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Theories of Value investigate how people positively and negatively value things and concepts, the reasons they use in making their evaluations and the scope of a legitimate evaluation across the social world. As a related issue, theories of goodness inquire into what sorts of things are good, and what the word "good" really means in the abstract.
Many people believe that value theory is the most important area of philosophy. All religions and most philosophical movements have been concerned with it to some degree. It can define "good" and "bad" for a community or society. It affects everyone's life, and maybe all life on Earth, in the way people organize themselves in societies, and even how they think.
Moreover, goodness and value theory affect political economy, which sets relative valuations on factors of production. When governments decide what is good and bad, it affects all manner of policies, such as tax cuts and raises, increased and decreased regulations, the provision and elimination of subsidies, etc.
- 1 Descriptive, meta-ethical, and normative fields
- 2 Types of the good
- 2.1 Moral, natural, and economic goods
- 2.2 Intrinsic and instrumental goods
- 2.3 Contributory, intrinsic, and inherent goods
- 2.4 Non-western conceptions
- 2.5 Kant: hypothetical and categorical goods
- 3 Meta-ethical foundations
- 4 Theories of the good
- 4.1 Goodness as an objective property
- 4.2 Goodness as subjective/evaluative
- 4.3 Ways to resolve collective vs. individual value
- 4.4 Choice optimization theory
- 4.5 Conceptual metaphor theorists
- 5 Objects of the good
- 6 Meta-ethics and inherent values
- 7 Skeptical worries
- 8 See also
Descriptive, meta-ethical, and normative fields
Values play an important part in everyday life; everyone has their own set of beliefs about what is and isn't good or valuable. This article also involves the philosophical and academic approach in the fields of ethics and aesthetics, in which these beliefs are not only carefully catalogued and described but also rigorously analyzed and judged. These descriptive and normative approaches are usually complementary. For example, tracking the acceptance of slavery across cultures is the work of descriptive ethics, while prescribing that slavery be avoided is normative.
Meta-ethics is the study of the fundamental questions concerning the nature and origins of the good and the just, as opposed to describing how others see the good, or of asserting what is good.
Types of the good
Moral, natural, and economic goods
There is a difference between moral and natural goods. Moral goods are those that have to do with the conduct of persons, usually involving praise or blame. Natural goods, on the other hand, have to do with objects, not persons. For example, to say that "Mary's a morally good person" might have a different sense of good in the sentence "A banana split is good".
Ethics tends to be more interested in moral goods than natural goods, and economics tends to be more interested in the reverse. However, both moral and natural goods are equally interesting to goodness and value theory.
Sometimes, moral and natural goods can conflict. The value of natural "goods" is challenged by such issues as addiction.
The issue of addiction also brings up the distinction between economic and moral goods, where an economic good is whatever stimulates economic growth. For instance, some claim that cigarettes are a "good" in the economic sense, as their production can employ tobacco growers and doctors who treat lung cancer. Many people would agree that cigarette smoking is not morally "good", nor naturally "good", but still recognize that it is economically good, which means, it has exchange value, even though it have a negative public good or even be bad for a person's body (not the same as "bad for the person" necessarily - consider the issue of suicide).
"goods in" versus "goods to"
The economic view emphasizes that what is sought in the marketplace, bid for, must be good, and is inherently trusting of the consumer's perspective to recognize that good. In this view, religious or political struggle over what "goods" are available in the marketplace is inevitable, and consensus on some core questions about body and society and ecosystems affected by the transaction, are outside the market's goods.
Most philosophers that think goods have to create desirable mental states also say that goods are experiences of self-aware beings. These philosophers often distinguish the experience, which thay call an intrinsic good, from the things that seem to cause the experience, which they call "inherent" goods. Failing to distinguish the two leads to a subject-object problem in which it is not clear who is evaluating what object.
One useful distinction is: inherently serviced and material goods in the marketplace versus perceived intrinsic and experiential goods to the buyer. A strict service economy model takes pains to distinguish these types of delivery: that of the goods and service guarantees to the market, and that of the service and experience to the consumer. Both however may marginalize the role of the producer - see labor below.
Intrinsic and instrumental goods
Many people find it useful to distinguish instrumental and intrinsic goods, first discussed by Plato in the "Republic". An instrumental good is worth having as a means towards getting something else that is good (e.g., a radio is instrumentally good in order to hear music). And an intrinsically good thing is worth having for itself, even if it doesn't help one get anything else that's good (e.g., the sound of good music).
But these are not mutually exclusive categories. Some things are both good in themselves, and also good for getting other things that are good. "Understanding science" may be such a good, being both worthwhile in and of itself, and as a means of achieving other goods, such as producing technology.
Since instrumental goods are always tied to other goods, it may be said (for instance, in deontological ethics) that the values by which one lives must ultimately be intrinsic. For example, most people pursue the goal of making money so that they can afford what they call "the finer things in life", and since people dedicate their lives to achieving these things, it might be said they hold some kind of intrinsic value. However, some, including hedonists, claim that there is only one thing that is an "intrinsic good": pleasure. And others, like skeptics and ethical nihilists, doubt whether there are any intrinsic goods at all.
