Value – Intrinsic or Subjective?

Value is not intrinsic. It is not in things and conditions but in the valuing subject.

                                    —Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History (posted at Aristotle The Geek)

Or, in other words: Value is subjective. This reminds me of the second paragraph quoted below taken from the Ayn Rand entry in the Standard Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Incidentally this also reminds me that I need to complete reading Theory and History which I started a few months year back and failed to finish.)

Fundamental to Rand’s outlook—so fundamental that she derives the name of her philosophical system, “Objectivism,” from it—is a trichotomy among three categories: the intrinsic, the subjective, and the objective. (Rand 1990, 52–54; Rand 1965, 13–23) An intrinsic phenomenon is one whose nature depends wholly on factors external to the mind; a subjective phenomenon is one whose nature depends wholly on the mind; and an objective phenomenon is defined, variously, as that which depends on the relation between a living entity’s nature (including the nature of its mind) and its environment, or as that which depends on the relation between a properly functioning (rational) mind and extramental reality. Commentators are divided over the best way to interpret Rand’s views on this issue.

Rand holds that there is a widespread tendency to ignore the third category or to assimilate it to the second, thus setting up a false dichotomy between the intrinsic and the subjective; on Rand’s view, many of the fundamental questions of philosophy, from the existence of universals to the nature of value, involve fruitless debates over the false alternative “intrinsic or subjective?” in cases where the phenomenon in question is neither intrinsic nor subjective, but rather objective.

(Bold mine. Italics in original)

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8 Responses

  1. From the SEP entry: “a subjective phenomenon is one whose nature depends wholly on the mind.” I don’t think many people define subjective that way. When I value something, the thing being valued does play a role in the valuation, as do many other factors. The only reason I call it subjective is because it’s value depend on me. How does one value something without any relation to the real world? In that sense, all valuations are objective. This is something that I haven’t been able to understand in the Randian system, the reason I still stick to a subjectivist notion of morality. I guess the idea of intrinsic value is hardly the subject of debate. But the line that Rand has drawn between the subjective and the objective, it needs more clarity.

    I quoted Mises because I was discussing Marx’ labor theory of value with someone on another post. That said, can you come up with an example, pertaining to economics, of a subjective valuation and an objective valuation? Say the Mona Lisa has been put up for sale. How would the intrinsic, subjective and objective valuations work out in the same if two billionaire da Vinci connoisseurs, A and B, start bidding? In other words, what might the intrinsicist, subjectivist and objectivist positions in this scenario be?

  2. From the SEP entry
    “a subjective phenomenon is one whose nature depends wholly on the mind; and an objective phenomenon is defined … as that which depends on the relation between a living entity’s nature (including the nature of its mind) and its environment”

    The key idea here is that of free will. If value is subjective and depends wholly on the mind, then values may be chosen. They are not necessitated by any fact of reality. If value is objective and depends on the relation between the object and the nature of the valuer, values are not subject to choice since the relation between the object and the nature of the valuer is not subject to choice – it is a fact of reality. Coupled with the fundamental pre-moral choice to live, values can then be derived from the facts of reality by examining the relevant relations.

    “The only reason I call it subjective is because it’s value depend on me.”
    Call it subjective if the value depends on your choice regardless of your nature and the object’s nature. Call it objective if the value depends on your nature and the nature of the object.

    As a simple example, consider that I like a particular color. I never chose to like it. I like it because that is part of my nature. I cannot arbitrarily choose to like a color that I dislike or vice versa.

