On Philosophy

January 13, 2007

Value and Viewpoint

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:20 am

How we define value (and what is valued) has a major influence on the ethical system we are led to adopt. Often the reason given for acting ethically is because it promotes what is valued, and thus is normative. But what is valuable? Obviously there are many different opinions about this; one way to categorize these opinions is by what viewpoint value is considered from. Obviously there are different kinds of interests associated with different viewpoints, meaning that they hold different things to be valuable. And these differences give rise to different systems of ethics. One final note: here I am using the term viewpoint loosely; strictly speaking only conscious beings have a viewpoint, but here I am using viewpoint to describe any system or entity for which things might go better or worse (and therefore might be said to have interests), even if it isn’t able to be aware of those interests.

The most common viewpoint for considering what is valuable is the viewpoint of the individual person. What the individual wants is thus considered to be valuable. Now we can make a further distinction here, as to whether what the individual actually wants is valuable or if what they would want, if they knew all the facts, is valuable, but this is a minor quibble. And usually the individual is assumed to give the highest priority to his or her own happiness. Obviously an ethical system developed based on this notion of value will justify itself by arguing that ethics is to the benefit of the ethical person, which often reduces ethics to some form of enlightened self-interest.

The next viewpoint to consider is that of the average individual. Under such a viewpoint what is valuable is what is in the interests of the largest possible number of people. Utilitarianism is probably the most well known ethical system that rests on this viewpoint. Since we have moved away from pure self-interest it is harder to make this kind of ethical system seem appealing, but we might argue that it is the ethical system we would pick if we didn’t know where we would end up in society (the veil of ignorance argument).

But people aren’t the only entities that have interests. We could also see things from the viewpoint of society. Since societies don’t have minds it may be harder to see how they can have interests. But it is certainly the case that some societies are “healthier” than others, by which we mean they are more likely to survive as they are in the long run (for example, a free and open society is “healthier” than a dictatorship, even if the dictatorship his a larger army). Thus it is better for a society to be “healthy”, and so we can say it is in a society’s interest to be “healthy”; and thus what is good for society is valuable. The kind of consequentialism that I personally advocate is derived from this view of what is valuable. It is even harder to argue for this kind of ethical system then it is to argue for utilitarianism. One way to do so is to point out that we are part of society, and thus its, indirectly, in our best interests for society to survive, just as it is in a cell’s best interest not to be cancerous. We could also modify this viewpoint, slightly, to be that of the human species, or perhaps that of the planet as a whole. I suspect that the notion of what is valuable would be similar under them, but I know of no ethical system, offhand, that seems to be based on such an idea of value.

The above three are, I think, the “main” viewpoints, those from which ethical issues, and the idea of value itself, are most often examined from. There are, however, a few more “odd ball” viewpoints that I can think of. I don’t know of any ethical system that is tied to them, or any reason to favor them over one of the main three, but perhaps they might be useful. The first of these is that of a future person. Obviously the future person wants to live in the best future possible (the future that will make them the happiest), and thus they have an interest in things now because what happens now has an effect on what future will exist. We might also attempt to consider the viewpoint of the universe as a whole. Now this is a really odd idea, because it is hard to see how the universe could have interests, or how anything we do could affect them. Perhaps this viewpoint is behind nihilism? Another possibility is to consider the viewpoint of only a few select individuals. This could take a sinister form (e.g. valuing only what is important to the leaders or some other small group of people), or it might result in a perfectly altruistic ethics (valuing everyone’s viewpoint but your own). Finally I should mention a viewpoint that is not unheard of, but deeply un-philosophical, which is that of a divine being. Such is the attitude of many religions, that what is and is not valuable (and thus what is or is not good) is determined by the wishes of this being. Although there have been many people who have historically subscribed to such a position I say that it is un-philosophical because a) there is no way of knowing for sure what the divine being values, b) it is hard to see how a divine being could have interests, and c) it would make the divine being irrational, because there is no other criterion besides its will as to what is and is not valuable.

Of course the question remains as to which of these viewpoints is “right”. In fact I would be inclined to deny there is a “right” answer, since that seems to imply that there is some independent fact of the matter as to what is valuable, which seems unlikely since value is obviously our construction. But, on the other hand, I think there is a fact of the matter about which viewpoint ethics should be conducted from. I conclude that it is the viewpoint of society, since ethics arose as an institution for governing inter-personal relations for the benefit of society (or perhaps I should say that various pressures led to ethics based on such a viewpoint being established, in order not to imply that somehow society intentionally created ethics). But, you might say, actual ethical systems fall short of this goal. To this I would reply that ethical systems, as found in the “wild” are of course imperfect because there is no designer with the interests of society in mind behind them. However, since ethics only arises in societies, and seems obviously to exist to benefit those societies, I think it is fair to say that ideally ethics is the system that is best for society. Of course this is simply my position on the issue, and independent of approaching value through various viewpoints, I just couldn’t help myself.

