On the Objectivity of Values

(This is an adaptation of something I wrote in Swedish many years ago.)

Ludwig von Mises (and the “Austrian” school in general) have what they call a “subjective theory of values”; while Objectivism holds that values are as objective as any other form of cognition. (To be precise, it holds that values can and should be objective; there is such a thing as holding irrational or mistaken values.) This looks like a total clash between Objectivism and “Austrianism”; “never the twain shall meet”. But is this really so? Or is this merely a semantic or terminological difference?

Why do the “Austrians” call their theory subjective? One obvious reason is that they reject the notion that value is somehow “inherent” in the objects. No object is valuable “in itself”; they acquire value only in relation to a valuing subject. Also, values vary from person to person; and for the same person, they also vary from time to time. (For example, if I value an ice-cream on a hot summer’s day, it does not mean that I would value that ice-cream in the middle of the winter.)

Also, if values did not vary from person to person, no exchange would be possible. For example, the very fact that I buy an ice-cream for, say, $1 means that at that moment I value the ice-cream over the $1 bill, while the ice-cream vendor values the $1 bill over the ice-cream. If this were not so, no exchange would take place.

But the only thing that is subjective about this is that the object are valuated in relation to a subject and that it is the subject that makes the valuation. (I discussed this at some length in Objectivism versus “Austrian” Economics on Value.) And it should be noted that all cognition, from perception and upwards, is a matter of an interaction between an object and a subject: There is always something that is known and somebody who knows it. To quote Ayn Rand (via John Galt):

Existence exists – and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists. (Emphasis added.)

If somebody argues that all knowledge is subjective, merely because there is a subject involved, he might as well say that all knowledge is objective, merely because there is an object involved. And I think most people grasp this with regard to the physical sciences, but they don’t grasp it with regard to value theory or morality in general.

I once made up an example to demonstrate how values are objective: Imagine two persons meeting in the middle of a desert, with no oasis in sight. One of them is about to starve to death, but he has a bottle of water left. The other one is about to thirst to death, but he has a loaf of bread left. The stage is set for an exchange. And the exchange takes place simply because the starving man values the loaf of bread over his bottle of water, and the thirsting man values the bottle of water over his loaf of bread. The exchange takes place precisely because their values, in that particular moment, differ.

But does this mean that their respective valuations are “merely subjective”? No: it is an objective fact that a man cannot go without food or water for very long before he dies. So that the two persons’ valuations differ does not mean that they are subjective; they are perfectly objective.

You may say that this is an unrealistic example, since this situation rarely, if ever, occurs. In normal life, we are seldom lost in the middle of some desert; much less then under those odd circumstances.

But the principle is equally applicable to the mundane example of buying an ice-cream. You buy the ice-cream and part with your $1 bill, because the sun is hot and you know the ice-cream will quench your thirst; the ice-cream vendor parts with his ice-cream and accepts your $1 bill, because that’s what he does to earn a living. There is nothing subjective about the sun being hot, nor about the necessity to earn one’s living.

Now, I have used a lot of words to explain something that should be fairly self-evident. I hope you get my point.

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Ludwig von Mises on Egoism vs. Altruism

A Facebook friend of mine, Jack Schwartz, recently drew my attention to an essay by Warren Orbaugh, Similarities and differences between Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand’s ideas. If you are interested in this subject, I recommend that you read it. I may have more to say about it later, but now I will just take up Mises’ view on egoism vs. altruism. Here are some quotes on this subject (from the section “Eudaemonistic Ethics and Socialism” in Socialism, p. 356ff):

The idea of a dualism of motivation assumed by most ethical theorists, when they distinguish between and altruistic motives of action, cannot […] be maintained. This attempt to contrast egoistic and altruistic action springs from a misconception of the social interdependence of individuals. […] There is no contrast between moral duty and selfish interests. What the individual gives to society to preserve it as society, he gives, not for the sake of aims alien to himself, but in his own interest. The individual […] cannot deny society without denying himself.

And, in the next section, “A Contribution to the Understanding of Eudaemonism”:

That everyone lives and wishes to live primarily for himself does not disturb social life but promotes it, for the higher fulfillment of the individual’s life is possible only in and through society. This is the true meaning of the doctrine that egoism is the basic law of society.

I quoted those passages in an essay I wrote a long time ago in Swedish, Varför behöver vi Ayn Rand? (“Ayn Rand: Why Do We Need Her?”). I tried to answer the question “Why do we need Ayn Rand, when we already have Ludwig von Mises? What does she contribute that goes beyond what Mises (and other free market advocates) have already told us? And my answer, in essence, was that Mises does not condemn altruism the way it should be condemned. From those quotes, it seems that he thinks egoism and altruism are compatible and that there is no conflict between them. He does not seem to have grasped that altruism actually means self-sacrifice.

Orbaugh quotes the whole paragraph of which I quoted a part above:

Nothing is gained when the teacher of morals constructs an absolute ethic without reference to the nature of man and his life. The declamation of philosophers cannot alter the fact that life strives to live itself out, that the living being seeks pleasure and avoids pain. All one´s scruples against acknowledging this as the basic law of human action fall away as soon as the fundamental principle of social co-operation is recognized. That everyone lives and wishes to live primarily for himself does not disturb social life but promotes it, for the higher fulfillment of the individual´s life is possible only in and through society. This is the true meaning of the doctrine that egoism is the basic law of society.

Well, this is eminently true. There is no such dichotomy as “living for one’s own sake” and “living in society” or “getting along with other people” (well, at least as long as those others are rational). There are, as Ayn Rand wrote in The Virtue of Selfishness, no conflict of interests among rational men; and, as Mises and other good economists express the same idea, there prevails on the free market a “harmony of interests”.

The only valid objection I can raise against Mises is still that he does not see that “altruism” actually means self-sacrifice and thus has to be condemned as an evil doctrine. He sees it as “living with others and getting along with others”. He probably has not read this line by Ayn Rand:

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. (“Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World”, Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 71ff.)

But is this a mere semantic difference, or is it indicative of a deep philosophical gulf between Mises and Objectivism? I would say the former.

(Parenthetically, I have noticed over the years that as soon as there is a discussion about egoism vs. altruism between Objectivists and non-Objectivists, the discussion immediately becomes semantic. Our adversaries say we do not know the meaning of the words or that we have the wrong definitions. They bury their heads in dictionaries just like ostriches are said to bury their hands in sand; and the discussion never advances to real-life examples.)

As you probably know, the term “altruism” was coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte – and he did mean “living for others” or “for mankind”, at the expense of “living for oneself”. Mises does have a caustic remark about Comte:

There was Auguste Comte. He knew precisely what the future had in store for mankind. And of course, he considered himself as the supreme legislator. …He planned to substitute a new religion for Christianity, and selected a lady who in this new church was destined to replace the Virgin. Comte can be exculpated, as he was insane in the full sense which pathology attaches to this term. But what about his followers? (Human Action, p. 72f.)

The theme of Orbaugh’s essay is that Rand and Mises

… although using the same words, are using different terms, and, I hope to prove, that while seemingly saying different things, are in fact, saying the same thing.

In this case, yes. The difference is merely semantic or terminological.  There are other cases like this. But then there are cases where the difference is not merely apparent but real. If I am not too tired, I will return to them later on.