Contributory, intrinsic, and inherent goods
Another improvement is to distinguish contributory goods. These have the same qualities as the good thing, but need some emergent property of a whole state-of-affairs in order to be good. For example, salt is food on its own, and good as such, but is far better as part of a prepared meal.
Those philosophers that think goods have to create desirable mental states also say that goods are experiences of self-aware beings. These philosophers often distinguish the experience, which they call an intrinsic good, from the things that seem to cause the experience, which they call "inherent" goods.
In this view, often justified with reference to biology and the observation that living things compete more with their own kind than with other kinds, the flourishing of society is not, or not the only, intrinsically good thing. It's the flourishing of all sentient life - say to some level of similarity to ourselves such as Great Ape personhood. Or perhaps all life, period. One achieves peace and agreement by focusing not on one's peers who may be rivals or competitors, but on the common environment:
The qualifier "radical" means "justified from fundamentals". The Jain religion held such a view since very early times, and Buddhism was radically influenced by this sort of thought. Mohandas Gandhi, a Jain who reformed Hinduism in the 20th century, was probably the most famous advocate of this point of view. There is a strong thread of localism ("where you are is good") and systems thinking in his work that was extended by the ethicist Carol Moore.
Unity vs. free time
Many Asian views value unity as a good: to go beyond eudiamonia (see below) by saying that an individual person's flourishing is valuable only as a means to the flourishing of society as a whole. In other words, a single person's life is, ultimately, not important or worthwhile in itself, but is good only as a means to the success of society as a whole. Some elements of Confucianism are an example of this, encouraging the view that people ought to conform as individuals to demands of a peaceful and ordered society. The Notwithstanding Clause of the Canadian Constitution echoes this concern by permitting individual rights to be subordinated to society under strict conditions.
Amartya Sen summarized these as an ancient question, "How then should we live?" In his Development as Freedom he asserted free time as the most fundamental good and systems of organizing which enabled it as the most fundamental value in civilization. He refuted the common claim that Asian value theorists had devalued freedom and was clear that a marketplace (creating unity via pricing) valuing free time could be created.
Marilyn Waring took a similar view from a feminist perspective, arguing women's time was undervalued and especially the free time they used to raise and teach children. Waring also strongly denied that military hardware or activities were of any value, and attempted to reconcile peace or welfare views of good with the ecological values:
Radical values environmentalism
Radical values environmentalism can be seen as either a very old or a very new view: that the only intrinsically good thing is a flourishing ecosystem; individuals and societies are merely instrumentally valuable, good only as means to having a flourishing ecosystem. The Gaia philosophy is the most detailed expression of this overall thought but it strongly influenced Deep Ecology and the modern Green Parties. More scientific theories and the ecological concept of objects of the good are dealt with below.
It is often claimed that aboriginal peoples never lost this sort of view - anthropological linguistics studies links between their languages and the ecosystems in which they lived and which gave rise to their knowledge distinctions. Very often, environmental cognition and moral cognition were not distinguished in these languages - offenses to nature were like those to other people, and Animism reinforced this by giving nature "personality" via myth. Anthropological theories of value explore these questions.
Small is beautiful
Most people in the world reject such older situated ethics and localized religious views. However small-community-based and ecology-centric views become popular now? In part it is a seeking of certainty. Such a deeply-rooted definition of goodness would be valuable because it might allow one to construct a good life or society by reliable processes of deduction, elaboration or prioritisation. Ones that relied only on local referents one could verify for oneself, creating more certainty and therefore less investment in protection, hedging and insuring against consequences of loss of the value.
The roots of modern Western concepts of value are rooted in The Enlightenment:
Kant: hypothetical and categorical goods
The thinking of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) greatly influenced moral philosophy. He thought of moral value as a unique and universally identifiable property. He showed that many practical goods are good only in states-of-affairs described by a sentence containing an "if" clause. Further, the "if" clause often described the category in which the judgment was made (art, science, etc.). Kant described these as "hypothetical goods" and tried to find a "categorical" good that would operate across all categories of judgment.
An influential result of Kant's search was the idea of a good will as being the only good in itself. Famously, this argument was used by Albert Einstein in his writings on the need for humanitarian (rather than military) development.
Moreover, Kant saw a good will as acting in accordance with a moral command, the "Categorical Imperative": "Act according to those maxims that you could will to be universal law." From this, and a few other axioms, Kant developed a moral system that would apply to any "praiseworthy person." (See Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, third section, -.)
Kantian philosophers believe that any general definition of goodness must define goods that are categorical in the sense that Kant intended.
Yet it can be objected that hypothetical imperatives sometimes outweigh Categorical imperatives, and intrinsic goods can be outweighed by instrumental goods. If so, then it is difficult to see how these categories can aid in making judgments, or provide guidance to life.
Moral cognitivists assert that statements of value stand for beliefs that can be categorized as true or false.
