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The definition of Value

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Amit
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Sartre once had an example for why ethics is subjective: he told about a student that didn't know if to choose to go and fight the Nazis or stay home and take care of his mother. Sartre said that there is no answer for that: you can't say which option is better, good, and only the action itself will signify what does the student think is better.

 

Now Ayn Rand defined value as "that which someone acts to gain or keep". This definition seems circular to me, so it doesn't solve the 

problem: value is that which you act to gain or keep, and you act to gain or keep that which you value.  It doesn't help you to know what

your values really are.

 

Do you think that according to this definition there is an objective way to form your own values? 

Edited by Amit
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Sartre once had an example for why ethics is subjective: he told about a student that didn't know if to choose to go and fight the Nazis or stay home and take care of his mother. Sartre said that there is no answer for that: you can't say which option is better, good, and only the action itself will signify what does the student think is better.

That is a poor example if one is trying to argue for subjectivity of value. What if the student did not have a mom he who needed care? Alternatively, what if there were no Nazis and his mom was his only concern? The example seems to imply that in those situations the student's choice would be clear. The example actually supports the idea that -- in those changed contexts -- some actions are clearly of huge value. Indeed, even in the context presented both choices are assumed to be clear values. So, there is no subjectivism in arriving at the idea that each of these is a huge value. The only conundrum is which one is of more value. By implying that each is valuable, one is conceding that values are either intrinsic (i.e., clearly there "in reality") or objective (i.e., based on a rational human evaluation of the facts of reality). If we want to argue for true subjectivism, we should say the student had three choices: fight the nazis, take care of his mom, or ignore both and hang out in the Parc de Belleville watching the swans, and we would have to claim that it is legitimate to value all three equally in the context of the student.

Actually, we ought to choose our values based on our evaluations of reality and its impact on our lives. Most people sort of understand this at some level. That is why the example works: because the listener fills in the blanks and sees each of the two values as fact-based and appropriate to the actor's context. In other words, the listener sees the values as "objective", the way Rand uses the term. Indeed, if you think critically about my third example, you can probably come up with a context where watching the ducks in not completely far-fetched. For instance, paint a situation where the other two choices are futile: maybe it is known that the nazis have the atom bomb and are just minutes away from bombing Paris, and maybe the student is too far from home, and the one last thing he decides to do in his life is to enter the nearby park to watch the swans. The changing context makes each choice more or less reasonable. That idea: that values flow from reality, evaluated within the context of the actor, and actively evaluated by the actor, is what Rand means when she uses the term "objective".

Of course, when we evaluate reality we do not end up with a neat little number. We don't evaluate fighting the nazi's and come up with value=8.79 and then evaluate caring for mom and come up with value=8.76 and thus decide one is better. However, suppose we could, and suppose both computations came out equal, that would still not show that values are subjective. If two balls weigh the same do we claim that weight is subjective?

 

 

Now Ayn Rand defined value as "that which someone acts to gain or keep". This definition seems circular to me, so it doesn't solve the...

It is not circular, but you're right: it does not tell you anything about how to decide what is a value.

 

The key here is to understand that there are two different concepts, both of which are labelled with the word "value". One might say: "it is sick that killing Jews is a value to him". What one means is: "it is sick that killing Jews is something that he thinks is right and has sought to pursue". Alternatively, one might say: "Killing Jews is not a value". What one means is: "Killing Jews is not something that he ought to think is right or that he ought to be doing". It would be nice if the term "value" were only used for one of those, and if we had another word for the other. That would make things unambiguous, but that's language for you, and Rand did not like making up new terms.

Saying values are "that which someone acts to gain or keep", refers to the broad concept that leaves out the evaluation itself. Since Rand defined a non-subjective Ethics, using the second concept, one would say "some people act to gain value and others act to lose it or to gain disvalue". On the second, Rand was for selfishness and said that for each man, his own life was the appropriate standard of value.

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softwareNerd has fairly well nailed the Objectivist response to your question.  Speaking as one who doesn't identify myself as an Objectivist but one who admires the philosophy, I'll attempt to respond to your question according to the common use of  the terms objective and value...

 

Sartre once had an example for why ethics is subjective: he told about a student that didn't know if to choose to go and fight the Nazis or stay home and take care of his mother. Sartre said that there is no answer for that: you can't say which option is better, good, and only the action itself will signify what does the student think is better.

