The Semantics of Value

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The Colorado Freedom

The Semantics of Value

by Ari Armstrong

Adapted from two Objectivism-L posts

Recent discussions in which I've been involved suggest that the meanings of the various terms associated with "value" are not yet consistently clearly defined among us. So this post is an attempt to offer some definitions of related terms and to discuss some of these terms in more detail.

The first term which needs clarifying is "subjective value," because this term carries two distinct meanings, one in economics and another in ethics.

In economics, "subjective value" means merely "that which is of value to a subject, that is, to an acting human." The point of "subjective value" in economics is to forward the position that things don't have value in and of themselves apart from the value placed on the things by human beings. The "subjectivist revolution," in which the Austrian economist Carl Menger played a major role, overturned the false doctrines of intrinsicist valuations such as the labor theory of value (which said basically that a thing has value just because humans did work on it). It is in this economic sense that ALL values are "subjective values." (This is what Will Thomas means when noting that all values which promote life are instances of the larger class of values which humans act to gain and/or keep.)

Of course, Rand properly denounced ethical subjectivism. Rand writes, "The *subjectivist* theory holds that the good bears no relation to the facts of reality, that it is the product of man's consciousness, created by his feelings, desires, 'intuitions,' or whims, and that it is merely an 'arbitrary postulate' or an 'emotional commitment'" (Ayn Rand Lexicon 488, CUI 21). So with the term "subjective value" we need merely be careful of how we - and others - are using the term, whether in its economic or ethical sense.

Opposed to an ethically-subjective value is an "objective" value; that is, that which one acts to gain and/or keep which ALSO furthers one's life. (See Lexicon 342, CUI 22.)

We need to be very careful when we describe things as having "objective value" so as to remain clear to non-objectivist audiences. We could, for instance, say that "food needed for sustenance" has "objective value." We must be clear, by context or by explicit explanation, that we do NOT mean the food has any intrinsic value. Rather, we mean, "Such food does in fact further the end of life." We mean that such food has an "instrumental" value to our primary good, life.

On the other hand, "food which contributes to a person's obesity" we would say to have "objective dis-value" because it damages the person's life. The food in this context is objectively bad. (The fattening food is still "subjectively valued" in the economic sense by the person insofar as he or she acts to gain and/or keep it, and presumably it would also be "subjectively valued" in the ethical sense in that the person would just experience and act upon a whim for the food.)

Rather than use the term "objective value," we could use "ethical value" so long as it were clear that we had life-based, egoistic ethics in mind.

Next we come to "intrinsicism" in ethics. Again Rand: "The *intrinsic* theory holds that the good is inherent in certain things or actions as such, regardless of their context and consequences... to the actors and subjects involved" (Lexicon 227, CUI 21). And indeed, if we limit the discussion to "things"/objects and "actions," nothing in the universe has "intrinsic value." If we mean by "intrinsic," "value apart from human actors," then nothing can have intrinsic value.

Rand rightly overcomes both ethical-subjectivism and intrinsicism with her "objective value." Things are not valuable because of human whim; things are not valuable in themselves apart from the human context; things are (ethically) valuable because of the nature of those things IN RESPECT to human beings.

My single, minor amendment to Rand's schema would be to classify certain *states* or *experiences* as "intrinsically valuable." Note that to do so would be to take into consideration both the nature of things AND the human subject. In particular, for Rand, I would say that "life" is "intrinsically valuable;" that is, it is valuable in itself. (Because I hold that "happiness" is the primary value, I would say that it is "intrinsically valuable".)

It seems to me that saying, "The Objectivist ethics holds man's life as the *standard* of value" (Lexicon 473, VOS 25), is the same as saying, "The Objectivist ethics holds man's life to be intrinsically valuable." We also could say that "man's life is the primary value."

