Values Are Relational, But Not Subjective

There are many people in the world who will say that values are subjective. You may or may not be one of them. For many, the reasoning behind this stance is that they see that different people value different things, and they think that if values were objective, then everyone would value the same things. So they conclude that all values are the opposite of objective, which is subjective.

This article will give evidence and argument that this view is mistaken; that this reasoning is based on a confusion about what it means for values to be objective.

First, let’s consider a simple physical situation: Two men are standing on opposite sides of a pole, as shown in Case 1 of the figure below. We are looking down on them, and they are both facing upward. For Person A, the pole is on the right. For Person B, the pole is on the left. Does this mean that the position of the pole is subjective? No. Both men can look objectively at the relationship of the pole to each one. If they specify whose relationship to the pole they are talking about, they can both agree on the fact of the relationship.

Relational and Objective Values Diagram

When Person A observes that the pole is on his right, Person B can observe that Person A is correct: relative to Person A, the pole is objectively on the right. They can also both agree that, relative to Person B, the pole is objectively on the left. The position of the pole is objective, but its physical relationship with Person A is different than with Person B.

Objective values also specify a kind of relationship. (1) A value is something that someone acts to gain and/or keep that sustains his own life in some way. For example, food–eaten at certain times and in certain amounts–is a value to the person eating it. Shelter is a value to the person who sleeps there. An enjoyable, productive career is a value to the person who undertakes it. Friends are a value to the person who enjoys their company and benefits in the long-term from their presence. All things that can be said to be objective values are values to someone, because they stand in a life-promoting relationship to that person. Proper values are things that are pursued because they are good for the pursuer. (This is, in fact, the ultimate rational basis for the term “good,” both in economics and in morality, Plato’s Forms and Kant’s Categorical Imperative notwithstanding. The moral good is good for the person acting morally.)

Whether something stands in a life-promoting relationship to a particular person at a particular time is an objective matter of fact. When a man is starving, food is objectively life-promoting for him. A capsule of sodium cyanide is objectively not life-promoting for him. Having effective mental functioning is objectively good for any human being. Severe brain damage is objectively bad for any human being. Having self-esteem is objectively good for a person’s life. Despising oneself is objectively bad for a person’s life.

Because values are things with objective, factual relationships to a person’s life, their statuses as values are discoverable by reasoning from observation. Two people, if they both have enough information and reason properly, will reach the same conclusion about whether something is or is not a value to a given person. (See Case 2 in the figure.) Different things may be values to each person, but there is an objectively correct answer as to whether something is a value with respect to each person. This is directly analogous to the case of the pole. Person A’s wife is observably a strong value to him. Person A’s wife may not be a strong value to Person B, but Person B can agree from his observation that Person A’s wife is a strong value to Person A.

Now, a consequence of this objectivity of values is that a person can be wrong about what is actually a value to him. A man may think that a glass of milk is a value to him, but if it has been laced with arsenic, then that milk is actually a disvalue to him and he is wrong. This is the situation in Case 3 of the figure. Person A believes, based on his emotions, that his sadistic mistress is a value to him. He wants her. But Person B can reason from observation that Person A is wrong; his mistress is not a value to Person A, and Person A’s desire for her is unhealthy. (2)

Values are relative to a valuer, but there is one correct conclusion (given enough information) about the value of a particular thing to a particular individual.

Universal-Conditional Values

Many values can be a value to one person while never being a value to another, such as a piano to a musician, versus a non-playing bricklayer.  But certain values are universally required for all human beings to thrive, at certain times. These I will term “universal-conditional” values. A prominent example of this type of value is food. Food is required by all human beings to live, but not all the time. Eating when one is already very full is painful and anti-life. Other examples of this type of value are water, mental and physical exercise, sleep, and sexual relationships/activities.

At any given time, these may be proper values to Person A and not Person B, or vice versa. But in the long term, they are objectively required for everyone. It is not a matter of anyone’s opinion whether he needs to eat to live.

Universal-Unconditional Values

In The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand identifies three values that she calls “cardinal.” (p. 27) These are reason, purpose and self-esteem. These are values to all human beings in every moment of consciousness. Thus, I term these examples of “universal-unconditional” values. (3)

These broad values always have the same life-promoting relationship to every conscious human being. It is a fact for both Person A and Person B that these values are life-promoting for each of them, regardless of their individual circumstances.

