A Short Essay on Value

slavery

A discussion I’ve had with a few of my friends who are atheists over the last few years has led me to write this very brief consideration of the concept of value. It is an attempt to demonstrate the difficulties of a purely materialistic understanding of morality and value.

Morality is itself based around the concept of value. Certain things warrant certain treatment, and to act as if they possess less than their value is to do moral evil. This comes most obviously in the form of treating human beings as if they were merely objects. When a person is objectified, they are stripped of their dignity of personhood and regarded with a dignity far below that warranted by their value.

Differing systems of morality assign value differently. A racist morality would place the value of one race above another. A utilitarian morality places value in the greatest happiness of the largest number of people. In the first case, treating a “lesser” race as if it were higher is an offense to the moral system, and indeed treating the “higher” race as if it were lower is also offensive. Thus in the early half of the twentieth century in America, for a white man to drink from a black fountain was degrading, and for a black man to drink from a white fountain was more than presumptuous. So too, in a utilitarian system, if a lesser happiness for a smaller group is put before the greater happiness of a larger group, a moral offense has been committed.

This raises the question of where value ultimately comes from. In a theistic system, a person can turn to the creator of all things and hold that, as creator, God has assigned things different values, and thus given each thing a dignity that is appropriate to it. A rock has a very minimal dignity, an ape a very great one, and finally humanity the greatest. The reason for this hierarchy is either explained as simple divine fiat, or, an understanding I find far better, it is explained as having its root in the concept of likeness to God. A rock is somewhat like God in that it exists. An ape more like God in that it thinks, is social, lives, even loves. A human is most like God in that a human, by nature, creates, imagines, shapes, laughs, loves, has abstract thought, worships, and far more than these.

In such a system the theist comes up against the hard brutal fact that things have value whether or not she likes it. A person’s body has value whether or not I want to treat it only as a means to my own pleasure or for my own gain. A person’s will is valuable whether or not I want to override it. Indeed, even an animal or a tree has more value than is convenient for me. All of this is the case because behind the animal, or the person, or the tree is the final ultimate source of all value, the one who makes the tree and the person and says “This is its value.” Because God is outside of the system of things made, and behind them all, it becomes impossible to argue with God, since our arguments are also things that God has made[1].

Now, for an atheist, the situation becomes more dire.[2] For value, not coming from outside of the system of creation, it must be assigned from within the natural order. One of the things in the universe begins to assign value to other things in the universe. A human being says of other human beings “you are valuable to me.” She says of her pet “you are valuable to me.” She says of a piece of art “this is valuable to me.” He says of a bit of shiny metal “this is valuable to me.”

The origin of the value assignment is the person who, and this is the tricky part, has no intrinsic value or authority on her own, but only the value which is given to her by other persons. Thus, an atheist can be easily outraged by the enslavement of another person, because that atheist places value in that other person. But the person who is doing the enslaving may not place value in the enslaved person except as a slave. So who will arbitrate between them as to who is “right?” In an atheistic system, where value only derives from the individual, there can be no such arbiter, for the value of the person resides wholly in the mind of each individual.

Now, there may seem to be three recourses the atheist can take to shore up the strength of her values. The first is society, the second is the natural world, and the third is the fact that she can assign value at all. I want to consider each of these briefly.

The societal argument says that value can be derived not merely from the individual, but from society at large. I might not think that a bit of colored paper has any value, but society does, and so money is valuable. I might not think that a man’s will is particularly valuable, but society values it, so I should not override it.

Now the problem with this argument is that it confuses value and power. A society has power to enforce its views of value. Thus if society tells me that a painting is valuable, and I use it for kindling, society can punish me for treating the painting as if it did not have any value. But this does not actually give the painting value, it only allows some people to enforce their value judgments over other people who disagree. One can no more assign objective value in this way than one can make two and two equal five by popular vote. This is easily seen when the society breaks apart, or changes its mind about the value of things, there is no left over objective value to be dealt with. If we once thought that a particular painter’s work was worth millions, but decide suddenly that its rubbish, we do not make the argument that the thing has some objective value that it was once assigned and that now can’t be gotten over. Nor do we say of those who were once enslaved that they do not have any rights because society agreed at one point that this was the case.

Thus we are left with a simple fact of numbers and power. If enough people agree that certain things have certain value, then they can enforce those views. It does not make them “right” for in such a relative system, there can be no “right.” There are only opinions about what things have what value. A mass of opinions, no matter how large or for whatever span of time, never becomes objective fact.

Now this presents some very sticky situations for the atheist morality. And we must say straight away that there is no denying that atheists can have morality. People who say those kind of things have not thought the matter all the way through. But the matter is, admittedly, rather difficult when an atheist says something like “The law should change” or “society is wrong.” For what is meant by “should” and “wrong?” Society’s value system is a system of general agreement on what has and does not have this or that value. In an atheistic world, this fact of society giving value itself has only the value that the individual or society gives it. In other words, if I think society’s values are worthless, they are in fact worthless to me. But at the same time, if society thinks my values are worthless, they are, because they have been assigned no value by society.

When an atheist says of society “You should be different” what she is saying is “Your values should match my value” or, in other words “You should assign value to my own value assignments.” But where does the “should” come from? Is there an overarching value which she can appeal to and by which she can measure her values to see that they conform to it more closely than society’s?  No. There is only her own assignment of value. What she can say is “I desire that society’s values more closely matched my own.” And indeed, we all, to some great degree, desire this, for it would make all of our lives less frustrating. The danger, which I will not go into other than to mention it here, is that that often transforms into “I value myself above all others, therefore all others should value me above themselves.” Such a world is not workable.

