In the comments section of a post over at the Crash Landing blog, I drew a parallel between moral nihilism and the subjective theory of value in economics:
It's my contention that the conclusion in question [moral realism] is a very natural one to believe, given the very human propensity to project evaluative attitudes onto objective reality. Accordingly, it's not surprising at all to me that most thinkers throughout history believed it. But it seems to me that this way of thinking is not entirely correct, in much the same way and for much the same reasons as the "realist" theories of value in economics were both ubiquitous, unsurprising, and false. Just like it's not the bread that is valuable, but rather I who values the bread, so I claim that it's not the act that is morally objectionable, but rather I who takes moral exception to the act. It seems to me that morality, as commonly conceived, is built on a framework of attributions of intrinsic value, and that these are literally false. This doesn't mean that the attributions capture nothing true -- surely when we say that money "is" valuable, we are saying something that makes a great deal of sense even though it is literally not true -- but I think it does mean that moral claims are, strictly speaking, false.
Danny, you've made a mistake here. Economics can in no way show that 'realist' theories of value are false. How in the world could it possibly demonstrate this, since the question is philosophical? What Menger pointed out was that, for the purpose of economics, the question of the 'real value' of something does not arise -- the price is determined by what people think something is worth, whatever its 'real' worth may be. Menger explicitly acknowledged that the value someone places on something may be incorrect.
It was a terrible mistake on Mises' part to try and turn Menger's correct theory of economic value into a metaphysical doctrine about the 'purely subjective' nature of value. In fact, nothing whatsoever is or ever could be 'purely subjective' -- both subjective and objective are abstractions from any concrete experience, and neither can exist on its own.
Now, Gene makes several points in this comment, and I think each of them is worth discussing. As I understand them, Gene's contentions are:
- Economics cannot demonstrate that realist theories of value are false because the truth or falsity of those theories is a philosophical matter.
- Menger's view on the subjectivity of value was a methodological position; he believed that in fact, people could be wrong about the value they placed on objects.
- Value cannot be purely subjective because it must have an objective component. Mises thought otherwise, and this was a mistake.
I will address each of these points in turn.
Economics cannot demonstrate that realist theories of value are false because the truth or falsity of those theories is a philosophical matter.
It's conceivable to me that Gene could mean either one of two things with this point:
- The truth or falsity of realist theories of value is a matter that falls outside of the field of economics. Accordingly, economics has nothing to say about it.
- The philosophical nature of value theory means that the truth or falsity of realist theories of value cannot be demonstrated.
If Gene meant the first thing, then I don't really want to go to battle over the point. I would hope that economists wouldn't want to say, "We're economists, not philosophers; value theory just isn't our thing," since...well...it should be. But if this is an issue, then I'll gladly take off my economist hat and put on my philosopher hat for the point of discussion. My philosopher hat is way more comfortable anyway.
If he meant the second thing, then I disagree, The value subjectivist is contending that realist theories of value commit a category error by claiming that objects can have intrinsic value. It should be possible, then, to demonstrate analytically whether this is the case.
Menger's view on the subjectivity of value was a methodological position; he believed that in fact, people could be wrong about the value they placed on objects.
In order to discuss this claim, it will be valuable to see what Menger himself had to say about this. Since my exposure to Menger's work is rather limited, I will base my discussion on what he has to say about this at the beginning of Principles of Economics, but I will be happy to be corrected if Menger changed his view or expanded on this discussion elsewhere.
Menger's theory of "goods-character" is built on four conditions (PoE 1.1):
- A human need.
- Such properties as render the thing capable of being brought into a causal connection with the satisfaction of this need.
- Human knowledge of this causal connection.
- Command of the thing sufficient to direct it to the satisfaction of the need.
On the possibility that someone might be mistaken about an object's goods-character, Menger writes (ibid):
A special situation can be observed whenever things that are incapable of being placed in any kind of causal connection with the satisfaction of human needs are nevertheless treated by men as goods. This occurs (1) when attributes, and therefore capacities, are erroneously ascribed to things that do not really possess them, or (2) when non-existent human needs are mistakenly assumed to exist. In both cases we have to deal with things that do not, in reality, stand in the relationship already described as determining the goods-character of things, but do so only in the opinions of people. Among things of the first class are most cosmetics, all charms, the majority of medicines administered to the sick by peoples of early civilizations and by primitives even today, divining rods, love potions, etc. For all these things are incapable of actually satisfying the needs they are supposed to serve. Among things of the second class are medicines for diseases that do not actually exist, the implements, statues, buildings, etc., used by pagan people for the worship of idols, instruments of torture, and the like. Such things, therefore, as derive their goods-character merely from properties they are imagined to possess or from needs merely imagined by men may appropriately be called imaginary goods.