Consider the statement, "Athens, Greece is an older city than Athens, Georgia." Although one might quibble about continuity, the identity of a city over time, most people would probably say that this statement is meaningful and true. It is not, though, a statement of value, because there is no necessary connection between age and goodness, beauty, etc.
Consider the statement, "Committing a murder is worse than telling a lie."
One could quarrel, again, with the terms, asserting that either of the two terms being compared is ambiguous. Still, most people outside of a philosophy class would probably agree that, all things being equal, this statement is meaningful and true. They would agree, in essence, with moral cognitivism.
Notice also that moral cognitivism doesn't imply (although it would be consistent with) moral absolutism, which is the view that there is always and only one valid framework for moral judgment.
Non-cognitivism is the meta-ethic that asserts that values and the good are merely attitudes, not beliefs which can be logically analyzed in terms of truth and falsity.
Some philosophers considered goodness as a special property that is not empirically verifiable, like "redness". For example, G.E. Moore blamed the sense that morality was a verifiable thing on what he called the "naturalistic fallacy". He believed that people had a nonphysical intuition that could sense goodness, which was then falsely projected onto things and fallaciously treated as a natural property.
One variety of non-cognitivism is called Emotivism. According to this theory, the expressions of "good" and "bad" are simply expressions of attitudes, akin to booing and cheering. It was thought by emotivists that to call something "wrong", or "good", was either to express disapproval or approval.
Gilbert Harman, writing in the tradition of use theory of language, gives an account of the meaning of moral statements that is neither absolutist nor non-cognitive. He offers the notion that moral statements about right, wrong, good, and bad have to do with the hypothetical projection of personal evaluations on the world, yet pretend to be absolute for rhetorical purposes. He calls this account a form of quasi-absolutism. In this manner, these statements can be treated as true or false in the abstract, but are not actual properties of the world. On such grounds, moral deliberation and argument can be pursued fruitfully.
Theories of the good
A correct definition of goodness would be valuable because it might allow one to construct a good life or society by reliable processes of deduction, elaboration or prioritisation. One could answer the ancient question, "How then should we live?", among many other important questions.
Goodness as an objective property
One attempt to define goodness describes it as a property of the world. According to this perspective, to talk about a good is to talk about something within the object itself. Plato was one advocate of this view.
Many people support the idea that God(s) created the universe. Such persons may, therefore, claim that the universe has a purpose and value according to the will of such a creator, and which lies beyond human understanding.
One spiritual, transcendental viewpoint is that of Taoism, the ancient Chinese philosophy which advocated quietism and conformity to the Way, or Tao: "The Tao is the natural order of things. It is a force that flows through every living or sentient object, as well as through the entire universe".
When questions of the nature of value are answered with "God", this is called "summum bonum".
A common and useful tactic in analyzing "goodness" is trying to divide the concept into smaller, more understandable concepts. It has been thought that if some conception of goodness were divided, or causally regressed far enough, the process would eventually come to a logical stopping place, an "ultimate good".
Many philosophers tried to end the regressions by applying an auxiliary evaluation that puts an end to further decomposition. For example, Aristotle considered "The supreme element of happiness" to be theoretical study, because it "ruled all others." (Nicomachean Ethics, 1177a15) In this case, supremity was the auxiliary evaluation that could be doubted. He also supported the ancient Greek view which said that it was not happiness alone which was intrinsically good; it was, instead, a certain kind of happiness called eudaimonia, which roughly translated means "flourishing" or "well-being". Eudaimonia is more than simply pleasure; it is a happy life that is well-lived.
Also, for Aristotle, happiness is a subjective state, while eudaimonia is an objective state, literally meaning something like "having a good spirit."
Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) approached the problem by asserting that everything sensed was an effect, with an earlier cause. Each immediate (proximal) cause was less diluted in goodness, and therefore, the first cause would have to be perfectly good. In this case, the concept of dilution might be doubted as an inaccurate metaphor, or that the dilution necessarily scales back to perfection (maybe the first cause was very good, instead of perfect).
However, since this argument has not been demonstrated, one might doubt whether or not the causal regression ends, let alone whether it still avoids circularity.
Indeed, all known forms of such regressions are open to charges of circularity by skeptics. Attempts to translate, divide or causally analyze the concept of goodness are accused of failing in a particular way. Every attempt seems to end up with one or more subconcepts prefixed with the word "good", or uses related words like "pleasure", "dutiful", "praiseworthy", or "virtuous". To skeptics, such definitions appear circular, and therefore are believed invalid.
Right versus right
To avoid circularity, the global ethics of Rushworth Kidder states the explicit role of the ethicist as being the sorting out of right versus right so as to make an ethical decision, one that is situated (fit for the place), situational (fit for the context), and fair (preserves an ethical relationship). Even if a given decision later turns out to be self-serving, the fact that rights were explicitly ordered and duties undertaken, causes continuous improvement in the ethicist, those subject to the decision, and the definition of the rights themselves. A Supreme Court for instance sorts out rights in just this way, creating careful rationales of their balance and recording even the minority opinion for later reference. Similar systems are almost universal in any system of law and in some cases certain values or rights are said explicitly to outrank or override others (in specific cases, or in general).
