Moral Relativism And Subjective Value

Imagine a universe in which there are no sentient, conscious beings. How valuable would gold be? How long would a meter be? What would be the meaning of good or evil or beautiful or ugly? With no one available to ascribe those values, what value would any of these concepts hold? Indeed what is meaning, itself, without sentience to assign it?

These questions lead to the inevitable and inextricable links between moral relativism and subjective value. Ultimately, I believe there is no difference between the subjective values used to perform financial and economic transactions, and the subjective values used to determine morality. In both cases, individual actors make determinations, act on those judgments, and make them available to society as a whole as beacons for the rapid and productive growth of knowledge.

Note: for a more thorough understanding of the concepts in this article, you might consider reading The Intrinsic Value of Nothing (two part series), and Approaching Certainty.

For centuries, people have debated the notion of whether or not morality and ethics must be defined deontologically and objectively. Must religion define ethos and mores? Or can science do it better? And if science can do it better, must it be a universal, absolute set of rules (as is the case with religion) — or can morality be defined subjectively, by individual actors?

In 1960, the great free market economist Murray Rothbard wrote a response to an article by Ludwig von Mises. Although Rothbard was heavily influenced by Mises, he criticized Mises’ position of ethical relativism. Both of these economists are giants in the economic tradition to which I subscribe — the Austrian School. Rothbard’s response article to Mises was crucial because Austrian economic discipline is explicitly defined by its contraposition to the postmodernist/egalitarian tenets of objective value.

Specifically, Austrians hold the belief that value is only created subjectively — at the instant of an exchange. Whereas Objective Value Theory – as proposed by Marx (among others) — holds that values exist as part of reality, independent of sentient interpretation and perception. As with all socialist theories, the idea sounds pleasant at first blush: our labor has value no matter what, and therefore — regardless of our pursuits — we should be compensated for our work.

Unfortunately for proponents of the Objective Theory, it breaks down fairly quickly; if you spend 40 hours in your backyard digging a hole that serves no purpose, what value does it have? Socialists would maintain it has value simply because you did it. Austrians claim it only has value if someone is willing to pay you for it. In other words, Austrians believe that value is created because of usefulness and productivity. Socialists see usefulness as ancillary and almost completely unrelated to value.

We know with no doubt that both Rothbard and Mises held and promoted vigorously this idea of subjective value — that the worth of something could only be determined by two parties agreeing at the time of exchange on its relative value. And yet, Rothbard observes:

“To Mises, there is no such thing as absolute ethics; man, by use of his mind, cannot discover a true ‘scientific’ ethics by insight into what is best for man’s nature. Ultimate ends, values, ethics, are simply subjective, personal, and purely arbitrary. If they are arbitrary, Mises never explains where they come from: how any individual arrives at them.”

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