Friday, March 25, 2011

My values are objective because they are mine

To: John J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: My values are objective because they are mine
Date: 30 May 2001 17:51

Dear John,

Thank you for your e-mail of 19 May, with your third essay for the Moral Philosophy program in response to the question, '"My values are objective because they are mine" - Is that all there is to the objectivity of values?'

This is good. In just a few short paragraphs, you manage to pack a surprising amount in. Your essay is longer than it looks!

The idea that a value is objective ‘because it is mine’ seems at first a complete inversion of what we mean by a 'value'. Setting aside for the moment Ayn Rand's question, 'to whom and for what?' (with which I agree) the default position, the position which we start from, is that the values I hold arise from objects which, in your words, I *find* of value. In other words, it is because an object has value that I value it. The value in the object is 'found', discovered, not created or invented.

However, the question still arises whether we are describing the *metaphysics* of value perception, of value awareness, or only the *phenomenology*. By 'phenomenology' I mean, what it 'feels' like to be confronted with something which one takes to be of value. To say that this is how value judgement must appear to us leaves open the question what exactly there is in reality that corresponds to this appearance.

If the only acceptable notion of 'objective' entails that values are metaphysical objects or properties which demand recognition then we shall need a metaphysics which will account for the *existence conditions* for values. Something like Plato's Theory of Forms. I take it, however, that you do not want to defend Plato's theory. Of course, Plato would be the first to admit that not every sentient being is equipped to perceive values, but only those who have developed the requisite intellectual refinement and sensitivity (defined otherwise than simply the disposition to recognize the particular value in question!)

Hence my alternative proposal. 'My values are objective' has to be understood dialectically, as a negative, rather than a positive thesis. The only question I can raise about values is one that I myself am in a position to answer, or at least seek an answer, in terms of the meaningful articulations that I discover in my world. The imaginary ‘view from nowhere’ is a view from which values necessarily remain invisible. A world painted a 'uniform shade of grey'.

What right do I have to use the term 'objective' in this way? If I call a nectarine a 'peach' then my thinking that it is a peach does not make it so. A nectarine is not a nectarine 'for' this or that person. It just is, or is not a nectarine. It either fulfils, or fails to fulfil, the botanical criteria for this particular type of fruit. But values are not like this. The criteria for value judgements may be real enough to those who confidently make those judgements, but they escape every attempt at definition.

As I note in the program, I can be wrong in a particular value judgement that I make. The quote does not say, 'My value judgements are true because they are mine.' Indeed I would go further and say that I can be wrong in the reasons I appeal to in making a particular value judgement, true or false. However, the possibility of being right or wrong, judging truly or falsely, is available to me, it is one that I can recognize.

It is interesting that in your final paragraph, you effectively concede that all judgements are afflicted by subjectivity, leading to the conclusion that factual and value judgements are ultimately in the same boat! My view is less extreme. I would defend the view that there is an important difference between judgements of fact and judgements of value, while claiming that they are both ‘objective’. That's what makes the task of defending the objectivity of values so challenging.

All the best,

Geoffrey