Philosophers are not the only thinkers to ask this question. Nineteenth century economists also puzzled over how to answer it. And the answer that the economists came up with has great relevance to the study of Moral Philosophy.
What is it that results in one buyer being willing to pay more for a "widget"than another? Why is the widget more valuable to this buyer rather than that? Why does the buyer value the widget more than the one who sold it? Why does the buyer value this widget over that thingimabob? A lot of economists at the time thought that "value"was intrinsic to the widget. The thinking was that there was something about the widget that made it valuable in and of itself. This concept was the genesis of the "labour theory of value"(and Marxist economics). The core idea was that the work effort that it took to create the widget somehow created the intrinsic value of the widget.
However, the development of modern theories of economics had to wait until economists recognized that the theory of intrinsic value is fundamentally wrong. Value is not intrinsic in the thing that is valued. Value is a relational property of how well some individual considers that the "thing"will fulfill some purpose. The concept of "value"entails a "for whom"and a "for what purpose". The value of some thing to a particular individual is an indication of just how well that individual considers the thing in question will fulfill the purpose the individual intends for that thing. Economic trade (either buying and selling or barter exchange) is made possible by the fact that different individuals are in different circumstances. So any particular thing will contribute to different extents towards their different purposes. This is called the utility theory of value. This alternative understanding of value was most famously described by Adam Smith in his "Wealth of Nations"(Adam Smith; An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. First published 1776).
The concept of "value", regardless of the field of discourse, is fundamentally a concept of utility. Values ("things"material and abstract) are valued by the individual because and to the extent that they are deemed useful in the attainment of some purpose or goal. Values may be based on knowledge, aesthetic considerations, practicality, ethical principles, or on a combination of these. Of course, as was obvious in our discussion of economic value above, much of what we value is not concerned with our sense of morality or ethics, so not all values can be called moral ones. Moral values, after all, do not relate to material things, but to standards and principles of behaviour. Most of us value money, status, personal fulfillment, and freedom, and while these are not immoral values, they are not necessarily moral values. Moral values are valued because and to the extent that they are deemed useful in the attainment of the individual's moral purposes or goals.
Your values, then, are your beliefs or attitudes about what is good, right, desirable, worthwhile, useful, etc. Your values exist as a complex set of interweaving personal policies or priorities that serve as a guide for decision-making. They are your beliefs about what is important in life, and how important it is. Your values provide the foundation from which you make judgments and choices as to which alternatives are more or less desirable. Your value system constitutes the way you organize, rank, prioritize and make decisions based on your values. Some values refer to how one should act (for example, to be honest, self-disciplined, kind). Other values refer to what one wants to accomplish or obtain in life (for example, a lot of money, security, fame, health, salvation, wisdom).
So just what are the purposes and goals -- moral or otherwise -- that cause us to value things because and to the extent that they are deemed useful in the attainment of them? To properly understand the significance of this question and its answer, it is best to start at the beginning.
When we look around us, at the diverse universe of things that that fall within our view, we easily, readily, and almost automatically divide the universe into two categories - those things that are alive, and those things that are not. What is it that distinguishes "animate"from "inanimate", "life"from "non-life"? (Those things about which we are not immediately sure is normally such a small set that we ordinarily ignore its existence.)
Life is notoriously difficult to define. It is easier to simply list and describe its characteristics. The definitions from the dictionary provide an obvious first approximation. Living things have functions, are active and energetic. More particularly, living things metabolize, grow, reproduce, respond to stimuli, and adapt to the environment. Here are a few additional characteristics:- life is highly organized; requires a constant input of energy and raw materials; has a strong homeostatic quality ( "homeostasis"is the ability or tendency of an organism to maintain internal equilibrium by adjusting its physiological processes, maintaining a state of chemical and physical consistency in the face of changes in the surroundings); reproduces itself (perhaps the most obvious and unique characteristic of life is its overwhelming focus on reproduction); and adapts through evolution.
A moments contemplation will convince you that no single element on this list will suffice. Iron metabolizes into rust. Crystals grow. Computer viruses reproduce. A photocell responds to environmental stimuli. And a flowing stream adapts to its environment. None of these things are usually considered "alive". It will take a combination of characteristics off that list, at least.
