Harris Vignette #2: What are “Values”, anyway?

“Values” is the central object of investigation for Harris’ book, so, hopefully he has something interesting to say about them. And the book as a whole certainly does, by bringing to bear neuroscience on moral issues.  Harris case for evaluative values scientifically, however, relies on a specific comprehension of what values “actually are”:

Defining goodness [as the well being of humans] does not resolve all questions of value; it merely directs our attention to what values actually are – the set of attitudes, choices, and behaviors that potentially affect our well-being, as well as that of other conscious minds.

Are values the set of attitudes and behaviors that might affect the well being of ourselves and others? Or, is Harris begging the question – first by defining the good in a traditional way (as the “deeper form” of the well being of humans), and then simply asserting that values correspond to this definition of the good? Wouldn’t it be more scientifically rigorous to begin with what values “actually are”, and then proceed to the meaning of the good? This is perhaps the most disapointing aspect of Harris’ book – not only does Harris fail to provide a contribution to thinking about the good or about the notion of value (although the rest of the book certainly does contribute to understanding about the way values function), but he fails to recognize that these are themselves deep and difficult questions, not to be passed over in a few pages where a convenient definition is asserted by fiat.

First, we must ask – can moral good be reduced to some deeper notion of well-being? Is it rigorous to use the terms “deeper notion”, undefined, in a definition of “the good”? Has Harris really gotten himself out of any problems which result from making pleasure the only human good, such as the pleasure wizard problem? And, can Harris afford to rely on such an unsubstantiated notion of the good if the object is a scientific evaluation of values? How can we have a rigorous comprehension of what values are “good” if we don’t have a finely tuned analysis of what the “good life” actually is? Certainly some meaningful value-evaluations can be made using easy cases (such as “the Bad life”, p15), but to deal with hard cases a more precise notion of good life will be required.

Second, are values simply attitudes and behaviors that affect human well being? Because if that is the definition, then every  single attitude or behavior that anyone has ever had, ever, qualifies as “a value”. Is that all values are – attitudes and behaviors? Aren’t values something that inhere both in individuals, and in institutions and other groups? Is the meaning of a social value or an institutional value exhausted by the particular values of the people in the group or society? Harris analysis of values appears particularly weak here – unable to grasp the social nature of values, and unable to grasp the difference between a “value” and a “behavior”.


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