Objective Pluralism in the Theory of Value[1]

Albert P. Brogan


ALMOST every writer on ethics and the theory of value can be classified as either an objective monist or a subjective pluralist. An adequate statement and defense of an objectively pluralistic theory of value seems to have been neglected. Apparently thinkers have assumed that axiological pluralism is inconsistent with axiological objectivism. The present paper will attempt to refute this assumption and to show that pluralism is compatible with objectivism.

The arguments which follow are fundamentally methodological rather than metaphysical. We shall argue for pluralism as a description of the apparent facts, but shall neither affirm nor deny the possibility of a monistic interpretation of these facts in a more ultimate metaphysics. We shall show that pluralism does not imply subjectivism, but shall define both subjectivism and objectivism methodologically rather than metaphysically. Let us first define objectivism in the theory of value. Objectivism refers to the following assumption: If I say that this is intrinsically better than that, and you say that the same this is not intrinsically better than that, then one of

( 288) us has judged truly and the other has judged falsely. In other words we are to treat value judgments as objectively true or false. Please note that this definition neither assumes nor denies that intrinsic valuables are to be found only within the realm of consciousness or experience. Subjectivism, on the other hand, is that method which treats every so-called intrinsic value judgment as strictly neither true nor false. On this theory valuations are not judgments about anything; they are merely expressions of personal attitudes masquerading as judgments. Two so-called value judgments may seem to be strict logical contradictories, and yet they may be equally correct because they are merely expressions of two different preferences. If objectivism is true our method will be investigation; we will observe and search, describe and analyze, what seem to be facts about value. If subjectivism is true our method will be one of insistence —insistence upon certain attitudes, prejudices, creative imaginations, with some form of compulsion or force as the ultimate method of reaching agreement.


Prolonged arguments in favor of pluralism in the theory of value would doubtless seem unnecessary to most open-minded thinkers of the present generation. The empirical evidence has been overwhelming. Both within each individual and between different individuals the possibilities of diverse and even conflicting goods seem enormous. Whatever disguise metaphysical theory may give, the phenomena certainly seem to be pluralistic.

There is another argument for pluralism which may be based upon the theory of the present writer that betterness is the fundamental value-category. According to this doctrine values not only are but must be pluralistic and relational. Good and bad, right and wrong, are defined by intrinsic betterness. At first glance, this doctrine may seem to be tending to monism, in that it destroys the old dualisms which regarded good and bad,

( 289) or right and wrong, as basic. There is only one fundamental value-category, since better and worse are simply different ways of talking about the same relation. But while there is only one value-category, this one category is in its very nature pluralistic and relational. There could be no value at all unless there were several valuables, one of which was better than another. Empirically there seem to be innumerable valuables which form a series of levels. These valuables may form one system, but this system need have no more unity than is possessed by any other system. The series of valuables is generated internally by the relation of betterness. It is a product of internal comparison starting from the class of indifferents. Thus we see that to assume monism at the start is a clear distortion of the facts about value. Our method in philosophy must be a study of the empirical diversity of valuables, with no bias in favor of introducing more unity than the facts seem to warrant.


There have been many forms of the monistic theory of value, but all of them try to reduce human valuations to a single simple formula. This single simple formula is the criterion by which supposedly correct or true valuations can be distinguished from incorrect or false valuations. These monistic theories fall into two main groups. In one group we find a notion of perfection, a best, a summum bonum, which is set up as a standard to which other valuables must conform as closely as possible. In the other group we find that the formula consists of a definition of goodness in general as being pleasure, or satisfaction, or life, or evolution, or any one of various other aspects of the universe.

Innumerable examples can be found of the theories which take perfection or the best as their standard. Plato is perhaps the main innovator. Aristotle argued that if there is a better there must be a best. Kant had two bests, and most of his followers have at least one. Both in England and in America

( 290) idealists and self-realizationists have adopted this attitude. Among realists G. E. Moore [2] in England and E. G. Spaulding in this country repeat the doctrine with little variation. Even among pragmatists we find puzzling references to incomparables and invaluables.

Have we any reason to suppose that there is a perfection or summum bonum? It is certainly not true that every series must have a limit or a last member. There is nothing in the nature of value or betterness which even suggests that there is or must be a highest good. We have no right to say that the value series is finite. It might be, but we have no proof that it is. So we cannot assert that there is anything than which something else might not be better. We are justified in using the notion of best only when it is limited to a definite class such that the best is better than every other member of that class. We have no right to talk about an absolute best.