But there is another way to approach the problem. There is one thing that all living things do that no non-living thing does. Over any time scale relevant to human observation, all non-living things change so as to increase their local entropy. Over any time scale relevant to human observation, all living things change so as to decrease their local entropy.
The second law of thermodynamics says that all physical or chemical changes tend to proceed in such a direction that useful energy undergoes irreversible degradation into a randomized form called entropy. They stop at an equilibrium point, at which the entropy formed is the maximum possible under the existing conditions. Paraphrased - systems tend to become more random or disorganized as time goes on.
Any chemical reaction that releases energy so that the products have less energy than the reactant is called an exergonic reaction. Exergonic reactions occur when "fuels"are burned. When a chemical reaction creates products with more energy than the reactants it is called an endergonic reaction. Iron metabolizes into rust, but rust is a lower-energy combination of iron and oxygen. Crystals grow, but a crystal is a lower energy form of the material than is the non-crystal form. A photocell responds to environmental stimuli, but by doing do converts a high-energy photon to a low energy electron that ultimately ends up at the end of the electrical circuit in an even lower energy atomic bound state. And a flowing stream adapts to its environment by seeking and following the lowest energy profile to the lowest energy state (the ocean). Non-living things change by way of exergonic reactions.
By contrast, anything that is living changes by way of endergonic reactions. Life gathers energy from the environment. It organizes low-energy materials into higher energy living stuff. Plants carry on endergonic reactions when they capture sunlight and create sugars, carbohydrates and lipids from CO2 and H2O and thus "store"the energy from the sun as the chemical bonds in these molecules. That energy (in the chemical bonds) is chemically transferred to adenosine triphosphate [ATP] before it is used. Photosynthesis is, ultimately, the capture of a high energy photon of light to convert a low-energy molecule of adenosine diphosphate [ADP] into a high-energy molecule of adenosine triphosphate [ATP]. This energy (the energy difference between ATP and ADP) is then the motive force used by Life to metabolize, grow, reproduce, respond to stimuli, and adapt to the environment.
It is, by the way, important not to fall into the trap of taking too narrow a focus. Obviously, the individual chemical reactions that produce ADP from ATP are exergonic, and are therefore local increases in entropy. But if you broaden your scope to consider the chemical system of which those reactions are an integral part, then it is clear that the larger integrated chemical system that is the entire organism is endergonic, and a local decrease in entropy. The endergonic nature of the total system is an emergent property of the complexity of the system.
There is an inescapable consequence to this entropy view of the difference between the "animate"and the "inanimate". There are vastly more exergonic chemical reactions than there are endergonic ones. And there are vastly more disorganized states of matter than there are organized states of matter. So a random change is far more likely to be exergonic than endergonic - from high energy to low, from organization to disorganisation. The physics of thermodynamics says that, in the absence of life, systems tend to become more random or disorganised as time goes on. In the absence of life, everything tends to evolve to "a state of inert uniformity". However, the way living things change (while living) is always from less energy and organization to more energy and organization. Such changes cannot reasonably be considered random.
When something changes in a way that is not random, we say that the change is "directed"because some process of regulation or control of the change is required in order to avoid the more likely random change. Crystals, for example, grow in a manner "directed"by the energy levels of the crystal lattice.
We can therefore characterize Life as those things which react or behave under the influence of a stimulus from the environment in a manner directed to maintain or increase their local, internal energy level. And this employ of the words is consistent with their common usage. We commonly say that living things act, react, and behave. We do not usually say that of non-living things, and when we do it is in a clearly metaphorical sense. Although there may be random portions of an organism's behaviour, the overall effect of the behaviour must necessarily be non-random -- directed.
What prevents Life from changing in a way that increases its local entropy and disrupting its unique organization? What is to prevent Life from ceasing to be Life? As a matter of empirical observation, we see that Life often does cease to be Life. What prevents that transition for Life that does not cease to be Life?
The answer is - the directed actions of life. The actions that constitute life are non-random. They are directed. And they are directed specifically towards the continued maintenance of life. When and if the actions of life are not specifically directed towards the maintenance of life, life ceases.
