A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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The second argument of Descartes, by which he intends to prove the value of God, is the axiological contention that being is value (or perfection), whence follows that the more objective reality something has, the more value or perfection it also has.
That is why substances have more value than 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 equivalence of being with value has a most important consequence: God is the supreme value, the sovereign perfection, for he is the being who has the most objective reality, for two reasons.

First, because he is infinite (that is why his being has no limitation, nor negation, and is complete 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 derives his existence from himself: 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.

A necessary corollary of this equivalence of being with value is that non-being has no value: I also have what you might call a negative idea of nothingness (that which is furthest from all perfection) 4.

But this axiological position, which maintains that being has a value, and non-being has none, cannot be considered as an evidence; it is precisely what the nihilist denies. Or the dreamer, which holds that what does not exist, what is dreamt of or invented, has more value than what is vulgarly real.
This doubtful idea, at the heart of the meditations of Descartes, reveals that if Descartes calls into question his epistemological certainties by the radical doubt, he leaves his axiological certainties intact.
Here again, we see that the second Cartesian argument, by which he intends to establish the value of God, is unsatisfactory, due to the absence of any solid foundation.

Finally, the third argument that Descartes proposes, in order to prove that God is the supreme value, is an axiological position, claiming that the cause has obviously 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.

But we have already met with this axiological position in our study of Nietzsche6, and we have seen that this aristocratic idea is quite debatable: what comes from a despicable origin may infinitely surpass in value its origin. In other words, the effect may exceed the cause. I have took the example of Napoleon, born in a modest Corsican family, or of the river, far wider than its initial source, etc. We could call axiological materialism the doctrine that the inferior (chemical molecules, biological cells) is cause of the superior (consciousness, mind, etc.), and so that the effect is always superior to the cause.

So if the second axiological position of Descartes may be true, the opposite is also possible, and therefore this second position is neither founded, nor undoubted: it is doubtful. It cannot be accepted as an absolutely certain truth, as Descartes does. Now we understand that, as well as the first axiological position above described, this second one is not called into question; in fact, two fundamental dogmas escape from radical doubt.


In short, this terminological choice (the usage of the term “perfection” to denote what we call value), and these three axiological positions compose together what we could call the implicit Cartesian theory of values.

We have seen that each of these points are problematic, and so the axiological doctrine of Descartes is, not necessarily false, but doubtful at least. As such, it should be called into question, and Descartes should suspend his judgment as to this doctrine, throughout his radical doubt. But we see that this is far from being the case. It is to be noticed that this theory of values is neither affirmed, nor used, in the two first meditations, in which Descartes rejects all dubious ideas, but in the third one, viz. after the Cogito, when he claims to have found this doubtless truth: I am, I exist—that is certain. But for how long? For as long as I am thinking 7.

Now how can Descartes infer from this first truth (the Self) other truths, like that of the world? As we know, an intermediary truth (the existence of God) has to be demonstrated before. But Descartes maintains his position: only indubitable truths must be accepted.

My hypothesis is that it is at that very moment, when Descartes tries to prove the truth of the world, by inferring it from the self by the mediation of God, that he uses this axiological dubious doctrine, although at this point only indubitable judgments are allowed.

1. Metaphysical Meditations, III
2. ibid.
3. Letter to Mersenne 15.11.1638
4. Metaphysical Meditations, IV
5. Answers to fourth objections
6. Book I
7. Metaphysical Meditations, II