What if Someone Chooses Something Other than His Own Life as His Ultimate Value? Isn’t that Choice Subjective, Thus Making all Values Subjective?

The fullest answer to this is beyond the intended scope of this article, but I want to address it relatively briefly.

First, I think that most people who would say that their ultimate value is something other than their own life are confused and at least partially mistaken. For example, there are many who think that they have a value higher than their own life because they would die to save their wife or their child. Thus, they would say that their loved one is a higher value than their own life, and so all values are arbitrary and subjective according to what they choose as their ultimate purpose.

But if it were really the case that there is an arbitrary choice of an ultimate value, one must ask: Why is your loved one, and not a collection of skulls, your “ultimate value?” There are billions of choices available to pursue as an ultimate goal. The preservation of a ripe banana; the evacuation of glass bottles; the pulling of every fire alarm in the world–why not these as an ultimate goal? If the choice is subjective, then every choice is as good as every other. So why don’t we see more people exhausting themselves and suffering for the sake of bananas? Why would anyone have a problem killing every human and animal he sees to harvest its skull?

What these people don’t realize is that it is precisely because the wife or child has a strong relationship with their own lives that they might consider dying to save them. The valuing of the loved one is properly based on his or her contribution to one’s own life (especially, one’s own psychological well-being.) Thus, it is possible under certain circumstances, that a person can protect his own life by dying to save someone else. He can protect his life from the torturous, terminal ravages of a horrendous loss by shortening his life.

It is nonetheless true that every adult human being has the power to choose an ultimate purpose other than his own life. But this choice does not change the fact that life is the standard of value of living beings. A flourishing (happy) life takes a constant, comprehensive process of life-directed action to establish and maintain it. Actions not taken under the principle of building one’s life fall under the principle of letting it decay or actively destroying it. As a living being, a man has no choice about the facts of his nature qua living being. Thus, he has no choice about the fact that his only choice is to pursue his own life as his ultimate value, or to suffer, decay and progress toward death (mentally, if not at first physically.)

So, the basic answer is that one’s own flourishing life is the only ultimate goal based on the facts of one’s own nature. Any choice of another ultimate goal is the arbitrary choice of pointless suffering and (likely) early death.

For a more thorough discussion of life as the moral standard of value, I recommend Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality by Tara Smith.

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(1) Note that Ayn Rand defined a “value” as “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” This was her original, ethically neutral definition. It subsumes all those things which anyone–egoist or altruist, rational or irrational–may act to obtain. An irrational value can be subjective, and need bear no actual relationship to any ultimate goal. But with an analysis of the source of values, and the proper, rational basis of ethics, Rand produced a second definition of “value”, which also specifies that something stands in a certain relationship to an individual’s life, (a beneficial relationship.) You will often see Rand and other Objectivists use the term “value” with this second definition. Here, I’m discussing “value” in this second, fully rational, fully objective sense. (For discussion of the basis of doubly defined concepts in philosophy, see Dr. Peikoff’s lecture course, Unity in Epistemology and Ethics.)

(2) There is a distinction to be observed here between errors made in the course of rational evaluation and “errors” that result from the irrational practice of relying on raw emotion. These are both examples of being wrong, but under normal circumstances, the overall import of the two types of wrongness for a person’s future prospects in life is vastly different.

(3) The only “condition” being consciousness, which is necessary for the characteristically human pursuit of all values. (Sleep is valued when unconscious only in a vegetative biological sense, not in a human sense.)

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Related Posts:

The Nature of the Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes

Atlas Shrugged, Altruism and Egoism

On Fairness and Justice: Their Meanings, Scopes, and How They Are Not the Same

Why Each Person Can Have Only One Ultimate Value

Other People as Egoistic Values Versus Other People as Objects of Self-Sacrifice in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy

9 thoughts on “Values Are Relational, But Not Subjective

    • The fact that someone is a masochist does not make them immortal or indestructible. Masochistic practices can have destructive consequences. For example, self-cutting can lead to brain damage or death and self-whipping can lead to infection. David Carradine died as a direct result of a masochistic practice.

      Even if someone restricts himself to mild electric shocks, the fact is that pain is not the natural goal of a living being. The person who pursues it has major psychological problems that need to be addressed. These problems are destructive in various ways and will hinder the person’s overall well-being in the long term.

