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Where do values come from?


To: Kristine K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Where do values come from?
Date: 14 January 2003 13:09

Dear Kristine,

Thank you for your letter which I received on 5 January, with your third essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'What are values? Where do they come from? How are values integrated to form a 'unique valuational perspective?'

In the second sentence of your essay you say, 'The world "value" has more than one signification, but in our context it means a moral principle.'

This gives me problems, since this is not at all how I am using the notion of the term 'value'.

Suppose, for a moment, that I did mean 'moral value'. Then the question would be, in effect, 'Where do morals come from?' Much of the program is about this. The main distinction to make here is between an explanation of how, as a matter of fact, the idea of morality has arisen - its social and historical roots - and how, on the other hand, one might rationally justify the belief that the moral rules which have evolved in this way are indeed binding on conduct.

As I explained in my last letter, however, I am deliberately using 'value' in a way that contrasts the 'theory of values' with the 'theory of conduct'. Whatever you think of that prescriptive definition, it is an interesting question - and it is the question I am raising here - what exactly is a value and where values 'come from'.

Some values *are* what I like. This is a value, in as full-blooded sense as one would wish. I like to play chess (even though I'm not very good at it). Valuing chess as I do, I might, or might not be able to find the words to explain what I find valuable about it (for me).

But isn't it an interesting question why we like games? If I try to tell you why I think chess is so great, you might be bored silly, but at least I could assume that you would know what there is to be valued in a game. Why do humans like to play (maybe aliens from the planet Zog have never heard of a game). Why are we moved by fiction? What's so great about music? and so on.

Hedonism is a well known theory of values. As an explanation of why we like games, fiction, music etc. I would argue that it begs the question. Yet there is something true, all the same, about the connection between values and the elementary feelings of pleasure and pain, and the connection of these with our human nature. But that is only the beginning.

Values are capable of being shared. If that were not so, it would be impossible to evolve a language for talking about values. As soon as one talks about 'sharing' morality does indeed enter the picture. But it is still important for the philosopher to be aware of the difference between what is accounted for under the general heading 'consideration of others' and what is accounted for under the heading 'shared values'. Where things get interesting is at the point where different groups of people have different shared values, yet must somehow negotiate, through 'moral dialogue' a way of living together, or living in peace rather than in a state of war.

Before one gets to that point, however, interesting questions arise about 'valuational perspective', how my conflicting interests are negotiated internally and integrated, apart from the moral question of how I am to negotiate with another individual or group and his/ her/ their valuational perspective.

Getting back to your essay, you do raise important challenges which need to addressed.

For example, a group of people who agree in viewing fox hunting as an abomination would not accept that they merely share a certain value which the pro-hunt lobby do not share. That description I have just given of the situation involves taking an external or neutral view, whereas internally, the objection to fox hunting is seen as a MORAL objection. This complicates the already complex relation between 'morals' and 'values'. For we have to consider how, through moral dialogue, one approaches disagreement with those who do not share our philosophical theory of 'moral dialogue', as the negotiation between different valuational perspectives rationally motivated by respect for the other.

You might well ask why not say the same about murder. Imagine a group of people who are pro-murder. They see nothing wrong with it. Are we to 'negotiate' with them? Is it just that we strongly disvalue murder while they are neutral, or perhaps even value it? Surely, that would be a reductio ad absurdum of this approach. I think murder is a special case (or rather, one of a narrow class of special cases, another would be lying) where the prohibition arises directly from the notion of respect for the other. So it would be impossible, from the point of view of an ethics of dialogue, to so much as consider the possibility that murder (or lying) might not be wrong.

All the best,