An article that seems to raise a few objections on our yearly reshare is TrolleyDave’s ‘Is Value Entirely Subjective?‘
To tell you the truth, when I first read his article there were some things I disagreed with too. Dave gave me a number of different articles to read about value. I was desperately trying to understand his position before I contested it, but everything he was sending me seemed to back up what I already thought or give new information that strengthened my position.
We spoke for 3 days about the topic, and when it came to the end, I had just misunderstood a couple of Dave’s comments in the article, and we were actually of a much more similar opinion than I first realised.
I’ve been eager to cover off the topic of value in a podcast for a while, and that will be coming, however, I’ve had a few conversations on the topic recently that have inspired me to write an article on it too.
Definitions for the Article
Of course, before we get into the meat of the topic, we need to clear up a few definitions so that I can be sure we do not talk past each other.
When I speak of value, I generally speak of something beneficial or positive (good) properties. By beneficial I mean something that makes something ‘better’ or helps it not get ‘worse’. By positive or good properties I mean things that we couldn’t otherwise do without them.
Value can also imply importance, or usefulness of something, or even the worth of something, e.g. monetary worth.
Based on or influenced by personal opinion or feelings.
Belonging naturally to. Essential properties.
Essentially the opposite of intrinsic, something not part of the nature of something.
Things we prefer. e.g. we might prefer steak to carrots. It is a subjective form of value.
Something we can do things with, a means to an end. For example, food is instrumental in satisfying hunger. Money is instrumental in buying things.
All value is technically extrinsic because there would be no values in a vacuum. We need life, or agents, to get benefit from or value things.
So if all value is ultimately extrinsic, what could we mean by intrinsic value?
Essentially we mean something that is a value in and of itself. To put it another way, we speak of the properties or qualities something has that are beneficial regardless of if they are valued or not.
Examples of these Values
Money has instrumental value. We can use it to get things we prefer over money, this is not an opinion, it is a fact. Some people prefer to have money over other things, so money also has preferential value. Money also gives us the ability to trade, not only that but the ability to trade without carrying around our stock, e.g. massive bags of grain. This is a natural property of money or intrinsic value.
See that this intrinsic value is a value in and of itself, and even if not personally valued, still gives people the benefit of not having to carry stock. That value is there regardless of people’s personal opinion.
We can even go one further and speak of the fiscal value of money (or how much it is worth). The value of money is inter-subjectively driven by economies and stock markets, but the end result to the ‘end-user’ is that the value is above their opinion. For example, if I said, ‘In my opinion, £1 should buy this £500 TV.’ it wouldn’t make that £1 worth the £500 TV.
I feel money is a good example of how value is not wholly subjective. It shows that even if people don’t personally value things like the ability to trade without carrying stock, that benefit is still there, and they still benefit from it.
Modern medicine offers the benefits of making people better. We could say the concept or field of the medicine has intrinsic value because the properties of medicine is a value in and of itself, yet individual medicines are instrumental in making folks feel better/more healthy.
Someone might personally value crystal healing or homoeopathy over modern medicine, yet if they were to get sick or in a car accident, modern medicine would still benefit them.
A subsection of medicine I felt it prudent to address is vaccinations.
A vaccination, as you probably know, is an injection of a small part of a virus to help us build a resistance to said virus by creating antibodies that know how to fight it. They are not 100% proof, but then neither are condoms or seatbelts. In some people, they have adverse effects, but the risk is minimal in comparison to the risk of actually getting the disease.
The benefit of vaccinations is there even if someone doesn’t personally value them. But how?
We have 3 types of people that do not get vaccinations.
- The immunocompromised, who cannot get vaccinated.
These are folks with things like cancer, who could be seriously harmed by the vaccination.
- Those with bad reactions to the vaccines.
Some people might have a toxic reaction to vaccines, or be allergic to some of the ingredients in the vaccines. As such they do not take them.
Generally misguided folks that mean well but refuse to take vaccinations for a variety of reasons.
None of the above would see value in taking the vaccine. The anti-vaxxers definitely don’t see ANY value in vaccines. All three of the above benefit from people being vaccinated and creating what is known as herd immunity. Their health is protected by others who have seen the value in vaccines, and thus there is a value to vaccinations above their personal values.
Of the above, usually, the immunocompromised person will still see value in vaccines and appreciate others having them.