Objective theory of welfare
The idea that the ultimate good exists and is not orderable but is globally measurable is reflected in various ways in classical economics, green economics, welfare economics and the Gross National Happiness and measuring well-being theories, all of which focus on various ways of assessing progress towards that goal, a so-called Genuine Progress Indicator. Modern economics thus reflects very ancient philosophy, but a calculation or quantitative or other process based on cardinality and statistics replaces the simple ordering of values.
The idea that some combination of ordering, measuring, calculating, trading off value, and so on, relying on symbolic constructs in mathematics and natural language, perhaps even software, is uncommon but does exist. Usually it is relying on various assumptions about cognition, perhaps even assuming an innate moral cognition, e.g. E. O. Wilson's notion of biophilia, Baruch Spinoza's or Hillel's or Gandhi's assertions that everyone had the capacity to determine and to do good, with sufficient discipline and training, and that this was not a divine gift or talent.
Gandhi, however, stated near the end of his life that he had seen "no progress" towards this ideal in his lifetime, despite being directly involved in many struggles to express mass or collective will to do what the mass or collective perceived as good, using all sorts of rationales and sharing all sorts of cognitions and perceptions. Accepting the perfectionism perspective might thus seem to be directly picking a fight with Gandhi or claiming to be wiser than he. Such claims have not been popular among modern pessimists.
Some techno-optimists, especially transhumanists, avow a form of perfectionism in which the capacity to determine good and trade off fundamental values, is expressed not by humans but by software, genetic engineering of humans, artificial intelligence. Skeptics assert that rather than perfect goodness, it would be only the appearance of perfect goodness, reinforced by persuasion technology and probably brute force of violent technological escalation, which would cause people to accept such rulers or rules authored by them.
Problems with definitions using properties
The transhumanist introduction of non-human perspective helps illustrate another issue: The traits or properties that would justify calling a thing good are different for the different categories of judgment. For example, the criteria by which we (humans) judge art to be good are different from those by which we judge people (mostly humans though not always in some definitions) to be good. But it is difficult to see what the common property of all these things are in terms of what actually exists in the world. Or, stated more properly, what we humans can agree actually exists for all of us.
Many judgments of goodness translate to prices, and prices tend to have some stability across people in a given market context with assumptions (as noted above in comparing economic vs. moral goods). But this appears to be a summary or effect of judgment, not a cause.
Moreover, if it is a property, it is not one that all people necessarily grasp. For instance, a piece of art found in an attic may be sold for the price of a meal. A collector may then recognise it as a lost work of a famous artist and sell it for more than the price of a house. The price changed because the collector had better judgment than the owner who kept it in an attic.
And still, if goodness were a common trait or property, we should be able to abstract it, but no one has succeeded.
Of course, one needn't conclude that something is impossible just because it hasn't been accomplished. Perhaps philosophers just haven't stumbled across the right definition.
Or perhaps some have. Robert S. Hartman, for example, claims he has. He maintains that "good" is a second-order property, a quantifier of qualities. For Hartman, to call a thing good is to contend that it possesses all of the qualities that are required in order for it to fit a certain meaning. See Science of Value.
Goodness as subjective/evaluative
It is difficult to figure out where an immaterial trait such as "goodness" could reside in the world. A counterproposal is to locate values inside people. Some philosophers go so far as to say that if some state of affairs does not tend to arouse a desirable subjective state in self-aware beings, then it cannot be good.
Shortcomings of evaluative theories
Evaluative theorists may say that to answer the question "What things are intrinsically good?" we need only answer "What do I or we think is good?"
There are, however, problems with this approach.
Firstly, people can be wrong about what is good for them. For instance, a deranged man may be convinced that stabbing a fork in their eye is a good idea, but discovers otherwise after the fact. Or, more seriously, a child may not see the danger in crossing the road without looking first, but even in her state of ignorance may believe that crossing the road is a good idea.
Secondly, it can be objected that evaluative theories open the door to a total relativity of values, or ethical relativism. This would make it impossible for any moral laws or norms to exist in an absolute sense except through arbitrary and unstable mutual agreements.
Thirdly, on the surface of it, evaluative theories seem to lean toward subjectivism, or the idea that the individual is the judge and arbiter of values. Yet subjectivism does not account for the fact that often people in cultures agree about their values. This has spawned the view of conventionalism, which poses a challenge to subjectivism.
These two theories are at loggerheads, yet any theorist that seeks to explain values and goodness in terms of evaluations must deal with the issues of individualism and collectivism.
Collectivism versus individualism
We may want to go beyond eudamonia by saying that an individual person's flourishing is valuable only as a means to the flourishing of society as a whole. In other words, a single person's life is, ultimately, not important or worthwhile in itself, but is good only as a means to the success of society as a whole. The questions now at issue are: Is an individual's life intrinsically good, or is it merely instrumentally good? Is an individual's life, well-lived, something that is desirable for its own sake, or is it desirable, ultimately, only as a means to having a happy society?
