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Value Judgments: Value Judgments and Normative Claims

  • Marcus G. Singer and Stephen R. L. Clark


A person's values are what that person regards as or thinks important; a society's values are what that society regards as important. A society's values are expressed in laws and legislatively enacted policies, in its mores, social habits, and positive morality. Any body's values—an individual person's or a society's—are subject to change, and in our time especially. An individual manifests his or her values in expressions of approval or disapproval, of admiration or disdain, by seeking or avoidance behaviour, and by his or her characteristic activities. What one values one seeks for or tries to maintain. Sometimes attaining it leads to unexpected enlightenment—that isn't what one wanted after all. But a person's values are discovered most significantly in a reflective way by becoming aware of what one is willing to give up to attain or maintain one's values. This is the price one is willing to pay for it, and values are occasionally, and in the money and stock markets always, expressed in terms of price. This can be significant or it can be misleading; it depends on how it is interpreted. Not everything has a monetary equivalent, despite the attempts of the law to provide recovery for damages in monetary terms, and despite the cynical maxim, ‘Everyone has his price’.



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1 Imagine that there are just five trees in the world. Match up each tree with the number of leaves it has, and name each tree by that number. Then tree one will have 1 leaf, tree two will have 2 leaves, tree three will have 3 leaves, and tree four will have 4 leaves. What about tree number five? By hypothesis it cannot have no leaves, and it cannot have five or more leaves because of the hypothesis that there are more trees in the world than there are leaves on any one tree. It follows, then, that it must have either 1 leaf or 2 leaves or 3 or 4; we don't know which, but it doesn't matter, since no matter which there will be two trees with the same number of leaves. Now nothing in this reasoning depends on our initial assumption that there are just five trees in the world; it holds for any number. Hence if there are n leaves in the world, on the conditions of the problem no tree will have more than n – 1 leaves, no matter what n is. And there is nothing in the reasoning restricting us to trees and leaves, we could have spoken instead of books and pages, und so wetter.

2 In general, any theory that maintains that there can be no good and sufficient reason for a normative claim, that there are no sound normative or evaluative arguments, that ultimate normative principles cannot be proved, that normative claims cannot be true or false or correct or incorrect, that normative claims have no rational basis, or that the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, better and worse, is merely a matter of custom, convention, taste, feeling, preference, opinion, or tradition, is a form of moral scepticism; but moral scepticism can take still other forms. The present writer, whose name at the moment escapes me, has discussed this matter in ‘Moral Skepticism’, Skepticism and Moral Principles, Carter, Curtis L. (ed.) (Evanston: New University Press, 1973), 77108.

3 I have here used and modified somewhat some ideas earlier presented in Philosophy (January 1985), 11–12. Let me add that there are at least three types of moral problems. Type (a) occurs when two moral beliefs clash, and one then has the problem of determining what or which is right in this instance. Type (b) occurs when a moral belief (about which one really has not much doubt) conflicts with a desire or aversion, and the problem then is not—or not so much—to determine what is the right thing to do, as to do it—or get oneself to do it. Type (c) occurs when, as sometimes happens, the second type merges into the first, when our desire or aversion is so strong it leads us to question or doubt the original belief; this can sometimes be enlightening; it can also be corrupting.

4 Dewey, John, The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1910), 19.

5 Passmore, John, Man's Responsibility for Nature (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), 44.

6 Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica (Cambridge University Press, 1903) and Ethics (London: Oxford University Press, 1912); Rashdall, Hastings, The Theory of Good and Evil, 2 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1907)— seeesp. Vol. I, Ch. vii, entitled ‘Ideal Utilitarianism’, the name that came to be adopted generally. An excellent account of utilitarian ethics is Anthony Quinton's book of that title—Utilitarian Ethics (New York: St Martin's Press, 1973).

7 Nicomachean Ethics, transl. by W. D. Ross, Bk. I, Chs 1 & 2, 1904page 170 note a. For the sake of comparison, consider the translation provided by Welldon:

Every art and every scientific inquiry, and similarly every action and purpose, may be said to aim at some good. Hence the good has been well defined as that at which all things aim. But it is clear that there is a difference in the ends; for the ends are sometimes activities, and sometimes results beyond the mere activities. Also, where there are certain ends beyond the actions, the results are naturally superior to the activities. [This offhand remark by Aristotle is by no means self-evident, as Aristotle evidently takes it to be—MGS.]

If it is true that in the sphere of action there is an end which we wish for its own sake, and for the sake of which we wish everything else, and that we do not desire all things for the sake of something else (for, if that is so, the process will go on ad infinitum, and our desire will be idle and futile) it is clear that this will be the good or the supreme good [The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, transl. by Welldon, J. E. C. (London: Macmillan and Co., 1892), 1&2].

8 The most sophisticated account of this procedure is in a book apparently little known to moral philosophers or to philosophers in Britain, Cohen, Felix's Ethical Systems and Legal Ideals (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1933), Ch. III, Sec. 1 and passim, esp. pp. 115–126. The idea that was distinctive of Bentham—and, through Bentham, later utilitarianism—is the dictum that each is to count for one, none for more than one. In Hutcheson's prior version of a hedonic calculus, the importance or status of persons could give their pleasures or pains greater or lesser weight. See Hutcheson, Francis, Inquiry Concerning Moral Good and Evil (1725), Sect. III, esp. pp. viii and xi, in Selby-Bigge, (ed.), British Moralists (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897), Vol. I, 98117, esp. 107 and 110.

