A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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1) The use of non-explicitly themed methods

Although axiology has not developed as an autonomous discipline, it seems clear that the questioning of values has occurred naturally in the minds of most people, perhaps even using methods to determine what has value and what does not.

What is peculiar about these methods is that, as far as we can tell, they have not been explicitly conceptualised by those who use them, but rather have been used unconsciously, as if they were self-evident; as a result, they are found everywhere and nowhere. They have been used by common sense, by the doxa, but also by certain philosophers, mostly those who have focused on the question of the sovereign good or values. What I propose to do now is to set out and briefly examine the methods that I thought it possible to identify.

2) The failure of the qualitative method

The qualitative method consists, in order to establish the value of an object, in identifying and demonstrating a quality that we have found in it.

Let us take an example: suppose someone tries to show us that Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" has great value because it institutes infinite sweetness in the soul; we have therefore found a quality in this music, the quality of "sweetness". However, if we look closely, we have not taken a step; all we have done is replace something whose value is unfounded (this sonata) with something whose value is unfounded (sweetness).

So we will ask: why does sweetness have value? The answer may be: because it leads people to serenity, and therefore to happiness. Here again, we have identified a quality in what we were looking for, a quality whose value is still unfounded: human happiness.

If we ask why human happiness has value, we may be told: because it is the most elaborate (the most complex) being in Creation. Puzzled, we will ask our interlocutor what makes the value of "being complex", showing him that sometimes it is the simplest and frailest beings that are preferred.

We can see, then, that the qualitative method leads to regression ad infinitum, and can therefore in no way be used for founding values. We already had a hint of this in Chapter 1, when we tried to show that value was not a quality; if this idea is verified, then there is no point in showing the presence of a quality in a thing, because then we will always have to prove the value of this quality (this would only be effective if the quality were a value, because it would always carry a value).

So when we meet someone who loves something, we can "afford the luxury" of conceding that all the qualities are present in it (beautiful, good, indispensable, enriching, etc.), but to this astonished person we must add: "But does this thing have a value?”.

3) The failure of the self-evidence method

In this endless questioning, the search for values obviously runs the risk of losing itself in madness. As a result, the qualitative method seems to lead invariably to dogmatism, i.e. to the peremptory assertion that such and such a quality obviously has a value. Self-evidence, therefore, appears to be the ultimate criterion of the qualitative approach. For example, we might be told that music has value because it gives people pleasure, and pleasure obviously has value.

What are we to make of this approach, which bases axiological enquiry, as a last resort, on self-evidence?

First of all, such an approach denies the problem of values its very nature ... as a problem. If it is obvious that such and such a thing has such and such a value, then there is no problem of values, there is only an undertaking to clarify and classify axiological judgements, the truth of which is recognised without difficulty; it is not their truth that is the problem, but ancillary details such as grasping their difference from other judgements such as logical judgements.

Such an approach will therefore be that of a researcher who has not understood that the problem of values is an authentic problem, who has never doubted his value judgements, who has never been tormented by the existential anguish of axiological research, who has never experienced this problem, but who has simply studied it.

More fundamentally, this position cannot be accepted, because no self-evidence seems to be recognised as such by people as far as values are concerned. For example, it seems obvious that good is better than evil, pleasure than pain. Yet for some, it is obvious that it is good to get rich by any means; immorality is obviously more valuable to Callicles than justice. On the other hand, it seems obvious to us that pleasure is preferable to abstinence: just ask the monks; that adventure is preferable to routine: yet do we see mass departures for expeditions to Nepal? That wealth is preferable to poverty: ask Diogenes. Some people have no interest in what is recognised by some as the ultimate expression of the human being: art, and are bored by museums and opera houses.

From this perspective, we have to admit that there is no obviousness in the field of values, that the cruelest and most absurd thing will always be loved by at least one person. The problem of values cannot be solved by self-evidence, which is precisely why it is a problem.

In my view, this is the essential truth of relativism as an axiological doctrine: no value judgement is self-evident. Relativism does not appear to us as the movement that triumphed over objectivism, but as the movement that revealed the futility of this particular kind of objectivism, which was based on self-evidence. For me, this is the essential contribution of value relativism, which constitutes a definite advance over dogmatic objectivism.

Some sceptics justified their mistrust of a particular argument by showing that the opposite argument could also be defended: 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. For my part, I will argue that for the time being, every value judgement is opposed by an equal value judgement; and that it is on this basis that we cease to dogmatise in axiology.

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