    Coming to your example of the Mona Lisa.
    The intrincicist position:
    Intrincicism is fundamentally untenable. If one claims that value is intrinsic, there is no way for anyone to find that out short of divine revelation. Intrincicism is merely someone’s subjectivism that has become accepted through tradition or religion. So an intrinsic valuation would be whatever some authority figure or some long established consensus says it is.
    The subjectivist position:
    A subjective valuation would be a valuation arrived at without consideration of the utility the object possesses in relation to the subject. In Rand’s words, a subjective valuation would be a valuation based on the whim of the moment.
    The objectivist position:
    Consider a true connoisseur – some one who has a working theory of art. Such a person should know what exactly it is about a particular art work that he likes, how much pleasure the possession of the art work provides him compared to the pleasure the possession of other things in the world – art works as well as other things – might provide him. His hierarchy of preferences combined with the preferences (or whims) of the producers of these various things will result in an objective valuation. The fact that these hierarchies might only be approximate is not relevant. Someone who does not understand art will not be able to reach an objective valuation.

  3. Let’s drop intrinsicism, permanently. And, for the moment, let’s confine ourselves to economics. Then, from what you have written, a subjective valuation is one based on a whim, while an objective valuation is one where the relationship between the valuer and the object is the determining factor; different people might value the same object differently, but every valuation is objective nevertheless.

    In that case, whenever free market economists talk of value in terms of marginal utility, they do mean, for the most part, objective value. Their “subjective” encompasses both whims (Randian subjective) and thoughtful actions (Randian objective). Should they be clearer? Maybe. But economic man isn’t generally portrayed as a whimsical creature; his decisions, right or wrong*, always have reasons.

    If I’ve misinterpreted something you have written, point it out to me. I’ll bring up morality once you reply.

    [*How does the process of objective valuation deal with error? Meaning, I'm not valuing something based on a whim. Instead I'm considering things that ought to be considered, but, I miss a couple of them which means my valuation ends up being wrong. In this case, is the final value objective (but wrong)? Or is it categorized some other way?]

  4. “In that case, whenever free market economists talk of value in terms of marginal utility, they do mean, for the most part, objective value.”
    Yes. And that is why I mostly agree with what little I have read of the Austrian school economists despite their insistence that value is subjective.

    Economics is concerned not just with value but also with price which is a result of both objective and subjective valuations. And therefore the price = marginal utility equation commonly taught in any Econ 101 course is only an approximation at best.
    It is only because value is objective and price is not that we can judge something to be underpriced or overpriced. Had value not been objective, there could not have been any question of underpricing or overpricing because there would be no standard to compare the price to.

    Errors in valuation are philosophically irrelevant. Even if I make an error in valuation, the fact remains that an actual objective valuation exists. Errors in valuation only affect the price I will be willing to pay or accept for something. It is not the value but the price that is wrong.

  5. This definition of “objective” isn’t the same as the one of “objective reality,” is it?

    In the second case, objective refers to something that can be identified irrespective of what someone says about it, something that is perceiver-independent. So the sky is blue, in a manner of speaking, even if a blind man can’t see it. Obviously, valuation cannot be valuer-independent, but in order to state that objective values exist, one would have to say that anyone who has access to the valuer’s hierarchy of values will value the object in the same manner. I’m still reticent to bring up morality, but consider this section from an article on objectivity-

    Among objectivist theories of morality, the most straightforward version declares that is it an objective fact, for example, that it is wrong to ignore a person in distress if you are able to offer aid. This sort of theory asserts that the wrongness of such behavior is part of objective reality in the same way that the sun’s being more massive than the earth is part of objective reality. Both facts would obtain regardless of whether any conscious being ever came to know either of them.

    Other objectivist theories of morality try to explain the widespread feeling that there is an important difference between moral assertions and descriptive, factual assertions while maintaining that both types of assertion are about something other than mere subjective states. Such theories compare moral assertions to assertions about secondary qualities. The declaration that a certain object is green is not merely a statement about a person’s subjective state. It makes an assertion about how the object is, but it’s an assertion that can be formulated only in relation to the states of perceiving subjects under the right conditions. Thus, determining whether an object is green depends essentially on consulting the considered judgments of appropriately placed perceivers. Being green, by definition, implies the capacity to affect perceiving humans under the right conditions in certain ways. By analogy, moral assertions can be assertions about how things objectively are while depending essentially on consulting the considered judgments of appropriately placed perceivers. Being morally wrong implies, on this view, the capacity to affect perceiving humans under the right conditions in certain ways.

