The English word "axiology" (Greek: axios = worth; logos = "science") means "study of value." Although questions of value are as old is philosophy itself, "axiology" refers primarily to the writings of the Austro-German phenomenologists such as Franz Brentano, Alexius Meinong, Max Scheler, and Nicolai Hartmann. Their influence has been transmitted to the Anglophone world through the writings of G.E. Moore, W.D. Ross, Roderick Chisholm, and more recently Robert Nozick.
The axiological movement emerges from the phenomenological method. The axiologists sought to characterize the notion of value in general, of which moral value is only one species. They argue (with notable differences between them) against Kant, that goodness does not exclusively derive from the will, but exists in objective hierarchies. They emphasize the extent to which it is through emotions and feelings that human beings discern values. The notion of right action is understood derivatively in terms of the values which emotions reveal.
Axiology (from Greek ἀξίᾱ (axiā) translated as "value, worth"; and λόγος (logos) translated as "science") is the philosophical study of value. The term was first used in the early twentieth century by Paul Lapie, in 1902, and E. von Hartmann, in 1908.
Axiology is the philosophical study of goodness, or value, in the widest sense of these terms. It may be used as the collective term for ethics and aesthetics—philosophical fields that depend crucially on notions of value—or the foundation for these fields, and thus similar to value theory and meta-ethics. Formal axiology, the attempt to lay out principles regarding value with mathematical rigor, is exemplified by Robert S. Hartman's Science of Value.
Brentano's axiological theory depends on his conception of the structure of thought, which revolves crucially around the medieval notion of intentionality. The intentionality of mental states refers to the directedness of thought onto an object. This is, in more common language, its about-ness. For example, when someone thinks a thought of a rose, their thought is about a rose.
Brentano, following Descartes, presents a three-fold classification of psychological phenomena: (1) thinking, (2) judging, and (3) feeling or willing (in contrast with Kant Brentano does not draw a sharp division between will and feeling). Firstly, thinking involves the presentation of an object to consciousness, as when one thinks about a rose, but does does not involve believing that it exists, or wanting it to exist. Thinking thoughts involves having ideas before one's mind but is more basic than and does not entail judging or willing. Secondly, Brentano distinguishes judging (or believing) from thinking be means of acts of acceptance and rejection (or affirmation and denial). For example, judging that a rose exists involves thinking of a rose and accepting it. Conversely, judging that no unicorns exist involves thinking of a unicorn and rejecting it. Acceptance and rejection are held to be basic mental acts. Thirdly, Brentano distinguishes willing or feeling by means of attitudes of love or hate. So loving a person is differentiated from judging that a person exists by the nature of the act directed toward this person. Loving or hating involves adopting a particular attitude to that individual. It is important to notice that for Brentano, 'love' and 'hate' are terms of art, and are employed in contexts considerably broader than their customary English usage. It may in fact be more accurate to describe these attitudes as pro-feelings (love) and anti-feelings (hate). Loving and hating are in the realm of value analogues to acceptance and rejection in the realm of truth.
A single mental act for Brentano may therefore constructed out of these three elements: (1) a presentation, (2) a judgement, and (3) a pro or anti-attitude (which Brenatano calls the phenomenon of interest). Thoughts are neither true or false; they are simply presentations before the mind (ideas). But some judgments and evaluative acts posssess a features called correctness. In the realm of judgment, this correctness is nothing other than truth, which, according to Brentano, is a concept one derives through the experience of evident judgments. An evident judgment is an acceptance (or belief) that is experienced as correct. For example, the acceptance that all squares are rectangles is experienced as correct, and similarly for one's experience of one's own internal states such as pain.
Brentano explains the concept of goodness and badness in roughly the same terms as he explains the concept of truth. Something is intrinsically good to the extent that it is correct to love that object. Conversely, a thing is intrinsically bad to the extent that it is correct to hate it. Brentano sees the origin of all ethical knowledge as lying in our experience of correct love and hate. He maintains that the love of such things as insight is experienced as correct, and similarly, the hatred of error and confusion is experienced as correct.
One further significant feature of Brentano's axiology is his development of the theory of organic unities. An organic unity is an evaluative states of affairs (such as being good or bad) in which the value of the whole does not add up to the sum of the parts. For example, Brentano holds that somebody's feeling displeasure in the bad is good. In this case, a person's feeling displeasure, which is by itself a bad thing, forms part of a whole, which is good.
