How do we know what things are worth?

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 16 Comments

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.   

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Don Briddell
Don Briddell
10 years ago

Jeff, In the Peace Corps I participated in a world wide survey on aesthetics done by Yale University Psychology Dept. We were given a hundred pictures in pairs. Each pair was of an object produced by different cultures and ages from all around the world, like a Ming Chinese Pot and a Baroque Pot from Germany. We showed the two pictures to our subjects and asked them to pick the one they liked the best. The object was to see how the cultures of the world related to each other in matters of preferences, aesthetics. I was testing Ecuadorian Andean… Read more »

CW
CW
10 years ago

I like this post but wanted to point out that when you say ‘The simple but profound point that I am making’ is actually two simple points. The first point, that ‘the value we assign to things is not an inherent part of the things themselves’ I agree with, although it’s ultimately tautological based on how the sentence is constructed. If value can/must be assigned to things, then by definition it isn’t a completely inherent feature of things. To say that valuation is however, an ‘assessment of the match between the characteristics of the thing and our intended use for… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

“and indeed the social dimension of imitation and synchronization of behavior is probably more of a determining factor in influencing valuation than any underlying purposeful relation between subject and object.” Indeed, I think both CW and Don have hit the point here. Jeff I don’t know whether you really meant it when you said that one can assign a “personal value”. It is extremely difficult to assign values which are not influenced by society, almost impossible. I usually call someone able to do this a “genius”, someone able to stand alone and move forward, but to meet a person like… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

When you give a rose to a biologist, it will be valued very different. If, in a restaurant a man buys a yellow rose for a woman in stead of a red one, it will be valued less. Different social groups have different values. What I always like so much reading this blog and the comments is that suddenly the philosopher that I am reading gets a different ‘value’. I am reading about Schopenhauer at the moment and he is really talking about Eros, the will to live, which is already in the cosmos. I think at the moment you… Read more »

CW
CW
10 years ago

“I still wonder though if utility in the most general sense plays a role even in it what it is that we find aesthetically pleasing.” This is one of those cases where I think the Wilberian Integral view has something to offer. It may be possible to reduce aesthetics to pragmatics in all cases but that only suggests that both themes are important, not that one should be collapsed into the other. Indeed, even if aesthetic values coincide with pragmatic measurements, those measurements are the least important feature about an aesthetic phenomenon. The measurement of electrical activity in the brain,… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

I will think about it more, but my first impression is that ‘utility’ is located at the level of the ego. Seeing the world as how it is useful for me. Not being in awe about the immensity of nature and of being part of that, but experiencing it as ‘useful because of its beauty qualities’. It is very American, like pragmatism, diminishing life to its usefulness. I have been so much following these philosophers and what they talk about goes so much deeper. There was a story this week in the newspaper about the great amount of kids that… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Values/ Choice. I feel that one of the most intriguing and interesting aspects of Andrew Cohen teachings is that we are, as the chooser, always responsible and free for our choices. This has never stopped fascinating me. Gosh, if Andrew was true there ? Before this, I had been impressed by Gourdjieff, who states that we are a machine, the Ego machine, until what he calls the superior Mind and the superior Heart are opened. All our values are conditioned by some mechanism, whether it is cultural conditioning, or the system of needs of Maslow’ s pyramid. Maybe both play… Read more »

CW
CW
10 years ago

Are values what we think we care about or are they more about how we actually behave? I think it boils down to language. The word value is a very general, charged term which refers to a variety of social, intellectual, and semiotic processes which overlap in the sense that they deal with the perception or understanding of ranking/ordering/weighting inequalities. Psychologically it has to do with reaching for a relatively fixed frame of reference, an internally or externally consistent index used to justify support or build consensus, a requirement for turning sentiment into behavior. Value is teleological agency projecting it’s… Read more »

Wren
Wren
10 years ago

To complicate the picture a little bit more… ☺ The value of something also seems frequently to rely shockingly much on the context in which that thing is presented. A great piece of artwork in a yard sale is likely to be unnoticed or seen as significantly less valuable than if it is displayed in a museum or respected art gallery. And perceived value is also very much affected by whether we think others value that thing. There is a kind of instantaneous pre-cognitive response if we see a lot of people gathered around something—whether it’s a street performance or… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

At the moment I am really enjoying Quantum Questions by Ken Wilber, a great book to read. I have been thinking of course of the utility question and today I thought ‘yes I value for example ‘mountains’ for their beauty. Than in Quantum Questions I came across definitions of beauty that shed light on it: Heisenberg describes two opposite ideas of beauty, one as the proper conformity of the parts to one another, and to the whole; the second, stemming from Plotinus, describes it as the translucence of the eternal splendor of the ‘one’ though the material phenomenon. The first… Read more »

CW
CW
10 years ago

“Heisenberg describes two opposite ideas of beauty, one as the proper conformity of the parts to one another, and to the whole; the second, stemming from Plotinus, describes it as the translucence of the eternal splendor of the ‘one’ though the material phenomenon.” I would argue against both ideas as superficial and lacking explanatory power. I think that beauty can be any aesthetic condition which produces pleasure regardless of whether it’s parts conform ‘properly’ or it reflects metaphysical wholeness. Beauty is sort of qualia enhancement – qualia made more qualitative, the essence of essence. To define beauty without mentioning subjective… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Dear CW, These definitions are described as most profound ever, but the book I am reading is about physics and mysticism, not about aesthetics. You are right, there are more ways to describe that, but that was not what I was responding to. I was responding to Jeff’s functionality, even though he himself stepped away from it, I was still thinking about it (reflecting on my experience with the mountains). Amazing, was that the second description ´the translucence of the eternal splendor of the ‘one’ though the material phenomenon’ totally met with my own experience being in awe with the… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

Deciding what anything is worth calls into play values and what one considers good and not so. In our individualistic world, it’s amazing we have any concord or agreement on the matter at all. It seems a lot depends on self-interest and how what’s being judged impacts on that. If something furthers my interests and then ego, affirming I’m right in my judgment, then it’s good, otherwise less so or not at all good. When one becomes more discerning re: judgement and assessing what’s worthy, I’d say anything that upholds the spiritual values of bettering humanity or at least maintaining… Read more »

Philosophy Encyclopedia

It’s simple. If you are thristy and you drink 1 glass of water it’s going to be extremely valuable and dense experience. Drink a second and it won’t be as good and so on.
Diversity and experience makes things valueable not the things themselves. Do not exploit certain things in unhealthy limits and you’d find that life is much more pleasurable experience.