The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

2018 Edition
| Editors: Macmillan Publishers Ltd

Value Judgements

  • John C. Harsanyi
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-349-95189-5_1802

Abstract

One may define value judgements as judgements of approval or disapproval claiming objective validity. Many of our judgements of approval and disapproval do not involve such claims. When I say that I like a particular dish, I do not mean to imply that other people ought to like it too or that those disliking it are making a mistake. All I am doing is expressing my personal preference and my personal taste. (But an expert chef or an expert food critic may very well claim that his judgements about food have some degree of objective validity – in the sense that other gastronomic experts would tend to agree with his judgements. Of course, it is an empirical question whether his claim would be justified and, more generally, how much agreement there is in fact among expert judges of food.) Yet when I say that Hitler’s murder of many millions of innocent people was a moral outrage, I do mean to do more than express my personal moral attitudes and do mean to imply that anybody who tried to defend Hitler’s actions would be morally wrong.

Keywords

Harsanyi, J. C. Preferences Public choice Value judgements 

The Claim of Objective Validity

One may define value judgements as judgements of approval or disapproval claiming objective validity. Many of our judgements of approval and disapproval do not involve such claims. When I say that I like a particular dish, I do not mean to imply that other people ought to like it too or that those disliking it are making a mistake. All I am doing is expressing my personal preference and my personal taste. (But an expert chef or an expert food critic may very well claim that his judgements about food have some degree of objective validity – in the sense that other gastronomic experts would tend to agree with his judgements. Of course, it is an empirical question whether his claim would be justified and, more generally, how much agreement there is in fact among expert judges of food.) Yet when I say that Hitler’s murder of many millions of innocent people was a moral outrage, I do mean to do more than express my personal moral attitudes and do mean to imply that anybody who tried to defend Hitler’s actions would be morally wrong.

In claiming objective validity, value judgements resemble factual judgements (both those dealing with empirical facts and those dealing with logical–mathematical facts). But they resemble judgements of personal preference in expressing human attitudes (those of approval or disapproval) rather than expressing beliefs about matters of fact, as factual judgements do. But this immediately poses a difficult philosophical problem: We can understand what it means for factual judgements to be objectively valid, that is, to be true, or to be objectively invalid, that is, to be false. They will be true if they describe the relevant facts as these facts actually are, and will be false if they fail to do so. But in what sense can judgements expressing human attitudes be objectively valid or invalid?

It seems to me that this can happen in at least two different ways. Such judgements can be objectively invalid either because they are contrary to the facts or because they are based on the wrong value perspective. Value judgements can be contrary to the facts in the following sense: When we form our attitudes, we do so on the basis of some specific factual assumptions so that our attitudes and our judgements expressing these attitudes will be contrary to the facts if they are based on false factual assumptions. Mistaken factual assumptions may vitiate both our value judgements about instrumental values and those about intrinsic values. Thus, if I approve of using A as a means to achieve some end B, I will do this on the assumption that A is causally effective in achieving B. Hence, my approval will be mistaken if this assumption is incorrect. Likewise, if I approve of A as an intrinsically desirable goal, I will do this on the assumption that A has some qualities I find intrinsically attractive. My approval will be mistaken if in fact A does not possess these qualities.

Another way of value judgement may be objectively invalid is by being based on a value perspective different from the one it claims to have. For example, I may claim that my support for some government policy is based on its being in the public interest, even though actually it is based on its being in my own personal interest. Or, I may praise a very undistinguished novel as a great work of art merely because it supports my own political point of view. When a person claims to base his value judgement on one value perspective though actually he bases it on another, he may be simply lying, being fully aware of not telling the truth. Another possibility is that he is unaware, or only half aware, of using a value perspective different from the one he claims to use. (Likewise, when a person is making a value judgement based on false factual assumptions, he may or may not be fully aware of the falsity of these assumptions.)

Disagreements in Value Judgements

As we all know, disagreements in value judgements are extremely common and in many cases are very hard, or even impossible, to resolve. It seems to me that in most cases careful analysis would show that these disagreements about values are based on disagreements about the facts. Yet they may be very hard to resolve because these factual disagreements may be about very subtle facts about which reliable information is very hard, or even impossible, to obtain. For instance, our value judgements about a person’s behaviour will often crucially depend on what we think his motives are. Some observers may attribute very noble motives to him, while others may do the opposite. Yet the available evidence might be consistent with either assumption. Other value judgements we make may hinge on our predictions about future facts. Thus, different economists may advocate very different economic policies because they have very different expectations on the likely effects of specific policies – even if their ultimate policy objectives are much the same. Yet, at the present stage of our knowledge about the economic system, we may be unable to tell with any degree of confidence which predictions are right and which are wrong.

