People have different ideas about how valuable things are. Before I was about fifteen the meaning of this was ambiguous. I think I assumed that a tree for instance has some inherent value, and that when one person wants to cut it down and another wants to protect it, they both have messy estimates of what it’s true value is. At least one of them had to be wrong. This was understandable because value was vague or hard to get at or something.
In my year 11 Environmental Science class it finally clicked that there wasn’t anything more to value than those ‘estimates’. That a tree has some value to an environmentalist, and a different value to a clearfelling proponent. That it doesn’t have a real objective value somewhere inside it. Not even a vague or hard to know value that is estimated by different people’s ‘opinions’. That there is just nothing there. That even if there is something there, there is no way for me to know about it, so the values I deal with every day can’t be that sort. Value had to be a function of things: the item being valued and the person doing the valuing.
I was somewhat embarrassed to have ever assumed otherwise, and didn’t really think about it again until recently. It occurred to me recently that a long list of strange things I notice people believing can be explained by the assumption that they disagree with me on whether things have objective values. So I hypothesize that many people believe that value is inherent in a thing, and doesn’t intrinsically depend on the agent doing the valuing.
Here’s my list of strange things people seem to believe. For each I give two explanations: why it is false, and why it is true if you believe in objective values. Note that these are generally beliefs that cause substantial harm:
When two people trade, one of them is almost certainly losing
People don’t necessarily say this explicitly, but often seem to implicitly believe it.
Why it’s false: In most cases where two people are willing to trade, this is because the values they assign to the items in question are such that both will gain by having the other person’s item instead of their own.
Why it’s believed: There’s a total amount of value shared somehow between the people’s posessions. Changing the distribution is very likely to harm one party or the other. It follows that people who engage in trade are suspicious, since trades must be mostly characterized by one party exploiting or fooling another.
Why it’s false: Assume exploiting someone implies making their life worse on net. Then in the cases where trade is exploitative, the exploited party will decline to participate, unless they don’t realize they are being exploited. Probably people sometimes don’t realize they are being exploited, but one is unlikely to persist in doing a job which makes one’s life actively worse for long without noticing. Free choice is a filter: it causes people who would benefit from an activity to do it while people who would not benefit do not.
Why it’s believed: If a person is desperate he might sell his labor for instance at a price below its true value. Since he is forced by circumstance to trade something more valuable for something less valuable, he is effectively robbed.
Prostitution etc should be prevented, because most people wouldn’t want to do it freely, so it must be pushed on those who do it:
Why it’s false: Again, free choice is a filter. The people who choose to do these things presumably find them better than their alternatives.
Why it’s believed: If most people wouldn’t be prostitutes, it follows that it is probably quite bad. If a small number of people do want to be prostitutes, they are probably wrong. The alternative is that they are correct, and the rest of society is wrong. It is less likely that a small number of people is correct than a large number. Since these people are wrong, and their being wrong will harm them (most people would really hate to be prostitutes), it is good to prevent them acting on either their false value estimates.
Why it’s false: Again, choice is a filter. For an arbitrary person doing X, it might terrible, but it is still often good for people who want it. Plus, being forced to do a thing often decreases its value.
Why it’s believed: Very similar to above. The value of X remains the same, regardless of who is thinking about it, whether they are forced to do it. That a person would choose to do a thing others are horrified to have pressed on them, that just indicates that the person is mentally dysfunctional in some way.
Being rich indicates that you are evil:
Why it’s false: On a simple model, most trades benefit both parties, so being rich indicates that you have contributed to others receiving a large amount of value.
Why it’s believed: On a value realism model, in every trade, someone wins and someone loses, anyone who has won at trading so many times is evidently an untrustworthy and manipulative character.
Poor countries are poor because rich countries are rich:
Why it’s false: In some sense it’s true—the rich countries don’t altruistically send a lot of aid into the poor countries. Beyond that there’s no obvious connection.
Why it’s believed: There’s a total amount of value to be had in the world. The poor can’t become richer without the rich giving up some value.
Why it’s not obviously true: The value of products depends on how people feel about them, so it is possible to create value by changing how people feel about products.
Why it’s believed: Products have a fixed value. Changing your perception of this in the direction of you buying more of them is cheatful sophistry.
Is my hypothesis right? Do you think of value as a one or two place function? (Or more?) Which of the above beliefs do you hold? Are there legitimate or respectable cases for value realism out there? (Moral realism is arguably a subset).