrong to pass judgment on another culture.

The lessons to be learned are these: Descriptive relativism seems to be a simple factual claim, but it turns out to be far from simple. The appearance of ethical differences may be merely superficial. Nevertheless, some things may be right in one ethical context and not in another. Hence, it is wrong to pass hasty judgment on those in different cultural contexts who hold different values. 

Question: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Good advice?

From Experience to Worth

What follows is a case for non-relative or objective of value. Objective value can be thought of as value that transcends space and time; value that is respected from all points of view – i.e., non-relative. The case proceeds through four dimensions of human value.

· 1st Dimension: Experience. Our first encounters with good and evil are through certain basic value and disvalue experiences. Basic value experiences include joy, contentment, accomplishment, etc. Basic disvalue experiences include sadness, frustration, humiliation and the like. These are good or bad in the first instance, other things being equal, unless overridden in some higher dimension of value. Value thus conceived in the first dimension is both objective and relative. 

Objective: It is an objective fact in the world whether someone is experiencing joy or pain.

Relative: The joy and pain is accessible only to the person that experiences them.

Every time you or anyone feels joy or pain, the gap between fact and value has been bridged – even if only for you.

· 2nd Dimension: Purposive Activity. When experience is stretched out over time, and involves purposive activity with practical goals, we reach a second dimension of value. This second dimension includes first-dimensional experiences. We train for a new job, diet and exercise to promote good health, compete to win. The value here lies in the fulfillment of the purposes and goals put forth. Values are objective in this second dimension as well.

Objective: There is an objective fact of the matter whether or not some purpose is fulfilled or goal achieved.

Relative: Second dimension value is both relative and subjective in a sense since the fulfillment and satisfaction are of the purposes and desires of a particular agent.

· 3rd Dimension: Forms of Life. Experience and purposive activities are viewed in the third dimension in terms of how they define who and what we are. A primitive hunter does not merely hunt for food, but takes pride in his skill with a bow because it signifies that he is and excellent archer, a good provider for his family and a loyal member of his tribe. Third dimension value has to do with meaning or significance of experiences and purposive activities within certain forms of life – traditions, cultures, and so on. It has to do with our ideals, virtues and excellences in those forms of life.

Objective: There can be an objective fact of the matter about whether or not a standard of excellence has been attained or a virtue realized in a given way of life or practice. Caution: some people may be deluded.

Relative: Value in the third dimension, if objective, is still relative to groups of persons who participate in practices and forms of life that give meaning and significance to their lives.

· 4th Dimension: Worth. The fourth dimension of value is meant to be non-relative. It is objective or universal worth. The fourth dimension of value is as elusive as the fourth dimension of space, since it requires rising above all particular perspectives to say what is true, right or excellent for all of them. This fourth dimension perspective can be thought of as coming from a ‘God’s eye view’. Relativists claim that one cannot get up to this fourth dimension.

Question: Many people think of relativism as the doctrine that ‘no point of view about values is objectively better than any other’. This form of ‘vulgar relativism’ was refuted long ago by the ancient Greeks. It is self-contradictory. Do you see how?

The task of finding universal truths and values is difficult. It seems to be a natural human tendency to project third-dimensional forms of life into the fourth dimension, assuming they were of universal worth. But this is not good enough; it must be shown how to rise above limited points of view, either to say one view is best or to say no point of view is any better then any other. Many renowned philosophers have stepped up to this most difficult challenge.

Question: Do you think it’s possible to get to the 4th dimension? If so, how?