Thus we find that there is no “moral ground” for an atheist to hold one set of morals above any other. If all value is assigned by the individual, then we live in a world where the best we can do is find other likeminded people and live in some approximate harmony. But we cannot, I do not say “should not” since that would be self-contradictory in such a system, claim a superiority of our own values over another’s if we hold to an atheist perspective and desire to be consistent. Now a theist can, without self contradiction. A theist can, though she may be incorrect, claim that her values match the ultimate underlying values of the universe. She can do this without self-contradiction, for her system holds that a human being has real intrinsic value that exists whether or not she likes it. She may be wrong. She may think that things have no value which have great value, or things which she assigns great value to may be almost worthless. But she is merely in error then, not in self-contradiction. Thus a theist can say to society “You are wrong” without entering self-contradiction.

The second thing an atheist might appeal to is nature. Evolution seems to have put forward certain traits that are useful for the building of society. Therefore we can look to these particular patterns as the most valuable for people to adhere to. One sees the problem with this perspective immediately. It requires numerous presuppositions.

First, one must value the data of evolution as relevant to one’s daily life. Many do, but it is also easy to simply say “that data is interesting, and it informs me about what human beings are like, but all that does is to help me to figure out how best to manipulate them, or to help them.” Data which may seem like the most important thing to one person can have absolutely no, or completely different value to another. The data is itself not intrinsically valuable because it has to do with our origin as a species. The argument for God’s objective perspective on morality is not based on mere origin.[3]  God’s objective moral authority is recognized by theists because God is not only the creator of the universe but is also alive, thinking, and indeed, moral Himself.[4]  God invents the idea of the tree and gives it value. Evolution does not.

Second, even if one were to acknowledge that the data is valuable for society, a person would have to assign value to society for a benefit to society to be valuable to him. You may say “X will help Y immeasurably” but unless I value Y, X has no importance.

Thus, unless I value either the data of evolution, or society, this system of value means nothing. Again, the majority might all agree, and they might be able to enforce their agreement, but they do not, by doing so, assign objective value to these things.

The third position is that, because we are able to assign value to things, we have intrinsic value ourselves. As sources of value, we must ourselves have value. Now, this is true in a theistic universe where God says to humanity “I will, in some way, value what you value.” But it is not true in an atheistic world, because unless I myself value your ability to assign value, it means nothing to me. In fact, from the outside, in a purely natural world, the ability to assign value has absolutely no intrinsic value. Rocks do not care that you can assign value to things, trees are indifferent. The cosmos at large and the smallest grub worm have no issue in smashing you to bits and crawling through your remains. Thus, even the ability to assign value has only the value given to it by those who assign it.

So where does this leave us? It seems that there are two positions then an atheistic morality must take.

1. To reject the total subjective nature of value and insist that there are some things which are really valuable. Anyone who thinks that the rape of a child, the enslavement of a race of people, or even verbal abuse on the street is objectively wrong, must fall into this camp or fall into self-contradiction. To acknowledge that some things have real objective value is to abandon the simple atheist camp and begins to approach theism by acknowledging that there is some objective assignment of value in reality that is beyond nature, for to say that it is in nature is to simply make it one more thing that we can evaluate as valuable or not, and thus not objective.

2. To accept the total subjective nature of value and recognize the inherent contradiction in their position if they try to insist that other people’s values should be different than they are. Thus, if all value is subjective, and one is in the minority, one must realize that there is contradiction in saying “It should not be this way.” Then the person must decide whether or not he values consistency. If he does not, he may shout as loud as he likes until someone shuts him up. But if he does value consistency, he will realize that to say that things “should” be otherwise is less true than simply saying that he wants them to be otherwise.

Of course, then, one must decide whether or not one values truth.

 

[1] We are putting aside here the complicated fact that we may easily argue with each other about what value God has given to things. While those arguments happen all of the time, they are about the particular objective value assigned to a thing, not about whether or not there is an objective value assigned to a thing. Thus when religious debates went on about value of Native Americans and later of African slaves, they were debates that argued about what kind of value these beings had. Were they human, and thus deserving of all human dignity, or less than human, and deserving of less than human dignity? It was always a question of objective value, not of subjective value. It is, of course, of great shame to Christianity, that any of its traditions and arguments could be used to treat humans as if they are less than humans, as continues today with the treatment of women in many Christian societies.

[2] It is important to note here that this description is a description of the facts of morality, not of the moral goodness of particular people. It is evident that a theist, confronted with the brute fact of the value of another person, can transgress that value and do horrific moral evil. It is also a fact that an atheist, acknowledging that a thing only has the value he gives it, can treat that thing with the utmost respect and dignity. There is no question here about theists being more moral than atheists. As far as I can tell, there is no evidence that this is the case. Instead, this is a description of the position each of the two is in when faced with the problem of value.

[3] For then we would have to assign some level of value of objectivity to our parents, our biological ancestors, and eventually to non-biological elements in the sea, which presents the same problem as evolution: an amoral reality creating morality. By no means can a really moral person leave their moral structure to an amoral agent. One might as well then toss a coin or roll a pair of dice.

[4] This is not the place for a discussion of what some people think the Bible says about God’s immorality. Difficult passages are difficult, and they must be studied. But they are studied in light of the firmly held doctrine of God’s Goodness.

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