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March 1978

Objective Values

Jorge Gracia discusses the relatively merits of objective and subjective moral values.

“The Ontological Status of Value.” The Modern Schoolman 53 (1976): 393–397.

Do values such as “good” and “beautiful” reside wholly in the object (objectivism) and are thus independent of the human subject perceiving them? Or do values reside fundamentally in the human subject (subjectivism) and are essentially independent of the object?

Neither position is adequate. A false dilemma underlies the objectivist-subjectivist debate over values. The objectivist (e.g., G.E. Moore and Plato) fears that unless value is (1) an absolute quality of objects, it is (2) nothing in these objects.

To prevent moral chaos and arbitrary subjectivism in values, the objectivist opts for the first alternative. He maintains that value is an absolute quality whether or not there exist subjects to value objects. The subjectivist (e.g., Bertrand Russell) chooses the second horn of the dilemma. He fears that making value an absolute quality of objects will turn it into a rigid, dictatorial principle with political implications. The subjectivist insists on making value a quality of the perceiving subject without any essential relation to the object.

The flaw in subjectivism appears in the experience of subjects committing errors in value judgments. If the judging subject were the sole cause of values, then the subject could never “err.” Error implies the existence of qualities that exist independent of the subject’s fabrication. The flaw in objectivism, on the other hand, appears when we note that subjects do disagree about value judgments.

We can find a way out of the objectivist-subjectivist dilemma concerning values by viewing value as a relational quality of an object dependent on both the object and the subject. Without a subject, the object will not have value for anyone. This does not mean that value is “subjective” or relative. Value is “objective” since it is a quality of the object; it is “subjective” only in the sense that it results from a relational ontological structure, one of whose elements is a subject. Together—the object, subject, and situation that unites them—are the causes of value. Value is not arbitrary since it does not depend on the whim of the subject. The solid nature of the object constrains the subject judging it.

We can recognize value ontologically as a relational quality in which the subject plays a vital role in reference to a given object. We do not have to accept either doctrinaire absolutism or value relativism.