The Concept of Value

In the previous post, we built a semantic environment in order to give context to a discussion on survival.  In it, we repeatedly used the term “value” and implied its ordinal nature.  Additionally, we used the word “garner” as the verb for a person coming to be in possession of that value.  In this post, we’ll discuss the fundamental meaning of value.  The following post will address the social context and how exactly we garner value.

It’s easiest to start simply and then increase the complexity incrementally so that we know our logic is sound.  We must first observe that the word value is a verb.  It is an action.  When it is used as a noun, as in valuables, it is actually identifying objects which have a relationship to a person.  Our clothes are among our valuables because we do the action of valuing them.  Similarly, when value is used as an adjective, as in something is valuable, it is describing again the relationship between the item and a person.  The word value, then, can not have any meaning without some agent present which can perform the action of valuation.  In an agent-less world, a rock has no value by any virtue of its physical properties.  The rock achieves no intended purpose.  It does, of course, play a part in the physical world as it interacts with its surroundings – bumping around according to the laws of physics as it is wont to do.  But the rock can only be said to be a valuable through the action of valuation by an agent.  So whenever we hear the word “value”, it is critical that we first identify the subject of WHO exactly it is that is performing the valuation.

Now that we know that an agent is implied by the very word ‘value’, it makes sense to introduce a person into our world.  Let’s start with just one man for now.  There now exists a single person in the world.  We can put him on a deserted island if that helps to illustrate.  He is all alone. He hasn’t another person with whom to interact or concern himself.  More importantly, everything on the island, if it is said to have value, can only be in relation to that man.  He can assign value to each and every chunk of matter on the island.  This does not imply that he knows each grain of sand and every root of every tree.  Our man needs not omniscient super-human abilities here.

The man, well within his constraints, assigns value only to those things of which he is aware.  Therefore, the man, contributing the greater part of each day in the pursuit of ingesting enough calories, values a piece of fruit a great deal.  But this is not just any fruit that he values.  He values those fruits which he can hold in his hand and, more importantly, chew and ingest.  There are two points here.  First, the man values things for a purpose.  He may have accurate or inaccurate ideas about the way in which the world works.  He may mistakenly think that the fruit he eats will satisfy his caloric requirements.  This is irrelevant to his valuation.  It doesn’t matter whether the man is right or wrong about what he suspects concerning the properties of objects around him.  The fact that he performs the action of valuation occurs all the same.  An impartial spectator may want to criticize the man for some faulty assumption about the world.  But, if the objects in the world can only have value in relation to the action of valuation by the man, then the reasons for his values are superfluous.  All that we care to identify is the value of an object.

The second point is that an object must exist in the man’s mind in order for him to value it.  This need not reflect reality.  If the man thinks that there is a god in the sky which is pleased when the man throws fruit down a hole, and the man values the god’s pleasure, then the man can then be said to value ‘throwing fruit down a hole’.  This is the same as the point above.  The additional point is that the man must know of something in order to value it.  If there is a pile of fruit sitting in a cave somewhere on the island, then it only has value if the man knows about it.   Sure, we could say that the pile WOULD have a value if the man knew about it.  But we can not say that the pile of fruit is valuable without the man’s knowledge.  We would be left with our hat in our hands asking “To WHOM is the fruit valuable”?  Just as in our previous world which does not include any agents, value has no meaning without a person to perform the action of valuation.  This is not an examination of whether the man should, could, or would value the pile of fruit in the cave.  The simple fact is that if he doesn’t know about it, then we can not speak of the fruit at being valued by anyone.

A result is sought before a valuation may occur.  This does not mean some end as in a final outcome of life or of some stable equilibrium.  We value things because they serve a purpose that is the goal of the instant.  Fruit is valuable to the man on the desert island because it serves to sustain him.  If the man can be sustained at a lower cost, that is – by expending less value, simply by breathing, then he will opt for the breathing.  He prefers to breathe over finding fruit.  Survival is the goal.  Breathing and consuming fruit are only valuable to the man because they help him in his goal of survival.  Although it is probably the most common one, survival is not the only goal.  Happiness, reproduction, satiation, and enumerable other goals are sought, with different orders of importance, by everyone.  We assign value to objects in accordance with the extent to which they aid us in achieving these goals.  Again, the extent to which the objects actually contribute to a goal is irrelevant.  The value that we place on an object is the extent to which WE THINK it contributes to a desirable result.

The man on the deserted island has multiple results that he desires.  He values things on the island for different reasons.  He values fruit for the purpose of providing nutritional sustenance which contributes to survival.  He values wood for the purpose of simple tool making.  Those tools, in turn, are valued because they contribute to the variety of purposes which the man intends for them.  He may find and value a dog who keeps him company.  The man values the diverse objects and estimates the degree to which they achieve the defined purposes.  But if the purposes are qualitatively different, and the objects which serve them are valued for the respectively different reasons, then how can we speak of comparing ‘amounts’ of value?  How does the desired result of social company compare to the result of cleanliness?  Wouldn’t that be like comparing apples to oranges?  In what way can an apple be worth any amount of oranges?  Aren’t they always distinct?

The simple answer is that we prioritize.  We don’t have a running account of all objects and their ordinal values.  We aren’t simply picking among the ‘best’ stuff.  Our goals and desired results are dynamic and changing.  The man on the island doesn’t value caloric sustenance, above all other goals, at all times.  The man will surely fatigue at some point and find it more desirable to rest and sleep.  He does not keep a running account in which one result is always more valuable than another.  In concordance with his mood, physical condition, and general preferences, the man does keep an ordinal and ever changing account of the RESULTS which he finds desirable.  And he places a value on them.

It is not a categorically binary decision that he is to make.   He weighs the results, costs, and returns of every action he undertakes.  In this way, the man may pursue cursory goals that have a return on the required investment that is higher than his apparently primary goal of the moment.  The man may be out foraging for food when he stumbles upon a bottle of iodine that would be useful for any cuts or abrasions that he may receive.  If all the man need do is to pick up the bottle and place it in his pocket, then the cost can be said to be very low to him of getting the value of a safeguard against infection.  Even though the highest priority objective of the moment is to find food, the cost and then return of picking up the iodine with the value of the safeguard is much higher.  We not only pursue the result of highest value – we pursue the task of greatest return in light of the cost of action and the priority which we place on the result.  In this way, our preferences are ordinal – defined but not permanently static – at all instants.

The man on the desert island is of no value as an innate property.  If we insist that the man is valuable, then we must satisfy the lingering question of “By whom”?  We might say that he can not be valuable because there is no one to value him.  He is, after all, an object among the many others on the island.  We’d be right – almost.  We would be ignoring the value that the man places on himself.  The determinant of the man’s survival lies exclusively in his capability to garner the value necessary for his sustenance at a cost which expends less value than it garners.  The previous statement is starkly categorical.  Later, we’ll see the nuances and not so categorical inferences for social interaction.

The next post will expand on value(s) in a multi-agent world and address garnering that value.


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