A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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4/ Conclusion: the notion of value as irreducible to all others

Our reflection leads us to the following result: if we are not mistaken, then the concept of value has been confused with other concepts, related but distinct, such as those of good, end, and so on. As a result, the problem of values has been seen as the problem of the supreme good, or the supreme end, whereas these are fundamentally different issues. We have substituted one problem for another, or in other words, we have made a problem disappear, the problem of values, which could never be posed as such because it has always been formulated incorrectly.

Other formulations can also be identified, but I can only mention them briefly. For example, the notion of "value" seems to have been confused with that of "meaning", and the problem of values with the question "Is there a meaning to life?" or "Is there a meaning to history?" Similarly, it seems to us that "value" has been wrongly equated with "right", "reality" with "nature", and that the axiological question "Is there anything that really has a value" has been wrongly confused with the political question "Is there a natural right?" (in the sense of a right that is legitimate, i.e. that has a value).

However, the difference between these questions seems obvious: history could have a meaning (for example, the progress of the human species), but we can imagine an axiological position that affirms that neither man, nor art, nor technology have any value, and that therefore human progress (whether artistic, technical, etc.) has no value. Similarly, just because I have found meaning in my life (for example, an activity that gives me fulfilment) does not mean that the value of my life has been in any way founded on it. We can also imagine an axiological position that maintains that what has value is meaninglessness, chaos, and thus praises a life or history with no fixed direction.

Similarly, if we were able to answer the question of whether there is such a thing as natural law, and even to identify each of the laws it prescribes, it does not seem to us that we would have made one iota of progress in resolving the problem of values. For this presentation of nature as the foundation of values has no basis in fact, and it is possible to conceive of an axiological position which would assert that what has value is that which goes beyond nature, contradicts it, surpasses it (an idea which is, moreover, perhaps at the foundation of science, as well as of the ideas of progress and culture), whether or not it is possible to go beyond it. There would then be no point in showing that a behaviour violates natural law, precisely to someone who maintains that what is of value is to detach oneself from nature.

As we can see, if we had (somehow) resolved the question of the meaning of life or history, and the existence of natural law, we would still not have even scratched the surface of the question of what has value, from our perspective. It would have been interesting, however, to take an interest in the notion of natural law or meaning (of history or life), so that we could see how the axiological question could have been transformed in this way, and thereby lost; but such work cannot be done here.

Perhaps, then, we can conclude that the notion of value is irreducible to any other, and that the confusions that seem to have been made with related concepts are illegitimate.
The fact that these are moral concepts, or stem from the field of ethics (good, end, etc.) has meant that axiology has been confused with morality, and that the problem of values has been thought to be an ethical concept.
What are the consequences of this absorption of axiology by ethics? This is what I now propose to examine.

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