A Matter of Values

I would like to take some time to talk about values, that is, what is considered to be “good” or what a person “should” do. There are two basic approaches to the topic of values. The first states that things/actions/etc. have positive or negative values that are intrinsic to them or that they are good in and of themselves regardless of any person’s opinions of them. In this approach, the idea of an “absolute good” is accepted. The second states that the only positive or negative value anything has is the value that is given to it by some subject (e.g., humans) so that a thing/act/etc. does not actually have any value but is only perceived as having it. In this approach, the idea of an “absolute good” is rejected.

Which of these approaches is the “right” one is impossible to say, I think. This is another topic that litters the history of human thought and it seems a definitive conclusion cannot be reached. My belief about “absolute good” is similar to my belief about “absolute truth.” Regardless of whether neither, either or both of them exist, I, as a single human trapped in my own limited perspective can never know. However, I would like to make a statement that I believe everyone, no matter which approach they take on “absolute good,” will agree on: “Humans have values.” In my view, we generally focus a great deal too much time trying to discern which values are the “right” ones or even which are the “natural” ones and not nearly enough time simply acknowledging the fact that humans are value-driven beings who will never come to an agreement about which values are “right” or “natural.”

Regardless of our inclinations about the absolute good, it seems not enough for any of us to simply say “we have values and base our ethical decisions on them,” and we insist on going out on expeditions to discover those values which are “universal” or “absolute” so that we can know what we ought to do. We drive ourselves insane trying to discern not only what is right for us to do, but also what is right for every other person to do. For some reason, we feel that the ethical choices of those around us are somehow “our problem” even when they have no direct effect on us. We feel that there is a basic set of ethics which is common to and vaguely understood by all humanity and feel violated when someone does not abide by it. To some this leads to the conclusion that there are some basic values which exist outside of human perception and belong intrinsically to certain things/actions. Others explain it in a more naturalistic way, stating that the common ethical values exist but are due to the simple fact that human beings share those values which aid their survival as individuals and/or a species (or were somehow derived from that). I believe it’s up to each person to decide which seems most probable to them and go with that because there’s no way to determine which (or what combination of the two) is “absolutely” correct.

My view on the matter is this: I don’t believe that there is anything that is right or wrong, I don’t believe that a person should or shouldn’t do anything and I don’t believe that anyone/anything is valuable or worthless. Regardless of there being nothing that is valuable, every human mind is filled with values and conducts their life according to them. These values come from all over the place and are based on all manner of things. Some are shared by large groups of people and some only by a few, some remain for millennia and some pass away in a short time. But there are always values and they are always at the forefront of every human endeavour. It is these values that determine what is to be called “good” by an individual or society.

In my view, every “good,” or ethical imperative, is hypothetical. Hypothetical means that it always fits within a “If…., then…” statement. In other words, the goodness of a thing is entirely dependant on some other thing making it so. In the case of ethical goods, every statement resulting with a “should” (ethical imperative) begins with the assumption of a value: “If I value x, then I should do y” (If I value staying alive, I should eat food). Since I do not believe that any value is based on “absolute/intrinsic value,” I also believe that there is nothing that a person “absolutely should” do. There is no ethical imperative. People do things and they do not do things, based on things and that result in things.

There is only one value that I believe to be “universally” true about human beings (as well as all other living things), and I hesitate to label it as a value, but since it is constantly wrapped up among other values I will let the label stand. “Self-preservation” is what I am referring to. It could be called a value or an instinct. Either way, I believe that every life form, by nature of it being a life form, is concerned with preserving its own life. The impulse to preserve one’s life does not need to be taught. It is always there, regardless of what other values a person might have. The interesting thing about the value/instinct of self-preservation is that even though it is generally the strongest value/instinct I believe it is possible to have values which override it. In contrast to a number of ethical theorists, I do believe that a person can value altruism highly enough that in some instance(s) their value of it can override their instinct of self-preservation. I, of course, wouldn’t say that altruism is a good or bad thing, but I do believe it can exist. Similarly, a person who is suicidal or keen on euthanasia may have values concerning the quality of life which override the preservation of it. Abortion, too, could be spoken of here. Some would say that the preservation of the unborn child’s life is not enough a value to override the poor quality of life it would inevitably experience. Again, I’m only stating possible values in these matters, not ones that I believe are “right.”

The implications of my view on a political level can be understood by seeing laws being created based on “common values” (in a democratic society anyway). When a person commits a crime and is put in prison, s/he has done nothing “wrong,” in my view (no matter how atrocious the crime). It just so happens that the particular value that person had which led them to act in the way they did conflicted with the values of the majority, resulting in the majority acting on their values and sending him/her to prison. The case is similar in non-democratic societies, where it is not the majority that has the power. The main point is that in a society of people, we are invariably effected by the values of others, and most of all by those who are in power.

So, how are we to discern which values to base the rules of society on when there are no “absolute values?” I have nothing to say about the ones that we “should” choose, but I believe that the ones we naturally tend toward are the ones that lead to self or species preservation…unless we have values which override that (similar to the case of the individual). Most of the time, however, when it is made clear that our collective values aren’t leading to preservation of ourselves or humanity as a whole we self-correct, like any other life form concerned with its self-preservation, not because self-preservation is good or something we “ought” to do but because it just “is.”

In summary, I don’t believe there is any such thing as actual value, but I believe that the way in which humans value things says a great deal about the beings that we are.

[Note: In order to keep a respectful dialogue, comments will be moderated before appearing on the site.]

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2 thoughts on “A Matter of Values

  1. You have made an interesting point here. “Everyone has different vaules” that is something I personally was aware of. I am pondering your explanation that humans are value driven though. Is it possible that values are reflections of a need or desire more then survival? Is is possible that the values that individuals or sets of people hold, are some how tied to their understanding of a deeper truth, but some how lost? I wonder if itis possible, with balance, that the wide variety of values are all important parts of a proverbial spectrum and are needed to keep balance. I hope to discuss this more with you in the future.

    1. Yes, it’s possible. But also unprovable. I choose to believe that values are human constructs and do not reflect anything intrinsic, but I don’t claim to be able to prove this to be the case. You and everyone else are free to believe whatever makes most sense to you because matters like these are outside of the jurisdiction of “proof.”

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