Sunday, Oct 31, 2010: “Questions of Value: Session 7”

St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary
“Questions of Value, Session 7”
An In-Depth Discussion Led by Wayne Harper
Sunday, October 31, 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*

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: Apply Moore’s absolute isolation test to pleasure. Does pleasure possess intrinsic value?

We can explore further this question of objective value by using a few examples. The 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 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 and 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? Alan wanted his paintings to be objectively worthy of it. 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 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 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: Perhaps the magic button was pressed 1000 years ago. Perhaps we are ‘living’ in some sort of virtual reality simulator. Any way to tell?

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

We may claim to value reality, integrity, truth 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. What’s going on?