 

Now Ayn Rand defined value as "that which someone acts to gain or keep". This definition seems circular to me, so it doesn't solve the 

problem: value is that which you act to gain or keep, and you act to gain or keep that which you value.  It doesn't help you to know what

your values really are.

 

Do you think that according to this definition there is an objective way to form your own values? 

 

That which someone acts to gain or keep is commonly understood to be of value to that person, and if that were the only criteria it would be correct to identify value as a subjective choice.  Ayn Rand's definition for value presumes enhancement over degradation to ones life in a manner that is objectively visable to others.  So one objective way to form your own values is to look to the consistent success or failure of others at gaining or keeping similar values.

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Sartre once had an example for why ethics is subjective: he told about a student that didn't know if to choose to go and fight the Nazis or stay home and take care of his mother. Sartre said that there is no answer for that: you can't say which option is better, good, and only the action itself will signify what does the student think is better.

 

Now Ayn Rand defined value as "that which someone acts to gain or keep". This definition seems circular to me, so it doesn't solve the 

problem: value is that which you act to gain or keep, and you act to gain or keep that which you value.  It doesn't help you to know what

your values really are.

 

Do you think that according to this definition there is an objective way to form your own values? 

 

I agree with the previous two answers. Well said both of you.

 

One additional item I would like to raise is the implicit context within which Sartre's statements should likely be viewed.

 

Before Rand (and correct me if I am wrong), "Ethics" and "Morality", "Good" and "Evil" were concepts which had the status of existents, "out there" in reality, having an independent existence from Man or any man's mind, whether existing in the supernatural (religious), platonic (realm of forms), or otherwise mystical realm(consciousness of a collective).  As such these were holus bolus Mystical in nature, whether edicts, duties, imperatives, commandments, they simply WERE, and "should" be discovered and followed.  As a philosopher considering Ethics and morality, you either believed in them (and embraced them or rejected them) or disbelieved in them i.e. repudiated their existence entirely, and there was no alternative.  Either mystical moral truths EXIST (out there) or they moral truths (of any kind) do not exist AT ALL (complete subjectivism).

 

A person like Sartre (and I am guessing as to motives) speaking of "Ethics" as subjective is primarily denying the existence of mystical moral truths etc. that require mysticism, BUT going too far because he saw no alternative.  In some sense when he says you can't say what is "better" is correct, if "better" (morally speaking) is defined as having meaning only in the context of a mystical realm.  He falls back on a subjective standard for "better" - i.e. short range "what you feel like" subjective whims, because at least that IS real.

 

I think Objectivist Ethics and morality is difficult for non-Objectivists to understand because it does not really fall within what the normally mystical definitions of Ethics and Morality are based upon.  In some sense many of the problems, ruminations, conundrums of ethical and moral philosophy, which inherently are based on these mystical concepts, are simply not addressed by Objectivism which rejects mysticism (and rightly so).

 

It is ironic that Objectivism solves the "problems" of Ethics and morality by providing an alternative to the common conceptualizations of Ethics and morality.  In some sense it does not solve the previously erroneously posed problems other than by pointing out they are ill-posed questions whose premises are based on non-existents.

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Sartre once had an example for why ethics is subjective: he told about a student that didn't know if to choose to go and fight the Nazis or stay home and take care of his mother. Sartre said that there is no answer for that: you can't say which option is better, good, and only the action itself will signify what does the student think is better.

 

Now Ayn Rand defined value as "that which someone acts to gain or keep". This definition seems circular to me, so it doesn't solve the 

problem: value is that which you act to gain or keep, and you act to gain or keep that which you value.  It doesn't help you to know what

your values really are.

 

Do you think that according to this definition there is an objective way to form your own values? 

This is a descriptive definition which Ayn Rand used in developing of her argument of life as an ultimate value. the definition of value is everything which promotes life. In Ayn Rand words " It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.” ( AS). "It is only an ultimate goal, an end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible. Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself: a value gained and kept by a constant process of action. Epistemologically, the concept of “value” is genetically dependent upon and derived from the antecedent concept of “life.” To speak of “value” as apart from “life” is worse than a contradiction in terms. “It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible.” (VOS)

Edited by Leonid
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