    Because if that claim is not tenable, I don’t see how something that only the valuer is privy to can be termed objective. It may be, to him, but as far as the rest of the world is concerned, there is no real difference between this valuation and a subjective one.

    # “Economics is concerned not just with value but also with price”
    In a trade, exchange, you give up something (X) in other to get something else (Y). If you valued X more than Y, you wouldn’t part with it. Price is merely X in terms of Y, or vice versa (money tends to confuse the issue). Underpriced/overpriced is another way of saying undervalued/overvalued, and objectivity has nothing to do with this because once I arrive at the pair of values (X and Y), objectively, or based on a whim, the under/over-pricing is readily apparent. So I am not convinced by this line of defense (of objectivity).

    # Errors in valuation are philosophically irrelevant.
    Okay, no issues here. While giving up X in order to get Y, if I commit a “calculation error” in that X actually does lie higher than Y in my hierarchy, it doesn’t change the fact that an objective valuation can be done.

  6. Regarding the quoted section, I don’t grant any philosophically significant difference between the statements “The sun is more massive than the earth” and “This object is green”. Whether these statements involve a relation to the state of some perceiving subject is a question for science and not philosophy to answer. For example, Einstein’s theory of special relativity shows that the measurement of fundamental attributes like length involve a relation to the state of some perceiver. Yet, I am quite sure that the writer of that quoted section would place the statement “This object is longer than that” in his first category if he did not know of relativity. That only shows that the categories are philosophically insignificant.

    The quoted section seems to place consciousness outside of objective reality in some sense. But the existence and operation of consciousness is very much a part of objective reality. Therefore mere dependence on some conscious entity does not make anything non-objective.

    This definition of “objective” isn’t the same as the one of “objective reality,” is it?

    It is very nearly the same. Objective does not mean independent of the subject. It only means independent of the exercise of the subject’s volitional consciousness. The only significant difference between statements about values and the “scientific” kind of statements above is that values are dependent on the pre-moral choice to live whereas the “scientific” statements aren’t. Once one grants that one single choice, values are objective in exactly the same sense that reality is objective – neither depend on any further exercise of volition.

    Because if that claim is not tenable
    I do hold that claim to be tenable.

    In the second case, objective refers to something that can be identified irrespective of what someone says about it, something that is perceiver-independent.

    With the current state of quantum mechanics as I understand it, I do not know whether anything is perceiver-independent. Perceivers and perception are very much a part of the real world and I would not be surprised if the resolution to the paradoxes in quantum mechanics indicated that the all existents are related to each other in some sense.

    If one subscribes to the perceiver-independent view of objectivity, I think even the current state of quantum mechanics – with all its unresolved paradoxes – is sufficient evidence to reject objectivity entirely. Doing so undercuts the entire basis of science.
    In any case the perceiver-independent view does not hold up to scrutiny. Consider the statement “The sun is more massive than the earth.” It is not valid to use the concept of mass (for example) without an implicit reference to a consciousness that can perceive the effects of “massiveness” and induce the existence of mass. Is mass perceiver independent then, or will some future Einstein come and delimit the conditions in which it appears to be perceiver independent? I do not know and since I do not wish to be a physicist, do not really care.

    I’m still reticent to bring up morality
    I don’t understand the reluctance. When we are discussing values, we are discussing morality.

    Finally, there is a difference between “value” and the “act of valuation”. Values are objective but the “act of valuation” is a subjective phenomenon – in the sense of depending wholly on the mind of the valuer. When I wrote “objective valuation” in my earlier reply, I was only referring to the proper subjective process one has to perform to discover the objective value. This is the same as saying that what a scientist does when he is “doing science” is subjective but what he is dealing with and trying to discover is objective.

