Wednesday, March 10, 2010

More about values

Some serious judging - Neyland Show, Pembrokeshire

Yesterday's post on relativism seemed to raise a lot of questions. So I feel compelled to add some context that will probably just increase the confusion, but hey, I'm only back here for a while...

Some time ago I wrote a post about knowledge truth and facts. I explained that at one extreme we use statements that are necessarily true (all bachelors are men). Close to these on the spectrum of truth statements are assertions that can be 'proved', either by deduction (mathematics) or by observation and testing (scientific facts). At the other extreme we have statements that can only be verified by the speaker (I like chocolate sauce the best) - we call these preferences.

What I didn't say is that there is whole category in between these two extremes - these are called value judgements.

We use value judgements when we make statements such as, 'that was good meal' or ' it was a better essay.' When we talk in this way we are saying more than simply I 'like this meal' or 'I like that essay'. Whether we are conscious of it or not, in saying something is 'good' or 'better' we are judging it against some external standards.

So value judgements are something more than a preference, but not as objectively verifiable as fact. They are also everywhere! We use them to bring up our children, to criticise others, to pass comment on almost anything - and in practice we often treat them in much the same way as scientific facts. In some cases they are so universally accepted that people are punished or vilified for not accepting them - the law, when you think about it, is a sort of 'hard coded' value judgement.

But how do we decide on the underlying standards against which we apply our judgements? Is that not relativism in disguise?

Some thinkers (hard line relativists and what were known as logical positivists - long story, don't worry...) would agree. They would say that the underlying standards are simply preferences masquerading as something more objective. In short, they claim value judgements are nonsense.

But most would reject this view.

For whilst we can't 'prove' that certain standards are better than others, we can offer what John Stuart Mill called 'considerations for the intellect.' In other words, we can use reason to propose standards on which there is general agreement - we can debate these and arrive at even better standards - and we can stay alert to possibilities that might improve them further.

At the extreme we might even ask if anyone has a better alternative? Can anyone tell me how gratuitous torture could ever be justified? Does anyone seriously think that ignoring third world poverty is a reasonable way to behave? Ultimately, the concept of human rights is based on value judgments not scientific facts - and yet we accept them as 'true' and reasonable, as surely as we believe the sun will rise tomorrow.

If we return to yesterday's post and the relative merits of popular and great culture, are there similar considerations for the intellect that might help us? I had a look at the notes for my degree course to see if I could find anything.

It turns out that when I submit an assignment for my creative writing degree it is marked against the following criteria: technical competence, use of style, conventions, subject matter, control, emotional engagement, ability to enter characters, places and energies. And I guess that is not a bad way to explain why Jane Austin is better than Barbara Cartland. We might use the equivalent musical criteria to compare the Beatles against Mozart.

So value judgements are flexible and adaptive, but they are also based on reasoning and observation. They are not simply 'my opinion' which, taken in isolation, has no greater value than yours. They work best when they are applied to widely accepted, clearly defined criteria. And they work less well when we try to apply them to entirely different categories - comparing 'apples and pears' is a saying which sums this up.

Just to be contrary, I actually think we might reasonably compare apples and pears: freshness, organic or chemically produced, depth of flavour, nutritious content ... But as a general rule it gets more difficult and subjective the more variables we introduce and the more nebulous the concepts - comparing apples with philosophy would be a more accurate if less snappy cliche.

So where does this leave us?

Well, hopefully value judgements can give intellectual structure (comfort even?) to those of us who don't like relativism, but need more than preference. The sort of people who are are not especially offended by the statement 'the Beatles are no better or worse than Mozart' - but who can't accept that a valid reasoning for that conclusion is that they are 'simply different.'

Enough. End of conversation....

For now, at least!


  1. OK well I'll start by saying that I'm with Richard Feynman when it comes to philosophy.

    I don't think we can compare apples and pears in any meaningful way. We can't even compare potatoes with potatoes: "My potato is better than yours, it boils up nice and soft so my shepherds' pie comes out really good." "Yeah but I'm making chips" They are simply different.

    By the time you restrict the field enough that the comparison is meaningful, it becomes meaningless. "My perfectly spherical potato is better than your potato of the same shape, flavour, colour, etc, because mine is bigger" "Yeah but I'm making a small pie. And besides, my smaller potato cooks faster than yours, uses less energy"

    Even if you suppose you can give an apple a score of 1 to 10 for apple quality, and a potato a score of 1 to 10 for potato quality, you can argue that you can compare the score to to compare the apple to the spud. I would argue that you're not comparing the fruit and tuber you're comparing their scores.

    But relativism doesn't have to be universal. If I think that someone inflicting pain on me (unless for medical purposes) is doing a bad thing, and I can accept that other people feel the same way, then I have a basis for absolute evaluation of human behaviours. It was this awareness, empathy, if you like, the "fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil" that first came to human females, then males(if you interpret what one reads).

    Is gratuitous torture ever justified? Is it evil that a cat tortures a mouse or bird before eating it? The question is meaningless applied to a cat, but the animal is, by any normal human meaning of the term, indulging in gratuitous torture. So what's different in humans? Empathy? That's what gives us our basis for good and evil.

  2. Codgi - I guess we disagree in a general sense, but that's ok - I think to understand my view it helps to recognise I am somewhat of a pedant. The sentence I most disagree with above is the one that says - relativism doesn't have to be universal. As a practical way to run our lives that is ok, but as a metaphysical stement about values, I'd say it is strictly illogical and inconsistant.

  3. :) OK, we can agree to disagree. In making that statement I thought I had given you a counterexample: an example of something that is strictly relative (potatoes, apples) and something that is not (projecting subjective values onto (an)other consciousness(es) to obtain an absolute evaluation of their behaviour) i.e relitavism and absolutism co-exisitng. Anyway, it's cool, and thanks for the debate, I find it fascinating.

  4. I have an example.
    I had a friend who grew up in inter war Germany.
    She saw her family's friends and neighbours getting into financial problems, going to the local banks for aid and eventually suffering foreclosure.
    The local banks were run by Jews.
    She 'empathised' with her family's friends and neighbours, but she knew that the solution to the problem was not to wipe Jews from the face of the earth, but to regulate the banking system.

    Empathy is so dangerous.

    Friends' kids - or grandkids these days - tell me about what they do at school.
    'You are a serf. How do you feel about that?'

    Just how many questions does that beg?

    We need rigour of thought to cope with problems, not empathy.

  5. Oh, and how homesick your photograph of a village show made me feel. After all these years.

  6. Well if you figure that it's self-awareness and empathy that got us chucked out of Eden, yep it's dangerous :)

    I'm not sure how the example with the Jews in Germany shows that empathy is dangerous? Surely if people had a bit more empathy with the Jews in question, the idea of killing them all simply wouldn't have occurred to anyone.

  7. I wish I was intelligent enough to contribute meaningfully to this excellent debate but alas all I can provide is flippancy. So shall desist.

    Am also not sure if my statement is relativism, preference or an assertion.

  8. I'm lining up with Steve and indeed linking his arm. I can't contribute at all but didn't want to creep away without a word.

    It's good to have you back, Mark.

  9. Empathy, according to my friend, played a large part in electing Hitler.
    A First World War soldier, gassed, coming home to nothing...promising to restore Germany to her proper place in the spoke to a lot of people who had been through defeat, the economic crash and the occupation of the Rhineland.

    A bit of thought as to who was financing him might have been helpful.

  10. Award for you over at mine. Don't worry about the conditions....just a mark of appreciation.

  11. Hitler was evil
    Hitler was empathic
    Therefore empathy is evil