So at the fundamental level of physics and biochemistry, the goal of living behaviour (directed action) is the maintenance of the life that is behaving. Living things have to actively pursue the continuation of life. Random action - random response to the environment - will not do. Living behaviour has to be directed towards the continuation of life. The laws of thermodynamics, the universal tendency towards increasing entropy, will cause life to become non-life if it does not direct its actions towards the goal of continued life.
An examination of the fields of Biology, Psychology, Economics, the various Paleo-Sciences, and the more recent results from Genetics and Socio-Biology, yields an interesting collection of evidence with important ramifications for the study of Moral Philosophy. To anyone who cares to explore the evidence, the accumulation of it is overwhelming. An inescapable conclusion is obvious. The basic, elementary component of Life is not the much reified individual organism, but rather that lowly entity, the Gene.
It has therefore become a well recognized principle of biology that life as a whole continues to exist and proliferate on the basis of the individual Gene, and not the individual organisms that we perceive. The current "grand synthesis"underlying modern Psychology, Sociology, Economics, Biology, Genetics, Evolution and Socio-Biology holds that it is the stretch of DNA that can be labelled as a Gene that must be recognised as the entity that survives and proliferates. The individual organism is but an intermediate step that genes pass through in order to promote the proliferation of more genes. The discipline of evolutionary genetics has been singularly successful in explaining complex behaviours in terms of this principle.
It is clear, from observing other species, that Man is the only species that appears to exercise much of a choice of whether or not to behave according to this principle of "genetic survival". All other species are not as free to choose, and do not choose (often or much, if at all). Every individual organism of every other species of life behaves more or less automatically in a manner consistent with the theory that their goal is the continued survival of their genes. Man is the only species where we observe behaviours that appear to be inconsistent with this theory. But not totally so. Observation of human behaviour clearly shows that a large part of our behaviour is explainable, and often predictable, from this same principle of "gene-survival". In fact, it is sometimes surprising just how extensive our "genetic programming"is. The closer we look at human behaviour, the less "free will"we seem to have. The successful application of the various disciplines of evolutionary biology to human behaviour derives from just this fact.
However, since I appear to be free to choose my goals and purposes (and it does certainly seem that I am) - given a choice of alternatives, which alternative ought I choose? Examining the various ethical systems, and the various moral problems discussed by people in general and philosophers in particular, every moral choice can be examined from the perspective of two potential consequences:
(a) I can choose (consciously or by default) the alternative that will aid and abet my own "genetic survival"; or
(b) I can choose (consciously or by default) the alternative that will aid and abet the "genetic survival"of someone else.
Regardless of whatever purpose I may have in mind, and regardless of whatever actions I actually do perform, one of the consequences of any action I perform (or choose not to perform - that too is a directed employ of energy) is either to aid and abet my own genetic survival, or to aid and abet someone else's genetic survival. No matter what the choice, no matter what the consequences, no matter how else you evaluate the consequences of your choices, one dimension of evaluation will always be whether the greatest resulting benefit is to your own genetic survival, or to someone else's genetic survival.
Now why should I choose the alternative that will aid and abet my own genetic survival? Or, alternatively, why should I choose the alternative that will aid and abet the genetic survival of someone else? Also, of course, is the closely related question - Should I choose on the basis of anyone's genetic survival?
There is a lot of moral advice available from many (some might say most) philosophies to the effect that I should not choose on the basis of anyone's genetic survival. These philosophies can be grouped into two broad categories. The "rule-based"philosophies propose that our proper "moral goal"is to adhere to some predefined set of behavioural injunctions. The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament (and Torah) are a typical example of this sort of moral prescription. The "altruistic"philosophies propose that our proper "moral goal"is to specifically choose to aid others (not particularly their genetic survival). In their popular interpretations the Utilitarian Principle ('the greatest good for the greatest number") and the Socialist Principle ("from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs") are typical examples of this sort of moral prescription.