Some cultures may want to go beyond selfishness by saying that an individual person's flourishing is valuable only as a means to the flourishing of society as a whole. In other words, a single person's life is, ultimately, not important or worthwhile in itself, but is good only as a means to the success of society as a whole. Some elements of Confucianism and Marxism are an example of this, encouraging the view that people ought to conform as individuals to the demands of a peaceful and ordered society.
The terms "values individualism" and "values collectivism" will be used to mark the dispute. Here are some definitions:
- Values individualism is the view that only individual lives are intrinsically valuable, and thus are valuable not merely as a means to the flourishing of society. This view is most allied with species of egoistic ethical philosophies.
- Values collectivism is the view that individual lives are only instrumentally valuable; that is, they are good only as a means of bringing about the flourishing of society, which is the only intrinsically good thing. This view is most allied with altruistic ethical philosophies.
The values-ethicist is then faced with the problem of how to choose, and on what basis, between values collectivism and values individualism.
The view that all life has intrinsic value is reminiscent of the philosophy of Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel rejected individualism as expressed for example in both the American and the French revolutions. Individualism, he felt, runs directly contrary to the nature of humanity and reality, since the individual has value and reality only as a part of a greater and unified whole. Humans, for instance, live only as part of a living planet Earth.
Ways to resolve collective vs. individual value
Most ethical decision models focus on sorting our collective vs. individual value in a given transaction, to identify externalities, intangibles and so on. Some of the major theories of justice rely on drawing clear lines in this regard, e.g. the restorative justice model requires explicitly stating the collective values lost and on regaining them, e.g. social unity and forgiveness - even "social capital". In all such models the collective must have a value system, or it would not intervene at all and certainly would not enforce decisions by violence (such as a court or legal system).
Since most goods are shared or require other synergies to be fully enjoyed, we should distinguish contributory goods. These have the same qualities as the good thing, but need some emergent property of a whole state-of-affairs in order to be good. For example salt is food, but is usually good only as part of a prepared meal. Providing a good outside this context is not delivery of what was expected. Other exampless come from music and language.
Most philosophers that think goods have to create desirable mental states also say that goods are experiences of self-aware beings. These philosophers often distinguish the experience, which thay call an intrinsic good, from the things that seem to cause the experience, which they call "inherent" goods. As per market distinction as above.
If one lacks a good economic model or political economy with which to trade off the rights of beings, another way to resolve the issue is to focus on empathy—the ability of a being to feel another's pain—which leads to helping behavior. People tend to value the lives of gorillas more than those of mosquitos because the gorilla lives and feels, making it easier to empathize with them. This idea is carried forward in the ethical relationship view and has given rise to the animal rights movement and parts of the peace movement.
This is compatible with Enlightenment views, including David Hume's stances that the idea of a self with unique identity is illusory, and that morality ultimately comes down to sympathy and fellow feeling for others, or the exercise of approval underlying moral judgements.
In some theories there is no higher collective value than that of maximizing pleasure for the individual. Some have even defined goodness and that which is intrinsically valuable as the experience of pleasure, and the bad as the experience of pain. This view is called Hedonism, a monistic theory of value. It has two main varieties: simple, and Epicurean.
Simple hedonism is the view that physical pleasure is the ultimate good. However, the ancient philosopher Epicurus used the word 'pleasure' in a more general sense which encompassed a range of states from bliss to contentment to relief. Contrary to popular caricature, he valued pleasures of the mind to bodily pleasures, and advocated moderation as the surest path to happiness.
One of the benefits of tracing good to pleasure and pain is that both things seem to be easily understandable, both in oneself and to an extent in others.
Possible objections to hedonism
There are potential problems with identifying goodness as pleasure.
Some deontological theorists allege that it is strange to say that carrying out one's duty (which they hold is obviously good) has anything to do with pleasure. In reply, Epicureans defend the doctrine of psychological hedonism, responding that all action proceeds from some sense of gratification.
Also, the sense of achievement following completion of one's work is rarely considered pleasure in the physical sense of the word. The Epicurean view of pleasure, however, considers it to be pleasurable.
Necessarily accompanying hedonism is the consideration of consequences. For example, visiting a dentist may cause some pain in the present while avoiding even more in the future. However, for the intuitions of many deontologists, consequentialism is strained when considering duty: following the order of a good rule, for example, involves no reflection on consequences at all, but rather involves immediate action. Epicureans reply that carrying out an action is different from recognizing its goodness, and that the latter necessarily involves thinking about pleasure and pain.
Much like the definitions of the good discussed above, situations producing happiness or pleasure are different in different categories of action. What is good in one situation is bad in another. These differences need to be explained.
Furthermore, the conditions and consequences of pleasure, or pain, can seem to be either good or bad, and thus seemingly undermine intuitions about that pleasure or pain. A sadist, for example, may enjoy torturing children, and gain pleasure from it, but surely this action is bad. The hedonist responds by pointing out that the principle holds even in this counterexample: the suffering of the child makes the act bad.
