A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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1) The use of implicit methods to found values

Although Axiology has not been developed as an independent discipline, it is obvious that reflections on values have been conducted by most people, maybe even by using certain methods, in order to determine what has a value and what does not.

These methods share a specific aspect: they have not been explicitly defined by those who use them, but have been applied unconsciously, as if “It goes without saying”. For this reason, they are encountered everywhere and nowhere. They have been used by both common sense (doxa) and some philosophers, especially those who reflect upon the ultimate good or the values. It may be possible to identify these methods as follows.

1) The failure of the qualitative method

The qualitative method consists in identifying a quality in an object to found its value.

For example, let us imagine that someone is attempting to demonstrate that the Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven has a great value due to its infinite softness. We have therefore identified a quality of this music: softness.
However, if we look closer, is this really helpful? We have just replaced something whose value is not founded (the sonata) by something whose value is not founded either (softness).

Therefore, we should ask ourselves why softness has a value. The answer is because it leads to serenity, and beyond this, to happiness. Here again, we have identified a quality in something whose value we are in the process of examining, a quality whose value is still unfounded i.e. human happiness.
If we ask the following question: “What makes human happiness valuable?”, we may be told that it is “because man is the most complex being in Creation”. Puzzled by this answer, we must then ask “Why is “being complex” valuable?” and demonstrate that, sometimes, the simplest and smallest beings are preferred.

We can note that the qualitative method involves an infinite regress and thereby is not a possible solution for founding values. We could have inferred this from what has already been shown in chapter 1 i.e. value is not a quality. If this is true, then it is useless to prove that something has such or such quality since we still need to prove the value of this quality (it would be useful only if a quality were a value for it would thereby have a value).

Therefore, when we meet someone who loves something, we will be able to afford the luxury of admitting that all qualities are present (beautiful, good, indispensable, etc.). However, even if this person is astonished, we must ask: “Does this thing have a value?”.

2) The failure of the evidence method

In this infinite regress, the study of values runs the risk of sinking into madness. This is why the qualitative method invariably leads to dogmatism, viz. the peremptory assertion that such and such quality obviously has a value. As a result, evidence appears as the ultimate criterion of the qualitative method. For example, we may be told that: “Music has a value because it provides pleasure and pleasure obviously has a value”.
What should we think of this approach, which gives to evidence the status of criterion of the axiological investigation?
Firstly, this approach denies that the problem of value is… a problem. If it is obvious that such and such thing has a value, then there is no problem of value, but only a task involving the clarification and classification of axiological judgments, whose truth is recognised without any difficulty. What is being questioned is not their truth, but secondary issues, e.g. their difference regarding logical judgments.

A thinker, who adopts such an approach, does not understand that the problem of values is a real problem, has never questioned his judgments of value, and has never been filled with the anguish related to an axiological inquiry; he has not been struck by this problem, and merely studies it in a detached manner.

More fundamentally, it is not the right method to use because it is obvious that there is no evidence, acknowledged as such by people in relation to values.

For example, it seems obvious that good is preferable to evil, pleasure to pain. However, for some, it appears obvious that growing richer by any means is better; for Callicles, immorality has naturally more value than justice. We often believe that: pleasure is preferable to abstinence - Let us ask monks whether this is true - that adventure is preferable to routine - However, can we observe mass departures for expeditions in Nepal? – that wealth is preferable to poverty - Let us ask Diogenes for confirmation. Some people take no interest in what is considered by others as the ultimate expression of human beings i.e. art, and are simply bored by picture galleries or operas.

Thus, we must admit that there is no evidence in the domain of values, that the cruellest or most absurd thing will always be loved by at least one person. The problem of values cannot be solved by evidence, which is precisely why it is a problem.

In my opinion, there lies the essential truth of relativism, as an axiological doctrine: no judgment of value is obvious. Relativism is probably not the doctrine which has overcome objectivism but it has successfully discredited this particular kind of objectivism, which claims to be founded upon evidence. This is the essential contribution of the relativism of values, which is a significant step forward with regard to dogmatic objectivism.

Some sceptics justify their rejection of a given argument, by saying that the opposite argument may be supported as well: The main basic principle of the Sceptic system is that of opposing to every proposition an equal proposition; for we believe that as a consequence of this we end by ceasing to dogmatize 1. I maintain, for my part, that to every judgment of value an equal judgment of value may be opposed and it is from that point that we stop dogmatising in Axiology.

1. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Book 1, 6