Max Scheler's greatest work Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values is at once an extended critique of Kant's ethical theory and an elaboration of his own axiological alternative. Scheler openly admits his admiration and indebtedness to Kant, whom he regards as having decisively refuted a posteriori teleological theories or what he calls "ethics of goods and purposes." Kant's objection, which Scheler wholeheartedly accepts, is that empirical ethical theories—such as utilitarianism—which ground moral action on what people actually value, cannot provide a suitable foundation for ethics. This is because, in his view, moral law exhibits a universal applicability (to all people at all times) and a necessity, which cannot be derived empirically. Experience can tell us what is, but cannot reveal what must be. For these reasons Kant argues that accommodating the universal and necessary character of moral laws requires that ethics be placed on an a priori foundation. This means that moral principles must be justified independently of experience.
Scheler agrees with Kant that ethics requires a foundation independent of the empirical realization of any particular goods but argues that Kant's formal ethical theory is inadequate. He holds that Kant was led into error by identifying a priori moral principles with formal principles. So Scheler rejects the alternatives within which Kant's thinking operates: either ethics is a priori and formal or it is a posteriori and material. Scheler holds that the proper foundation for ethics is both a priori and material. (Scheler credits his conception of the a priori to Edmund Husserl.)
Scheler argues that values are the intentional objects of feelings just as colors are the intentional objects of sight. The analogy is this: a person is capable of seeing yellow, just as a person is capable of feeling goodness. It may be unclear why values, which are known through feeling are held to be known a priori. The answer to this depends on a distinction between values and goods. Goods are empirical objects, such as a painting, whereas values are a priori essences that exist independently of the goods in which they are instantiated. Value essences are neither particular nor universal, a doctrine that goes back to Avicenna and medieval theories of essence and universality. It seems that the analogy with color may be extended here: particular things in the world are red in virtue of the property of redness which inheres in them. So, redness, the color itself, is not an empirical thing in the world. Rather it is an abstract quality, which is exhibited by various red things such as applies and cherries (universals). And it seems that Scheler conceives of values in this way: values are instantiated in physical objects but they are not themselves physical objects. This, then, is Scheler’s doctrine of the emotional a priori.
Scheler argues that values exhibit a structure and order of their own, and are arranged in hierarchies. Scheler like Brentano believes in a irreducible mental act of preferring whereby the order of values is known. In an act of preferring one feels that one value is higher than another. According to Scheler, values may be arranged in the following hierarchy: (1) hedonic or sensory values; (2) life values (such as vitality, health, etc); (3) spiritual values (such as beauty, justice and assent to pure [non-pragmatic] truth); (4) the values of holiness.
G.E. Moore is known as the father of modern meta-ethics, which was as a domain of study largely initiated by his classic work Principia Ethica. Here Moore insists that ethical inquiry is to be conducted only after one has a proper analysis of its central concept, which Moore took to be 'good'.
In meta-ethics, Moore is a non-naturalist. This involves a commitment to moral realism, or the idea that moral judgments refer to objective features of the world. For example, the judgment that Hitler is evil picks out a man, and ascribes a moral property to him. This judgment is true just in case the moral property "evil" actually inheres in him somehow. Secondly, Moore's non-naturalism also involves a commitment to the autonomy of ethics, or the thesis that ethical properties cannot be reduced to natural properties. Moore defends the autonomy of ethics by means of an argument which has come to be known as the open-question argument. He uses the open-question argument against naturalistic ethical theories that attempt to identify goodness with some natural property such as being pleasurable or being desired. (He claims to find this line of reasoning in the writing of Bentham and Mill). According to the open-question argument, any attempted definition of a moral property such as goodness in terms of natural properties must fail. For example, suppose someone defined goodness, a normative property, in terms of “being desired,” a descriptive property, and went on to make the claim that war is desired. Moore’s point is that it would make perfect sense—the question is open—for someone to retort “sure, war is desired, but is it good?” Moore holds that this question would not make sense if good really meant "is desired." For instance, it makes no sense—the question is closed—to ask whether Charles is unmarried upon learning that he is a bachelor. This is because bachelor does mean unmarried man. In this way, Moore claims to refute all forms of ethical naturalism, suggesting that one and all commit a "naturalistic fallacy."
