A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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Axiology was developed at the end of the 19th century, and at the beginning of the 20th century, by Brentano, Husserl, M. Scheler, who may certainly be considered as the three founders of this discipline. However, all three of them eventually devoted themselves to a distinct task, other than the development of Axiology as such.

Husserl, and Brentano to a lesser extent, attempted to elaborate a formal Axiology, or to identify formal axiological axioms, as we shall see later on. Scheler, for his part, has done a lot to distinguish value from related concepts (such as the concepts of good or finality). However, he probably has not gone far enough in this distinction as, in his opinion, the discipline, whose subject of study is value, is “material ethics of values” and not Axiology. Thus, the term “axiological” can be found in his work (for example, when he refers to the “axiological sphere”), but rarely the term “Axiology”. We might say that Scheler acknowledges the “axiological” concept, but not “Axiology”.

The books written by later authors, in which the term “Axiology” can be encountered, have a common feature: they mention it “in passing”, without any definition or in-depth analysis, as though it were useless. Thus Delesalle, in a book entirely devoted to values, uses the word “Axiology” only four times (for example, when he says, Nothing precedes or justifies axiological consciousness, nothing guides it; so value is similar to the movement of consciousness, which provides a general evaluation 1), and for each of these occurrences, we search in vain for a definition or a brief description of this discipline.

As a result, in the field of contemporary knowledge, Axiology appears as a stillborn science, of which we only know the name and ignore its precise meaning, and that we sometimes encounter in given sentences in a book, without knowing why.
The reason is clear: when we confound the concepts of value and good, as we have noted, a second confusion logically arises, between the disciplines whose subjects of study are the said concepts. Thus, the study of good (Ethics) is confounded with the study of value (Axiology). Therefore, it is assumed that the problem of values is an ethical problem, and that we shall be able to solve it by using moral concepts. In short, the first consequence of the oblivion of values is the confusion between Ethics and Axiology, or better still, the former has suppressed the latter by preventing it from being developed as an independent science with its own concepts, specific method, and consistent content.

The root cause of the oblivion of Axiology has now become apparent: the oblivion of its object, value itself, due to its confusion with related moral concepts.

The work of Moore, one of the main thinkers on ethics in the 20th century, is symptomatic of this situation. In his fundamental book, Principia Ethica, Moore’s thinking is initially based on the concept of good. However, a strange phenomenon is noted: value, which at first is hidden behind this concept, eventually reappears, and ends up playing a more important role than good in Principia Ethica, without the author being aware of it.

3/ Disappearance, then resurgence of the concept of value in Moore’s work

a) The disappearance of the concept of value

Moore’s main preoccupation in Principia Ethica is to show that the concept of good is a simple notion, viz. it has a different meaning compared to all other concepts. Therefore, it is impossible to maintain, as Hedonism does, that the very meaning of the word “good” is “having pleasure”, and, in this manner, it is impossible to hide the concept of good behind that of pleasure.

There are many different ways of formulating Moore’s idea so as to facilitate its understanding. It can be said, for example, that no other concept can express the meaning conveyed by the word “good”. It can also be affirmed that good has no synonyms at all. The following provocative tautology can be made: good is good.

We can also understand this by distinguishing two types of identities:
- An analytic identity, which is found in tautologies: the predicate is always contained in the subject. For example: any dwarf is a small man.
- A synthetic identity: in this case, the predicate is not contained in the subject and the judgment in question cannot be a tautology. For example: this dwarf is rich.
Subject and predicate are not interchangeable in the synthetic identity, by contrast with the analytic identity.

Consequently, we can propose a fifth formulation of Moore’s idea: according to him, every judgment about good can only be synthetic, never analytic: If I am asked “How good is to be defined?” my answer is that it cannot be defined, and that is all I have to say about it. But disappointing as these answers may appear, they are of the very last importance […] They amount to this: That propositions about the good are all of them synthetic and never analytic 2.

We can finally express this idea, by saying that the good is “unanalyzable” and “undefinable”.

This notion should be analyzable to be definable. However, this would only be possible only if good were a complex notion. We can, for example, define man as a political animal (zoon politicon), such as Aristotle, because by analyzing him, we can identify two simpler notions, that of “animal” and that of “reasonable”. Nevertheless, good does not result from the encounter of two other concepts. It derives its meaning from itself alone: I say that it is not composed of any parts, which we can substitute for it in our minds when we are thinking of it 3.

The conclusion summarizes the main result of this investigation: There is nothing whatsoever which we could substitute for good; and that is what I mean, when I say that good is indefinable 4.

1. Freedom and value
2. G.H. Moore, Principia Ethica, ch.I, §6
3. Ibid, ch.I, §7
4. Ibid, ch.I, §8