An Incompatible-Properties Argument against Objective Values

In this post I want to sketch an argument against objective values (moral or otherwise).

I shall first analyze the noun “value” and then the expression “moral value.” Finally, I will use these definitions to explicitly formulate an argument that objective values, so defined, have logically incompatible properties. In other words, the concept of an “objective value” is self-contradictory in the same way that “a married bachelor” or “a four-sided triangle” is self-contradictory.

The Objective-vs.-Value Argument

1. To be valuable, an entity must be valued (by someone).

2. To be objectively valuable, an entity’s value must not depend on being valued (by someone).[1]

3. Therefore, it is impossible for anything to be objectively valuable.(from 1 and 2)

Premise 1 might be challenged on the grounds that it equivocates between two senses of “valuable.” Premise 1 expresses the first sense of “valuable”: an entity that is valued (by someone). This sense is captured by the slogan, “Values requires valuers.” But, a critic might argue, there is another, equally legitimate sense of “valuable.” An entity can somehow have objective value, even in the absence of valuers, simply by being desirable or worth having.[2]

Premise 2 might also be challenged, on theological grounds. Theists have traditionally believed that God is the sustaining cause of everything else that exists. But premise (2), taken at face value, combined with the belief in God as a sustaining cause, entails that nothing else exists objectively. Not only would “God-based” moral values not be objective, but even the existence of things like rocks and rivers not be objective. But this counter-intuitive implication should be rejected. “Objectivity” should not be defined in such an absolutist way; rather, we should simply say that objective value does not depend upon the subjective states of humans. If moral values depend upon the subjective states of God, that shouldn’t disqualify moral values from being “objective.”

Whether or not this argument or either objection succeeds is hard to say. I am inclined to agree with premise 2, but I am less confident in the truth of premise 1. In other words, I’m not claiming that this argument is sound. Also, for the record, I don’t claim the argument is original with me, but I have never seen it explicitly made by anyone else. (If anyone has any references for anyone else stating or defending an argument like this, references would be most appreciated.)


[1] Nicholas Rescher, Introduction to Value Theory (Prentice-Hall, 1969), p. 56.

[2] Joel J. Kupperman, Value… And What Follows (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 3; Louis P. Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong (Third ed., Belmont, CA: Wadsowrth, 1999), p. 84, 91.