Moore's non-naturalism leads to the question of how moral properties are known. Since these are non-natural they cannot be known through the methods of science. Moore argues, as he must, for an epistemological intuitionism. The property of goodness is a simple property that is known intuitively, and not by inferring it from any of its descriptive correlates.
Moore's contribution to axiology per se occurs later in Principia Ethica, specifically in his development of the theory of organic unities and his value pluralism.
Moore is an "ideal consequentialist," whose account of right action sees rightness as consisting in the production of goodness (Consequentialism). Moore’s axiological theses reflect to some degree the influence of Brentano, whom Moore admired: Moore’s account of the faculty of moral intuition includes a reference to feeling and the will; his account of goodness and beauty is deeply indebted to Brentano, as is his account of "organic unities" in value.
W.D. Ross is best known for his intuitionist normative theory of prima facie duty. As regards axiology, he took over Moore’s open question argument against the definability of "good" to argue that the term "right" was similarly undefinable. Ross saw the term "good" as attaching to states of affairs, whereas "rightness" is applicable to acts. Ross offers a three-fold classification of values, combined with a thesis of value incommensurability. For example, the value of virtue cannot be compared with the value of pleasure. In this he adopts a view similar to J.S. Mill's in Utilitarianism.
Historically, axiology went into decline after Moore and Ross. In the Anglophone world, the reasons for this was the influence of logical positivism, the growing influence of evolutionary theory, and the rejection of intuitionism and the ascendency of non-cognitivism about value. In continental Europe, axiology went into decline on account of the influence of Heidegger, and general suspicion about the ontology of value.
The logical positivists embraced a theory of the linguistic meaning called the principle of verification. This principle says that a sentence is strictly meaningful only if it expresses something that can be confirmed or disconfirmed by empirical observation. For example, the sentence “there are possums in India” is meaningful because it could be verified or falsified by actually checking whether there are possums in India.
One important implication of the principle of verification is that axiological judgments are strictly meaningless. The sentence “murder is bad” cannot be confirmed or dis-confirmed by empirical experience. We may find that people believe that murder is wrong, or disapprove of murder, but there is nothing in world corresponding to ‘wrongness’ that could be investigated by empirical science. Therefore, according to the logical positivists, all evaluative judgments are meaningless and so they do not state facts.
Emotivism and prescriptivism may be understood as attempts to make sense of axiological language while adhering to the principle of verification. If all axiological judgments are meaningless, then what are people doing when they say that kindness is good, or that cruelty is bad?
Emotivists such as A.J. Ayer, and C.L. Stevenson, hold that evaluations express the speaker’s feelings and attitudes: saying that kindness is good is a way of expressing one’s approval of kindness. Similarly, R.M. Hare argues that evaluations are prescriptions (commands): saying that kindness is good is a way of telling people that they should be kind. Evaluative judgments are then understood as emotive or prescriptive, and are contrasted with descriptive judgments. Descriptive judgments are appraisable as true or false; evaluative judgments are not. In this way, a fact-value distinction is upheld.
Evolutionary psychology seems to offer an account of the evolution of our "moral sense" (conscience) that dispenses with any reference to objective values. Its apparent elimination of objective values on the grounds of their being unneeded in explanation has led the skeptical writings of J.L. Mackie and Michael Ruse. By contrast, Robert Nozick has resisted this interpretation of evolution (1981) arguing that an evolutionary account of the moral sense can no more dispense with values than an evolutionary account of perception can dispense with perceptual objects objectively present in the world.
In recent years, with the decline of logical positivism, interest in axiological ethics has again begun to increase. Firstly, J.N. Findlay (1963), R.M. Chisholm and Maurice Mandelbaum have translated and transmitted the work of the German axiologists, notably Brentano into the English speaking world. John McDowell and David Wiggins are notable contemporary English-speaking philosophers now working in the axiological tradition.
Other axiologists in contemporary ethics are Platonists such as Iris Murdoch and Neo-Kantian theorists such as John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Nozick in particular has looked back to the Austrian and German schools of axiology as inspiration for his work, which even includes a delineation of the valuable ‘facets of being’, including such categories as "richness," "completeness," and "amplitude" in the manner of Scheler and Hartmann.
All links retrieved November 30, 2012.
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