When we positively evaluate persons, actions, objects and situations we ascribe value to them. In most general terms, we call them good. Consequently, investigation into value closely parallels inquiry into goodness. Philosophical inquiry into value (see also axiology) is structured around three related concerns: firstly, determining what we are doing when we ascribe value to entities evaluated; secondly, saying whether value is subjective or objective; and thirdly, specifying what things (such as pleasure or equality) are valuable or good. These concerns are plainly interrelated.
Value is not equivalent to moral value. Works of art have value, but not moral value. Or again, relaxation may be good for a person, but there is nothing morally good about taking a walk. The theory of value is concerned with the nature of goodness in general, of which moral goodness is one species. Other types of value include aesthetic value, and prudential value. The theory of value is of central importance to ethics, economics, and political philosophy.
What are we doing when we ascribe value to some person, action, or state of affairs? For example, what are we doing when say that a person is good, or that freedom is valuable? Answering these questions involves explaining the meaning of evaluative judgments. What, for instance, does the word ‘good’ signify?
Value realists argue that evaluative statements purport to represent facts. When one ascribes value to something, one attributes to it the property of goodness. For example, when someone utters a sentence such as “Mother Teresa is good,” they are (aiming to) state a fact about the world. This statement, viz., “Mother Teresa is good” is true if and only if Mother Teresa has the property of goodness. Goodness is a property that is ascribed to an object in which case the sentence would be true just in case the object does possess the attributed property. Value realists understand attributions of goodness to a person in analogy with attributing, for example, white-ness to somebody’s hair.
Value realists have in common the assumption that attributing value to an object or person involves ascribing a property—goodness—to that person or thing. But value realists disagree about the nature of the property attributed, and on this point divide into two camps: (1) non-naturalists, and (2) naturalists.
Non-naturalism may be traced to G.E. Moore who argued that any attempt to identify ‘good’ with a natural property (such as producing pleasure, or being desired) commits a ‘naturalistic fallacy’, and that ‘goodness’ is therefore a simple ‘non-natural’ property. A non-natural property is, roughly, a property not discoverable or quantifiable by science—it cannot be detected with the senses, or measured by any scientific instrument. Non-naturalists are likely to be intuitionists in epistemology: if value-properties are not discovered by science, then they must be known by intuition of some sort.
Value naturalists agree with the non-naturalists that when we ascribe value we attribute the property of goodness. But in contrast with Moore, they hold that goodness can be identified with some natural property or properties. Naturalistic definitions of value are varied, but all share in common an attempt to identify value or goodness with properties that can be described by physical science. One rudimentary form of value naturalism (see Perry 1926) argues that an object is good if and only if a person has a positive interest in that object. This theory may very well be too generous since it implies that torture could be good if some sadist happens to desire it. A more sophisticated version of the theory identifies goodness with what would be desired by an observer in ideal conditions.
Value anti-realists disagree with realists on the question of whether ascriptions of value attribute goodness to things. Anti-realists say that sentences such as “Mother Teresa is good” are not descriptions at all and so do not attribute any property to an object. There are two main groups of anti-realists: (1) emotivists and (2) prescriptivists. Emotivists such as A.J. Ayer, and C.L. Stevenson, hold that evaluations express the speaker’s feelings and attitudes: saying that kindness is valuable is a way of expressing one’s approval of kindness. Similarly, R.M. Hare argues that evaluations are prescriptions (commands): saying that kindness is valuable 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.
Theories of value are often classified in terms of the subjective-objective distinction.
Subjectivist theories of value make value dependent on the subject states of human beings and other sentient creatures. Subjectivist theories say that certain things and states are valuable insofar as they produce pleasure, are desired, or preferred. Utilitarian theories of value, such as hedonism and its descendents, desire and preference satisfaction theories, are subjectivist accounts of value.
Objectivists may characterize value in terms of the states of individual sentient creatures but deny that good depends on what is desired or valued by people. Objectivists hold that, for example, knowledge, achievement, and aesthetic appreciation are good apart from any pleasure or satisfaction they bring. Their occurrence in a life makes that life better independently of how much they are desired or enjoyed, and their absence diminishes it even if it is not a source of regret. Most generally, objectivist theories of value hold that certain things and states could be valuable independently of their impact on consciousness states.
