This is a revision/restatement on the nature of value, and a sketch (more developed in my other writings) on how we live with and structure values. (Warning: Fairly long, reasonably deep)
There are many ways to think on values; diverse perspectives fill the centuries of recorded human thought, morals and ethics and other norms appear to have been present, in diverse forms, for longer than we've been civilised. How can we understand the existing diversity of perspectives, and how should we think of the practice of holding values? What values should we hold? Any theory of values should be able to make sense of the diverse value systems and adequately characterise other metaphilosophies of values.
First, some scaffolding/terminology that we hope will be relatively noncontentious (or at least act as a basis of translation for other ways to think about these matters):
- A theory of values is a philosophy composed of structured set of values with organisation
- A metatheory of values is a philosophy composed of commentary on how values are/should be structured. It may contain metavalues that act to judge how we structure our values
- Metametatheories would judge/structure our metatheories. I have enumerated some metametatheoretical values above.
- Moral absolutism - Some value-framework is intrinsic to either the nature of things or to humanity
- Moral relativism - value-frameworks are made by humans, with there being no non-perspectived path to privilege one value-framework over another
Focusing on moral relativism, we note there are many possible reactions to recognising values as perspectived; while there may be a variety of value systems, presumably at least one for each living and dead human, likely more as value systems change and people wrestle with multiple such systems, there are common strands between them based on nationality, faith, and exposure to various other (national or otherwise, religious or otherwise) philosophies. The content of a value-framework being various kinds of "should", the norms that come from such a framework are expressed both in individuals and in community norms. These shoulds can also be held relative to an individual (self-oriented norms), to various levels of group identity (from marriages or business partners to family to clans to a nation), to things held obligatory to and concerning all humanity. On this last point, we note that this should not be confused with moral absolutism; it is universalising (something that one perspective sees as a duty for all), not universal (something that is intrinsically/non-perspectively seen as some kind of a duty).
I provide these terms:
- Strong value relativism describes perspectives that treats some values as universalising.
- Weak value relativism describes perspectives that restricts its treatment of values so that none of them aim for a scope stronger than a nation, a community, a family, or individuals.
The origin of values in an individual come from the sum total of their experiences, heavily weighted by inculturation in youth, heavily weighted by parental figures and possibly religious guidance. At some point, if and as independent thought becomes a habit, a person may continue to expose themselves to works on the topic independent from the norms of their culture, encounter people/ideas from other cultures, or possibly do relatively independent philosophy on the topic. The vast majority of people will develop most of their value-content based on a lightly-changed version of norms present in past generations, shaped by political rhetoric and events over their lives, and they will pass these values down to any children they might raise (or encounter), slightly changed. Occasionally events that shake up a person, family, or society will lead to a much greater potential for change; as value-systems in this sense are a particular kind of memes, there are analogues to population genetics here. The ultimate origin of values is instinct; as humans became self-aware, originally programmed instinct became available for greater change as thought-on-thought became possible, creating the possibility for thoughts-on-value.
I briefly present my metatheory of value:As individuals, we can be understood to have a variety of values with various strengths. Any individual value potentially conflicts with most other values, and they conflict in a way that a simple ranking of values is not generally possible; we resolve value conflicts in the context of specific situations. Some values are also more basic than others; relatively basic values may have other values derived from them. If we were to imagine two conflicting values, perhaps a commitment to opensource software and loyalty to a company (both very derived and fact-entangled values, nearing value-conclusions), a person holding both might be able to work out potential conflicts in a number of ways based on specific situations based on those values, without being able to clearly say one value is more important than another:
- A person might decide that opensource is more important than continued employment in a way that they would quit the job were the company to release a nonopensource product
- A person might decide that opensource is more important than continued employment in a way that they would quit the job were not doing so to eliminate all opensource products everywhere (perhaps through some legal challenge
A simple ranking not being possible, we consider a weaker categorisation of values; the level of our commitment to them in terms of what kinds of action we would consider to press them. I define the folllowing categories:
- Morals are values for which we would use force (or see force used) to press them (e.g. a moral conclusion against slavery)
- Ethics are values for which we would use strong social forces (like shunning) to press them
- Commitments are values for which we would use weak social forces (like expressed discomfort or published preferences) to press them
- Preferences are values that we do not press or hold up for others.
Each value may be present in multiple frameworks, and values in each category are woven together into value-conclusions that prevent the full-weighing-from-scratch of all the relevant values as certain points-of-tension recur over a life.
Leaving that overview, we note that communities use various means to shape their value-conclusions into public norms; these can be given various levels of strength depending on the community; law is one form of public norm, and various political and philosophical and religious communities, should they not have the power to enact law, may push their own values on their members (and concievably clash with actual law should they be moral norms that differ enough from the broad consensus that normally forms laws for some forms of governance).
There are other metatheories of value; most of those that I would categorise as moral absolutist have made absolutist claims out of pragmatism; the language they can use to support their claim seems stronger if they can pretend some universality, and that boldness serves them well in environments where people are not used to careful analysis of rhetoric. Without any proper path to privilege their claims, I dismiss those parts of their claims as a vanity and a mark of shame (Dabblers in philosophy, like Sam Harris, make this mistake more often than those who have surveyed the topic enough; fortunately, as with any claims to objectivity in values, it is possible to swiftly find the error in their foundations). The hunger of any value-system to universalise its most important values is natural, the fault comes only from reification through claims of objectivity. I have no objections to relativist value-philosophy that works values into broad principles in each framework, even if the frameworks are not explicitly recognised or seen as significant.