Sunday, June 11, 2017: “Questions of Value”


St. Mark’s Adult Forum

11 June 2017


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.


Objective Value


Is there an objective side to value?  Here, the question is one regarding the sources of value:  Is value tied merely to subjective states, or something more?


Objective value is often equated with intrinsic value.  But how do we test whether or not something has intrinsic value?  Philosopher, G. E. Moore, devised a method to do so.  In order to arrive at a correct decision, it is necessary to consider what things are such that, if they existed by themselves, in absolute isolation, we should yet judge their existence to be good.  We can apply Moore’s test in asking whether beauty is intrinsically good, even if unperceived.  First, we imagine a universe with planets that have the beauty of sunrise over the Grand Canyon.  Then, we imagine a universe of nothing but black smog in the dark.  If the first universe is better than the second, beauty has intrinsic value – even if not perceived.


Question:  What else possesses intrinsic value?  Apply Moore’s absolute isolation test.


The Case for Truth


Our first example involves Alan the artist.  Alan is depressed because his paintings are receiving no recognition.  To cheer him up, a friend devises a scheme to fake the sale of Alan’s paintings at a local gallery for six figures apiece.  Alan’s spirits soar because he believes (mistakenly) that he is finally being recognized as a great artist.  Now consider two possible worlds involving Alan.  One is the world just described, where Alan is deceived about his paintings and dies happily, thinking he was a success.  The other world is just like the first, except that Alan is not deceived.  His paintings are recognized for their genuine artistic merit, and again Alan dies happily.  


We begin to understand what objective value is all about when we ask whether it would make any difference to Alan which of these worlds he lived in.  Granted, Alan is subjectively happy in both worlds.  But like most of us, he is apt to choose the second world.  And by doing so Alan is declaring that subjective happiness is not regarded as the final measure of value. 


Question:  In Alan’s case, what is the final measure of value?


The Case for Love


Our next example concerns a man and woman, David and Sarah, who fall in love, marry, and become soul mates.  Tragically, Sarah is killed in a plane crash.  David mourns her loss and finds it near impossible to move on.  Years pass until he encounters a mystic who can conjure up what seem to be real figures from the past.  The mystic conjures up his long-dead wife.  Before David’s eyes she takes physical form, embodying the beauty and vigor of his lost wife.  She’s a good conversationalist and lover; and, from the outside, indistinguishable from Sarah.  They renew their relationship, torrid at first, until David realizes it is not his real wife but a phantom wife conjured up from his past.  He is crushed for he dearly loved his wife.


Question:  What is it that the phantom wife lacks? 


For Alan, what’s important is ‘worthiness for glory’ – glory, defined by St. Thomas Aquinas as ‘clear recognition with praise’.  Who among us would appreciate adulation based on false premises?  A lie will not do; we want the truth.  Alan wanted his paintings to be objectively worthy.  The problem with actual praise (glory, honor, esteem, etc.) is that it requires ‘an audience fit to render it’.  And in today’s celebrity culture, that audience is often lacking.  For David, what’s important is ‘worthiness for love’.  To love something, St. Augustine said, is to want it to be for its own sake.  If David cared only about the outer appearance of the wife, what she could do for him, the phantom wife would have been just as good.  But the phantom wife, identical to Sarah on the outside, was not identical on the inside.


The Case for Memory


Consider memory which we all take for granted.  How important or valuable is our memory?  Here’s a thought experiment offered by psychologist, Daniel Kahneman. 


Suppose you’ve been invited on a lavish 10-day vacation to some exotic location all expenses paid.  You will enjoy the finest food and wine; once in a lifetime activities; entertainment; personal attention; the works!  However, at the end of the vacation, all pictures, recordings, and videos will be destroyed.  Furthermore, you will swallow a potion that will wipe out all your memories of the vacation.


Question: Do you accept the invitation or not?