  1. I would only point out that something or someone with a strong relationship with a person’s life is not necessarily a value to that person. The way you’ve written this it is assumed that a wife or family member has ‘value’ in the positive sense due to the strong relationship. For any given person other things or people can have a stronger relationship than family members and some family members more than others. I don’t think that ‘strong relationship’ is defined well enough in this discussion. Moreover, I don’t think the term ‘strong relationship’ is adequate to describe the associations appropriately to understand the decisions based upon them.

    Collecting skulls would appear to be an obsessive behavior which rewards the collector, thus it cannot be seen as a ‘higher value’ than their own life, rather the mental reward of collecting is the value – a behavior for reward. In my view a broken brain in the way that a poorly functioning car engine is broken. In the struggle for survival we are regularly torn by risk assessment in the middle of failure and reward. Some brains do not function well and sense of reward alters valuations. Hoarding, collecting beanie babies and other obsessive behavior/reward systems are evidence that using the concept of universal values is difficult trek without defining or presuming what it is to be a ‘normal’ human being.

    An additional difficulty with such discussions is the presumption that prolonging life is the universal ultimate goal or value. It is not so in all cases and so is not universal. It is generally true when other values have been obtained, but its value is dependent upon other values, the collection of which is subjective in nature by necessity. As a value the prolonging of life is also a value upon which other values depend. Values are interdependent in a complex but subjective way. Unravelling them as individual units separate from the valuer’s collection of other values removes their ‘value’ proposition.

    • ‘I would only point out that something or someone with a strong relationship with a person’s life is not necessarily a value to that person. The way you’ve written this it is assumed that a wife or family member has ‘value’ in the positive sense due to the strong relationship. For any given person other things or people can have a stronger relationship than family members and some family members more than others. I don’t think that ‘strong relationship’ is defined well enough in this discussion.’

      Certainly, when I say “strong relationship” I’m not talking about a genetic or familial relationship. Food has a relationship to your life when consumed at certain times: It promotes it. Poison has a relationship to your life when consumed: It destroys it. Thought about how to make a living has a relationship to your life: It promotes it. I only use family members and spouses as examples of values because they are commonly held as high values (and often wrongly thought of as objects of self-sacrifice.) This doesn’t mean that everyone will or should value such people so highly. I think a lover is basically a universal value in the long-term, but there are many people who shouldn’t pursue having children, because children wouldn’t promote their lives in their situations. (For example, they’re too poor, too old, not psychologically ready, have other activities that are better for them psychologically, etc.) It’s not a matter of their subjective opinion whether having children is good for them, but of their objective situation.

      ‘An additional difficulty with such discussions is the presumption that prolonging life is the universal ultimate goal or value. It is not so in all cases and so is not universal.’

      Human life, in the philosophical sense, does not equate to “living” as defined biologically. A comatose person is alive biologically, but is not living as a human being; that is, not living in the characteristically human way. A characteristically human life means being conscious, having experiences and pursuing values by the guidance of one’s mind.

      So when I say that life is the standard of value, for man this means a human life of conscious, conceptually directed value pursuit. The standard is not the length of time one’s heart is beating. If your heart is beating and you are conscious, but you are in the process of a slow, torturous destruction, unable to pursue values effectively as a human being, then your life is not a happy one, and not a characteristically human one. This is why I said that a person, under certain circumstances, “can protect his life from the torturous, terminal ravages of a horrendous loss by shortening his life.” (If life, in this philosophical context, meant the biological life of a vegetable, then “protecting one’s life by shortening it” would be a contradiction in terms.)

      ‘Values are interdependent in a complex but subjective way. Unravelling them as individual units separate from the valuer’s collection of other values removes their ‘value’ proposition.’

      That values form a complex, hierarchical, interdependent network does not make them subjective, any more than the complex interdependence of organs in the body makes their proper functions subjective. We can still tell when the kidneys are functioning improperly, even though they rely on the heart’s pumping of blood for their function. So it is with a network of human values. We can still tell that smoking large quantities of narcotics is a disvalue, even though it took money (a value) to buy the narcotics.

      • You’ve said a lot here but it does not feel like you’ve answered any of the questions posed. You have deflected them without actually answering the questions posed. I cannot see that you are aruging either for objective values or subjective values. Myabe I’m missing something but it seems you’ve said nothing.