By recognizing life as "intrinsically valuable," we are better able to compare Rand's ethics (and my own) to other ethical frameworks. Rand holds "life" to be "intrinsically valuable;" I hold "happiness" to be intrinsically valuable; Kant holds acting according to the categorical imperative to be intrinsically valuable; many Christians hold that acting according to God's will to be intrinsically valuable; altruism holds bettering others to be intrinsically valuable.

So then the question becomes, what is indeed intrinsically valuable?

Intrinsicism applied to the state of life also permits us to distinguish between the primary good - life - and secondary, or "instrumental," goods such as food and productivity.

We can also separate "deontological ethical theories" from "teleological" (end-based) ones by noting what is considered to be intrinsically valuable. If a state or experience is considered to have intrinsic worth, then the ethics is telos-based, with the end - the standard of value - being the state or experience. If a particular action or prescription of action is considered to be intrinsically valuable, then the ethics is deontological. Altruism, Kantianism, and Christianity are deontological ethics. Holding any object to have intrinsic value also would be deontological ethically, because really the only point to holding an object to be intrinsically valuable would be to define a set of actions concerning the object. (However, I suppose that an ethics which required us to maintain an object in some particular state could be considered teleological.)

To re-phrase, teleological ethics tells us to take actions to achieve some (intrinsically valuable) state or end, generally a human state such as life or happiness, while deontological ethics tells us to take some prescribed course of action because acting thusly is thought to hold intrinsic worth.

Many Objectivists, such as Will Thomas and myself, reject all forms of deontological ethics. Some, such as Chris Cathcart, attempt to apply a deontological standard to political rights. But whether we consider actions or states, we must *justify* that which we argue to be intrinsically valuable. A blithe assumption will never do. Rand spent much work justifying her view that "life" is the ultimate value, the source and standard of all other values. I differ from Rand slightly and believe that "happiness" is the only intrinsically valuable state. We must subject our views here to rigorous analysis, as our conclusions constitute the pin on which the rest of our ethics hinge. Ultimately, I think we can expect only one "thing" (object, state, or action) to win out over the others philosophically as the truly "intrinsically valuable."


Second post

Last night I was nearly finished with my reply to Lance Neustaeter's post on deontology, when I realized that I was wrong, or half-wrong, on a point. So here I will argue that, while it is possible to create a "deontological" version of Rand's ethics, such a "deontologized" Objectivism is unjustifiable. Second, I will argue that the distinction between "consequentialism" and "deontology" is a legitimate dichotomy, rather than a false-dichotomy as Lance argues.


Chris Cathcart and I at least agree on what "deontological" means; it refers to an action or type of action which is deemed "good in itself," rather than good for some end.

Cathcart writes:

So I will define "deontic" as: the view in moral philosophy that some actions can be deemed right or wrong not solely by reference to the end to be brought about by that particular action.

This is also the view of "deontic" as presented by Rasmussen and Den Uyl (R&D) in _Liberty and Nature_: "[T]he term *deontic*... is meant to convey... a commitment to nonconsequentialism[;...] *deontic* signifies a commitment to a standard of evaluation for, or constraint upon, the narrowly consequential" (102).

Lance, however, seems to continue to conflate "deontic" with "principled:"

But if you've read the Dougs' _Liberty and Nature_, you can see a usage of "deontic" for which "anti-self" (or "agent-external") is *not* essential, but for which the focus on principles (and a rejection of pragmatism) *is*.

Having now given "the Dougs'" book a cursory reading, I think that this is a misleading interpretation of their position. They do indeed, as do I, as does Rand, reject pragmatism. And they reject ethics which are "anti-self" and "agent-external." However, it is not merely the case that they adopt ethical "principles," but, rather, that they adopt a particular type of principles, a type which is particularly "deontic" in nature, a type which is seen as good apart from consequentialist ends.

As I noted in my last post, once we adopt a teleological/consequentialist ethics, such as egoism (either rooted in "life" or in "happiness"), we then may address the question as to whether a "pragmatic" or a "principled" approach is the best means to achieve our ethical end. I agree with Rand that a particularly *principled* approach to ethics is the only way we can achieve good "consequences" as evaluated on the standard of our "telos." But it is a very big mistake to confuse these types of consequentialist-principles with R&D's version of deontic-principles.