On the other hand, there is a lot of moral advice available from some philosophies to the effect that our proper "moral goal"is aiding oneself. All of the various "happiness"philosophies, from the ancient Greek Hedonists and Epicureans and Aristotle's Eudemonia, through to the modern Economists and Socio-Biologists, all argue that the proper basis of "moral value"is individual self interest. And choosing to aid myself, and more particularly my own genetic survival, would at least be consistent with the theory that our genes have constructed us as complex survival machinery for the purpose of ensuring their continuing survival. The competitive pressures of differential reproductive success over evolutionary time scales have resulted in my construction as a highly flexible learning machine endowed with the intellectual and reasoning capacities to extend my analysis of what is in the best survival interests of my genes into time-frames and environmental scopes not possible to hard-coded genetic programming. I am constructed to have as a moral goal, the reproductive success of my genes over the long haul.
There is a way to cross-check this conclusion. If we consider the role of a "moral goal"in the determination of moral values, then it is conceivable that - (a) I do or can have many moral goals of various kinds; (b) I have no moral goals at all; (c) I have one or more moral goals that I cannot discover; or (d) I have a single moral goal.
Alternatives (b) and (c) can in one sense be eliminated, because I have discovered one clear possible moral goal - that of genetic survival. But I can also admit that it is possible that I am mistaken in this identification. So lets consider, for a moment, how to respond to these alternatives on the assumption that I am indeed wrong. So that (b) becomes "I have no moral goals and my alleged identification of a moral goal is incorrect."And (c) becomes "I have one or more moral goals that I cannot discover, and genetic survival is not one of these."
The reformatted version of (b) is simple enough to dismiss. If my behaviour and choices serve no purpose -- pursue no goal, then there is no reason at all to make one choice over another. No reason at all to exert any energy to pursue any other option than the "do nothing"alternative. If I have no purpose in living, then I should let myself die. Behaviour with no purpose is functionally equivalent to random behaviour, and we have seen that consistently random behaviour is a surefire route to non-life.
Yet eating and drinking take a focused expenditure of energy to complete. And if I do not exert that energy, I get hungry and thirsty. It takes a considerable exertion of self-control - an active expenditure of very focused energy - to refrain from eating or drinking when I get hungry or thirsty. (I know this first hand, because it seems that I am always on a diet!) My every instinctive and biological reaction protests against the alternative of letting myself die. I really do want to live. Most people want to live. Therefore, at the very least, I can identify at least one goal of my actions -- to keep on living.
I do not make the moral choices I make on the basis of pure whimsy. In every moral choice I make, I am convinced that the choice I pick is somehow better than the alternatives. Regardless of the nature of the choice, it is always based on the notion of making things better on some scale of measure. To that extent at least, then, I am pursuing the goal of making things "better"whenever I choose to act one way versus another. Therefore it is not possible that I have no goal at all. Hence we can dismiss alternative (b).
The reformatted (c) requires a different approach. Is there any evidence available that might suggest that I have other moral goals besides "to keep on living"or equivalently "genetic survival"? Assume for a moment that Mankind (either as a species or me individually) does have other moral goals than that of genetic survival (or "to keep n living"). These additional or alternate goals might be acquired either through genetic mutation, through whimsical personal adoption, or through specification by some external agency. What might be the consequences?
If I don't know about the existence of these moral goals, then regardless of what they are, they can have no impact on my consciously chosen behaviours, and no impact on my conscious moral choices. If I have no evidence for the existence of such goals, then I have no way of knowing whether they exist or not. The simple suggestion that I might have additional or other moral goals - either specifically or in general - is not sufficient evidence to suggest that I should pursue them. For there would be no basis upon which to distinguish between any suggested goal that I might have whimsically adopted, and some other goal that someone else might have whimsically offered. I certainly cannot possibly pursue with equal energy all of the possible goals that I might have, or that may have been suggested to me. Most would be mutually contradictory. And most would be inconsistent with the apparent goal of "to keep on living".
Any investment of time or energy I might make in pursuit of some alternative moral goal will interfere with my pursuit of genetic survival (or "to keep on living"). Over the long term, this is sufficient to discount the possibility that we (either as a species or individually) have multiple or alternative goals. If any such moral goals interfered to the slightest degree with the pursuit of genetic survival (or "to keep on living"), not only would they have been bred out of existence if they were of genetic origin, but they would contribute to the "decline and fall"of Homo sapiens if they somehow currently existed.
