As we continue our discussion of the way in which metaphysical questions apply to everyday problems, we turn to the complicated relationship between causation and value. Most individuals don’t give much thought to what value is, or what makes certain things valuable but not other things. Subjectivism and objectivism are two metaethical views that offer very different explanations of value. However, universal causation creates problems and exposes limitations for both views, leaving us unsure of what value actually is despite its prominent place in our discussions and everyday moral deliberations.
Before we discuss the role that causation plays in revealing metaethical shortcomings, we ought to say something about the views we are referring to. Subjectivism is the view that the value a thing has depends in some relevant way on the existence of humans who value it. On this view, a priceless painting is valuable because we value it. Without human subjectivity, value would not exist.
Objectivism is typically juxtaposed against subjectivism. It is the view that the value a thing has is independent of human valuing. On this view, the priceless painting is valuable because of certain features that it possesses which make it valuable. Objective value is sometimes thought of as a stronger type of value precisely because it is independent of what humans value. After all, humans value a lot of silly stuff, and an objective view of value need not suggest that everything humans value is valuable, nor try to explain why only certain valued things are valuable.
The principle of universal causation creates significant problems for both objectivist and subjectivist accounts of value. This principle states that all events have causes; there is no such thing as an uncaused effect. The problem for the objectivist is that objective value does not fit very well into a scientific worldview, which the principle of universal causation is connected to. We know a great deal about how natural events are caused, but we aren’t sure how value could be caused to exist by natural properties. Value is a peculiar sort of entity, and we don’t have a good way of explaining objective value in causal terms.
The problem of causally explaining objective value in a way that is consistent with the natural sciences is cited as a reason for preferring a subjectivist account of value. However, the principle of universal causation is not much kinder to subjectivists. First, the subjectivist account seems to suggest that our valuing causes value to exist. But how does this work? Does all valuing cause value? That seems false, as many things that we value are not really valuable. So if only some valuing causes value, which valuing is it? How do we know? Answering these questions is going to require an account of appropriate valuing, which starts to look like objective value very quickly.
In some sense, realizing that causal explanations of value are hard to come by for both subjectivists and objectivists is not going to have a huge impact on our everyday evaluations. We value things that matter to us, and some of those things really are valuable, while others are not. However, it is important to realize that no account of value has answered the causal question, and claims that any particular account is the “right” one should be viewed as highly suspect until they are evaluated on causal grounds.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.