Whether non-subjective value might be possible, and what value would mean in that case.

I admit that one of the most annoying things about philosophical discourse is this assumption that there exists this sacred, unbreakable distinction between the “subjective” and the “objective”. Whether we are talking about things like beauty, morality, value, or even probability, there is a tendency to think of the subjective as that realm where it is merely opinion or feelings, fleeting as they may be, and the objective as that realm which is eternally and cosmically really really true no matter what you think or say.

I think these poor definitions (or maybe misconceptions of the definitions) put unnecessary restrictions on our thinking, especially if all we want is a coherent and satisfying framework for believing that the things we care about have value even when we aren’t here. If, on the other hand, you aren’t satisfied with anything but a cosmic, utterly transcendent, nearly magical idea of “value”, then I can’t help you.

As a utilitarian, I like to think of value as determined by, well, utility. But doesn’t utility depend on beings to be in existence, and what if those beings aren’t there anymore? Isn’t value completely subjective?

Let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose we got to explore a new planet in some far away solar system, and we discovered that the inhabitants of this planet had all disappeared or died, leaving their valuables like their cars and dishwashers in their houses. Are we to say that these artifacts have no value (apart from artifact value) even though we don’t know how to drive alien cars and their dishwashers are worse than ours? Does the nonexistence of the creatures affect the value?

I think we can safely say that value does definitely depend on how it once related to the subjective lives of those around them. If there were no conscious creatures ever, the Universe would just be a barren place, and the idea of value just wouldn’t have coherent meaning.

I think think value is not merely what we think or feel. When I say a car (or something abstract) has value, I don’t mean that I like cars and you should too. I mean that I recognize that conscious creatures do (or had once) like cars, and that this object-person relationship that emerges from the consideration of utility in others is something I recognize. It’s the difference between saying, “I like chocolate ice cream” and “I observe that chocolate ice cream has increased the utility of many people and thus I recognize that it has value, especially given that I think there’s something objectively real in chocolate ice cream (its sugary, creamy awesomeness in the form of certain chemical arrangements)”

After all, the ability to go beyond one’s own mind and recognize others is the basis of science, morality, and the typical ways Bayesians converge towards truth, or at least agreement.

So yes, I think value is subjective, but it isn’t as subjective as you subjectively think.

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Posted on May 5, 2013, in Rationality and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. “So yes, I think value is subjective, but it isn’t as subjective as you subjectively think.”

    Would a fair summary be that you argue the intuition of objectivity is merely the convergence of subjective beliefs?

  2. non-subjective valuing is patented and copyright

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