In order for Menger to truly be an objectivist about value, he would need to say that there is an objective truth about what it is that humans need. This would allow him to run through the entire value proposition without any reference to opinions -- the human need would be objective, the properties of the object that allow it to meet that need would be objective, the human awareness of those properties would be objective, and the command of the object sufficient to use it to satisfy the need would be objective.
But there is, I think, a good reason to be wary of this step (with apologies to the vulgar Aristotelians and, as is redundant to note, the Objectivists). As Isaiah Berlin pointed out in The Crooked Timber of Humanity (79-80):
There are many objective ends, ultimate values, some incompatible with others, pursued by different societies at various times, or by different groups in the same society by entire classes or churches or races, or by particular individuals within thm, any one of which may find itself subject to conflicting claims of uncombinable, yet equally ultimate and objective ends.
It is on the foundation of this basic idea that Mises writes, in Theory and History (1.3):
What the theorem of the subjectivity of valuation means is that there is no standard available which would enable us to reject any ultimate judgment of value as wrong, false, or erroneous in the way we can reject an existential proposition as manifestly false. It is vain to argue about ultimate judgments of value as we argue about the truth or falsity of an existential proposition.
Now, Mises takes this idea to a rather limited conclusion, noting that (ibid):
We may, for instance, try to show a Buddhist that to act in conformity with the teachings of his creed results in effects which we consider disastrous. But we are silenced if he replies that these effects are in his opinion lesser evils or no evils at all compared to what would result from nonobservance of his rules of conduct. His ideas about the supreme good, happiness, and eternal bliss are different from ours. He does not care for those values his critics are concerned with, and seeks for satisfaction in other things than they do.
But an even more important problem can arise even if people agree about what is of ultimate value. As Gerald Gaus writes in his essay, "Liberal Neutrality: A Compelling and Radical Principle" (22):
The crucial problem is the ranking of values...According to Milton Rokeach, a psychologist, Americans agree in affirming a set of thirty-six values; what they differ on is "the way they organize them to form value hierarchies or priorities." If so, our main disagreements about the good are not about what is of value, but the relative importance of values. After all, what is a ranking of values but a "conception of the good?"
He notes, for example, that "...even if everyone agrees that smoking causes cancer, rational people clearly do disagree about whether the pleasures are worth the risk of death" (ibid).
I take it that even if there is, unbeknownst to us, an objectively true account of the value system that humans ought to follow in order to achieve eudaimonia (which I sort of doubt), it is clearly not the case that we are currently at a point where we could say what it is with any degree of confidence that would enable us to plausibly claim that all dissenters are wrong. If this is true, then the objectivist conception of value is at best irrelevant and at worst completely false.
But there is a further problem for Gene in bringing in Menger's theory: Menger's characterization of goods-character is manifestly egoistic. This leaves no clear avenue for establishing attributions of intrinsic value which do not make reference to an object's capacity for satisfying some need of the valuer. Even if we take a valuer's needs in the broadest possible sense, this view is completely compatible with the moral nihilist's view, and incompatible with the moralist's understanding of moral values.
Value cannot be purely subjective because it must have an objective component. Mises thought otherwise, and this was a mistake.
Here it will be important to understand what the value subjectivist means when she claims that value is subjective. Clearly, the things that we value are objects, and we take the nature of at least some of these objects to be a matter of objective fact. The subjectivist would be stupid to deny this. She would similarly be stupid to deny that the capacity for certain objects to be brought into causal connection with the production of certain consequences and outcomes is a matter of objective fact, or at least of empirical discourse.
What the value subjectivist is saying is that the attributes and capacities of an object are only valuable insofar as the ends which they promote are valuable. And further, that there is no truth (or at least no truth accessible to us) about what ultimate ends are the appropriate objects of value and how we should rank those ends relative to each other. The relevant "subjectivism" is based on the thesis of reasonable and potentially irresolvable pluralism about this issue -- the value of ultimate ends, on this view, will come down to subjective opinions, tastes, or biases (though this doesn't need to be a pejorative claim as the terms might connote).
Now, Mises actually went a step further and argued that valuing was a voluntary thing -- the product of action. In Theory and History, Mises writes that "Judgments of action are voluntaristic" and "Judgments of value are mental acts of the individual concerned" (1.1). And I think that in this regard, he was not correct (or at least not completely correct. The problem arises from his definition of "action," offered in Human Action (1.1):
Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego's meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person's conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life.
If action inherently aims at ends, and the selection of ends is an action, then we get turtles all the way down. But one need not adopt Mises' conception of the voluntary nature of attributing value in order to reach the subjectivist's conclusion. One needs only acknowledge that there is no objective conception of the good that we can know, and therefore opinions about ultimate ends are all we have to work with.
Personally, I find this position to be extremely compelling. The ball's back in your court, Gene!