Locating value

Do things have intrinsic value? If there are things out there that have intrinsic value, doesn’t that mean that we are lucky to be living in a world that contains such things? Could those same things also exist without the value built into them? How do we detect the value in things? All of these questions may seem to make sense. But if they do seem to make sense, we are already on the wrong path; we’ve already made the mistakes that make it impossible to understand the metaphysics of value. So let’s think about where value is located in the world; and, more fundamentally, whether it is located in the world, and whether we can deny that it is without embracing nihilism.

Let’s get something out of the way first. I’m not dealing here with the everyday distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic value. Dollar bills have little intrinsic value, but you can buy intrinsically valuably things with them such as good food, and that gives them extrinsic value. Cool, and not too mysterious, at least as long as we don’t dive into the metaphysics. (The moment you start asking whether it’s really the food that is intrinsically valuable or rather the positive subjective experience of the food, that is the moment you take the plunge.)

So, where is value located? Perhaps it is located within the things that common sense tells us are valuable, things like flowers, playful lambs, Picasso paintings, stormy love affairs. One problem with this hypothesis is that it raises all the nasty questions we started out with. Where is this value located in these things? Can we take it out? Can we detect it? Is value an extra ingredient of the things, or is it some kind of structure of the thing? What ingredient or structure is shared by flowers, paintings and love affairs? And what if somebody were to doubt whether this ingredient or structure was really, well, valuable? It’s not just that the answers to these questions are elusive. It’s that the questions seem strange enough that we suspect the theory that leads to them must be wrong.

Well, there seems an obvious move we need to be making here: go subjective. Value is a matter of being valued. It’s because we value flowers, Picasso paintings and so on that they have value. This would still be intrinsic value (we don’t value the Picasso as a means to some end); but it wouldn’t be inherent value. The value of anything is bestowed upon it by the act of valuing or the relation of being valued. If something isn’t valued, it’s not valuable; and vice versa.

This is quite close to the standard economic conception of value according to which things are worth what people want to pay for them. Close, but not identical: unlike the economic conception, our theory can deal with things that you value but can’t pay money for without destroying them, e.g., love, the right to vote.

One problem with the economic conception — from the perspective of our metaphysical project — is that it is in fact parasitic on a non-economic conception of value. If food, shelter, our time, and so on, were not genuinely valuable, then economic value wouldn’t be value in a real sense. It’s the fact that it can be exchanged for labour, food, and so on that makes dollars and euros different from Monopoly money. (If you forget that, you end up believing in the value of NFTs.) Some examples of things that become valuable because they are valued seem to set up the same type of problem. Jimmy’s Minecraft world is valuable because he values it, sure; but he values it because he spent labours of love creating it. The loving labour is crucial. Without it, the valuing wouldn’t make sense. We might go as far as to say that it couldn’t be real valuing. (Surely valuing is not a random act of will; I can’t just sit on my chair and value Alpha Centauri.)

More fundamentally, our current theory is vulnerable to the objection that it’s possible to value things that are absolutely not valuable (a million neo-Nazis can’t make an anti-Semitic murder into something valuable, even if they all value it intensely). Conversely, we may not value things that are in fact valuable. Our conception of value seems to require a conceptual gap between the act of valuing and the value itself. So value cannot simply be located in the subject.

But now we seem to be caught in bind. It doesn’t make much sense to locate the value in the object. But it apparently also doesn’t make much sense to locate the value in the subject. So where is value located? Nowhere? Are we driven into nihilism?

There’s a popular argument for the existence of God that starts here. If there’s value, but it’s not grounded in either the subject or the object, then it must have a transcendent ground: God. So we must choose between nihilism and theism.

I don’t think this argument works. If a thing is not valuable, then there is no way to give it value from the outside. Just as the neo-Nazis in my example above could not bestow value on an evil act by valuing it, so God cannot bestow value on valueless things by commanding them, or wanting them, or being favourably disposed towards them. (This is a version of the Euthyphro dilemma, though perhaps not quite Plato’s.) Either God is so strongly implicated in the world that the very hypothesis of valueless things makes no sense, or the hypothesis of valueless things makes sense, but then God cannot make a difference. The issue here is often confused by setting up a dichotomy between naturalism (or even scientism) on the one hand and a religious philosophy of the other hand. But if you accept the naturalist description of the world, then nothing outside the world is going to save value.

So where is value located? Well, let us first ask, what is inherently valuable? I’m going to say something that I hope is relatively non-contentious: the paradigmatically valuable thing is human flourishing. (Also non-human flourishing, but I’ll focus on the human case.)

Some people may say that this answer is too easy. It doesn’t define value in terms that don’t presuppose value. Of course not! You can never get to value from outside the sphere of value. You cannot understand value unless you’re already within value. This is why all naturalist theories are doomed to failure.

Supposing that human flourishing is paradigmatically valuable, what then should we say about the objects we mentioned earlier? This: human flourishing may involve roses, lambs, Picasso paintings, and what not. It would simply be a mistake to ask whether those objects are inherently valuable or have merely instrumental value. A Picasso painting floating around in empty space doesn’t have ‘value’. But neither is the painting merely an instrument for the purpose of human flourishing, as if the flourishing were only extrinsically related to the painting. The painting (the flower, the love affair) is involved in human flourishing. And although what flourishes may be the human being, the flourishing human being will be the human being she is because of and in relation to the things that are involved in her flourishing.

In other words: we were misled by the old subject/object-dichotomy. Value is not located in the objects and value is not located in the subjects, if we understand subjects and objects as having being independently of each other. Value happens wherever there’s flourishing, and flourishing is always a dynamic interplay between subjects (plural) and objects.

It seems to me that this is the correct approach to value. But it only makes sense if we are willing to commit to a metaphysics that many may think is objectionable. For suppose that we are unwilling to say that subjects and objects both ontologically depend on each other. In particular, suppose that we claim that objects have being quite independently of the subjects — after all, humans might have never evolved, and so on. Then we cannot escape the conclusion that value is quite inessential to the objects, since those very same objects could also exist without value. Value is thus something we subjectively project onto the objects. And that means that we are back in subjectivism, and nihilism becomes inescapable.

Clearly, we who are not nihilists (and if you think there’s a difference between good and bad arguments, or justified and unjustified conclusions, then you’re not a nihilist) must be willing to say that subjects and objects both ontologically depend on each other. What’s more, for our theory of value to make sense, value must already be at work in this very dependence. Perhaps the best thing to say is this: to be an object is to be involved in the potential flourishing of subjects.

That sounds more innovative than it is. If we restrict flourishing to epistemic flourishing, then the claim becomes: to be an object is to be involved in the potential attainment of knowledge. And that is just Kant’s transcendental idealism. But we can go beyond Kant to take other forms of flourishing on board. (We thus arrive at an ethics that is more authentically Kantian than Kant’s own ethics.) Where Kant says (though not in these words) that the form of the world is the form of knowledge, we will say that the form of the world is the form of value — all kinds of value. And that is the point at which we see that value cannot be located at some point in the world. The world, in virtue of being a world, is a world of value.

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