If the value series must have an end-term, why would not a lowest had do as well as a highest good? Or perhaps we might have both a lowest bad and a highest good. But clearly we have no reason to suppose that there is either an upper or a lower limit.

Why have thinkers been so illogical in supposing that there must be a supreme good? There have been many reasons. In the past ignorance of the logic of relations has naturally been one reason. Many thinkers have agreed with James Seth that the passage from the extrinsic or instrumental goods to an intrinsic value implies that the intrinsic value is an "ultimate and unitary Good" (Ethical Principles, p. 13). But the main reason has been the feeling that the differing intrinsic goods can have no objective degrees of value or betterness unless there be some external standard of perfection by which to make comparisons. This argument is stated explicitly by neoscholastics such as Coffey, by realists such as Spaulding, and

( 291) by many idealists. Perhaps the clearest statement may be found in G. Galloway's idealistic Philosophy of Religion.

If we cannot do more than say that actions are better or worse in relation to one another, our moral valuations become infected with a fundamental uncertainty. A purely relative way of judging the good could give no security for preferring one valuation to another; only if the Supreme Value have a ground in reality, do we gain a solid foundation for a coherent system of moral judgments and a sufficient test of their consistency.[3]

No doubt some external standard of valuation is needed for extrinsic or instrumental values, but why is it needed for intrinsic values? If one experience is intrinsically better than an-other, surely we can ascertain this fact without comparing both experiences with a standard of perfection, which probably does not exist and which certainly is unknown to us. Must we have a point of departure for fixing the value series? I am not sure that this is necessary, but as a matter of fact we do have such a point of departure. We can take the class of indifferents, those things whose existence is neither better nor worse than their non-existence. With this class we can compare goods which are better than indifferents, and bads which are worse. So we can build up our picture of the value-scale. But a supreme value is neither necessary nor discoverable.

The monist seems to fear that a plurality of different valuations must be subjective, but surely monism is not necessary for objectivity. If the monist's judgment about the absolute best is objective, why might not a consistent set of independent valuations be objective? And if our many judgments about the better seem to be subjective, why is not the monist's judgment about the absolute better or best also subjective? Does dogmatism guarantee objectivity? Of course there are in our usual pre-scientific valuations many conflicts of opinion, but is there not also some conflict as to what is the summum bonum

We must pass very rapidly over the monistic theories which

( 292) give a definition, not of the best, but of goodness in general. Hedonism is the classic example, but many other theories have been developed which are equally monistic in their formulas. About them all I must content myself with the three following considerations. There is no a priori reason to suppose that values must be tested by a single formula. Since valuations are fundamentally about betterness, all monistic definitions must equate their criterion with betterness, a task much more difficult than the traditional equation with goodness. If the one value-judgment involved in the monistic definition of value is not subjective, why might not other value-judgments be objective? These three considerations, if applied in detail, will discredit all of the monistic definitions with which I am acquainted. A more empirical and detailed refutation is possible but it cannot be included here.

Looking at all of our monistic theories, we see that they do not seem to be true. Even if they were true they would not secure the purpose for which they were invented, the objectivity of values and valuations.


If objective monism is false, and if values seem plural and relational, are we not driven to a subjective or relativistic theory? This conclusion has been reached by many of the more independent thinkers of today; for example, Mr. Santayana and Professor McGilvary.

In the present paper an attempt will be made to prove the fallacy of inferring subjectivism from pluralism. This will open up the possibility of an objective pluralism, but will go no further. No attempt can be made here to give either a proof or an interpretation for axiological objectivism.

There are several abstract and theoretical arguments from pluralism or relationalism to subjectivism or relativity which may be passed over with a mere mention. They have been abundantly criticized by realists in other fields than the theory of value, so they may be labeled "debatable" without further argument. There is the general assumption that to be in any

( 293) sense mental or conscious involves epistemological' subjectivism or relativism. Since all extrinsic values seem to be de-pendent on intrinsic values which involve consciousness, the conclusion would seem obvious if the general assumption were correct. Then there is the familiar notion that relations require some all including substance or mind. Finally there is the con-fused transition from factual relationship to epistemological relativity or subjectivism. There are other similar arguments, but they hardly require refutation here.

The most important arguments from pluralism to subjectivism are not the previous abstract arguments but more empirical arguments based on a study of the apparent conflicts and contradictions among human valuations. I shall try to show that these arguments show more confusion among critics than contradictions among human valuations.