Happiness would be regarded, generally, as a value in and of itself. It has intrinsic properties that make us feel good.
Happiness could also be used instrumentally, for example, a happy workforce is generally more productive than a bored or unhappy workforce, and they have more dedication to your company. Of course, this then results in bigger bonuses, dividends to shareholders etc and results in a final value of happiness, which again is a value in and of itself.
Whilst some people might not personally value happiness, we can still see the value it adds.
Isn’t ‘Good’, ‘Better’, or ‘Benefit’ a subjective value judgement?
We can split this in to two parts to start. The means to an end, and the end.
Food has instrumental value. We can use it to sate hunger. In fact, without food, we would die. This is above personal opinion. It is a fact. Someone might value eating a burger over eating fruit and veggies, but the fruit and veggies are better for one’s health regardless of which you prefer the taste of and personally value more.
If we speak about visiting our parents, we might prefer to take our bicycles as we enjoy a bike ride in the fresh air or we might prefer to take a car so we can listen to music, but if we want to get there fast and ensure we stay dry the car is objectively better for this task, even if we prefer riding a bike.
Tools. There are some tools better for the job than the other. Someone might prefer to use a bread knife to cut through a piece of wood even though a saw would be better for the task.
So you can see, there are definitely better means to an end than others. Of course, you might be saying that whilst the means can have methods that are better than others regardless of personal opinion, your goal, or end, is subjectively driven. Hopefully, at least, you will understand that ‘better’ and ‘beneficial’ are at least not wholly subjective value judgements.
The Ends / Goals / Intrinsic Properties
Many will say that the goal is purely subjective or ends are subjectively valued as ‘good’.
They have a point. Many are. Consider the example of getting to one’s parents as an end goal. That goal is given by a subject. It might be seen as a purely subjective reason to see one’s parents based on the feelings you have for them. Even for someone that doesn’t value this, there is still the more beneficial method of travel.
But what of ends that are of value in an of themselves?
Consider happiness. It is a value in and of itself. It makes us feel good. It is beneficial to our lives in a number of different ways. Someone might not personally value being happy and prefer to do everything to make themselves rich, working long hours, screwing people over, running themselves into the ground and making themselves stressed and miserable in the progress. That doesn’t remove the intrinsic properties of happiness.
Someone might still argue that this is a subjective judgement of what good is, but we can see the benefits happiness has on people. The fact it benefits people is what makes it good.
Consider the example I gave before about money’s intrinsic properties allowing us to trade without carrying stock. Credit Cards allow us to trade without carrying money. Some folks still prefer paying cash even though you can just wave your card and be done in seconds. They both have the properties of allowing us to trade, both without carrying our stock, one just allows us to carry even less with us. These are essential properties of these items, they are beneficial, they add value whether valued or not.
Consider survival. Survival is a value in an of itself. It does not matter if someone does not value the survival of our species and wants to wipe people out, we are biologically driven to live, breed, and continue the species. In fact, if we don’t survive, neither does value, which brings me on to the final point.
The Ultimate Value
Life. Life is the beginning of value. Without life there is no value. Therefore even if someone does not personally value life, life is the ultimate value because it is what allows value to exist.
Furthermore anything that benefits life (or suvival) is also of value, even if it is not personally valued.
- Our Health – because it allows us to live longer
- Medicine – because it looks after our health
- Exercise – because it looks after our health and can increase happiness
- Happiness – because it improves our lives and makes our interactions with others better
- Science – because it has properties of investigation to make our lives better and live longer
- Food – because without eating we would die
- Education – because it can improve society, enable us to earn a good wage, generally improve our lives
If we understand the point that life is what allows value to exist in the first place, then we understand what benefits life is something that is adding value.
Conclusion on Value
Value is experiential. You need life for anything to have value. As such, value is ultimately extrinsic. That said, there are intrinsic properties or qualities to things that add value even if not subjectively valued.
We can state quite confidently that value is not wholly subjective, even if we do admit that we need some form of agency for value to exist.
So if there are things that are valued above personal opinion, what do we call them? The term for something that is above personal opinion is ‘Objective’. Many folks do not like that word but there it is.
Better, beneficial, good, are not purely subjective value judgements. We can clearly demonstrate better ways of doing things, things that are more beneficial than others, and these things we would just regard as having those properties which are good.