A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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2/ Defence of the idea that axiology belongs to the theoretical sphere

We must ask why axiology (besides the fact that it has been confounded with this practical science that is morality) spontaneously appears as belonging to the practical sphere.

Perhaps one tends to think that the problem of values, if it were resolved, would necessarily have consequences on our actions, radically changing our way of life, since if it was possible to find what has supreme value – which is naturally not presupposed here- then we would have identified the supreme purpose that man must aim at in his existence.

There are two difficulties with this idea (in addition to the possibility of such a discovery).

First of all, it is not because finding what has or has not a value is likely to cause a radical change in the conduct, behavior or action of man that we have to conclude that axiology is a practical discipline. This could only happen if this change of behavior constituted the essence or at least the supreme end of axiology.
But I hold that this relation to action is unessential to axiology, and only secondary.
Consider this analogy: it is not because man walks that we are entitled to say that he is fundamentally legs, or that walking constitutes his essence – so we shall not understand man if our reflection about him is a mere survey, however thorough it could be, of his walking. In the same manner, it is not because axiology may have practical consequences on the human action that it is in itself a practical science and that we shall understand its real nature.
To sum up my position, axiology is a theoretical science, which is likely to have practical consequences.

Secondly, if we succeeded in finding the supreme value, it would not help us to identify the supreme end of mankind, I think.

Let us remember that, as seen above in my distinction between value and end1, it would be possible that what has most value is indifferent or even harmful to man.
If it was the case, then man should not necessarily have to consider this supreme value as an end, but taking note of the nature of this value in itself, he could choose to give his life an orientation towards a more relative value, i.e. what is good for man.
Indeed the concept of value is not related to any notion of obligation, contrary to that of duty: nothing compels us to accept it. Value imposes itself, as truth does, but does not constrain us, as science does not ‘oblige’ scientists or people to accept this or that idea.

So if we managed to find the value of things, we would not live in a policed world, where every man is compelled to adopt these values, but in an “existentialist” world, in which each one would choose to adopt either real values, or human values, viz. those which simply have a value for man. That is why I think compatible the project of an axiology and the existentialist doctrine, an articulation about which I cannot investigate further here.

We can arrive to the same conclusion by another way: even though we identified the supreme value, it would not necessarily be the purpose of our actions, as it is not value, but the nature of human action, that determines our purposes.
Human action depends, in reality, on a great quantity of factors: body, desires, feelings, society… psychological, physiological and sociological factors are involved in it. I am not sure that value may intervene in its turn, in order to become the main criterion of the action. Furthermore, I am not sure that it ought to happen, viz. that it would be desirable that action ceases to be determined by desire, feelings, etc.

This conception may sound surprising but is involved in the idea that axiology does not try to find the (human) good, or other values relative to man, but the real value, considered independently from man.

So we understand why axiology is neither a practical science nor a social science: this discipline does not investigate into what is good for man, and probably entails no change of human behavior. Even in the latter case, it is not the essential aim of axiology, but only an accidental consequence.
Thus the results of axiology present no more practical interest than those of a disinterested research like the calculation of the size of a celestial object, so far that we will never be able to explore it.

Now we see why axiology is a theoretical science: this discipline does not try to bring its object into existence, but to discover a certain “property” in objects: a value. The eye of the axiologist in not turned towards man, like in social sciences, but towards world, like mathematics, physics, biology, and more generally towards all contents of meaning. That is precisely why axiology may be compared to exact sciences –and not social ones- rather than because of the degree of certainty of its results that we still ignore.

To conclude, my hypothesis is that axiology, if this discipline has a meaning, is a theoretical science, being likely to have some practical consequences, and is not turned towards man, but towards world, as the whole of all possible things of value.

[Go to the next chapter]

1. Cf Book I