A book on ethics and philosophy of values

(Note: this is a non-professional translation of the original text in French. Help improve this translation: please report any mistake!)


We have just seen in what the axiological problem precisely consists for these theories: can we find relations between the different values? In other words, the problem of values is not related to their foundation but to their relations. It is not the foundation of values which poses a problem: these authors never call into question the fact that the beautiful, the truth, the good, are really values, they take it for granted, as if there can be no doubt.

It can be said that the problem of values has remained ignored by these authors as it is due to the fact that no value can be admitted as being evidently a real problem. The axiological investigation must justly determine what has a value and what has no value. Consequently, these theories do not aim to solve the problem of values. In fact, for these theories, there is no problem at all; in their self-confidence, they remain blind to the real difficulty of the problem.

These theories do not even refer to our problem. However, there is more to it than that: they prevent us from doing so by distorting the meaning of the concept we must use, that of value, and lead to absurdity, the concept of “values” in its plural form. I maintain that value only has a meaning in its singular form. To understand this, we have to re-examine the reasoning which leads these theories to this result.

First of all, we have noted that a lot of very different elements may have a value: a painting, courage, pride, etc. However, something is surreptitiously inferred i.e. these elements, which have a value, are themselves referred to as values. In other words, what has any value becomes a value in itself. We switch from the verb “to have” to the verb “to be”, without any legitimacy. “X has a value” becomes “X is a value”. Since X may refer to a lot of things, as we have observed, it is inferred that there is a plurality of values, namely we wrongly infer the plurality of kinds of values from the plurality of objects which have a value. This deduction is false because it is based on a strange grammatical confusion between the verbs “to have” and “to be”. Nevertheless, there is a great difference between saying “A man has a nose” and “A man is a nose”…

Secondly, since the X in question, which is said to have – or be – a value, is most often a quality (beautiful, fair, good, etc.), we confound value with quality. We must now examine this confusion for it is the second cause, which leads us to express value in a plural form.
By quality, we understand a property (or feature) traditionally considered as having a value: beautiful, funny, intelligent, useful, efficient, convenient… are qualities. The theory to which I object claims that each of these qualities generates a different kind of value. For example, the quality referred to as “beautiful” is nothing else than an aesthetic value or the quality referred to as “good” is in fact a moral value.
The direct consequence resulting from this idea is nothing but the pure and simple disappearance of value. For in this case, to reflect upon values would amount to asking whether something is good or not, beautiful or not, and more generally, whether such and such thing has such and such quality.

It seems to me that the study of values has a completely different purpose: the aim is not to determine whether this act or that act is moral (or has a moral value) but to define whether morality has a value or not. The purpose is not to determine whether such and such object is beautiful, convenient, or useful, but to identify the value of beauty, convenience, or usefulness, and more generally the value of all qualities. This implies that a value is not just a quality, but something that a quality may have or not have. In other words, quality differs essentially from value, in that quality has or has no value (that which possesses is different from the possession). Value emerges now as irreducible to quality, like an independent entity which we must examine: value is finally revealed to us.