Understanding Values

Notions of the good in a "finished philosophy" suitable for consideration by non-philosophers are presented in a number of forms - moral codes, legal systems, parables, etc. In all but the most simplistic of these, they must deal with the inherent complexity of the field - behaviour that is deemed good in most situations is in less common situations something that must yield to other concerns. In some frameworks, a notion of jurisprudence and scholarship is implied (the four classical schools of Sunni Islamic Jurisprudence being one example), while in others certain principles are established as superiour to others. The codes serve a purpose, even if not explicitly stated, of advancing a permutation-and-weighting of public values. A philosophical understanding of these systems (and possibly an attempt to construct such a system) benefit from an understanding of values and their systematisation.

Values are an element of human desire. If someone desires something, they are understood to value it, and its acquisition or use is a value to them. Most values of these sort are not philosophically interesting. In philosophy, the most interesting values tend to have two attributes - they are relatively simple, and they are public.

Value systems, in sufficiently honest, intelligent, and considered discussions, tend to be at their heart inpenetrable to public discussion - when people find that their ideas, dreams, or conclusions are based on different value systems, they can eventually pinpoint the origins of their differences by "debugging" between each framework to find where the differences are, but once these differences are identified (provided they really are value differences and not matters of judgement, factual disagreements, or similar) it lies outside the realm of philosophical discourse to say more (discussion can proceed into matters of aesthetics, metavalues or can take a number of other tacks). The process of "debugging" to identify differences is usually a process of mutual decomposition of complex values into their simpler components - the simplest values are atomic, and higher-level values are composed of simpler ones plus some matter of judgement, stretching upwards in complexity until they begin to resemble value-conclusions. In public discourse, the higher level values (and value-conclusions built on them) are of great importance - they're most easily passed from one individual to the next, and they're most directly used in formation of a value-framework, which is given to most people as a way to provide good answers to most questions of values. Priests, philosophers, ethicists, and sometimes judges and lawyers act to provide advice (sometimes binding) on complex "corner cases" where the simpler pattern of the grand framework does not provide clarity.

Philosophers of various sorts act either as engineers for an accepted set of values (see particularly the status of mujtahid in Islam) or take upon themselves the task of creation or reasoning to alter value systems. In this task, working with low level values is more useful (although they will want to attend to framework-level consideration as well). Depending on their method of construction/reasoning/modification, they might desire to start with an existing system and reshape it towards some configuration of values (perhaps using Rawlsian reflective equilibrium or a Hegelian dialectic) or alternatively to decide on some foundational values and a sufficiently powerful set of metavalues to derive a system.

In lay philosophical discussion, the most efficient path to understanding positions lies in allowing mutual deconstruction of value system, which means having one or both parties understanding (and ideally having previously introspected over their framework in this way) the process of uncovering simpler values and judgements from more complex values. This style of discussion can be undertaken at the same time as looking for inconsistencies in another's (or one's own) viewpoint if done carefully, although the process is often resisted by those who seek to win such discussions rather than understand. Some practical philosophies, particularly those close to immature deep philosophy, have traditions of resisting deconstruction through various means such as embedding large amounts of value-conclusions into their high-level values (e.g. "liberty", "tradition", "patriotism"). These philosophies may be considered ill-formed (I claim this as a metaphilosophic conclusion).

Values people hold differ in how public or privately-intended they are - public values are intended to be adopted/held/adhered to by some scope of others, while private values lack that property. The scope of public values can vary greatly - they may be tied to family honour, to be defining for some kind of voluntary association, for a society, or for all of humanity. Private values are important aspects of individuals, but their codifications (when present - often private values are uncodified) tend to impact society less than public values because they only rarely are interpersonal in a way society takes an interest. One way to see this divide is to consider Kant's Categorical Imperative - if it intuitively can/should apply to the value and the conclusions it suggests, it is understood as being a public value in some form. A possible example of a private value that still has public consequences would be an instance where someone holds a certain kind of conclusion to be the best codification and general rule for society but there are difficult-to-codify exceptions that they would take or approve for themselves and risk or accept the punishment of society in such circumstances. In this case, even if the values involved in their public form lead to a certain codified public conclusion that they accept, a set of private nuances would override that in some border cases. These kinds of conflicts are not necessarily rare - various "crimes of passion" are better understood in this light, and sympathy for the "criminal" indicates similar nuanced private-value-conclusion exceptions in the listener.

One characteristic of my philosophy of value is that values tend to be organised so that there's a strong alignment between the degree to which values are public and the extent that they are actually enforced/pushed/suggested on society. I hold this characteristic as a metavalue - I do not claim not to hold value conclusions that are nonpublic and that would in some circumstances be possibly agressively enacted in society, but that such value-conclusions are more rare than common, and that like most such nonpublic exceptions to the public/codifiable public good/laws of society, mine do not differ greatly from the "common sense" circumstances where many other people in my society would violate the categorical imperative.

Pat Gunn (aka Improv) <pgunn@dachte.org>