    I will give a more detailed reply later w.r.t the price vs value question on which I need to think a bit more but here are some quick observations.
    If I am on an island, there are no prices, but there are values.
    Price is numerical and seems to imply complete substitutability of the objects whose value it is a proxy for. Complete substitutability obviously does not exist.
    Price is a tangible number that can be directly observed, say by reading a price tag. Value is not tangible and cannot be directly observed.

  7. I do not concern myself with what physics says happens at a sub-atomic level w.r.t. a perceiver or what Einstein said or would say. It might so happen at that level that the very act of observation, perception, changes the behavior of the perceived. But when I speak of objectivity, I use the term in a manner that implies a common sense view of the world. In such a world, the sun would be more massive than the earth regardless of the existence of consciousness, and consciousness does not create mass but can only understand the concept of mass. If you try to invalidate such statements, one could never make any factual or counter-factual statements about things that existed before human consciousness came into being because of the “perception changes reality” position.

    The gist of it all is, for all practical purposes, objectivity means something independent of what a particular person sees, feels or thinks under a particular set of circumstances: the existence of the sun, the wind, the rainbow and so on. And it is this concept of objectivity that I come back to when I read about objective values. Though I highlighted the sentences in the quoted section to point out their similarity to the Randian concept of objectivity, I was referring to the tenability of the following claim:

    Obviously, valuation cannot be valuer-independent, but in order to state that objective values exist, one would have to say that anyone who has access to the valuer’s hierarchy of values will value the object in the same manner.

    [...]

    Because if that claim is not tenable, I don’t see how something that only the valuer is privy to can be termed objective. It may be, to him, but as far as the rest of the world is concerned, there is no real difference between this valuation and a subjective one.

    If you do claim that two people of a similar nature subjected to a similar set of circumstances will come up with a similar hierarchy of values, and thus the same final value, then yes, values, economic or moral, are objective. Otherwise they aren’t.

    About price and value, do take your time. The Austrians too believe that the two are separate: value is subjective, while price is objective. I don’t think that one can separate the quantitative and qualitative aspects of valuation though: ax > by > cz.

  8. If you try to invalidate such statements, one could never make any factual or counter-factual statements about things that existed before human consciousness came into being because of the “perception changes reality” position.

    I am not trying to invalidate such statements. In fact I am claiming that the concept of objectivity is valid regardless of what physics shows. Without objectivity there could be no science. It is hardly surprising that “perception changes reality”. Perception is a real phenomenon and must have some effect on the world. If that destroys objectivity then one needs a better concept of objectivity.

    objectivity means something independent of what a particular person sees, feels or thinks under a particular set of circumstances
    Agreed. So if you stick to that understanding and apply that consistently – in particular to the valuer himself – values must be objective.
    My values are independent of what anyone – including myself – thinks they are. They are conditional on my choice to live but they depend only on the state of the world including my own nature.

    If you do claim that two people of a similar nature subjected to a similar set of circumstances will come up with a similar hierarchy of values, and thus the same final value
    Put that way, the critical question is “Is one’s philosophy part of one’s nature?” I hold that the answer is yes, and consequently, agree with that claim provided the two people are not indulging in whims.

    To sum up, I grant that the actual values that a person holds are dependent on the person’s philosophy (explicit or implicit) as well as circumstances while still maintaining that value is objective. If I know a person well (his nature – including his philosophy), I can predict what he values. That makes values objective.

    If you agree with this, then I think we have reduced our disagreement to a semantic issue. When I claim that value is objective, I mean that there is a true philosophy which I can discover and apply to find out what my objective values are. When you claim that values are subjective, you are interested in the actual values that people hold and so you are saying that different people have different philosophies.

    I will write a post on price and value when I have thought out my position in detail. Regarding the separation of the qualitative and quantitative aspects of valuation, I have long held the position (without properly developing it) that there are categories in the hierarchy of values across which it is not possible to compare. A value in a lower category cannot replace a value in a higher category regardless of quantity. (There is this widely known story that illustrates this). Price is not sufficient to reflect that.

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