A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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Descartes uses a second argument to show the value of God: he supports the axiological position that being is value (or perfection), and that the more degrees of objective reality a thing has, the more value or perfection it has.
So it is that substances are superior in value to accidents: Undoubtedly, the ideas that represent substances amount to something more—they contain within themselves more representative reality—than do the ideas that merely represent modes [or accidents] 1.

This assimilation of being to value means that God is the supreme value, the sovereign perfection, because he is the being with the most objective reality, for two reasons.

Firstly, because he is infinite (which means that his being has no limitations or negations, he is fully being): God, on the other hand, I take to be actually infinite, so that nothing can be added to his perfection 2.
Secondly, because he gives himself existence: It is a common notion that if a thinking being doesn’t depend on anything else, then it is God. Why? Because if something’s existence is due to itself, we can’t doubt that it will have given itself as many perfections as it could recognize 3.

The corollary of this equation of being with value is that nothingness can have no value: I also have what you might call a negative idea of nothingness (that which is furthest from all perfection) 4.

However, this axiological position, which asserts that nothingness has no value whereas being does, cannot be accepted as self-evident; it is precisely what nihilism contests. It is also what is contested by the dreamer, who asserts that what does not exist, what is dreamt or invented, has more value than what is basely real.
The presence of this doctrine, which is without foundation, seems to show that while Descartes challenged his epistemological certainties through radical doubt, he does not seem to have subjected his axiological certainties to the same treatment.
Here again, we see that the second argument Descartes uses to prove the value of God lacks a solid and certain foundation.

Finally, the third argument that Descartes develops to prove that God is the supreme value is an axiological position, according to which the cause would obviously have more value (or perfection) than the effect: One should note that we have ascribed to God the dignity inherent in being a cause in such wise that no indignity inherent in being an effect would follow thence in him […] Although I have granted that God can in a certain sense be called the cause of himself, nevertheless nowhere have I in the same way called him an effect of himself 5.

We have already encountered this axiological position in our study of Nietzsche 6, and we have seen that this idea of aristocratic origin is entirely debatable: what comes from a despicable origin can infinitely exceed in value what is at its origin, or again: the effect can exceed the cause. We have taken the example of Napoleon, who came from a modest family in Corsica, etc., or that of the river, which infinitely exceeds in magnitude its initial cause, the source, etc.
We could define axiological materialism as the doctrine that holds that the inferior (chemical particles, biological cells) is the cause of the superior (consciousness, the mind, etc.), i.e. that the effect is always superior to the cause.

We would therefore say that if Descartes' second axiological position can be true, the opposite can also be true, and that it is therefore unfounded, not indubitable: it is doubtful. It cannot therefore be accepted as an absolutely certain truth, as Descartes seems to do. Like the first axiological position we have just examined, this one does not seem to be subject to radical doubt; in fact, two fundamental dogmas are not.

To sum up: this choice of terminology (the use of the term 'perfection' to designate what is meant by value), and these three axiological positions intertwine to produce what might be called Descartes' implicit doctrine of values.

We have seen that each of these points is problematic, and that consequently Descartes' axiological doctrine is, not necessarily false, but at least dubious. As such, it should be subject to Descartes' epoché, suspension of judgement, and radical doubt, in which he searches for something truly indubitable. This is not the case. This doctrine of values is not asserted or used in the first two Meditations, during which Descartes affirms and then progressively rejects doubtful ideas, but from the third Meditation onwards, i.e. after the Cogito, in which Descartes maintains that he has grasped this indubitable truth: I am, I exist—that is certain. But for how long? For as long as I am thinking 7.

It is easy to see the difficulty of moving from this first truth to a second truth. How is Descartes going to get beyond the ego, whose existence he has assured himself, to grasp the truth of the world? As we know, he would have to grasp the truth of an 'intermediary', God. Now, Descartes' steadfast requirement to accept only unquestionable truths, and not to mix anything dubious with his reasoning, is obviously maintained. This progression will have to be based on indubitable truths.

The hypothesis I would like to support is that it was at this precise moment, when Descartes was trying to find the world from the ego through the mediation of God, that he used this dubious axiological doctrine, even though at the time only unquestionable judgements were allowed.

1. Metaphysical Meditations, III
2. ibid.
3. Letter to Mersenne, 15 November 1638
4. Metaphysical Meditations, IV
5. Answers to fourth objections
6. Book I
7. Metaphysical Meditations, II