Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On questions of value

In the period between semesters, I spend free moments—a moment is free if and only if it is not occupied by responding in the negative to some request to raise a grade, ignoring a request from someone to crash a course or explaining why it really did matter to a final grade that the papers were not turned in or were not the work of the student—thinking about issues that I have discussed in class and that I would like to discuss differently. Because most of my classes, even the ones that are more focused and at a higher level, are really introductory classes and have between twenty and forty students, much discussion must be perfunctory. And, yet, I think we touch on a number of issues that provide food for thought. They certainly do for me and I hope that they do for at least some of my students.
With all that introduction out of the way, I was thinking about the canned version of existentialism that I give my students. Honestly, I think I do a pretty good job with existentialism, if only because I do best on views that are a little or a lot pessimistic. In particular, I was thinking about the notion of value and the existentialist claim that our lives can have no objective value, because there is no value giver outside ourselves to give such a value. 
Now, in class, I make clear that this assumes that there is no God, but I offer them the consideration of Nagel's that even the existence of God could not give our lives value for us but only for God, unless we made a subjective decision to take that value as our own. And, then we are able to move on—and back in time—to Kierkegaard.
But, with all the recent talk by relative crazies like Ron Paul about the need to get away from fiat money and back onto the gold standard, because gold, unlike paper money has an intrinsic value, I have been thinking more generally about the relation between intrinsic and objective value. Of course, these are not quite the same notion of value. Something is intrinsically valuable, if it is valuable in and of itself, and not for some other thing of value that it can be used to obtain and something is objectively valuable just in case it is valuable independently of whether it is in fact valued. For what it's worth, gold is neither of these—it has been subjectively valued for most of human history but it is not inconceivable that it not be so valued, as More considered in his Utopia, and it is almost always valued for other things that it can be used to get, such as food and shelter—but that might be a discussion for another day. Gold, however, like any commodity inessential for human life seems to be valuable only because of contingent historical facts.
What I started to wonder was whether there was anything that might truly be said to be either objectively or intrinsically valuable, that is, valuable in and of itself and entirely independently of whether anyone actually does value it. And, perhaps because I come after the existentialists, but I am not sure that there is any such thing. 


Jeffrey said...

I don't think there could be anything that has intrinsic value. Something is valuable only so much as somebody else values it. Even things that are more essential to human life are still only valuable because we need it. The value is just less abstract and more immediate. I don't think anything can intrinsically have a subjective quality.

Oddly, I find the concept that my life has no value beyond its value to others or to God comforting, rather than pessimistic. I find the desire to be a valuable entity onto oneself the darker of the two concepts.

Tyler Hower said...

You're surely right that nothing could intrinsically have a subjective value, but I think that is almost a definitional matter. If the value were intrinsic and really rested in the thing itself, then it would seem to have to be independent of anything so contingent as whether people actually value it, that is, it would have to be objective.
As for your second point, you are actually agreeing that it has to be valuable to yourself, because you talk about how the fact that your life is valuable to others or to God to be comforting, but that is just talking in terms of what the value of such a life is to you. It can't be enough that a life is valuable to others or else lives lived in slavery would be valuable lives—it's important here to distinguish between the questions of whether the people have a right to life and whether their lives are valuable—and surely some lives of slavery no matter how valuable they may have been to those who used the slaves were not valuable to the slaves and so failed as valuable LIVES.