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.


14 Responses to On the Objectivity of Values

  1. I could be wrong but I don’t think that any Austrian would argue with the fact that external circumstances effect internal subjective valuation. Are you saying anything more than that really?

  2. The interesting question is, “Is there choice when your life is on the line?” Is the desicion to trade bread for water when you’re literally at deaths door from thirst a decision based on preference (calculated valuation) or is there a theoretical point at which the external circumstances (objective reality – heat and lack of water) trump internal valuation and force action necessary to continue living? In that circumstance does one really have a choice to NOT drink the water?

    In any case I don’t think these fringe cases are what is being discussed when Austrians discuss market transactions. Interesting though.

    • I’m not sure I understand the problem here. But my example presupposes that both persons prefer life over death. If one of them (or both) were to prefer death over life, no transaction would take place.

    • Or in my more mundane example, the person might prefer to quench his thirst with a Coca-Cola or a glass of beer. But that doesn’t change my reasoning.

  3. I do not want to get into a rigmarole about the nature of free will, because that tends to lead to never-ending discussions. I just would like to point out that choice presupposes alternatives to choose between. In my thought experiment, the choice is literally a life-or-death choice.

    But then I have to add that this would be a choice only if one of the persons (or both) is/are so fed-up with life that he (or they) actually contemplate(s) dying out there in the desert.

    Again, many words on something fairly self-evident.

  4. I’ve read and re-read your post several times. I think I’m with you till you present your analogies, which, for me, confuse matters. From what I can tell, you’re suggesting that value is equally subjective and objective. This has to be true, you say, because the characteristics of things, being what they are, is precisely what rationalizing humans find value in.

    If I’m am right with my assumption then I would counter that physical characteristics of things don’t, in and of themselves constitute value.

    For example.
    The ball is round. That is an objective statement. But round ≠ value.
    The sun is hot. Hot ≠ value.
    Ice cream is cold. Cold ≠ value.

    I could go on and on pointing out the physical characteristics, or attributes on tangible objects and never once would a property be “value”. You could never say objectively that The ball is value. That statement is purely subjective. No thing has value as an inherent property.

    Valuation is necessarily the byproduct of a thinking participant who is capable of rationalizing whether the objects characteristics are or are not valuable to him. Without rationalization, value is non existent. This has to be the case because thinking, rationalizing man created the idea of value. Take that out of the equation and all you are left with is objects that are what they are. Nothing else.

    Lets imagine that there are a group of individuals who have never experienced fire. Their are black rocks everywhere around where they live but neither he nor his mates ever give them a second glance. In fact they loathe them because they hurt their feet when stepped on. One day, the group witnesses the fact that when two of these rocks are struck together a spark is created and a fire is started. The fire is warm and the men soon realize that they prefer to be warm than cold. The properties of the little flint rocks have not changed. They are just as they’ve always been. But there is now value associated with them because the men now know they provide a means to create the warmth which they prefer.

    One last thought…
    If a man was surrounded by absolute nothingness, he could still find value in it. If all the world existed without at least one man to witness it, think on it, and use it to his benefit, then value would cease to exist.

    • Did you read the essay I linked to in my original post? – Anyway, the short answer is that values are not “inherent” in objects; they becomes values only in relation to a valuing subject. Judging from the examples you give, we are actually in agreement on this point.

      • Yes, I think we are in agreement on that point, for the most part.

        Where I think you err though is in this phrasing “they becomes values”. “They” have not become value. “They” have not changed at all. “They” are as they have always been. What has changed is simply a thought in a man’s head. Man sees value in the object because is plays a role in satisfying a want or need.

        I was thinking about this more last night. Value is always associated with a need or want. If there was no need or want, there could be no value. Flint is only valued by man who sees being cold as a problem. In a perfect state of bliss there would be no value at all. There would be no need for calculation or valuation.

        I started to read your original post but I didn’t finish it. Perhaps I will go back to it.

        Anyway, Thanks for humoring me through this. I’ve enjoyed the mental exercise.

      • Thanks for that. I think you are right in saying that the things themselves do not change when they acquire value; it’s their relation to the valuing subject that changes. To take your flint example, flint is still the same kind of mineral it has always been; when the stone-age man starts using it to further his own survival and well-being, its relation to the stone-age man changes.

    • Another example that does not require a thought experiment is that a mineral like iron has absolutely no value as long as it lies dormant in the ground; it acquires value when people begin to mine it. (I think Carl Menger was the first to point this out.)

      A third example that I made up at the spur of the moment: Suppose there is a woman somewhere in the world who is a perfect match for me. But this has no value-significance until the day we meet and fall in love.

  5. To take your examples: No, a ball is no value “in itself”. It acquires value when someone starts playing with and finds this pleasurable. It acquires an enormous value, when someone becomes a professional football player and can earn loads of money from it.

    And the hotness of the sun is no value “in itself”. It acquires value when someone is basking in the sun and finds pleasure in it. (It becomes a disvalue when you bask too much and get burned.) It’s also a great value in agriculture, because without it, it would be very hard to grow crops. (And again, it becomes a disvalue of not combined with rain.)

    I hope I have made myself clear, but I fear I haven’t. I propbably will have to write a separate blog post on how to avoid getting misunderstood. 😉

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