Of course, we could avoid most of these disagreements if we refrained from making value judgements until we could ascertain with some assurance that the factual assumptions underlying the value judgements we want to make are correct. But this would require more intellectual self-discipline than most of us can muster. We have to act one way or another; and it is psychologically much easier for us to act if we can manage to entertain value judgements justifying our actions – even if the factual assumptions underlying these value judgements go far beyond, or are even clearly inconsistent with, the available evidence.

Let me add that most disagreements in value judgements are not disagreements about what the basic values of human life actually are. Rather, most disagreements are about the relative weights and the relative priorities to be assigned to different basic values. Some individuals and some societies will learn from their experience – possibly based on a very idiosyncratic personal or national history – that things tend to work out best if value A is given far greater weight than value B is. Other individuals and other societies will reach very much the opposite conclusion on the basis of their experience. Once a given ranking of these two values has been adopted, it may be retained for a long time even when conditions change and make this ranking utterly inappropriate. For instance, an individual or a society that suffered a good deal from lack of individual freedom may be so preoccupied with political liberty as to neglect the need for social discipline – even under conditions that would make the need for social discipline paramount.

Besides disagreements about the facts, another source of value conflicts is philosophical disagreements about the correct value perspectives to be used in making various classes of value judgements. For instance, even if two people agree about all the relevant facts, they may still make conflicting moral value judgements if they disagree about the nature of morality and, therefore, disagree about the nature of the moral perspective to be used in making moral value judgements. (For instance, one individual may favour a utilitarian interpretation of morality – see, for example, Harsanyi 1977 – while the other may favour an entitlement interpretation – see Nozick 1974.) In the same way, disagreements about the nature of the aesthetic perspective to be used in making aesthetic value judgements may lead to disagreements about the artistic quality of various works of art.

Value Judgements in Economics

There was a time when many economists wanted to ensure the objectivity of economic analysis by excluding value judgements, and even the study of value judgements, from economics. (A very influential advocate of this position has been Robbins 1932.) Luckily, they have not succeeded; and we now know that economics would have been that much poorer if they had.

After some important preliminary work in the 1930s and the 1940s, mainly in welfare economics, a new era in the study of economically relevant value judgements, has started with Arrow’s Social Choice and Individual Values (1951). This book has shown how to express alternative value judgements in the form of precisely stated formal axioms, how to investigate their logical implications in a rigorous manner, and how to examine their mutual consistency or inconsistency. Arrow’s book and the research inspired by it have greatly enriched economic theory not only in welfare economics but also in several other fields, including the theory of competitive equilibrium. It has given rise to a new sub-discipline called public choice theory, which is a rigorous study of voting and of alternative voting systems and which has made important contributions to the study of alternative political systems and of alternative moral codes and, more indirectly, to the study of alternative economic systems as mechanisms of social choice.

Of course, value judgements often play an important role in economics even when they are not the main subjects of investigation. They influence the policy recommendations made by economists and their judgements about the merits of alternative systems of economic organization. But this need not impair the social utility of the work done by economists as long as it is work of high intellectual quality and as long as the economists concerned know what they are doing, know the qualifications their conclusions are subject to, and tell their readers what these qualifications are. In particular, intellectual honesty requires economists to state their political and moral value judgements and to make clear how their conclusions differ from those that economists of different points of view would tend to reach on the problems under discussion. What is no less important, they should make clear how uncertain many of their empirical claims and their predictions actually are. This is particularly important in publications addressed mainly to people outside the economist profession.

See Also

Bibliography

  1. Arrow, K.J. 1951. Social choice and individual values. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  2. Harsanyi, J.C. 1977. Morality and the theory of rational behavior. Social Research 44: 623–656.Google Scholar
  3. Nozick, R. 1974. Anarchy, state and Utopia. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  4. Putnam, H. 2004. The collapse of the fact/value dichotomy and other essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Robbins, L. 1932. An essay on the nature and significance of economic science. London: Macmillan.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • John C. Harsanyi
    • 1
  1. 1.