On Retrospective Valuation

by Jason Stotts

No, this is not another melancholy bemoanment of a loss that I’ve only just realized; rather, it’s an analysis of the whole idea of retrospective valuation.

Retrospective valuation is when one realizes the value of something (whether it’s a person, place, things, etc.) only ex post facto – that is, you only realize how valuable or significant something was for you after the fact.

What prompts me to think of this issue is being back in Florida after a long absence; I forgot how beautiful the weather was here and how nice it was to be able to sit outside in the sunshine, with a gentle breeze buffeting me, with birds singing, and big puffy clouds floating overhead – all when it is still winter where I live. It certainly seems to me that people are better suited to the milder climes than the harsh winters of the North.

The point of this essay, however, is not to sing the praises of the South, but rather to point out some significant philosophical issues; such as part of the problem that gives rise to retrospective valuation seems to involve people being too present oriented and yet at the same time not being present oriented enough. While this seems to be a contradictory statement, I think that if you think about it for a minute you’ll understand.

It is often the case that people are too present oriented insofar as they are only focused in the present without giving thought to the future. This is a problem because value partly comes from the future effects and expected positive benefits. For example, one reason why people don’t always value the people they are with is that they fail to recognize that a good relationship only gets better with time and so while one may not be that excited about their current relationships (whether friendships or intimate relationships) often one fails to see that they will continue to improve if they’re with good people. Also, if you think on your own life for a minute I’m sure you remember a time when you had something that you didn’t value at the time, and now thinking back you wish you could do it over with the knowledge you have now of it’s true value.

The other part of the problem is that people are not present oriented enough – by this I mean that sometimes people expect all of the value to come from future positive benefits and fail to recognize that the present also gives rise to value. To think that all value comes from the future would be to rob the present (and ultimately your whole life of value). This is, unfortunately, an all too often occurrence in today’s culture which emphasizes “forward thinking.” For example take this little note:

Don’t love me for who I am,
love me for who I will be,
but don’t try to make me be,
what I should be.

The problem is that if one truly loved another for what they will be in the future and this is the sole source of valuation, then this will start an infinite chain of forward valuation – except people are not immortal and so the future chain will end with death, which will destroy all the values predicated upon it. To insist that value only comes from the future ultimately destroys value itself.

It makes me wonder why people always insist upon creating false dichotomies such as values comes either from the future or from the present. Why can’t it be both?

It seems to me that in order to have a full theory of valuation one must account for both the present and the future – not that one should ignore the past either, but that’s a trickier case.

The past is harder because while the past can be a great source of value, one must remember that people are not static and if one only values based on the past and ignores the current state of the person, then they are not being Just. Furthermore, the past can often induce people into courses of action based on false premises, if they don’t take change into account. However, the past is one of the most important bases of valuation because from your past you have proof of the value. For example, you know that the car you’ve had for three years is reliable because every time you’ve ever tried to start it, it starts without a problem and it has never had any mechanical issues. The past is a proof of the value of something – it is tests passed or failed and a sure indication. However, relying solely on the past can be disastrous because it can cause one to ignore the dynamics nature of existence in favor of the static conception which ignores a lot of relevant information.

To return to our point – it seems that the idea of retrospective valuation is quite significant to valuation theory and that understanding its nature can protect one from the complications and problems that it can cause.

You must always be on guard against operating solely through retrospective valuation as it is detrimental to living your life now – if you only understand the value of that which is around you by looking back, you’re sure to miss out on the most important things in life.

  1. No Comments