Neither happiness nor pleasure has been conceptually divided in a way that permits deductive choices of real-world alternatives. However, the Epicurean replies, this is an issue for most (if not all) theories of the good.
So imagine that the only intrinsically good things in the world are good pleasures. But this would be a circular account of "good". For, if one were to say that good things are good pleasures, then they would be using the word "good" to define itself.
Alternatively, one might try to find out which pleasures will result in the most other pleasures. Call them "optimal pleasures". Then, one could call optimal pleasures "intrinsically good" and then say: "the only intrinsically good things in the world are good pleasures." That would avoid the circularity problem.
But this, perhaps, is flawed. Imagine a nation of sadists. The public torture of one person in such a nation may produce more pleasure than any other event, since everyone's horrible urges would be satisfied. But many people would say that such an action would be bad. The hedonist might agree that the action is bad because of the avoidable pain of the person suffering, and in spite of the happiness generated by the people. This is seemingly paradoxical. However, the hedonist can continue to hold their position via one of at least two routes: they may weight the avoidance of pain above the pursuit of pleasure, and they may point out that the lives of those who have to live in a sadistic society are a hidden social consequence.
Pragmatism and intrinsic goodness
John Dewey (1859-1952) in his book Theory of Valuation saw goodness as the outcome of "valuation", a continuous balancing of "ends in view". An end in view was said to be an objective potentially adopted, which refined or rejected based on its consistency with other objectives or as a means to objectives already held.
His empirical approach did not accept intrinsic value as an inherent or enduring property of things. He saw it as an illusory product of our continuous valuing activity as purposive beings. When held across only some contexts, Dewey held that goods are only intrinsic to a situation. When across all contexts, goodness is best understood as instrumental, with no contrasting intrinsic goodness.
Dewey's formulation asserts, among others things, that:
- What is good cannot be defined in abstraction from situations and our experience of them.
- There seems to be no enduring thing which can be said to be absolutely good in itself.
- An inductive, empirical based investigation of goodness as the outcome of situations of valuation activity would be a more productive approach.
Some philosophers have criticized theories of the pragmatic sort by distinguishing between "what is" and "what should be". They claim that there is an unsurmountable gap between facts and values, the "fact-value distinction". The clearest proponent of this viewpoint was David Hume in A Treatise of Human Nature, who famously questioned the move from statements about facts to statements about what ought to be.
Choice optimization theory
One more recent philosophical idea being passed around is defining Good as "That which increases the quality and quantity of choices available overall."
This maxim might be countered by the phenomenon of opportunity costs observed by social scientists. Opportunity cost is when people who are confronted with a greater number of choices also experience greater dismay at their choices after the fact, because of the missed opportunities.
Conceptual metaphor theorists
Conceptual metaphor theories argue against both subjective and objective conceptions of value and meaning, and focus on the relationships between body and other essential elements of human life. In effect, conceptual metaphor theories treat ethics as an ontology problem and the issue of how to work-out values as a negotiation of these metaphors, not the application of some abstraction or a strict standoff between parties who have no way to understand each other's views.
Objects of the good
Aside from the process values of unity, harmony, maximizing choices, and the implied objects of satisfaction and survival and lack of conflict and labour specialization, there are various views of how body, safety, fairness, closure, family and homes or habitats or ecosystems must necessarily become objects of the good in themselves, so as to achieve a good or valued life. These are not necessarily always best approached by a Western axiomatic or logical approach, but often by constraint or trading based theories.
As living beings, it is clearly and objectively good that we are surrounded by an ecosystem that supports life. Indeed, if we weren't, we couldn't even recognize that or discuss it. The anthropic principle in cosmology recognizes this view.
Under materialism or even embodiment values, or in any system that recognizes the validity of ecology as a scientific study of limits and potentials, an ecosystem is a fundamental good. To all who investigative, it seems that goodness, or value, exists within an ecosystem, Earth. Creatures within that ecosystem and wholly dependent on it, evaluate good relative to what else could be achieved there. In other words, good is situated in a particular place and one does not dismiss everything that is not available there (such as very low gravity or absolutely abundant sugar candy) as "not good enough", one works within its constraints. Transcending them and learning to be satisfied with them, is thus another sort of value, perhaps called satisfaction, or in Buddhism enlightenment.
Values and the people that hold them seem necessarily subordinate to the ecosystem. If this is so, then what kind of being could validly apply the word "good" to an ecosystem as a whole? Who would have the power to assess and judge an ecosystem as good or bad? By what criteria? And by what criteria would ecosystems be modified, especially larger ones such as the atmosphere (climate change) or oceans (extinction) or forests (deforestation)? For discussion see debates on monoculture and permaculture.
"Remaining on Earth" as the most basic value
While green ethicists have been most forthright about it, and have developed theories of Gaia philosophy, biophilia, bioregionalism that reflect it, the questions are now universally recognized as central in determining value, e.g. the economic "value of Earth" to humans as a whole, or the "value of life" that is neither whole-Earth nor human. Many have come to the conclusion that without assuming ecosystem continuation as a universal good, with attendant virtues like biodiversity and ecological wisdom it is impossible to justify such operational requirements as sustainability of human activity on Earth.