9 Dewey, J., Human Nature and Conduct (HNC) (1st edn, 1922; Modern Library edn, 1930, from which passages quoted are taken); Dewey, John and Tufts, James H., Ethics (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1908; 2nd edn, 1932, thoroughly rewritten); passage quoted is taken from 1st edn.

10 Kant, , Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (1785, Prussian Akademy edition), Vol. 4, 393; Paton translation, abbreviated in text as Gr., with page number given thereafter. Beck's translation is: ‘Nothing in the world—indeed nothing even beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good except a good will’. And Abbott: ‘Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a Good Will’. The German is relatively simple: ‘Es ist überall nichts in der Welt, ja überhaupt auch ausser derselben zu denken möglich, was ohne Einschränkung für gut könnte gehalten werden, als allein ein Guter Wille’. It is the next sentences that are hard.

11 Kant's other line of argument on this score is contained in his basic supposition that what a perfectly rational being would do, out of necessity, is what an imperfectly rational—therefore a human—being ought to do. Cf. pp. 28–29 of Paton's ‘Analysis of the Argument’ prefixed to his translation of the Groundwork, entitled The Moral Law (London: Hutchinson's University Library, 1948), and Gr., 412–414. A more detailed account of Kant's ethics is contained in ‘Morality and Universality’, Ch. 25 in An Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Parkinson, G. H. R. (ed.) (London: Routledge, 1988), 568586. An excellent account is Kant's Moral Philosophy, by Acton, H. B. (London: Macmillan, 1970). As mentioned, Kant's ethics is not the only form of deontological ethics. It is only (until recently, at any rate) the most difficult and complex. Another main form of deontological ethics is represented by the views of Butler (Sermons Upon Human Nature, 1726; ‘Of The Nature of Virtue’, 1736), Price, Richard (Review of the Principal Questions in Morals, 1758), Reid, Thomas (Essays on the Active Powers of Man, 1788), Ross, W. D. (The Right and the Good, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1930; and Foundations of Ethics, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1939), and Prichard, H. A. (Moral Obligation, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1949). More recent versions of note—though with them the notion of ‘deontological’ begins to get very slippery—are Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971—see esp. pp. 34), and Gewirth, Alan, Reason and Morality (Chicago University Press, 1978).

12 Whately, Richard, Paley's Moral Philosophy (London: I. W. Parker and Son, 1859), 14. Cf. Piaget, Jean: ‘All morality consists in a system of rules, and the essence of all morality is to be sought for in the respect which the individual acquires for these rules’ [The Moral Judgment of the Child (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1932) 1].

13 Holmes, Oliver Wendell Jr, The Common Law (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1881), 3.

14 Quoted in Adlai Stevenson: A Study in Values, by Muller, Herbert J. (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 277.

15 Consider the famous opening sentences of the Tractatus: ‘The world is everything that is the case. The world is the totality of facts, not of things … [Wittgenstein, L., Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ogden, transl. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1922), 31]. There is an intriguing account of ‘facts’ in Cohen, M. and Nagel, E., An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1934): ‘It denotes at least four distinct things. 1. We sometimes mean by “facts” certain discriminated elements in sense perception. … 2. “Fact” sometimes denotes the propositions which interpret what is given to us in sense perception. … 3. “Fact” also denotes propositions which truly assert an invariable sequence or conjunction of characters. … What is believed to be a fact in this (or even in the second) sense depends clearly upon the evidence we have been able to accumulate; ultimately, upon facts in the first sense noted, together with certain assumed universal connections between them. Hence, whether a proposition shall be called a fact or a hypothesis depends upon the state of our evidence. … 4. Finally, “fact” denote those things existing in space or time, together with the relations between them, in virtue of which a proposition is true. Facts in this sense are neither true nor false, they simply are … Facts in this fourth sense are distinct from the hypotheses we make about them. A hypothesis is true, and is a fact in the second or third sense, when it does state what the fact in this fourth sense is. … Consequently, the distinction between fact and hypothesis is never sharp when by “fact” is understood a proposition which may indeed be true, but for which the evidence can never be complete …’ (pp. 217–219).

16 Lucas, J. R., ‘On Not Worshipping Facts’, Philosophical Quarterly 8 (04 1958), 144156.

17 Murphy, Arthur E., The Theory of Practical Reason (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1965), 265. Cf. p. 267; indeed, the whole of Ch. 10.

18 Cf. Generalization in Ethics (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), 13 et seq.

19 Some of these points have been borrowed from ‘Metaetyka a istota etyki’, published in Polish in Etyka, Vol. 11 (1973) 121ff.; translated into Polish by Ija Lazari-Pawlowska and here untranslated into English by the author.

20 It is hard to improve on what Kurt Baier has said on this matter in the chapter on ‘Value Judgments’ in The Moral Point of View (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958). Another key work is Urmson, J. O., ‘On Grading’, Mind 59, No. 234 (04 1950), 145169. A brief earlier effort of the present writer's is in a review in Ethics 70, No. 4 (07 1960), 330332, of Montefiore, Alan's A Modern Introduction to Moral Philosophy (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1959); the book seems to have survived the review.

21 By Tucker, Carll, in the Saturday Review (11.26.77), 5. For the antidote, Warnock, G. J.'s ‘On Choosing Values’ (Midwest Studies in Philosophy III (1978), 2834) can be recommended as choice. On the matter of the existence of values a recent book that has given me pause is Reiner, Hans's Duty and Inclination (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1983); my review of it, Philosophical Review 96, No. 2 (04 1987), at 300301, will provide the requisite references.

22 There is considerable wisdom on this matter in Murphy, A. E.'s The Uses of Reason (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1943), Part II, Ch. I, ‘The Context of Moral Judgment’.

23 Collected Legal Papers (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1921), 306.

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