A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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4/ A first essential rule of the method of axiology


This first fundamental rule of axiology can then be seen to emerge: it seems that, at the start of an axiological investigation, we have to apply a procedure that offends all our instincts, including our moral feeling, namely to put all axiological judgements on an equal footing, whatever their content, in a concern for neutrality, and not to dismiss any value position from the outset, including those that appear the most absurd or shocking.
We need to 'give a chance' to axiological positions that are sometimes rarely given one, such as evil or nihilism

There is a not inconsiderable number of works on morality in which the author seeks to found morality without first exposing, i.e. listening to, the fundamental content of the theories that call morality into question - nihilism, immoralism or amoralism - whereas it is precisely these that we need to refute: we cannot triumph over what we do not know.

As a result, the refutation of evil can only miss its object, because we don't know what this axiological position really consists of. As we have seen, this has been the case with the ethics of duty and the ethics of happiness; these have perhaps succeeded in invalidating a certain kind of evil (the person who affirms that his bad action is a duty for the former, the egoist for the latter), but remain, it seems to us, mute in the face of other manifestations of evil, the most authentic of which is radical evil, that is, the axiological position according to which evil has a value, or more value than good.

If we are to "give a chance" to the extreme axiological positions, then we have to give them a real chance, i.e. admit the possibility that axiology may, at the end of its investigation and deployment, come to the conclusion that one of these two positions is the authentic axiological position, i.e. the one that has answered most acutely the question of what has value and what does not. We have to admit that our investigation may eventually lead to the conclusion that nothing has value, or that evil has more value than good.

Anguish must then seize us, insofar as the result that axiology may arrive at is no longer certain, and perhaps fundamentally calls into question our own value judgements, our existential choices as individuals as well as the collective rules that society has adopted.
If this were the case, if we came to the conclusion, for example, that nothing has value, what would we do? Would we shun such a discovery? Or would we accept it? But how would we behave as a result? Should we, and could we, live as nihilists?
Axiological research cannot therefore be carried out in serenity, but in anxiety, with a feeling of discomfort, because it gives itself the possibility of reaching tragic conclusions that we can scarcely bear.

In this way, we can give a final description of the axiologist's state of mind: first of all, we saw that he had to suspend all value judgements, i.e. neither to like nor to dislike anything; this seemed to us to have the effect of introducing serenity into the soul, insofar as this psychological state seemed to be close to Stoic ataraxia, or even to the sceptical epoché, which has the effect of finally engendering the happiness of the wise man.
Now we see this is not the case, and axiological epoché is subjectively expressed as profound anguish, because unlike sceptical and Stoic epochés, its aim is not to achieve happiness or to answer the question "How can I achieve happiness?" but to answer the question "What has a value?", the answer to which could, it seems, eliminate any possibility of happiness for man.

The axiologist is therefore anything but indifferent in his investigation, since it takes as its object what is perhaps most important to him; but he is obliged, for methodological reasons, to adopt neutrality, i.e. indifference towards each of the axiological positions. As an axiologist, he contradicts his most human feelings; but throughout his investigation, he remains a man, or a woman. It is this contradiction that makes the axiologist's state of mind essentially an anguished suspension of all value judgements.

Finally, we must not dismiss axiological positions that seem absurd to us, such as: "The first ten digits have a value", "Pain has a value", "What is under my brother's piano has a value".
If we were to operate in this way, we would fail to understand the radical nature of the epoché that axiology demands, insofar as it affirms the need to have really 'given a chance' to any axiological position before giving ourselves the right to reject it. It is, moreover, under the pretext of absurdity that authentic axiological positions (such as those which affirm that evil, pain, sadness, nothingness, laughter, etc. have a value) have been discarded. This criterion of "absurdity" is therefore fundamentally flawed in that everyone calls absurd any axiological judgement that differs too greatly from their own value judgements.

This requirement of neutrality tells us what the project of axiology might be.
If we were to say, for example, that the aim of axiology is to find out what the value of things is, we would be implying that only things can have value (and not actions, or immaterial entities such as metaphysical beings, which are not things). Actions or immaterial entities would then be dismissed out of hand, without justification, from the possibility of having value. In short, the way in which we put the question would immediately betray it by the presuppositions that this formulation implies.
Similarly, if we were to say that the ambition of axiology is to find the value of concepts, we would dogmatically exclude everything that is not a concept, i.e. the things themselves of which they are concepts, actions, metaphysical entities, etc.
Finally, if we say that we are looking for the value of beings, then we would exclude from the outset everything that is not, but remains imaginary, such as unicorns, and that is simply possible and even impossible.

On the contrary, we are looking for a formulation that does not betray the question it is intended to express, and that excludes absolutely nothing as having value. To do this, we need to find a term that is more general than thing, concept, action, being... and to do this we will speak of "content of meaning", an expression that seems to us to have this advantage to leave undetermined the question of whether this meaning is carried by a thing or an idea, whether it is found in this reality or in another, and whether it is possible or impossible; in short, this term has the advantage of not pronouncing on the ontological reality of what carries this content of meaning.

In order not to rule out any axiological position from the outset, and thereby respect the epoché of value judgements whose necessity has become apparent to us, we shall say that the project of axiology is to determine for any content of meaning=X whether it has a value or not.
Or again: the aim of axiology is to determine the value of any content of meaning=X.