How do we know what things are worth?

How do we assign value to things? Why do we believe that one thing is better than another? As I continue here with our discussion of how social reality is constructed (after a brief interlude from last week’s movie review) it is important to consider how value is assigned to things. Let’s start with a simple thought experiment. If I were to show you two rocks and then two roses and ask you to tell me which of the rocks is the better rock and which of the roses is the better rose would the question be easier to answer for the roses or for the rocks? You will probably say it depends on which rocks and which roses – of course that is true – but I am asking the question more generally than that.

Let’s try a different experiment. Imagine that I have two pieces of granite of roughly the same size, weight and color but slightly different shapes and I go out into the street and the first hundred people I meet I ask to pick the best one. Probably half the people will pick one and half the other. And I bet a lot of people will look at you strangely wondering what criteria you expect them to choose by. Now imagine that you have two roses. One is full, fresh, bright and red. The other is full, fresh, bright and yellow. Again you go out into the streets and ask the first one hundred people you see to pick the best one. Again you will probably find that roughly half prefer yellow and half red, but you will also get fewer funny looks. The problem with choosing between the rocks is that the criterion by which to make judgments between them is not as clear.

Let’s consider yet another example. This time you have two red roses. One is full, fresh and bright. The other is wilted and browning. Now you go out and ask the first hundred people that you see to choose which is the best rose. This time you will find that almost everyone chooses the full, fresh, bright one. Why? Because the other one is dying you might say. But why do we think that living roses are better than dying ones? Why are we assigning value to the living rose that we are taking away from the dying one?

I realize this seems like a silly question that only a philosopher would ever even think worth contemplating, but this example illustrates a profound point about value. The value that human beings assign to things is not a characteristic of the thing itself. Rather it is a reference to the human purpose for the thing. The purpose of roses is to be beautiful and we see the living one as more beautiful than the dying one, but that is in reference to our purpose for roses not only to the rose itself.

That is why the rocks are more difficult to judge, because there is not the same generally accepted purpose for rocks. Rocks are not “for something” in the same way that roses are “for being beautiful.” If you want to make the rock choice easier all you have to do is provide a purpose for the rocks. Tell the one hundred people to choose the rock that will be best for using as a paper weight, or to break a window, or to skip on water, and you will start to see more agreement around which rock is better than which.

The simple but profound point that I am making is that the value we assign to things is not an inherent part of the things themselves, but an assessment of the match between the characteristics of the thing and our intended use for it.

Look around you and you will see that any label you can give to anything as being better than something else will be a label that refers to some intended purpose of the thing. Value is intention dependent. We live in a world full of objects that have values assigned to them in reference to our intended purposes. And the existence of those objects in the world subsequently tends to drive us toward the purposes that have been built into them by our own value assessments. As we continue to talk about the construction of social reality it will be important to remember that the social world is, from the start, full of purposeful content.