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Elusive nature of fundamental values: comprehension

In Quest of Engaging Values: context of the Human Values and Wisdom Project (Part #3)

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Using the set of arguments in support of atheism, an anonymous blogger has usefully articulated an analogous concept of a-value-ism, introduced as follows:

It is the cognate of Atheism. In other words just as Atheism is a simple lack of belief in God, avaluism is a lack of belief that things have innate value -- or that value is a fuzzy concept that should be viewed akin to the Logical Positivists, that is a meaningless cipher.... Nobody has ever seen a value -- price tags do not count. They are statements of an existing supposition of value. (No Value, 21st-century Christian Philosopher, 8 November 2004)

In a separate philosophical exchange, Jeremy Pierce (Comment, The Prosblogion, 20 November 2007) argues:

... we might want to distinguish between amoralism and avaluism. The amoralist doesn't think there are any moral truths, but they might think there are truths about what is good. On one plausible interpretation of Nietzsche, that's what he's up to. He doesn't think there are any moral truths, but he denies that he's a nihilist because he thinks it's disastrous to reject the idea of goodness and badness just because you're rejecting morality.

The challenge to comprehension, and the manner in which values are invoked in society, might be highlighted through caricature:

  • the famous western tale by Hans Christian Andersen of the Emperor's New Clothes (1837) suggests that consideration should at least be given to the possibility that those describing and offering "values" to authority (imperial or not) engage in a verbal process of hyperbole (as with the tailors of the tale) purporting to clothe that authority in the finest cloth -- so fine as to be invisible to the unrefined. Who might then be recognized as the "tailors" designing such "clothing" of the highest value? Would comparisons with the fashion industry be fruitful?
  • the famous eastern tale of the Seven Blind Men and the Elephant highlights the manner in which a particular value may be variously described, from a limited superficial perspective, by individuals (or groups) who then dispute the assertions regarding that value made by others
  • the Peter Principle, as formulated by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull (The Peter Principle, 1968), holds that "in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence" and remain there -- raising the possibility of a cognitive analogue whereby the nature of the most (hierarchically) fundamental values tends to be articulated and employed by those who have reached such a level of incompetence; the principle has itself since been acknowledged to have real validity. In this context "incompetence" might be closely associated with the ability to sustain a degree of cognitive dissonance between values promoted for others and values embodied in practice by the promoter.

Such arguments raise a variety of "valuable" issues and questions:

  • to what degree are fundamental values appropriately treated like commodities that can indeed be negotiated like other tangibles? (a case argued in Human Values "Stock Market": investing in "shares" in a "value market" of fundamental principles, 2006)

  • are values necessarily to be understood as categories, as substantives in the syntax of discourse, when they may be better understood dynamically as verbs and a feature of process reality -- especially in non-western languages?

  • given the distinction made by Aristotle between apophasis and kataphasis, are specific values, as described, to be considered a problematic consequence of declarative kataphatic discourse when their significance might better be understood through an apophatic mode of "unsaying" -- indicating what they are not (cf Being What You Want problematic kataphatic identity vs. potential of apophatic identity? 2008; Michael A. Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying, 1994)? This is considered especially relevant by apophatic theology, recognizing the inadequacy of declarative descriptions of divinity, however appreciative.

  • to what extent are values indeed "divine" -- especially as this is characteristic critically perceived by atheists and sceptics -- given the role they play and their traditional association to spiritual entities (angels, saints, etc) with specific values? Ironically, the challenge of current debate on values is that the subtle complexity of "deification" of values (however problematic) has been completely lost through their "reification" into essentially meaningless tokens. On the other hand, to what extent are ethical and value charters to be understood as a current forms of "pantheon"?

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