The Reality of Value

Ideas have consequences.  And not just among those who create, or study, or work with them.  The great John Maynard Keynes said that, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” In the same way, I expect that a lot of liberal, educated Americans – who spend no time exploring issues of epistemology or moral philosophy – are in the grip of some of the “scientific” philosophy that’s arisen in Western civilization over the past century.

In the grip specifically of philosophical ideas that say that values are not really real.

As a young man studying the ideas of the social sciences, I read and wrote upon Max Weber’s twin essays, “Science as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation,” wherein the great early twentieth-century social thinker declared that science is incapable of saying what we should do but can only advise about the probable consequences of one course of action or another.

Max Weber would not have felt he could declare, as a statement of truth, there was anything really wrong about a political force, such as that we see on the political right in America today, that systematically damages and destroys the structures in our society that serve the good.  That’s because the idea of “the good” lies outside of what can be scientifically known.

Similarly, the logical positivists declared statements of value to be “meaningless.” They cannot be objectively verified; they are statements of the speaker’s subjective and perhaps emotional opinion, and have no real truth value.

This is an unnecessarily cramped view of truth, and of what can be discerned from looking at the evidence and thinking rationally about what it shows.

Here’s what I think science shows about value:  value is emergent with the evolution of life.

In the beginning, there was the Big Bang and billions of years passed before even the most primitive beginnings of life appeared (at least in our corner of the universe).  For those billions of years, one cannot speak of “value.” Value is about things mattering, and that means things mattering to someone. If there’s no one for things to matter, then there can be no value.

That way of looking at value suggests how wrong-headed it is to declare value not “real” because it is not “out there.”  Value can only exist within the “in here” –i.e. within the realm of experience–  of creatures to whom things matter.

But the creation of such creatures was the inevitable outgrowth of the processes that emerged “out there,” in the evolution of life.

The first step in the differentiation of positive value from negative value is inherent in the nature of the natural selection that’s at the center of the evolution of life.  It is not, so far as can be seen scientifically, that there’s any “designer” or “creator” who is expressing a preference.  It is just inherent in the process governed by chance operating in a system in which the laws of chemistry and physics are being obeyed that the system chooses life in preference to death.  Those forms that emerge by chance and happen to survive to replicate their kind are “chosen” over those forms that cannot survive to spread.  That is the essence of the process of “natural selection.”

The “preference” of the selective process for life over death does not by itself create value.  That’s because – or at least so I imagine – the very primitive life forms that arose at first cannot be said to have, themselves, any preference for one thing (including life) over another (such as death).  Whether I’m selling those earliest forms short or not, in time this selective process yields forms of life –definitely including, but not only, us—to whom things really do matter.

The second step in the emergence of value is a direct extension of the first.

All forms of life are structured to do what has, in the history of its kind, been conducive to survival, and motivated to avoid what, in the selective process, been associated with the failure to survive. But over time the evolutionary process’s “preference” for life over death molds creatures whose motivational structures are powered by the positive or negative valence of their experience.

Creatures get put together so that what has served life feels good and what has hindered and destroyed life feels bad.

At last, out of a universe in which nothing has mattered to anything or anyone, something matters.  With the development of life, with the emergence of creatures to whom things matter, value enters into the universe.

Value is an emergent dimension of what (apparently) began as a cold, lifeless, indifferent universe.

It matters to a baby whether it is cuddled or tortured.

It matters whether the human world is as in the “Bedford Falls” scenario in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life – a world in which there is community, and love, and families thriving or as in the “Pottersville” scenario, a society ruled by greed and the lust for power, where people are wounded and brutality and meanness pervade the town.

It matters whether the needs of creatures who experience value have their needs fulfilled or whether they live in misery.

To say that value is not real, because it’s based in experience, makes as much sense as to say that pain is not real.  [NOTE:  I’m using “pain” and not pleasure or happiness as the exemplar for the undeniable reality of subjective experience for good evolutionary reasons.  Pain is, simply, more powerful and undeniable. Any fool can inflict unbearable pain, but comparable pleasure – on a second-by-second basis – is difficult to achieve. We are wired, as the social psychologists say, to have greater motivation to avoid loss than to achieve gain. (Note to Kahneman) Life can be lost in an instant, but the apparatus to sustain life must be developed over time. Pompeii took generations to construct, but only moments to destroy.]

Indeed, without creatures having experience, nothing even could matter, and thus nothing could be better than anything else, and thus there could be no value.

To say that value is not real because it is a function of subjective experience makes (almost) as little sense as to say that there’s no such thing as human anatomy.

Subjective does not mean idiosyncratic:  human values are, at their root, just as real and objective and transpersonal as human anatomy.  Indeed, at their root, human values are part of the same evolved blueprint –a design for life—that yields our anatomy.

But what about the fact that people disagree about questions of value?  Does that not prove that value is merely a matter of opinion?

I’ll answer in two ways.

First, not all opinions warrant being given the same standing.  Just as a mangled or diseased body does not show “human anatomy” as well as well as a healthy one, some of the notions of “value” that we find in the human world are evidence of a disorder, and not of the system of values that is ingrained in humankind.

I was a teacher for a couple of years in the 70s, and then another couple of years during the “oughts.” Among students I’ve encountered, it was common to hear such statements as, “What the Nazis did at Auschwitz isn’t what I would have done, but from within their perspective it was right, and so it was right for them.”

(It should be easy to imagine that people who look at questions of value –of right and wrong, of good and evil – in this way will be hindered in responding with passionate intensity in the face of an “evil force,” if they encountered one.)

Whether it was according to their “values” or not, what the Nazis did was not life-serving for humankind generally.  The force that drove the Nazis was one of the darkest embodiments of “brokenness” that history has ever witnessed.  

We’ll be exploring the sources of this brokenness, how it reflects – and is the fruit of — a profound disturbance in the order created by life. Let it suffice for now to point out that fascists elsewhere had a toast, “Vive la mort!” (Long live death).

Whereas the evolutionary process that created us itself chooses life over death, and therefore crafts creatures like us to choose life over death – the most fundamental of choices–  the dark spirit of those Nazis whose values the students would say “was right for them” had reversed that choice.  What clearer sign of human brokenness could there be?

That’s the first response to the question about the reality of disagreement about values.  The second is more complex.

In a complex world, and in a species that devises very diverse cultures to deal with that complexity, even in the absence of forces of brokenness there would be differences in values from culture to culture, and within cultures from individual to individual.

But what matters here is not that there is a single valid solution to devising a life-serving culture, but that there is a foundational criterion for what is good:  what is good is what enhances life, what meets the needs of and brings fulfillment to living creatures to whom things matter.

The values built into us may be more malleable in the hands of culture than our anatomy –the bound foot of the Chinese woman notwithstanding—but their essence is still part of the reality of our kind.

Read the next of the Value and the Sacred articles:  The Meaning of “the Sacred”

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