A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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3/ The concept of quality

It seems to me that value has been considered to be equivalent to a related concept, that of “quality”, and we commonly think that to search for the value of an object or being is to search for its qualities. If we see some qualities in an act, like that of kindness, generosity, etc., we shall thereby have determined the value of this act. Speaking of traditionally recognized qualities like the beautiful, the true and the good, would be speaking of values, and the question “What has any value?” would be equivalent to questions such as “What has a value of truth?”, “What has an aesthetic value?”, or “What has a moral value?”, etc.

This equivalence between value and quality implies, as a necessary corollary, the theory that there are different types of values. If value is nothing but quality, then, since there are different kinds of qualities (beautiful, good, etc.), many kinds of values may be identified. The outcome from this value/quality equivalence is that value is to be expressed in a plural form, and that we are only allowed to refer to values – never to a single value. Is this true? This is quite a legitimate question.

Bouglé remarks that value is attributed to anything: Value may be encountered in the areas of political economy, ethics, art, religion, etc. In neither of these fields is value captive. To tell the truth, it is a universal category capable of the most various applications. We can make a value judgment about a piece of furniture, a gesture, a rite or a poem 1. Ruyer insists on the high number of valuable things: We can use any adjective to roughly delimit the sphere of values, therefore we can conclude that values are infinitely numerous. The classical trinity of the good, the true, and the beautiful has contributed to hiding this infinite diversity and is certainly responsible for the delayed philosophy in recognizing the extreme generality of the notion 2.

However, Bouglé has deducted something quite different from this idea, namely that there are several kinds of values and This is the reason why we say that a world of values exists. Aesthetic or moral values, religious or economic values, solicit our attention and require a lot of effort 3.
According to Bouglé, the progress of mankind consists in the gradual awareness of the differences between value spheres: Men in primitive societies seem hardly capable of judging things or people from different points of view: aesthetic, moral, religious or economic values. This ability increases with civilization. In its further developments, every value sphere becomes gradually independent: art, morals, technology, etc. 4.
These value spheres, though different, are related to one another: Does that mean that, between these diverse systems of values, all relations cease? Not at all. Sometimes religion and art, or art and morals combine their efforts. In short, besides the tendency to dissociation, a tendency to combine may be found in the world of values. 5

This theory is again found in the writings of several authors, who all infer that, based on the multiplicity of things of value, values themselves are multiple. They then examined, in this multiplicity, whether values are related to each other, or are irreconcilably conflicted. Mehl, for example, chooses the first solution: No value subsists by itself. Every value is appeal to other ones. All truths claim to be good as well, all goods allege to be true all the same, each value is opposed to the partition of our existence into separate fields 6. Ruyer also remarks that the lack of truth degrades art, but also politics, which become catastrophic, or religion, which turns into a myth.

We can see it now: this confusion between value and quality leads us to imagine the existence of several values, and to examine their relations. We must refer to values in the plural form, because each represents a specific concept: aesthetic value, moral value, etc. and because the plurality of qualities entails the plurality of values. This is the theory that I will now attempt to refute.

1. Sociology lessons on the evolution of values
2. The philosophy of values
3. Sociology lessons on the evolution of values
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. About authority of values