See also: the good life (as what we value, and thus what lives we value, plays a central role in determining what we think of as the good life).

1 Comment

  1. I agree with you in believing that there is no single “right” answer to any question of values based on something as subjective as a human viewpoint. My personal viewpoint on the matter is that since “what things are right” is as subjective an idea as “the value of some thing“, the only fair way to approach the problem is on a global scale.

    Each of us possess a blend of unique and shared values, and even if I believe most other people’s perception of perfection to be flawed, the summed energy of my beliefs is still just a fraction of the whole. On such an abstract level, it is not yet reasonable to assign “mathematic values” to every person’s current beliefs then actually add them up to some global “answer key to life”… For one thing, this answer key would change with each moment, and for another many people would value non-participation and the answer key would forever be incomplete.

    However, let us allow our assumptions to be free of limitations, and pretend that we actually could compile and use this “answer key” to give values to our values (both senses of the same word). Would this answer key look something like:

    Value greed;
    Value generosity;
    Value lust;
    Value love;

    Matrix Me = [x*greed, x*generosity, x*lust, x*love…];
    Matrix You = [y*greed, y*generosity…];

    Matrix World = Me/total population + You/total population…;

    Although such a democratic viewpoint is morally appealing, it is not realistic when considering the actual effect of each individual’s values. One war monger can greatly outweigh the “Value peace;” of a thousand pacifists. Now we must add some kind of weighting system that relates the actions taken based on each person’s individual values to the realistic effect of that action with respect to all possible values. Already the equation has taken on near-infinite proportions, but I’m not done yet…

    Just as our every action is based upon a personal set of values, yet has a variable outcome in the “real” world, the actual outcome of our actions can in turn sway the values of other sentient sources of action. Now we must weight each value of each person based on how their real actions effectively express that value, we must also extrapolate into the future and calculate how our real actions affect the possibility of another’s value being changed in a never-ending chain of causality.

    Such an equation is unsolvable on so many levels, but I believe a useful grain of truth to exist within the abstract concept of this equation. Even if we could generate such an omniscient answer key, it could not serve any useful (read: valuable) purpose as a definite answer for “what is right or wrong?”, since it is merely a compilation of subjective ideals in the first place. The use and value of this system would be found from an analysis of which values correlate to the highest possibility for mutually beneficial change over the course of time.

    I say “mutually beneficial change”, because I have already assumed that we are measuring “right” on a non-individual scale, and we assume that any action which causes some “very good” result for a small party of people in a finite slice of time as well as a “slightly bad” result for the rest of humanity for all time can never tip the scales of ethics. So, if we are analyzing the possibility of one value correlating to some amount of good effect and some amount of bad effect, there is no control-group to base a solid mathematic measurement… There is only better and worse… One value is more likely to cause more good than bad on some target versus some other value that affects the same target.

    Now, we have an impossible equation that give inconclusive results, but I believe there is still some value in the argument. We cannot know for certain what values are “more right” than others in every sense, but taking the idea of the omniscient answer key into some specific examples we can find ways to amplify (or attentuate) our fractional effect on the global ethics scale.

    Departing from provable statements, I would like to say that I don’t know everything, but I do feel as if my specific viewpoints on right and wrong create a more positive effect on global life than a large percentage of the corporate empire in which I live. …Everyone feels this way, but I spend my spare time searching out strangers or friends in need and helping them. In their thanks, I find reassurance in my slightly-better-than-average values, and I would like to amplify the effects of those values.

    Considering my actions on the impossible global “answer key”, every individual who turns from love toward lust or from greed to generosity or from ignorance to truth or et cetra has an exponentially positive effect on life. Negative effects cause finite profit for some people, and resentment towards that “evil” in every little guy that got screwed on the way. Some effects can be personally profitable without harming others (read: meditation or prayer, depending on your religion), but such individual efforts are wholly positive, and I am currently considering the negatives.

    The finite nature of negative effects is that they are only repeated by other greedy egoist seeking to rise up on the backs of the poor. This can have a large, long-lasting effect on humanity, but it is not an immortal effect like the spreading of truth and love. The wonderous nature of doing good for others causes positive effects for all involved, and it inspires more positive effects in every life that is touched by the event. Negative events inspire the ethically-sick, positive events inspire everyone.

    Throughout time, the finite negatives of various war mongers, brain washers and power freaks has kept the cumulative effects of “positive values” (whatever they may be) in relative balance. One aspect of society becomes sick for a time, before the immortal good inside a large majority of the population has no choice but to stand up and overpower the evil plaguing their society.

    What is closest to “perfectly good” is simply whatever the society currently needs to cause the most positive effects with the least negative side effects. Each member of that society is responsible for the actions they take, whether those actions are to reclude one’s self from everyone in ineffective Nirvana, or to hire a team of lawyers and fuck life in the ass. Currently, the technology used to trasmit this very message is the only recorded tool of planet-wide conscious communion, and as such offers unheard-of abilities for one person’s set of values to influence and augment the values of another’s.

