A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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The most important developments in axiology took place at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, with Brentano, Husserl and Scheler, who can certainly be considered the three founders of the discipline. But in the end, all three devoted themselves to tasks other than the development of an axiology as such.

Husserl, and Brentano to a lesser extent, were more concerned with developing a formal axiology -Brentano confined himself to uncovering formal axiological axioms (projects that we will study in more detail later).

Scheler, for his part, worked hard to distinguish value from related concepts (such as good and purpose), but probably did not go far enough in making this distinction, since for him the discipline that should have values as its subject is not axiology, but a "material ethics of values". He therefore uses the term "axiological sphere", but very little "axiology". It could be argued that Scheler recognises the "axiological" concept, but not "axiology".

A characteristic of the works of later authors, in which we have found the term 'axiology', is often to use it 'in passing', without definition or in-depth analysis, as if no such need had arisen. Thus Delesalle, in a book devoted entirely to values, finds a way of using the term "axiology" on only four occasions (for example: Nothing precedes or justifies axiological consciousness, nor does anything guide it; value is therefore the same thing as the movement of consciousness which evaluates 1), and for each of these occurrences, we look in vain for a definition or a brief description of the discipline whose term we have.

In the field of contemporary knowledge, axiology therefore appears to be a stillborn discipline, with only a name, which does not cover any content, and which is sometimes encountered at the turn of a line in a book, without anyone knowing what it refers to.
The reason is simple: when we confuse the concepts of value and good in this way, a second confusion logically arises, that of the disciplines that take these two concepts as their object of study. So the discipline that studies the good (ethics) will be confused with the discipline that studies value (axiology). It will therefore be assumed that the problem of values is an ethical problem, and that it is by using moral concepts that the axiological problem will be solved. So the first consequence of forgetting values will be the confusion of ethics and axiology; or better still, the former will have stifled the latter, preventing it from developing as an autonomous science, endowed with its own concepts, its own method, and a consistent content.

So we can see the root cause of axiology's oblivion: it is the oblivion of its object - value itself - because of its confusion with neighbouring moral concepts.

We are going to try to grasp the privileged symptom of this oblivion of the notion of value, its confusion with the notion of "good", in the fundamental work of one of the major ethical thinkers of the twentieth century: Moore. We will then notice this strange phenomenon: value resists the phenomenon of its oblivion, and ends up reappearing, at the very heart of Moore's thought, which is initially entirely based on the concept of good, and occupying a more important place than the latter, even without the author's knowledge.

3/ The disappearance, then reappearance, of the concept of value in Moore's work

a) The disappearance of the concept of value

Moore's main concern in the Principia Ethica is to show that the concept of good is a simple notion, i.e. one with a meaning distinct from that of other concepts. As a result, it is impossible, as hedonism tries to do, to assert that the very meaning of the word "good" is "to give pleasure", and thus to make the concept of good disappear entirely under that of pleasure.

We can try to formulate Moore's thesis in various ways to make it easier to understand. We can say, for example, that no other concept can claim to take on the content of meaning carried by the word "good". We can also say that good has no synonym. We can formulate this provocative tautology: good is good.

We can also understand this by distinguishing two kinds of identity:
- An analytic identity, of the type: the dwarf is a small man (which is always a tautology, because the predicate is always contained in the subject: all dwarfs are small men)...
- A synthetic identity, such as: this dwarf is rich (which cannot be a tautology, as the predicate is not contained in the subject).
In the case of analytic identity, subject and predicate are interchangeable, which is impossible in the case of synthetic identity.

We can then propose a fifth reformulation of Moore's idea by asserting that, according to him, all statements about the good can only be synthetic, never analytical: 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 .

Finally, we can propose two last formulations by saying that the good is "unanalysable" and "indefinable".

To be definable, the good would have to be analysable. But this would require the good to be a complex notion. For example, we can define man as a political animal (zoon politikon), as Aristotle did, because in analysing him we have identified two simpler concepts, that of animal and that of reasonable. But the good is not constituted by and through the meeting 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 4.

We then come to a conclusion that seems to sum up 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 5.

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