The origin of this entire line of attack may be found in a fragment of Heraclitus, in which he argued that sea water is good for fishes but bad for men (Diels, frag. 61; Bywater, frag. 52). From this he seems to have deduced some subjectivity or relativity of good and bad. The fallacy in this and in many more pretentious modern arguments comes from a con-fusion of extrinsic with intrinsic value. If intrinsic values are objective they obviously cannot be both good and not good, or both good and bad. But one and the same object might be extrinsically both good and bad, provided that the object for which it is good is different from the object for which it is bad, or provided that the specific conditions and circumstances are different.

Usually it is not just extrinsic values in general but moral values which have led to apparent contradiction and so to subjectivism. All thinkers would not agree that moral values, moral duties, and moral codes are merely extrinsic values or utilities; but surely most would agree that an essential aspect of morality should be its beneficial results. So differing extrinsic values must involve differing moralities. We must expect that in differing relations there not only are, but must be, dif-

( 294) -fering moral judgments and moral ideas. Moral duties and moral ideals could be immutable only if both human nature and its environment were immutable.

It may be argued that moral valuations conflict about an identical act in the same relations. Does not this prove subjectivism and relativism? In reply we should first ask whether the difference of opinion is at all due to ignorance or error concerning the consequences of the act. As people are not omniscient, they may differ about the actual results of the act, but surely this cannot prove axiological subjectivism. Moreover many people make moral judgments which obviously involve no accurate analysis or understanding of morality. Their moral judgments are traditions or superstitions. Then .it must be pointed out that no one has ever made a careful and scientific study of the entire field of present-day popular morality with statistical treatment of thousands of cases. When this has been done, we shall be in a better position to interpret the facts. Certainly no one has as yet proved subjectivism on the evidence from morality.[4]

Finally the subjectivist may argue that people make different and conflicting judgments even about intrinsic values. There should be different judgments since there are a great many different valuables in life. But if the intrinsic value-judgments seem to be irreducibly contradictory, then subjectivism would seem to be proved. Much apparent contradiction is caused by carelessness, confusion, and lack of analysis. Both in the past and in the present these contradictions have been decreasing with the increase of enlightenment. Have we any proof that careful judgments about intrinsic values involve permanent and unavoidable contradictions sufficient to prove subjectivism? I can only confess that I know of no such proof. It is much to be desired that some subjectivist or relativist give us a detailed proof. in the meantime it must be admitted that the facts of pluralism have not proved subjectivism.

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Many of the chief reasons which thinkers have given for subjectivism have been drawn from the plurality of values. The plurality of values is an indisputable fact, but the inferences from pluralism to subjectivism have one and all been shown to be fallacious or unproved. So the facts of plurality and relationship among values are entirely compatible with an objective theory of value, an objective pluralism. Let me repeat that no attempt is being made here to prove or interpret axiological objectivism. We have refuted the usual objective monisms, we have seen the truth and nature of pluralism, and we have shown the fallacies in the usual proofs from pluralism to subjectivism. This opens the way for the development of an objective pluralism, but goes no further.

In conclusion, please note that both the objective monist and the subjective pluralist offer you suspiciously easy and dogmatic doctrines. What you are asked to believe is just one sentence, though to be sure it is usually a different sentence for each philosopher. They say that the highest good is so and so, that goodness is pleasure or what not, that value is whatever you think or feel it is. As soon as this one sentence has been settled, all fundamental problems about value are supposed to be solved. Even if there were no fallacies back of the proofs for all of this, would it not seem too easy to be a plausible ac-count of our complex world? At any rate it is to be confessed that an objective pluralism will be more difficult. It will call in all of the possible methods of analysis, including psychology and the modern logic of relations. It will study human valuations patiently and empirically, using not only the traditional statistical methods but also newer and more fruitful methods. It will perhaps seem more slow, but it will ultimately seem more sure, than the traditional methods.



  1. This paper was read before the Western Division of the American Philosophical Association, at a meeting in Chicago, in March, 1921. It is printed without alteration, although some of the ideas will be developed in slightly different ways in a forthcoming book on the theory of comparative value.
  2. Principia Ethica, pp. 182-83.
  3. Pp. 201-2.
  4. See this Journal, XXXIII, 119-34; XXXIV, 254-7I; XXXV, 105-24.

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