Sunday, April 21, 2013

Value hierarchies in philosophical arguments.

The point of this post is to examine the role of psychological 'value hierarchies' in philosophical argument.

Here are some examples of typical arguments involving a value hierarchy :

Ayn Rand:-
Values exist in a hierarchy, some being pursued only because they are means to other, higher ends. This implies the existence of an ultimate end that grounds the hierarchy. “Without an ultimate goal or end, there can be no lesser goals or means. . . . It is only an ultimate goal, an end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 17). Things qualify as good or evil, valuable or detrimental, only insofar as they serve or frustrate the ultimate value; and the ultimate value is one’s life. “Man must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man—in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 27).
Via The Ayn Rand Institute

Sam Norton :-
Everyone has a hierarchy of values, it’s impossible to be human and not have a sense of some things being more important that others. As Mr Zimmerman once sang “You’ve gotta serve somebody.”

Where people articulate and express their values then we can talk about what they worship, which is simply how we orient ourselves to what we see as most valuable. For the faithful, God is the single most important thing in life. Moreover, we also believe that if God is at the centre then everything else falls into its proper place – in other words, everything is given a proper place, neither overvalued nor undervalued.
Via Elizaphanian

Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs:

Once the hierarchy of values is established, it then forms an essential premise in an argument leading to a conclusion. But what is a hierarchy? Glad you asked.

A hierarchy is an abstract model. An abstract object is basically a convention which has agreed upon properties, rules and a structure. Because these models are abstract, they can be applied to many different tasks. Abstract models don't actually exist in reality. We use them because they have consistent properties we find useful to convey information, organize our thoughts or to model certain aspects of complex systems.
Mathematically, in its most general form, a hierarchy is a partially ordered set or poset.[7] The system in this case is the entire poset, which is constituted of elements. Within this system, each element shares a particular unambiguous property. Objects with the same property value are grouped together, and each of those resulting levels is referred to as a class.

"Hierarchy" is particularly used to refer to a poset in which the classes are organized in terms of increasing complexity.
See Wikipedia for the rest of the maths.

It's important to note that models only capture the relevant information, that is, the information we are concerned about. Certain aspects are ignored in order to simplify the model or because they are irrelevant. We should also note that abstract models like hierarchies are tools and we pick the model that best suits our purpose. The same systems may be represented on different models in different ways. This is not post-modern relativism but simple fact.

So we have (hopefully) established that a hierarchy is an example of an abstract model and that abstract models are mathematical tools used to represent or model certain things.

My concern is: How well can a hierarchy model a psychological value system? How valid is the premise 'All human values form a hierarchy with X at the top' ?

I accept an individual can roughly describe his current value system in hierarchy form. But I'm worried about the claim of objective value hierarchies, the sort of sweeping assertion Ayn Rand made when she placed a mans' life as his ultimate value or when Sam claimed God should be the ultimate value at the top of a hierarchy.

I suspect aspects of human psychology cannot be reliably modeled using a hierarchy. I suspect a humans value system is in constant flux over the course of the subjects existence and the well noted criticism of logic is that logic constants are static while reality is not. If (A) my ultimate value = my life, then (A) cannot become 'My family' without violating the law of non-contradiction.

In summary, I believe we have good reason to query arguments relying upon a premise of a  psychological hierarchy's of values. Once it is understood that a hierarchy is simply a mathematical model, assertions like 'all human values form a hierarchy' make as much sense as 'all human values form a Hasse diagram' or a Möbius strip. Human psychology is complex and fluid, not static and unchanging. The assertion that X is the ultimate value in a hierarchy, or even X should be the ultimate value, must be understood as a rhetorical technique draped in mathematical language. It should not be accepted as a valid premise.
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