The Case for Reality


Our next example concerns brains in vats and a ‘magic button’.  Your entire sensory input comes through your nervous system.  We could, in principle then, hook you up as a brain in a vat and, with the aid of a super-computer, provide you with an entirely simulated life.  We could give you your best subjective life.  All your troubles … gone!  You want to be a ‘rock star’?  You want to change the world?  We can supply the stream of sensory input necessary to ‘make it all happen’.  Now suppose there is a button in front of you – a magic button – that could do this for all living people and for all generations to come.  Pressing the button will convert us and all our descendants into brains in vats, living our best possible subjective pseudo-lives.


Question:  Would you press the button?


Of course, what you lose when you press the button is contact with reality.  If there is something wrong with pressing the button, then value is grounded at least in part in something beyond subjective states.  What might that be?


Question:  If pressing the magic button is wrong; might not certain forms of drug abuse or mood altering behaviors be wrong for the same reason?


However …


We may claim to value reality, morality, truth, love, and so on, but our actions speak otherwise.  Millions of us enjoy pro wrestling.  Millions enjoy computer games that suspend reality.  We watch cartoons and believe in Santa Claus.  In poker, bluffing is a developed skill.  Harmless?  Perhaps, but we also cheat and lie more then we care to admit; and when others do the same, we often make excuses or look the other way.  Forgive my candor; after all, we all value the honest truth, right?


So let’s return to the case for objective reality.  To what extent do we truly value reality?


Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book, ‘Alone Together – Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other’, documents a relatively new phenomenon that’s emerged out of the digital technology revolution.  That is, more and more people are showing a preference for the artificial over the real.  In her introduction, Turkle writes:


“Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities.  And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed.  We are lonely but fearful of intimacy.  Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.  Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other.  We’d rather text than talk.”


Notice Turkle’s reference to human vulnerabilities as opposed to human needs.  Vulnerabilities are not the same as needs.  The ongoing technological triumphalist narrative is infused with claims citing the opportunities, advantages and benefits of this or that technology.  But this is only one side of the story; the one technology wants to tell.  There’s another side of the story, the one about what really matters in a given life.


Question: Are today’s technologies fulfilling our needs or exploiting our vulnerabilities? 


Consider the following scenario.  Your aging mother can no longer live independently.  You make the difficult choice to place ‘mom’ in a nursing home where she can be looked after by professionals.  You carve out time from your busy schedule to visit, but these visits are painful; you see how lonely and lost you mom appears.  One minute she begs you to take her home.  The next minute she begs you to stay and not leave.  She repeats herself, loses her train of thought, and breaks down in tears.  Nothing you do or say seems to help.  Once again, you walk out the door exhausted and riddled with guilt.


But a technological breakthrough has occurred.  Progress in artificial intelligence and robotics has produced a robotic caregiver.  This robot resembles a human in its own quirky way.  It walks, talks, and performs its tasks with proficiency.  It’s sociable: friendly, caring, responsive, and attentive.  It’s available 24/7, and never tires or complains.  It ‘bonds’ with mom, and mom soon falls in love with it.  


Question: Now when you visit, mom appears happy.  So, is it easier to walk out the door?


One might ask the question: Don’t we have people to perform these jobs?  Yes, we do.  So why employ a robot; and why embed ‘sociability’ into it?  Efficiency and performance cannot be the only answer.  Humans are social creatures.  If designers neglected to embed ‘sociability’ into their smart machines, they run the risk their inventions might not catch on, might be rejected by the masses, and as a result fail commercially.  Robots don’t come free after all.


Technology marches to its own drum.  Paradoxically this so called trend – preference for the artificial over the real – runs counter to evolutionary psychology.  Humans evolved along with their ecosystem – humans are drawn to nature – humans are hardwired to prefer the real, the natural.


Question:  Perhaps today more people would be willing to press that ‘magic button’.   But do we really prefer the artificial over the real, or are we being sold?




* The bulk of materials offered were borrowed and adapted by Wayne Harper 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.