[This is the second of three installments to establish the idea that ‘value’ is a fully real aspect of the nature of things. In the first installment, I argued that value enters into the world along with life, especially sentient life. Because “things matter” to living creatures, that mattering is real. But some modern schools of thought have dismissed judgments of value for being “merely subjective.” This installment addresses –and I would say, refutes– that argument. The following, like that first installment, is composed of passages from THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES.]
A Theory of Natural Values
The crucial distinction between the objective and the subjective must be examined. On the one hand, it is meaningful to discuss an objective fact (“There is a tree in the yard”) because it concerns a shared reality in the world out there. On the other hand, we base our judgments of value (“It is good to have loving relationships”) ultimately not on the objective world outside us but on the feelings and attitudes within us. These being part of a private world, it is argued, it is not possible meaningfully to argue the judgments based on them. 1 will not dispute the contention that a tree exists independently of human subjectivity whereas the goodness of loving relationships does not. But it is fallacious to conclude from this distinction that our values are therefore less legitimately a part of our objective and shared human reality.
If our subjective world were merely idiosyncratic, there would indeed be little meaningful basis for arguing that something such as the selection for power in the evolution of civilization was either good or bad: idiosyncrasies afford no basis for common cause. But our reactions, while subjective, are not merely idiosyncratic.
We return to the evolutionary perspective for insight into the nature of things.
The near perfection of the living body is, according to evolutionary biology, the legacy of ages of living history. For countless generations, life has experimented with various forms. At each step, some have survived to produce successful offspring whereas others have not. Because only the survivors determine the organismic future of their species, the cumulative effect of this ceaseless and ancient process of selection is the evolution of a body intricately designed for survival.
The body evolves not a static design, but one in action: to survive, an animal must do what is necessary for survival. In its interaction with the outside world, the organism must get what it needs for life (the survival-positive) and avoid what could destroy its life (the survival-negative).
Thus, survival requires the right behavior, the right behavior requires the right choices, and the right choices mean positively valuing what helps survival and negatively valuing what hurts it. Value, therefore, is vital to survival. And as the requirements for survival determine body structure, the body is structured with an intrinsic system of value.
To the extent that our values are embedded in our nature, so also must be our feelings. Feelings way he defined as the experience of value. The cold shell of a value-neutral universe is cracked by the emergence of creatures capable of experiencing joy or suffering. It is because things can matter to some feeling creatures that anything can matter. One important dimension applicable to feelings is positive-negative: some feelings are experienced as good-satisfying-pleasant and others as bad-frustrating-unpleasant. We are designed to have feelings to motivate us to choose the course of action necessary for survival: the pain from stubbing our toes induces us to be careful with our feet, the discomfort of hunger motivates us to obtain food, the pleasant aura of love leads us to wish to take care of each other, the pleasure of sex serves the continuation of the species. Writes David Hamberg: “Tasks that must be done (for species survival) tend to be pleasurable” (in Washburn and Jay, 1968, p. 254). In all these cases, feelings are grounded in the structure of the body and tied up directly with our natural system of value: (Those experiences which have been survival-positive for our species lend to feel positive and those that have been survival-negative tend to feel negative.
Our natural system of values is no more idiosyncratic than our anatomical structure. We are not identical physically to one another, but our similarities far exceed our differences. The late Professor Theodosius Dobzhansky once argued (in class) that there is no such thing as “human nature,” that there are instead 4 billion unique human natures. But one could equally well argue that there is no such thing as human anatomy.
In fact, however, all human beings share an extensive heritage: just as doctors can study the human body, so can we speak of a basic shared inheritance of natural values embedded in our organism.
The evolutionary perspective transforms our vision of the subjective realm in two significant ways. First, we must recognize the objective reality of values. The true foundation of our value judgments is not “merely subjective” but is a part of our nature as creatures: our values are not mere chimerical fancies but are as inextricably rooted in the objective nature of things as trees are. Second, to the extent that values are grounded in the body, they are not idiosyncratic, for a particular body is a manifestation of a general species type. Within a species, the intrinsic system of value means shared values. Thus value—or at least the fountain of our values—is not a merely private matter but is a domain of shared experience with our fellow human beings. It is not shared in precisely the same sense as the world out there but in a sense that is just as valid and meaningful. Values are inextricable from our lives, from our living bodies. We are molded from value-neutral dust to positively value life and the things that have served life.