Can Values Be Measured?

That depends on what we mean by “measurement”. They cannot be measured the way we measure physical object – length, weight, etc. But they certainly can be ranked.

Ayn Rand, in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, calls this “teleological measurement”. We rank values according to their relation to a goal or an end. So, for example, food, clothing and shelter have to be highly valued, since they are necessary for the mere preservation of life. Friendship, a happy marriage and a rewarding career are valued because they enhance our life and well-being. (You can think of other examples yourself.) But they cannot be measured with ordinal numbers; they have to be measured by cardinal numbers You can say that one value is more valuable than another, but you cannot express that numerically.

I came to think about this when reading Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk’s Basic Principles of Economic Value. He writes:

… let us imagine a small boy who wants to by fruit with a small coin in his possession. He can buy either one apple or six plums. Of course, he will compare the eating pleasures afforded by both kinds of fruit. To make his decision, it is not enough to know that he prefers apples over plums. He must decide with numerical precision whether the enjoyment of one apple exceeds the enjoyment of six or fewer plums. To approach the situation from a different angle, let us consider two boys, one with the apple and the other with the plums. The latter would like to acquire the apple and, therefore, offers his plums in exchange. After deliberating on his eating pleasures, the former rejects four, five, and six plums for his apple. But he begins to waver when seven plums are offered, and finally makes the exchange at a price of eight. Doesn’t his trade reveal a numerically conclusion that the pleasure of one apple exceeds that of a plum at least seven times but less than eight times?

I laughed when I read this – not because there is anything wrong with it but because it is ingenious. (Böhm-Bawerk is often ingenious!)

Well, in this case there is a possibility to numerically fix values and to do it by ordinal numbers. But it cannot be as exact as when we measure length or weight. It is an approximation, although within strict limits; in this example between seven and eight. It hardly applies to the values I mentioned in the beginning. Actually, it applies only to values that are exchanged, i.e. economic values. (Friends and spouses are not bought and sold!)

It does apply when it comes to budgeting our money – choosing what food or clothes to buy or what house or apartment to live in. Here we do reason the way the boy in Böhm-Bawerk’s example reasons, weighing for and against and arriving at a price we can afford for whatever alternative suits us best.

And there may be other implications that I haven’t been able to figure out yet. So take this post only as a stray observation!

(See also Ayn Rand and Böhm-Bawerk on Value.)