30 April, 2012 14 Comments
(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.