One response is that humans are not necessarily confined to Earth, and could use it and move on. A counter-argument is that only a tiny fraction of humans could ever do this, and those would be self-selected by ability to do technological escalation on others (for instance, the ability to create large missiles on which to flee the planet and simultaneously threaten others who sought to prevent them). Another counter-argument is that extraterrestrial life would encounter the fleeing humans and be forced to destroy them as a locust species. A third is that if there are no other worlds fit to support life (and thus no extraterrestrials competing with humans to occupy them) it is both futile to flee, and foolish to imagine that it would take less energy and skill to protect the Earth as a habitat, than it would take to construct some new habitat.
Accordingly remaining on Earth, as a living being surrounded by a working ecosystem, is a fair statement of the most basic values and goodness to any being we are able to communicate with. A moral system without this axiom seems simply not actionable.
However, all religious systems acknowledge an afterlife and improving this is seen as an even more basic good. In many other moral systems, also, remaining on Earth in a state that lacks honour or power over self is less desirable - consider seppuku in bushido, kamikazes or the role of suicide attacks in Jihadi rhetoric. In all these systems, remaining on Earth is perhaps no higher than a third-place value.
The value of plenty and scarcity
Jeremy Bentham's book The Principles of Morals and Legislation prioritized goods by considering pleasure, pain and consequences. This theory had a wide effect on public affairs, up to and including the present day. A similar system was later named Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill. More broadly, utilitarian theories are examples of Consequentialism. All utilitarian theories are based upon the maxim of utility, which states that that which is good is that which provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number. It follows from this principle that that which brings happiness to the greatest number of people, is a good.
By contrast, both in economics and in folk wisdom, the value of a thing seems to rise so long as it is relatively scarce. However, if it becomes too scarce, it leads often to a conflict, and can reduce collective value. See the separate analysis of wealth.
The value of fairness
John Rawls' book A Theory of Justice prioritized social arrangements and goods based on their contribution to justice. Rawls defined justice as fairness, especially in distributing social goods, defined fairness in terms of procedures, and attempted to prove that just institutions and lives are good, if rational individuals' goods are considered fairly. Rawls' crucial invention was the original position, a procedure in which one tries to make objective moral decisions by refusing to let personal facts about oneself enter one's moral calculations.
One problem with the approaches of Kant and Rawls is that they are overly procedural. Procedurally fair processes of the type used by Kant and Rawls may not leave enough room for judgment, and therefore, reduce the totality of goodness. For example, if two people are found to own an orange, the standard fair procedure is to cut it in two and give half to each. However, if one wants to eat it while the other wants the rind to flavor a cake, cutting it in two is clearly less good than giving the peel to the baker and feeding the core to the eater.
Applying procedural fairness to an entire society therefore seems certain to create recognizable inefficiencies, and therefore be unfair, and (by the equivalence of justice with fairness) unjust.
This strikes at the very foundation of Kantian ethics, because it shows that hypothetical goods can be better than categorical goods, and therefore be more desirable, and even more just.
The value of labor
In the classical political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and in its critique by Karl Marx, human labour is seen as the ultimate source of all new economic value. This is an objective theory of value (see value theory which attributes value to real production-costs, and ultimately expenditures of human labour-time (see also law of value. It contrasts with marginal utility theory, which argues that the value of labor depends on subjective preferences by consumers, which may however also be objectively studied.
The economic value of labor may be assessed technically in terms of its use-value or utility or commercially in terms of its exchange-value, price or production cost (see also labour power. But its value may also be socially assessed in terms of its contribution to the wealth and well-being of a society.
In non-market societies, labour may be valued primarily in terms of skill, time, and output, as well as moral or social criteria and legal obligations. In market societies, labour is valued economically primarily through the labour market. The price of labour may then be set by supply and demand, by strike action or legislation, or by legal or professional entry-requirements into occupations.
The value of the old and the new
An event is often seen as being of value simply because of its novelty in fashion and art.
By contrast, cultural history and other antiques are sometimes seen as of value in and of themselves. Philosopher-historians Will and Ariel Durant spoke as much with the quote, "As the sanity of the individual lies in the continuity of his memories, so the sanity of the group lies in the continuity of its traditions; in either case a break in the chain invites a neurotic reaction" (The Lessons of History, 72).
Assessment of the value of old or historical artifacts takes into consideration, especially but not exclusively: the value placed on having a detailed knowledge of the past, the desire to have tangible ties to ancestral history, and/or the increased market value scarce items traditionally hold.
Creativity and innovation and invention are sometimes upheld as fundamentally good especially in Western industrial society - all imply newness, and even opportunity to profit from novelty. Bertrand Russell was notably pessimistic about creativity and thought that knowledge expanding faster than wisdom necessarily was fatal.
