A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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3) The failure of the experimental method

A third method, used without any explicit conceptualisation, may be referred to as the "experimental method” and can be summed up as follows: it seems that we can define the value of something in experiencing it. We need to verify the efficiency of this second method: Can we empirically determine the value of things? Is the experimental method the one to use?

Firstly, it appears that experience may provide a lot of information about the nature of a real thing, e.g. its aspect, its way of operating, etc. but nothing about its value.

Thus, if I gain any experience from this lamp – by dismantling it, passing an electric current through it, shaking it, etc., I will thereby determine how it works, what it is composed of, etc. However, I will probably not be able to determine its hierarchal position, viz. its value.
Another example is the following: Can I determine the value of the human body by auscultating, dissecting or observing it with a microscope? Surely not.
It is true that we may learn from experience that such motor is more efficient than another one; but this is not a hierarchy of values in the common sense of the word “value”. Being efficient is a quality, not a value, and the question whether the “efficiency” quality has a value remains open.
From this, we may infer that experience provides some information about the nature of things, or about their qualities, but nothing about their value.

Secondly, even if values could be discovered empirically, our research would necessarily be biased. Let us provide an example: this approach amounts to determining whether music has a value simply by listening to a song. However, our conclusion would not be objective and would depend upon hazardous and absurd factors such as the choice of the song (if we do not like a particular song we would not assign any value to music, although music cannot be reduced to this simple song, the quality of the performance, etc).

Moreover, what if I cannot love or hate anything without having experienced it? To hate murder, I would have to experience it, in other words I would have to kill someone. I would then discover its negative value and hate it with reason. More generally, I should experiment all existing things, before I could love or hate them, which is impossible because there are too many things for me to experience in one lifetime. In addition, there are some things which I will never experience due to my social, geographical and corporeal situation. I will probably never go into space, I will probably never be allowed to access certain exclusive areas reserved for millionaires, etc.

Lastly, if we can only determine the value of what is subject to experience, in other words, only of what exists, then we will never identify the value of any metaphysical object, nor of every chimera or of any fantastic beings which come from our imagination, or lie in our dreams. The value of an infinite number of things would remain unknown. To conclude, if it were by experience that we determined the value of things, then we would love an infinitely small number of things.

4) The failure of the hedonistic method

However, we commonly use a specific kind of experience to determine the value of things, which is the experience of the pleasure that they provide. The postulate is the following: when something gives me some pleasure, it has a value, and the more pleasure it gives, the greater value it has. For example, I know that this song has a value due to the pleasure I take in listening to it.

To oppose this idea, we may simply make three remarks. Firstly, what provides pleasure one day for someone may make this person indifferent on another day. Secondly, what gives pleasure to one person is different for another person. Lastly, all things, even the cruellest and most absurd, (making someone suffer, etc.) give pleasure to certain people.

Considering these observations, we can note that the hedonistic method is based on two ideas: firstly, the idea that values are constantly changing, therefore an object may lose its value, secondly, the idea that considering that everything may provide pleasure, everything has a value, including what may seem absurd or cruel. Everything should provide pleasure. However, due to certain silly moral principles, man refuses most of these pleasures: therefore, in order to achieve maximum pleasure, wisdom consists in the rejection of morality. I qualify this conception as “eclectic” as it maintains that everything, including violence or cruelty, has a value.

The hedonistic doctrine cannot be accepted, for it only allows us to answer the question of what is good for man: we simply need to determine what gives us pleasure. However, it is useless for solving the problem of values, which is our focus here. As we have seen in chapter 2, it is impossible for us to base our inquiry on the anthropocentric postulate that what has a value must necessarily be good for man. It may, at the most, be our conclusion but not our starting point.