A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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2/ The idea of a formal axiology


With the formal axiology projects that appeared at the end of the 19th century, axiology has probably found its most accomplished expression to date.
Historically, it was Brentano, Husserl and Th. Lessing who initiated such a project.

The idea is to draw a parallel with formal logic, and to show that we can envisage the discovery of axiological formal laws, i.e. laws that would disregard the question of knowing what has or does not have a value, but that would seek to identify the necessary relationships between axiological concepts.

Logic, as we know, exposes the necessity and universality of a priori relations such as "If A is B, and B is C, then A is C", disregarding the nature of A, B and C. By analogy, formal axiology should propose laws such as "The value of A depends on the value of B, the value of B depends on the value of C, so the value of A depends on the value of C", disregarding the nature of A, B and C, in other words the question: what has value?
Formal axiology is therefore based on the principle of epistemological prudence and an epoché of values; it concedes that we do not know whether there are values, or what has a value, but maintains that if A or B have values, then the necessary laws that affect these values are such and such.

The aim is therefore to move away from the 'philosophies of values' that we have seen until now, and to create a scientific discipline whose specific object of study is values, with a validity as universal and a priori as logic.

Here, then, we are leaving behind the intuitionist idea of an immediate knowledge of values, and asserting the need for the constitution of a discipline, proceeding through the mediation of arguments and reasoning. Yet self-evidence still has a role to play in this mediation process. According to a perspective inherited from the geometric tradition, the chain of arguments must be based on axioms that are self-evident.

Brentano's axioms are a brilliant illustration of this. In The Origin of Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong, Brentano presents these four propositions about values, which are considered self-evident and therefore constitute axioms. For example:
The existence of a positive value is a positive value.
The non-existence of a positive value is a negative value.
The existence of a negative value is a negative value.
The non-existence of a negative value is a positive value.

We can see that these propositions cautiously leave undetermined the question of what has value, but stick to the formal laws that concern the concept of value. As such, they would be devoid of any consideration of value, and therefore of any prejudice concerning values. As a result, they could make it possible to constitute an objective and certain formal axiology, at the price of abandoning the axiological question of what does or does not have value.