A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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4) The failure of the experimental method


A third method, used without explicit conceptualisation, can probably be identified as the experimental method. It could be summed up as follows: it seems that we can find the value of something by experiencing it for ourselves. We need to question the effectiveness of this method: can we find the value of things empirically? Is the method to be used the empirical method?

First of all, it seems that experience can teach us a great deal about the nature of a thing that really exists, how it works, what it looks like... but not about its value.

For example, no matter how many experiments I can do on a lamp, taking it apart, subjecting it to an electric current, etc... and even shaking it in all directions, I do not seem to be able to find its place in the hierarchy; on the other hand, I would know how it works, what it is made of, etc.
In the same way, would you find the value of the human body by auscultating it, dissecting it, observing it under the electron microscope, etc.? No, you wouldn't.
Of course, I could find out from experience whether one engine is more efficient than another; but that is not a hierarchy of values, in the sense that we give to the term "value"; being "efficient" is a quality, not a value (and the question of whether the quality "efficiency" really has a value remains open).
From this we can perhaps venture this statement: experience informs us about the nature of things, at best about their qualities, but not about their value.

On the other hand, if the experiment could do this, then it would, it seems, necessarily be biased. To take an example: it would be like trying to determine whether music has value by listening to a piece of music. Our conclusion would not be objective, but would depend on contingent, hazardous and absurd factors, such as the choice of piece of music (if we do not like that particular piece, we will not find any value in the music, even though music is not reduced to that piece), the quality of the interpretation, etc...

Moreover, experience condemns me to not loving or hating anything until I have experienced it. To be able to hate murder, I would have to experience murder, i.e. kill someone, in order to discover the detestable value of this act and to hate it with good reason. Above all, I would have to experience all existing things, before being able to love or hate them, which seems impossible, because there are too many things for me to experience in a single lifetime, and there are also things that my social, geographical and physical condition makes it impossible for me to experience. I will probably never be able to experience going into space; I will never be able to enter certain circles reserved for millionaires, and so on.

Finally, if we can only determine the value of what is accessible to experience, i.e. what exists, then we will never be able to find the value of any metaphysical object, of anything that comes under the heading of the dream and the imaginary, or the possible. The value of an infinite number of things would escape us. And if we were to find the value of things through experience, then we would go through life loving an infinitely small number of things.

5) The failure of the hedonistic method


However, it seems that we commonly use a very specific kind of experience to determine the value of things: the pleasure they give us. The postulate is as follows: when something gives me pleasure, that means it has value, and the more pleasure it gives me, the more value it has. For example, what tells me that a particular piece of music has value is the pleasure I get from listening to it.

To this, perhaps we can simply point out three things: that what gives great pleasure to someone one day gives him no pleasure the next day or the next year; that what gives great pleasure to one man gives no pleasure at all to another; and that everything, even that which seems the most absurd and cruel (seeing one's fellow man suffer, etc.) gives pleasure to some people.

From this perspective, it appears that the hedonistic method logically leads to two ideas: firstly, the idea that values change perpetually, and that an object can lose the value it possessed a moment before. Secondly, the idea that since everything can give pleasure, everything has a value, including what seems absurd or cruel. Everything should give pleasure, but man's inane principles make him deaf to these pleasures, and wisdom consists in freeing ourselves from all moral and logical rules to bathe in the river of pleasure and let it carry us wherever it wants to take us. We call this conception 'eclectic' because it asserts that everything - even violence and cruelty - has value.

In our view, the hedonistic concept cannot be accepted, because it simply allows us to answer the question of what is good for human being. We can answer this question by looking for what gives us pleasure; but we cannot use the concept of pleasure to answer our problem of values without making this dogmatic presupposition: that which has value can only be good for us. As we saw in Chapter 2 in our analysis of Aristotle, it is not possible to introduce an anthropocentric postulate at the beginning of our investigation, but it can only be its conclusion.