Therefore, in order to achieve any other possible goal for any length of time, Homo sapiens, as a collection of individuals, must also and firstly be successful in the pursuit of the goal of genetic survival. In other words, even if you do not regard "genetic survival"as our "One True Moral Goal", you must consider it at least a higher priority enabling goal necessary for the achievement of any other proposed moral goal (as long, of course, as the suggested alternative moral goal does not itself require the discontinued existence of Homo sapiens). Which brings us to the realization that alternatives (a) and (c) must also be dismissed.
The only alternatives that we are left with is the possibility that I have a moral purpose that, whether I can discover it or not, is sufficiently important to demand the sacrifice of my genetic heritage. The remaining proposition can therefore be re-phrased as "I have a moral goal (whether I am aware of it or not), and that goal is my death."Obviously, such a moral goal is one that would have to be provided from "without"- it would have to be something not inherent in my natural evolution as a member of Homo sapiens.
In summary then, the four initially defined alternatives come down to two -
(i) I have one or more moral goals, and at least one is my "death"(meaning the sacrifice of my long-term genetic survival); and this moral goal is derived from extra-evolutionary considerations as it is inconsistent with my existence as an evolved organism.
(ii) I have one highest priority moral goal, and that goal is the survival and replication of my genetic heritage over the long term.
Understanding the evolutionary context within which this concept of "moral value"is derived, neatly explains the success of all of the various Consequentialist systems of Ethics. "Happiness", regardless of how defined, can now be understood as the genetically programmed propensity to react with a positive emotional response to those circumstances that usually contribute to ensuring the continuation of the genes.
The "Eudemonia"of Aristotle and the "Utility"of Bentham and Mill can now be understood as the contribution to the individual's effort to ensure the continuation of his/her genes. Economic "value"and moral "value"must be understood in the same way.
When we look out upon the world around us, we do so with a purpose. All the myriad things that we perceive around us are coloured with the many potential ways in which they can help or hinder our pursuit of our ultimate goal. This, after all, is what perception evolved for. We have evolved our abilities to perceive the world around us so that we may perceive and take advantage of the opportunities and avoid the pitfalls in our struggle to ensure the continuation of our genes. Whether the "thing"in question is a widget, a thingimabob, a flavour of ice cream, the character of a friend, or the principle of honesty, our perception of it is coloured by the extent to which we consider that it might likely contribute to the successful proliferation of our genes. Our valuational perspective on the world is both subjective and objective.
Our view of opportunities and pitfalls is subjective because it is our own genes we are concerned with, not the genes of other people (relatives excepted for sound genetic reasons.) Our view is uniquely our own because our abilities to recognize opportunities and pitfalls is intimately dependent on our knowledge of how reality works, and our abilities to anticipate how it will likely respond to alternative courses of action. Our view is uniquely our own because no one else can be in exactly the same circumstances as we find ourselves. No one else has our unique combination of knowledge, skills, resources, and environmental circumstances.
On the other hand, our view is objective (independent of any observer) to the extent that other people can also recognize some of the opportunities and pitfalls that our particular circumstances present to us. Other people are just as aware of our ultimate moral goal, and we have a sympathetic ability to "put ourselves in the other's shoes" -- to see the world from the other person's purpose. So other people can often estimate the colour and shape that our own unique valuational perspective overlays on our view of reality. Other people, because of the different resources they bring to the evaluation or because of their different circumstances, can even recognize when we "ought"to perceive certain opportunities and pitfalls that perhaps we do not.
If you have normal (meaning similar to most other people) visual acuity and do not "see"the redness if a pillar box, then there is something very unusual about your "seeing"of that pillar box -- something that needs explaining. Similarly, if you have normal mental acuity and do not "see"the value in or of something (significant rather than trivial), then there is something very unusual about your "seeing"of that value -- something that needs explaining. So our values are not purely a subjective collection of likes and dislikes. Some are, of course, like flavours of ice cream. Others are not. And it is easily possible that my appreciation of the moral value of something may be corrected by someone who can "see"the value better than I.
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