    Some people choose to launch porn sites and make money of the subjugation of something as beautiful as sex, while others choose to stimulate their mental, emotional and spiritual growth through intellectually stimulating conversation such as this. Bringing back the idea of the “impossible answer key”, I feel safe in assuming that spreading morality in a massively-replicatable fashion is one of the best ways to influence the largest-possible shift in positive, mutually beneficial values in our society. I cannot mathematically prove that helping those more ignorant than myself discard the illusions of capitalist bliss is more useful than spending my entire life enriching my mind through conversation with those more enlightened than myself…. Because such a hypothesis would require a way to measure the usefulness of the ideas I spread, and my mind is not that powerful.

    Instead, I would rather consider the effects of spreading my imperfect vision of perfection against spending 90% of my life perfected the imperfect in the vain hopes that, before I die, I write the philosophical masterpiece that influences the hearts and minds of philosophers one hundred years from now.

    The power of our society is at a new peak in terms of danger towards life, and I feel as though we currently need to use this tool of communication to help guide our fellow man towards a higher appreciation of morals, as well as realistic ways to make positive morals appear more desirable than how primetime television currently depicts them.

    I am not such an egoist to assume that I am intellectually superior than anyone, especially in such an enlightened environment as this one, but my real experience has taught me that lending my knowledge to those in need has been met with gratitude and meaningful changes towards positive action in those touched by my words.

    Even though I will never create my “perfect answer to everything”, in the mere attempt of trying I can stand as a role model for others to turn their free will towards the good of all for today and tomorrow. I can’t prove such a statement, but I know in my heart that I don’t have to.

    “My” answers will never be the same as “your” answers, but I believe that a few common values like Honesty, Love, Empathy and Respect are almost universally seen as positive influences on the present and the future. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Sophist on a high-horse of morals; I don’t really care what anyone thinks of me or the means to my end, so long as they listen to my words and think for themselves about what I’ve said. …After all, that is the only rememberable effect of any philosopher’s life. I chosen what I believe to be a more realistic approach to the problems plaguing our global viewpoint: The common man.

    Let’s be honest, the purest philosophy is not palettable to the average person; that’s why we’re so rare. No matter how enlightened, intelligent or peaceful the philosophers of any time, it is the actions of the common man that lends the greatest weight on our course towards the future.

    I spend most of my days organizing literary scripts, aesthetic expressions and algorithmic programming into a single package designed to express the benefits of decency, honest, ethics and all the good in life IN A MEANINGFUL, ENTERTAINING WAY.

    You were right in assuming that most of the population considers what is personally profitable to have the most value, and in today’s world that profit is most found in entertainment. We are distracted from the emptiness of corporate slavery by mindless repetitions of the same tired stories on television, and it is leading us dangerously close to global catastrophe. The biggest problem that nobody cares about is our global lack of care.

    With the rest of my day, I go to online blog sites in a daily struggle to inspire others to take up the fight against ignorance, immorality and corporate fascism. Every now and then I permit myself the leisure of coming somewhere as enlightened as this website to vent the full discourse of ideas I must normally restrain out of overwhelming complexity…

    With every action I take, I seek only to replicate and exponential wave of quasi-awakenings that bring each person one step closer to an understanding and embracing of the positive effects of honest, decent, “good” (whatever a person’s definition of the word) values. I don’t think I blow minds or deprogram the brain-washing of television; but I dedicate as much free time as possible to starting the fires of truth and love in every soul that I touch.

    …The final message of this rant is as follows:

    I don’t normally do this, but I’m asking you and anyone reading this to lend their minds to a fight I have started. My version of the eternal War on Ignorance is still in its infancy, but every soul that lends its will to this cause can help realize its effects sooner rather than later. I’m asking you to contact me and critique my work, or send this link to any intelligent, decent person that might find it useful, or even take up your own version of this fight and go find people in need of guidance and offer your honest best. Every drop in the bucket creates a wave; be a drop that starts other waves.

    Currently, I don’t even have the resources for adequate webspace to present my fight; but I am balancing the quality of my work with the quantity that I spread it… I am still very young, but I have chosen passion over profit, and I hope you will too. Very soon I will find adequate funding for this fight, but I have chosen to do some preliminary beta testing of my ideals before packaging and delivering them to the masses.

    My most recent effort is thewaronignorance.vox.com, a blog I started last night. Any constructive criticism from someone as intelligent as yourself (any reader) would be greatly appreciated, and any advertising of my ideals would satisfy the values that sparked this rant. …Or just send this link to a couple friends, or just consider these words and lend me the widsdom of your words… Just do something more than nothing. Please!


    Comment by X — January 16, 2007 @ 4:56 am

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