On Value

by Jason Stotts

Recently I was having a discussion about value with someone and they claimed that value is just part of what a thing is – “Things are not valuable because we value them, they are valuable for what they are”, i.e. the claim is that value is intrinsic. Now, being the philosopher I am, this struck me as an odd thing to say – to say that a coin has value just because it is a coin or that a wife has value just because she is a wife. Let us examine this issue of the nature of value and see if we can’t come to any conclusions on it.

First it seems to me that we must make some distinctions if we are ever to come to a conclusion about this issue.

1. Value must either be a means to an end (instrumental) or an end in itself (intrinsic)

2. To say a thing is valuable there must be some standard of value such as to each person subjectively or to all persons collectively, or there must be an objective standard, or a thing could just be valuable in-and-of itself (intrinsically valuable).

3. To have value it must be of benefit to yourself (egoism), others (altruism), or to no-one at all (intrinsicism).

So there are three closely related issues regarding value: 1) Of value for what?, 2) Of value by what standard?, and 3) Of value to whom? Now usually these three questions are confused amongst each other or not even regard as part of the issue, but I believe without these distinctions we will never be able to sort out this whole mess about values and what they are and should be.

Now, obviously the most fundamental question which is presupposed by the others is the question of the standard of value, since without a standard we could never declare something to be a value in the first place.

I have set up three different standards (subjective and collective are being lumped together for a good reason although I don’t have space here to address that – look for a future post) in 2, which run the whole range of possibilities for standards of value (unless you’re a nihilist, or an idiot, but I repeat myself). Anyway, in order to sort out which standard to use, we need to look at what makes value possible in the first place.

What is it that gives rise to the concept of values? Can a rock value something? Can a tree or a dog or a person? Now it is apparent that inanimate matter has no values, there is nothing which a rock values – nothing can be either good or bad for it since it merely exists. So it seems that only animate matter can value, a tree values water, a dog values affection, and people have a wide range of values. The key distinction here is animate vs. inanimate matter: it is Life that gives rise to values – without life there can be no values.

So we have come to a standard of value – life; but is this standard subjective/collective, objective, or intrinsic?

Since it is the fundamental mortal choice that is the precondition of value, this makes life the standard of value, the measuring stick against which values are measured, if you will. Since life becomes the standard of value, it is apparent that value cannot be subjective/collective or intrinsic, because life serves as an objective standard of value. By having life as the standard of value, one sets up a telos for value and then can apply a teleological analysis to find out whether something is truly a value or not. To put this in simpler English, you have to set life as the goal and see whether a value furthers or hinders that goal in order to see whether it is truly a value.

We have now seen that values are objective and that their standard is life, thus proving that value is neither subjective/collective nor intrinsic and that objective evaluation is possible and, as a later piece will show, necessary.

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