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The Value of Value March 6, 2012

Posted by Ian in Miscellaneous, Morality.
Tags: ,

One thing I am increasingly coming to realise is that so much of human interaction rests on the notions of value.  In this post I am going to explore the origin of values in the labelling of things and how seeing the world from an external point of view can totally change your view on life.There is a tendency to assume things have value – that it is an intrinsic property of something like mass or colour.  However this notion doesn’t seem to have any reality behind it because it seems clear that we assign value to things – it is exogenous.

Naming Things

The first step to valuing things is to actually recognise differences among things.  Even doing this is a fundamentally arbitrary thing to do.  We may find it easy to distinguish between a baby and a rock but the differences are actually fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  You get people like Chopra talking about the “rock-ness” of things as some spiritual element that makes it a rock, but in reality a rock is just a different arrangement of a huge number subatomic particles from a baby.  It is a more dynamic arrangement but even that dynamism is just a descriptive trait of the arrangement – it isn’t any more or less than anything else.  From an atomic or universal level a baby and a rock are indistinguishable.

For quite necessary learning reasons we very much tie names of things to the thing itself.  Distinguishing things is far more important to us than recognising their similarities because structural categorisation is one of the fundamental drivers of intelligence.  It serves a very real purpose to helping organisms function but it is not reflective of anything “real” – it is just an exercise in labelling things.

Having broken the universe up into “things” and labelled them, it then becomes possible to recognise patterns among these things.  Pattern recognition is a defining element of higher thought.  For example we can recognise a “thing” as fire, remember that touching it (another thing) correlates with pain (another thing) and this pattern gets a new label called a “burn” (another thing).  There is nothing intrinsic about any of those “things” – they are just labels.

This labelling of things is an extremely powerful tool for developing more efficient approaches to life and it is so crucial that it is essentially built into higher organisms so smoothly that we do it without trying and in fact make the connection so strongly that we really do think a rock is a rock.  It isn’t, but it is a very very useful fiction.

Extending Names to Decisions

Having named all the things we have seen, we can recognise that some of these things are “better” or “worse” than other things.  This is an assignment of value to named things allows the next step of thought to take place – decision making.

When recognising the “thing” called hunger, we go searching for things we have patterned as “food”.  The decision of what is or is not food is a value judgement (i.e. labelling) based on how well it affects the thing called hunger.  Firstly we recognise that hunger is “bad” in the sense that ignoring it leads to death, something also recognised as bad (a necessarily inherent trait in organisms for obvious reasons but no more or less real than any other label).  We also recognise the pattern of things called eating and the subset of things called “food” that best deal with hunger.  In that way berries can be seen to be “good” for hunger and rocks “bad”.  Therefore when deciding which to pick up and eat, we will usually make the decision towards the good option.  It should be clear how many assumptions this simple decision rests on and how fundamentally functional (as opposed to intrinsic) they are.

The more things we label with names, and the more patterns we observe, and patterns between patterns and so forth, and the more complex our lexicon of these things gets, the more difficult decisions become and the more disconnected from reality they get.  This is not to say decisions are wrong or a waste of time because they are functional and necessary.  But their necessity is somewhat self-perpetuating.  As soon as you start labelling things and making decisions about them, well the rest is history.

Extending Decisions to Morality

Moral decisions are often raised above other decisions as something special but they can be unpacked in much the same way.  A moral decision, or a decision about what someone “should” do is a consequence of labelling “things” like rape or murder and then valuing them as bad.  There is no apparent difference between this valuation and the valuation of rocks and berries.  However the things involved are so far disconnected from “reality” to be almost untraceable.  The cause of the valuation in the first place depends so heavily on social patterns, which emerged from combinations of valuations and pressures, which developed from the way things were labelled in the first place.

The ability to determine how groups “should” behave is fundamental to organising groups of the things we call people because it creates a self-correcting system that always pulls members back towards the mean accepted value.  If seen in isolation from within these requirements are necessarily very powerful guides of behaviour (another thing) but seen with a more aware perspective can be seen to be arbitrary concepts built on a vast raft of arbitrary labels and values.


It is a necessary delusion (and damn near impossible to shake) that we live in a world of actual “things” with actual “values”.  That these are fundamentally arbitrary (there is no spoon!) is a difficult thing to wrestle with.  When even the naming of basic things is lacking in anything other than function convenience, it becomes a lot harder to see how anything as complex as saying someone “should” do something has any real meaning.


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