  2. I generally agree with your argument sir. I do however, become a little sketchy when you mention things like” Having self-esteem is objectively good for a person’s life.” Here you introduce the realm of psychology and philosophy, or that which is intangible, and indeed generally subjective. For instance: Who said a good self esteem is good for one’s life. That answer can only be subjective. Or with more clarity let’s take a look at the potential benefits of a low self esteem. Without question history is riddled by obsession spawned creations, invention, and achievements; for which ones incessant attempt to prove to themselves they are indeed “enough” was the source propelling the endeavor. In this dynamic our individual experienced the world in a way that had he/she had a good self esteem, the motivation that lead to their success would have not been in place.
    Now it becomes clear on how this can quickly become subjective. Low self esteem spurred the individual to great heights as they waged their personal conquest to vanquish their self doubts by achieving greater and greater things. In this the resources to travel the world and help the poor were granted.
    However, what if one values the realm of the spirit over existentialism? What if our person values the quite life, minimal work, minimal money, and simply values the generation of inner peace; via a serene relationship with the environment. Perhaps our subject in this case lives in a small cabin in the woods; hunts, fishes, and considers a trip up the mountain to watch the sunset the aim of life. For this person a good self esteem is a must.
    Conclusion: In general I think the logic you present is sound; however, the human experience is so complex that it must also be considered subjective; but never polarized. Like all things related to psychological theory, I think the answer is usually both; to what degree, variety, and extent however is typically where all the debate is waged.
    Nice work!!
    P.S. I only got a third of the way into your post when the compelling nature of it forced me to respond! When I have more time I will finish it, and perhaps you address some of the issues I expressed….

    • Thanks, I’m glad you appreciate my essay.

      I think that part of the issue is that you misunderstand what it means to have and not have self-esteem. Self-esteem is not synonymous with contentment or apathy. Having self-esteem means that one considers oneself worthy and capable of independent thinking and action–worthy of living and being happy.

      If someone doesn’t have any self-esteem, this means that he considers himself a worthless, depraved louse who will self-destructively undermine the pursuit of any positive value. This view of oneself is never self-interested and it is not motivating. It is, rather, objectively self-abnegating and demoralizing.

      In order to accomplish anything of value, an individual has to have at least some self-esteem.

      Now, what is the motivation for someone with low self-esteem? To keep himself feeling like a worthless, depraved louse? No, not if life as a human being is his goal. The motivating factor is to gain self-esteem; to pursue greater self-esteem as a value, through value-producing activities. (Whether he succeeds to his satisfaction, or his achievement is undermined by deep errors, this is still the motivation.)

      So when you talked about the quest to vanquish self-doubts, it is someone with some self-esteem pursuing greater self-esteem as a value that you were describing. Having greater self-esteem doesn’t mean being content to sit on one’s rear. So, all else being equal, greater self-esteem can only help in the pursuit of values: Having greater self-esteem means being more ambitious and more joyous in the pursuit of values.

  3. ” I think a lover is basically a universal value in the long-term, but there are many people who shouldn’t pursue having children, because children wouldn’t promote their lives in their situations. (For example, they’re too poor, too old, not psychologically ready, have other activities that are better for them psychologically, etc.) It’s not a matter of their subjective opinion whether having children is good for them, but of their objective situation.”

    I’ll have to disagree with this. It is true that in such cases, having children is not ‘good’ in an objective sense, but it can be good in a subjective sense. What is good for me may not be good for you, and vice-versa. Example: for a person who is highly extrovert, having a life full of parties, meetings and social events can be an amazing thing, but the same lifestyle would be a hell for someone who’s highly introvert. Extreme sports like bungee jumping and such also would never be valued as “good” from an objective standard, since they’re extremely risky and gives no objective reward that justifies it, but even so lots of people pursuit them for the simple joy of the adrenaline burst. For them, this adrenaline burst is “good”. Back to the kids issue, if you analyze ths matter through an objective standard, like financial situation, having children is always bad. If you value through a subjective standard, like the happiness that a children would bring to one’s life, then it might or not be good. Having children can be an amazing thing for person A, but a burden for person B. Same applies to pets and even romantic relationships (some people may be more interested just in sex but not in marriage or in any kind of relationship that demands a high level of commitment). Subjective things like happiness, honor or beauty cannot be valued through an objective standard. Our reason is not the master of our emotions, and our emotions accept no masters, no matter how developed one’s reasoning skills are.

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