The difference between "consequentialist" ethics and "deontological" ethics has NOTHING to do with the difference between "principled" ethics and a "pragmatic" ethics. A "consequentialist" ethics can hold either that "principles" are the best way to achieve good consequences, or that "pragmatism" is best. Similarly, "deontological" ethics generally define particular types of behavior as intrinsically good, and these types of behavior can be called "principles," but a "deontological" view could just as well hold that acting in a stream-of-consciousness "pragmatism" is intrinsically valuable. So "deontology" in no way implies "principles," and "principles" in no way imply "deontology."

Opposed to "deontology" is "consequentialism." I feel it is a mistake to permit "consequentialism" to be conflated with "utilitarianism," as the root of the former implies only a concern with "consequences," not necessarily a concern with "utilitarian consequences." Further, the term "consequentialism" serves to distinguish all teleological ethical theories, such as utilitarianism and egoism, from all deontological ethical theories, such as Kantianism and some forms of Christianity. The reason I want to maintain both the terms "teleological" and "consequentialist" in relation to ethical egoism, is that the former emphasizes the *end* of ethics, while the later emphasizes the *means* to advancing that end. In different contexts we want to stress either ends or means.


Last night I realized that during this discussion I've been equating Rand's ethics with David Kelley and Will Thomas's "survivalist" interpretation of Objectivism. However, others have taken a "flourishing" view of her ethics, taking "man qua man" to imply that life per se is not the "telos" of ethics, but rather life "proper to human beings" as something beyond "survival."

Even the flourishers, however, need not take a deontological turn. I see yet another division in Objectivist ethical interpretation within the "flourishing" camp, the division between those who hold a "happy life" to be the standard of ethics, and those who hold that some sort of deontologically-principled life is the standard. This first group is entirely consequentialist, while the later is explicitly deontological.

It is the later camp of "flourishers" to which Chris Cathcart, Lance Neustaeter, and R&D belong. R&D provide a good summary of this view:

Since we need to conceptualize principles for successful living (flourishing), it is important to understand the general nature of these principles, or at least the ones most properly associated with ethics. The principles we have designated as ends in themselves are also known as 'virtues.' These principles or virtues share a characteristic which transcends the usual consequentialist/ deontological way of considering rules: actions which instantiate the principles not only contribute to the achievement of our natural end (consequentialism), but the very performance of the action is itself what constitutes our natural end (deontologism). Aristotle was clear that eudaimonia was an *activity*. (59)

I will soon deal with R&D's contention that their version of "flourishing" in some way "transcends" the consequentialist/ deontological dichotomy. Here the important point to note is that some actions indeed have a deontological bent; they are not justified in relation to the ends the acts achieve. The "survivalists," those "flourishers" who look to "happiness and life," and those of us who adopt a pure-happiness standard, reject entirely the deontological take on ethics as presented by R&D, Cathcart, and Neustaeter.

The "survivalists" have at least taken up the project of *proving* the legitimacy of their stated moral end. We who take "happiness" as the standard also have constructed (or at least attempted to construct) a proof which demonstrates "happiness" to be the appropriate standard. The deontologists, however, have never to my knowledge sustained a justification of their deontic system. They've argued around the issue a great deal, to be sure, but I've never seen a clear attempted proof that deontology is *correct*. R&D describe an Aristotelian view of "flourishing," but WHY should I accept this model of life? "Survivalists" rest their arguments on the (purported) fact that life is the fundamental alternative; "happiness ethicists" rest their arguments on the (purported) fact that happiness is experienced as intrinsically valuable. On what foundation do the deontological arguments rest?


Lance writes:

Ari says that it makes a lot of sense to him to view "consequentialist" and "deontological" as a fundamental dichotomy of ethical theories. In his post, Ari did not use the term dichotomy, he used "division", but I've paraphrased it with "dichotomy" to underscore my point: One must always be suspicious of dichotomies, because they are often assumed to be exhaustive when they often are not--pigeon-holing our thinking and making it just that much more difficult to "step outside the box."

