Value, ontological status of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N066-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

Article Summary

We evaluate persons, characters, mental states, actions, inanimate objects and situations using very abstract terms such as ‘good’, ‘unjust’ and ‘beautiful’, and more concrete terms, such as ‘courageous’, ‘cruel’ and ‘crass’, drawn from fields such as aesthetics, ethics, politics and religion. Do these evaluations ascribe value properties to the entities evaluated? If so, what are these properties like? If not, what are we doing when we evaluate?

The simplest way to understand ethical discourse is by analogy with ordinary fact-stating discourse. An ethical judgment is to be understood as either true or false, being true if the situation it describes obtains, false if it does not. If ethical judgments are fact-stating, then it is natural to take evaluative vocabulary such as ‘is good’ and ‘is courageous’ as picking out properties of the entities which are evaluated.

What are these value properties like? First, we need an account of how properties are different from other kinds of entities. Then we need to decide whether values are natural or non-natural properties, where natural properties are the proper subject matter of the various sciences. G.E. Moore in Principia Ethica (1903) argued that goodness is a sui generis non-natural property. In contrast, many have tried to conceive of value properties as natural, principally by defining evaluative vocabulary in terms of the psychological states of some subject or subjects in certain conditions. By varying the state, subject and conditions, numerous such accounts can be obtained; for example, ‘is good’ might mean ‘is desired by the speaker here and now’ or ‘is something we would desire to desire….in conditions of full imaginative acquaintance’.

Mackie (1977) thinks that our ethical discourse commits us to the existence of value properties which he calls ‘objective values’. But he argues that such values would be non-natural, Moore’s property of goodness vividly illustrating their ‘queerness’. Our knowledge of them would be unexplained and, since ethical judgments are automatically motivating, these values would have a mysterious action-guiding force, quite unlike natural properties. Thus Mackie adopts an error theory of our evaluative discourse. There are no objective values. Since every ethical judgment commits us to such values, they are all false. His diagnosis of the error draws upon Hume’s projectivism (see Projectivism). In truth, there is only the world of natural properties and our affective reactions to it, such as moral approval and disapproval. But we project such reactions back onto the world and speak as if it contained properties, such as goodness and badness, which merit the reactions.

Denying the existence of objective values need not force one to accept the error theory, for one can deny Mackie’s conceptual claim that our ethical discourse says that there are objective values. Instead, one can think of this discourse as having an expressive, as opposed to a descriptive, function. Ayer’s emotivism is an early version of this idea (see Emotivism). It is too crude, however, because it merely says that ethical judgments serve to express our affective reactions, failing to explain how it is that ethical discourse appears so similar to genuine descriptive discourse. After all, we are happy to say that ethical judgments are true or false, we engage in ethical argument to determine the correct answers to our ethical questions, we presume to persuade others to abandon their mistaken views and we acknowledge that our current ethical opinions may be wrong. Each of these features of our ethical practice tempts us to think that there is a realm of ethical facts which constrain the practice, facts which we aim to describe with our ethical discourse.

Blackburn’s quasi-realist project (1984; 1993) attempts to explain the shape of our ethical practice on the basis of its expressive function. He argues that our ethical discourse is all right as it is, for, despite the appearances, it contains no erroneous commitment to objective values. Blackburn insists that we express, rather than describe, our affective reactions when we make ethical judgments. But one should ask whether a sharp line can be drawn between expression and description and, in turn, whether there is much to choose between Blackburn’s position and the view which takes values to be natural properties involving our psychological states.

Mackie and Blackburn share the conception of the natural world as the world of science, which exists independently of human sensibility. A real entity belongs to the natural world, and values are not real. But perhaps this is too restrictive. McDowell (1985) has argued that values should be compared with secondary qualities, such as redness (see Secondary qualities). It is a conceptual truth that an object is red if and only if it would look red to appropriately receptive subjects in appropriate conditions. Thus redness is a dispositional property which is conceptually connected to human sensibility, and so cannot belong to the natural world. But, since an object can possess this disposition independently of any particular experience, we are happy to think of an object as really being red, its looking red to us in the right conditions being perception of the redness which it possesses. Analogously, McDowell urges that a value, such as goodness, is to be thought of as a dispositional property of objects which is conceptually connected to an affective reaction in the right subjects in the right conditions. Again, such a value is not part of the natural world, but it is nevertheless real, the relevant affective reactions detecting its presence. If all this is right, one can argue against Mackie that our ethical discourse only commits us to the reality of values in the weak sense that their existence is independent of any particular experience. The appropriateness of the analogy between values and secondary qualities is fiercely debated. In particular, one ought to question whether any sense can be made of a perceptual route to values, especially when our affective states are often reactions to imagined or described situations, not perceived ones.

Citing this article:
Oliver, Alex. Value, ontological status of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N066-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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