Value and Moral Choice
November 18, 2013
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, Ethics, Law, Moral Philosophy, Morality, Society, Stuart Mirsky, Value, philosophy

Deciding we want something, either to possess it or do it, is essentially to choose from an array of possibilities, from other things we want and don’t want. Distinguishing among our wants in this fashion involves setting what we call “value” on each differentiated thing.

Valuing is that added step we take concerning our needs, desires, preferences and so forth, when we arrange the possible things we can acquire or do along a hierarchy of choice. It’s an aspect of the reasoning process. Without the ability to differentiate and prioritize in this way, we could not act based on reasons but could, at best, be reactive, impetuous creatures only, choosing this or that in accord with the moment’s stimuli. And so it is with most of our animal brethren. But as you go up the evolutionary hierarchy, as you get to the point where an entity can think about its world and imagine a future, while remembering a past in relation to its present, the capacity to engage in this kind of thinking, to set values and act on them, becomes possible.

Can a dog value its food? Or its owner? Or the time allotted to it in the local park to run free in the open air? It seems difficult to imagine a creature with no more than a dog's capabilities valuing anything at all. It can certainly want those things and behave accordingly. But, to the extent it cannot think of them conceptually, cannot hold an idea of them in the abstract in its head, it seems odd to say that it it is valuing them.

And yet there is no great difference between a dog’s desire or need for its food, or for open air play, and our own. But, because we, unlike the dog, can relate these to one another – and to a great many other possibilities which we can conceive of, and imagine – we can consider them as valuable or not, as the case may be. For dogs and, no doubt, the vast array of other animals which share the planet with us, there is only the good and bad of the moment, the positive and negative stimuli to be selected as they present themselves.

So values do not exist in the same way that the preferences which underlie them do. Money has its value because of what we can do with it, which means what we can exchange it for. Otherwise it will just consist of inert objects or abstract information as in the figure on some monetary account we maintain. We could not call that money at all.

Food and water, shelter and the recreational pursuits that please us have their value for us not in terms of whether we want them per se (we presumably want any and all of them in general) but in whether we want them at a particular time and place – and in whether we want them to a greater or lesser degree, more or less than we want something else. Value is thus grounded in the natural world. But what has value only has it because we accord that to it.

The same is true in the matter of ethical judgments. What we do or don’t do will depend on what we think we should do in any given circumstance but “should do” is a complex judgment, hinging as much on our cultural training and practices as on our basic wants and needs. In any given case a person may choose to eat or not eat (an ascetic may see value in starving him or herself, or in maintaining a state of perpetual hunger by eating only a bare minimum), to sleep or not sleep (when the choice is ours to consciously make, at any rate), to work or not work, to play or not play and, when we get down to it, kill or not kill. That is, to harm or not harm others. While the various moral codes and systems we follow as human beings may run a wide gamut of possible behaviors, it’s generally the case that among these behaviors, particularly in modern moral systems, will be questions of when to harm others and when to refrain from doing so and what is to count as that. Any inquiry into the basis of moral philosophy must take account of that.

A glance across cultures seems to confirm that nearly all human societies have moral codes, ethical rules to govern the behaviors of its members. There are many similarities between them but quite a few differences, too, and it’s not easy to equate either the overall systems themselves or particular aspects of them across cultures. The injunction not to kill one’s fellows in one society may only apply to one’s fellows within that society while outsiders are fair game while, in other societies, the injunction may be broader and be taken to include any human being. Some societies may decide that being one’s fellow depends on racial characteristics while others may look to active enrollment in the polity. Moreover, killing others may be differently defined. In the old Norse cultures, for instance, there was no injunction against killing one’s fellow (even if he or she shared the same culture) though obligations to make recompense to the aggrieved parties (his or her surviving kin) obtained.

On the other hand the manner of killing mattered since a killing publicly accomplished (or at least publicly announced within a reasonable time after the occurrence) was not counted as illegitimate and so unlawful while one done in secret was punishable by law as murder. Obviously our sense of murder in modern Anglo-American society is quite different than that.

The law a society maintains and its relation to its moral code(s) further complicate the picture. In general we want our laws to be (and treat them as being) consistent with our moral principles. To the extent we think they are not, we lose respect for them, sometimes enough to undermine them, hence civil unrest up to and including revolutions. So laws must be morally respectable at the least and, insofar as they are that, they must be seen to either arise from or be consistent with the prevailing moral beliefs of the society for which they are the laws. But being a law and being a moral precept are not the same since, quite obviously, they can diverge. Laws are the precepts of the ruling regime within which members of the society count themselves enrolled. They include all sorts of rules by which members are expected to comport themselves and can become quite complex and detailed.

Moral beliefs or precepts, on the other hand, will tend to be more general and overarching, to cover the greatest array of possibilities. In doing so they must concern themselves with the nature of a person’s behavior itself and not just with what he or she is to do in this or that case. And yet moral codes and legal codes have much in common. In the United States, for instance, the Law of the Land is said to be the United States Constitution, the compact written more than two centuries earlier laying out the general rules of governance by which the individual states accepted unification into a single polity and specifying the protections afforded to its citizenry. In a sense the Constitution is general law but in a sense it is also an expression of a moral system of beliefs. One finds, in reading and interpreting it, the basis for demanding and making changes in the laws legislated and implemented by the entity’s governing bodies, its governmental institutions. Of course, the thinking here is also that the Constitution stands on something else, something more basic. If it did not, if it were seen as nothing more than the legislative artifact of a long ago governing body and its constituents, could it have the same potency for us, the potency it must be seen to have if it is to serve as the foundational framework for contemporary governance?

In the United States we tend to look back to the common law tradition of English society, the predecessor culture from which the United States arose. That culture already had within it the various elements relating to what we understand as individual rights and freedoms that the United States later incorporated and enshrined in its founding document. But even that is not taken to be enough because rights and freedoms conferred by other men can be revoked as easily. And so we speak of those rights as stemming from higher authority still. We trace the moral authority of the Constitution, and the laws made under its jurisdiction, back to the Judeo-Christian Bible and the cultural tradition it represents. And the Bible we think of as being transcendent in nature, as coming not from other men of long ago but from a deity who guided other men.

And so our laws, to the extent they conform with the foundational principles, are held to be guided, too – and more, to be sanctioned by higher authority. This is a common characteristic of moral codes across societies. To have the status of behavioral guides of the moral sort they must be seen to be out of the reach of the contingencies of human choice. If they are nothing more than that which some person or persons have decreed for us, then why should we pay attention to them at all? Why these rules and not others, or no rules at all?

Of course, one may argue that even if they are that, it’s enough to keep that from the general population. Let the vast majority persist in the delusion that the prescriptions of society stem from a higher source than men just like themselves and little is lost. The rules will work just as well overall. But in a society which is increasingly global, where other cultures and their values are seen in greater and greater depth because of the expansion of human communication and contact, the issue of relativism must intrude. If another society’s set of behavioral prescriptions are different than ours why should we take ours to be better? Why should they? And if they don’t, how do we adjust our contacts with them and their members?

A world like ours demands moral reconciliation or there can be nothing but moral nihilism. But to do that we’re obliged to reconsider the basis for moral choice itself, to come to grips with the question of whether there is any way of valuing particular behaviors or sets of behaviors over others, whether we think in terms of higher authorities or some other basis for establishing sufficient commonality in our moral choices. The alternative is societal dissolution and disarray.

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