Meta-ethics and inherent values
All systems of meta-ethics emphasize closure, e.g. in the form of forgiveness or settlement, as an inherent value. Else there could be no dispute resolution and no academic could even get a paper published for lack of agreeing on the final version. Wikipedia:itself has no such inherent value and is thus not a system of values!
Values pluralism and the grading of values
There is a succession of things which can be considered as intrinsically good: from particular events of pleasure, to an individual's happiness, to an individual's eudaimonia, to the flourishing of a society, to the flourishing of an entire ecosystem. So it can be seen that there is a rather difficult problem about the scope of the theory of value.
As a values pluralist, you might say: every item in this succession of items is intrinsically good. The goodness of a particular experience, of an individual's whole life, of society, and of an ecosystem, are all worth having for their own sake, and not merely as a means to something else. So as a values pluralist one might say: "I don't have to decide which of these things is intrinsically good, because they are all intrinsically good."
That position does not seem to be amenable to the choices that people face in life. Sometimes we have a choice, for example, to sacrifice our own pleasure, or happiness, or even our own lives, for the sake of many other people. In these cases two things are weighed: your own individual happiness, and the more general happiness of a lot of other people. And if one concludes that one should sacrifice their own happiness, does that mean that the individual's happiness is of less value, or has no intrinsic value?
An example of a philosophy that faces this problem of scope is existentialism. For an existentialist, being precedes essence, and personal choices are paramount in setting values. It makes little sense to evaluate one action over another: if they are real choices then they are expressions of our being, and of our ultimate freedom. Jean-Paul Sartre faced the famous difficulty of being unable to decide whether it was better to stay at home to care for his elderly mother or to go to war in the defence of his country.
In addition to the problem of scope, there is also the problem of rank-ordering one's values, and whether or not it can be done.
W.D. Ross was an ethical philosopher who coined the notion of prima facie duties, or duties that have some weight on the surface of them (like "non-maleficence" and "beneficence"). Each duty that he listed can be understood as a value, except in the form of a command with relative weight, and which may be balanced against other considerations.
Some philosophers have suggested that values can be graded on a scale from the most important to least important. This has been called the "Constancy Assumption". By contrast, some (like Dewey) have suggested that values are relative to the context, or situation, that the actor is in.
We are left with unresolved issues: the issue of the relative importance of intrinsic values. If these things are to be ranked in order of importance, how would the ranking go? On what basis should actors choose in cases of conflict? Why is one value better than another?
Values monism and alternatives to hedonism
Monistic theories of value assert that there is exactly one intrinsic good, from which all other goods are instrumental.
The intrinsic goods that have been discussed up to now are pleasure, happiness, eudaimonia and the flourishing of a society or an ecosystem. There is a strong similarity among those four goods: for example, a flourishing individual or organism is almost always much happier than a non-flourishing one.
But any survey of candidates for the intrinsic good would be incomplete without considering goods that are essentially unrelated to pleasure, happiness, etc. The most familiar examples are religious. For example, there is a tradition in Judaism that one should obey God's laws as an end in itself, without fear of punishment or expectation of reward (now or in the afterlife). To obey God's laws might require one to value one's neighbor's flourishing, for example, but in that case the neighbor's flourishing is merely an instrumental good.
There are non-religious examples, too, such as the evolutionary ethic of John David Garcia. Garcia believed that humanity will destroy itself if happiness remains the people's ultimate goal and that the only choice of intrinsic good that can be pursued indefinitely without leading to self-destruction is creativity. This warning is not an offhand remark, but rather the central point of Garcia's thirty-year career as writer and public speaker. (It is made, for example, in the first paragraph of the preface and again in the first paragraph of the introduction of his first book.)
Note that Garcia does not hold that happiness is bad or wrong, just that when forced by circumstances to choose between happiness and creativity, one should choose creativity. Moreover, Garcia recognizes that a certain minimal level of happiness is a prerequisite to being creative; i.e., someone who never takes pleasure in anything has a big problem which will tend to outweigh all other considerations. In this situation, there is no conflict between the goals of increasing happiness and increasing creativity, as both goals are increased by solving the big problem — by pursuing treatment for depression.
The entire project of investigating the good is, to some skeptics, worrisome.
For many skeptics, the investigation into the good is not a fruitful quest. The prospect of the investigation being successful, with goodness finally analysed, satisfactorily defined, and universally agreed, is unsettling for some people. They assert that perhaps the definition could be used in a totalitarian way, or perhaps the world would lose some of its ambiguity, or there may be a loss of diversity in society and in ways of life. So the fact that some existing choices may be threatened produces the paradoxical situation that ultimate, incontrovertible knowledge of what is good may, to some people, not seem good or desirable.
Skeptics question the rise of literature that characterizes ecology as good or bad. Some green ethicists ask what the role of the ecosystem is in terms of values and the good. It seems that goodness, or value, exists within an ecosystem. In that case, values and the people that hold them seem subordinate to the ecosystem. If this is so, what kind of being could validly apply the word to an ecosystem as a whole? Who would have the power to assess and judge an ecosystem as good or bad, and by what criteria?
Similar questions can be (and have been) made concerning evaluations of deities by theists.
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