What are values? That question is curiously different from this one: What is valued? When asked the first, we often reply with an answer to the second. What you value shows your values, and maybe also your value. But what you value is not what it is to value.

The word value has many meanings, many values: A value is a fair return, a denomination, an importance, worth or usefulness. In music, the value of a note is its duration. In visual arts, the value of a colour is its luminosity, or relative lightness. One of the word’s meanings is what is valued. Thus value is also what is valued. Some say there is not much more to it. Even value may be useless. Some values are not worthwhile. The paradox is slight, because the values of value are many. Some worths are not worthwhile: an enallage is needed to render the contradiction explicit. The easier reading is trite: some things valued are not valuable; or even easier, some things considered valuable are not valuable. It is curious how ambiguity places a contradiction alongside a banality separated only by a philosophy.

We no longer consider things to have a worth. That only people do, and it is a net worth. Forget that this consideration cheapens us. The prevailing doctrine is that things have value only because they are valued, because someone values them. Value is no longer a feature of anything, but simply an assigned quantity representing an offer of a fair exchange. The philosopher Immanuel Kant took pains to distinguish all appearances from the unknown reality x, the thing-in-itself beyond all our intuitions and categories. The self-in-itself was such an x, but it had a value surpassing any price. Today every x has its price, the cost to pry it from the dead hands of those who prize it. To be a value is to be perceived as valuable.

If you ask people what their values are, they will provide a list. Usually it is a list of valued things and people. Values are what is valued. Or they may list abstract nouns like peace, justice, truth, and freedom. It will be said that to value these things is to enjoy pleasant sensations when relating to, or reflecting on, them. In other words, to value is to gush. Value, it is said, is non-cognitive, merely the regular occurrence of positive affect when presented with the beloved, a fair outcome, non-deception, or absence of restraint. But outside the valuer there is no value.

A value is a rating, an appraisal, an assigned quantity, capable of more or less. No ratings without raters. No values without subjects assigning values, or placing value upon inert and valueless things. Value is utility. And when all utility is stripped from nature its value will be reduced to zero, along with human being. The value of human value has yet to be determined, but the chart is drifting downward and into the red.

The process of value-adding is a sacred economic engine. If you are not profiting from that, you are skimming from the reusers and recyclers. But, as a pundit once said, to render an old-growth forest into ready lumber is closer to profiting by value subtraction.

The purchase of persons is illegal, which drives up their price. In this market, price never exceed costs, which are incalculable. Or rather, costs are externalized as the product. Our religions require that we not put prices on heads, and avoid attaching labels generally. But we have technocrats and actuaries to fix the price without need of a tag. And if the value of untrammeled nature cannot properly be assessed, we have environmental economists to calculate a perfect proxy in average willingness to pay. We cannot attach a dollar value to the forest and its biodiverse habitats; but we can estimate how much the average tourist would pay to visit there, or how much its proximity affects house prices, and thus obtain objective numbers to be assigned a putative scientific reality, in this way presuming forests are fungible after all. The value of clean air may be assessed by the willingness of the taxpayer to bleed on tax day in order to breathe freely the rest of the year.

Values may be effective or aspirational. We routinely ignore the distinction when it is in our perceived interest. (Thus we approve of ourselves based on our excellent aspirational values, but we condemn others for the least unfortunate lapse.) If we want to know what someone values, we have to ask them, for values are opinions and opinions are best assessed by survey. But if we really want to know what someone values, we would not dream of asking them: we would watch them, and read their values off their choices. Actions speak louder than words. 50,000,000 Elvis Presley fans can’t be wrong. Market value is objective, positive; it is effective demand. We all love animals, but most of us eat them. The stomach trumps sentiment, the hand triumphs over the heart.

The above list of valued abstractions suggests that values are warm and fuzzy if deep. We forget the depths to which love of evil can go. We forget the power of revenge, the sweep of vanity, the pride of place — values are what we value. We forget that we must rate the valuer to evaluate the value. That jealousy is widely valued (enacted) makes jealousy human, understandable, but no less evil. Selfishness is universal but so is ignorance. Should we love that? What is most valued may be least valuable. Heraclitus knew already: “it is not better for humans to get all they want.”

We think value is born of the heart, and thus is born pure. But whose heart is pure? Not all values are created equal, because not all valuations are equally valid. We forget how much cunning goes into our values, how many concurrent and crossed purposes they serve. We think of values as born of love, as what we love. We forget how we love to hate, how we enjoy contempt and spite. Our love affair with evil must needs be kept secret, and appearances kept up that our marriage to the good is made in heaven. So we equate the good and pleasure to maintain the illusion during the day, while at night we pay obeisance to the dark saint with engorged libido. Happiness is what we value. The appearance of truth will do.

The gods love what is good because it is good; it is not good because the gods love it. And we are fools to think we are the gods of value. Value is also a rock, the one we live on, the immovable centre. It resists the labels and price-tags we affix to it. It proves itself in enduring our onslaught of self-deception, in outlasting us. To rent it is to destroy it, to own it is to serve it. We try to ride it, but we are eroded. It rights itself against all our wrongs. Value devalues all our valuations. We think we define it at our own cost and peril. But it awaits discovery and the chance to define us.



The second paragraph in this unsettled essay makes use, as do many other esasys in this book, of the extensive entries in the full Oxford English Dictionary. This historical dictionary documents how words are and have been used, including many obsolete words and uses of words. In conversation, people often cherry-pick meanings, as if others could be ruled out on principle, saying “for me the word means” this or that, when in reality the word means this and that. My incessant play with contradictory meanings of a given word, exemplified first in this essay, but frequent throughout, is motivated by a desire to break this illusion, that the word can be taken in only one sense at will. I am trying to show that we all use all the meanings (and often even play on the obsolete ones). So much for method.

The pundit of “value subtraction was Mike Major, one-time cafe philosophy attendee. Once a logger in the woods of Britishc Columbia, he told me once bought a stand of cedar trees, only to discover it was in fact one enormous tree. Like so many of us, he could not tell the forest from a tree.

When I was a child my older sister had a record album on the cover of which read: 50,000,000 Elvis fans can’t be wrong. The actual title of the 1959 compilation album was, according to Wikipedia, Elvis’ Gold Records, Vol. 2.

The Heraclitus fragment is Diels fragment B110, cited anciently in Stobaeus, (Selections 3.1.176). See A PreSocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia, 2nd ed., by Patricia Curd. Trans. by Richard D. McKirahan and Patricia Curd. Indianapolis/Cambridge. Hackett, 2011.

“The gods love what is good because it is good; it is not good because the gods love it.” There is allusion here to the problem set by Socrates to young Theaetetus in Plato’s famous dialogue of that name.