Perfectionism is an objectivist theory of value according to which goodness depends on the actualization or perfection of human nature. According to Aristotle’s version of the theory, fulfilling the function (ergon) of a human being involves the exercise and perfection of its rational capacities. It follows that the good life for man involves the attainment of virtue or excellence (arête) in reason. In contrast, extreme objectivists characterise value entirely independently of human interests and concerns: they may hold, for instance, that the continued existence of diverse species of animals is a good in itself.
One important distinction in value is that between things valued as means—instrumental goods—and things valued as ends, or final goods. This distinction is often called the means/ends distinction. An object, experience or state of affairs is "instrumentally" valuable if it serves as a means to ones ends. For example, working out at gym may be laborious but is a means to the end of promoting good health. Similarly, the value of making money is dependent on the value of commodities one wants to obtain. It is instrumentally valuable: valuable only because of what one obtains by means of it.
Another important distinction in value is the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic value. In Principia Ethica (1903), G.E. Moore argued that in order to ascertain whether something is intrinsically good we should employ a test of isolation, and ask: does the object have value apart from its relations to other things? This provides a criterion of intrinsic goods: an object, or state of affairs is "intrinsically" valuable if it is good simply because of its internal nature. It does not derive its value from anything else. Correspondingly, value is extrinsic if its worth is derivative from something else.
What is the relation between the instrumental/final values and extrinsic/intrinsic values? Instrumental goods are plainly extrinsically valuable, because their goodness derives from the good things that they promote. Although most philosophers have held that ends must be intrinsically valuable, arguments have recently been presented against collapsing the two distinctions. Christine Korgaard, for example, presents an interpretation of Kant’s ethics according to which happiness is an extrinsic good that is nonetheless the final end of human action.
In his enormously influential Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant articulates another important distinction in the theory of value. Kant distinguishes between conditional values and unconditional values. A conditional value is something valuable in some circumstances whereas an unconditional value is valuable in all. According to Kant, the value of (e.g.) intelligence is conditional because we can imagine circumstances in which it would be bad for someone to possess it, such as when it would be used for evil ends. By means of this line of argument, Kant argues that the ‘good will’ is the only unconditional good—good in all circumstances. The good will is roughly a disposition to make morally commendable choices, or do the right thing.
The two central concepts of normative ethics are the ‘right’ and the ‘good’. The concept of the ‘right’ is the concept of duty, of actions we "ought" to perform, and which it would be wrong not to perform. What is the relationship between the theory of right action and the theory of value?
The answer depends on the ethical theory concerned. Classical utilitarianism aims to account for right action in terms of the promotion of human good. In this respect, utilitarianism requires an account of human good in order to specify just what sort of good consequences must be maximized. Classical Utilitarianism holds that morally right actions are simply those that produce the maximum balance of pleasure over pain. By contrast, deontological theories, of which Kant’s ethics is the best-known example, do not explain right action in terms of the promotion of good. Many deontologists would argue that it is wrong to kill an innocent person no matter what the value of the consequences might be. So whereas the utilitarian defines right action in terms of the promotion of goodness, the deontologist holds that (e.g.) respecting people’s rights is more important that increasing the amount of value in the world. This is sometimes expressed by saying that deontology makes the right prior to the good.
What things have value? If one includes both intrinsic and extrinsic goods, then plainly the list is endless. A more manageable task would be to compose a list of intrinsic goods. A plausible list of this sort would probably include the following: life, knowledge, virtue, aesthetic experience, friendship, and perhaps, a continued state of biological diversity (see environmental ethics).
Almost everyone agrees on the goodness of certain basic goods such as knowledge and friendship but ancient ethical thinkers went further. They tried to provide a systematic account of how different good things relate to one another in an optimally worthwhile life. In ancient philosophy this sort of discussion was articulated in terms of the concept of eudaimonia (or beatitude in Medieval philosophy). For example, in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle criticizes philosophers who argue that eudaimonia is (the life of) pleasure or (the life of) honor. The view the eudaimonia consists in pleasure alone is false since it fails to include goods such as knowledge. While Aristotle does not deny that pleasure is good, and an important component in a good life, he argues that eudaimonia consists in the exercise of the virtues, which themselves instantiate all the other human goods such as pleasure and knowledge. The summum bonnum played a similar role in the writings of Cicero and the Stoics.
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