I generally agree with Lance's sentiment, that we should be suspicious of "dichotomies." (And I do believe I previously used the term "dichotomy" in relation to the consequentialist/deontological rift.) However, I would add that we should also be suspicious of attempted "transcendencies," which after all may be false. For instance, Marx's dialectical socialism didn't pan out so well.

Those who have read previous posts from me know that I'm a big supporter of Chris Sciabarra's thesis on dialectics as it pertains to Rand and theorizing generally. However, I would here point out that "dialectics" requires us to see the legitimate differences in the world as much as it requires us to see past false alternatives. Dialectics views the world neither as atomistic nor as a universal whole, but rather as a relationship of distinct entities and phenomenon. Indeed, the concept "dialectics" itself affirms the legitimacy of *some* "dichotomies," for it differentiates itself from a number of other views which it must view as inferior, such as atomism, dualism, and monism.

The gulf between "consequentialist" and "deontological" ethical theories must forever remain unbridged, in my view. They describe two fundamentally different and irreconcilable approaches to ethical theory. The first holds that the purpose of action is to achieve some existential end (by which I mean, some state of existence, such as "life" or "happiness.") The second holds that action should have no purpose whatsoever, but rather that some actions have intrinsic value, and/or some actions have intrinsic dis-value.

Chris described a way in which it can make sense to say that virtuous action can be done both for its own sake *and* for the sake of eudaemonia: if it is the case that virtue can be constitutive of eudaemonia itself.

But, like I said before, Chris and R&D are just *assuming* that "eudaemonia* consists of following deontic principles of action. I grant that such a view can be coherently presented, though I don't see how it can be justified. However, this does not "transcend" the "consequentialist/ deontological dichotomy," as R&D, Chris, and Lance seem to think.

Basically, the deontological view tries to offer as a "telos" something like, "A state of living in which the actor does X," where X represents some type of action which is supposed to be deontologically justified.

I grant that this is a clever way of trying to deal with the problem, but the approach ultimately fails. Still we have to answer the question, WHY should X consist of deontological actions, rather than consequentialist ones? The deontologists don't "transcend" the dichotomy, but rather merely bury it under a thin "teleological" guise.

Consider that Kant's deontological ethics, too, could be construed to be "teleological" in the R&D sense. A Kantian could say merely, "My ethical telos is a life in which the actor acts according to the Categorical Imperative." So Kant's ethics "transcends" the dichotomy? Of course not, and the same reasons that Kant's ethical system fails are the reasons that the Objectivist- deontological ethical system fails.


Lance argues that we must not "reify life," but rather must see how life actually takes place.

Since life is self-referential, most of the actions we view as contributing toward life are actually (and also) the phenomenon of life itself. Why does a bacteria metabolize? In order to live. But "to live" is partly *constituted* by "metabolizing". Metabolizing is not *merely* instrumental to achieving some state called "life"--it is a part of life itself... When this is understood, it makes more sense to describe rationality not as *merely* instrumental to a human being's life, but partly constitutive of human life.

But this is disanalogous. Metabolizing really is a part of the process of life, whereas rationality is not necessarily so. A human can be alive without being rational (though not generally for very long). Further, metabolizing is not open to conscious control, whereas our level of rationality is. Anything which is open to our conscious control cannot be automatically taken as good, but rather must be justified as good. The only way we can justify being consistently rational, in my view, is to posit some "telos," such as life or happiness, and then explain how rationality advances this good. Similarly, getting back to the original discussion on rights, rights must be justified solely in reference to how they advance the "telos" (the telos free from snuck in deontological standards).

Finally, Lance suggests that "rights" are partially justified by certain psychological facts, such as the fact that respecting rights leads to self-esteem. I agree with this, and also I mentioned how respecting rights maintains "psychological visibility" (as described by Branden) with others.

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