How to Properly Respect Value

Jared Mayer, Johns Hopkins

As rational agents, we can’t help but value things. We pick those items that we wish to value – good wine, the arts, the study of the humanities, and so on. Such items constitute a large part of just who we are and how we see ourselves. They demonstrate to both ourselves and other just what we care about, what we are willing to invest in and risk for. It’s no wonder, then, that we find ourselves unable to avoid valuing things.

Yet perhaps this first note put the cart before the horse, as it were. Picking things that “we wish to value” may suggest that to value something is, in some respect, to imbue it with value. But this is certainly not always the case. After all, if all we can say in defense of what we value is that we care about it, and not why it ought to be cared about, then there is little hope for us to suggest to others why they ought to adopt similar attitudes towards that which we value or indeed why they ought to respect the fact that we value it. It would be, in some great sense, unjustified. Justification of what we value, then, is a deep component of what is required when we make value claims.

This question often arises within Modern Orthodox intellectual circles, especially in terms of justifying “Madda,” or general knowledge. Given the primacy and all-encompassing authority of the Torah, so the argument goes, what role, if any, does Madda play in an Orthodox Jew’s life? There are certainly many responses to this question, and including many divisions within the “Torah u’Madda” camp itself. A common thread among them, however, is that Madda is valuable insofar as it contributes to our greater understanding of God, His world, or His divine word. So to the degree that Madda can serve in this capacity, it is valuable to the Modern Orthodox Jew.

But something seems to have gone awry in this calculus. At the very least, this account for the value of certain goods, say artwork, is incomplete. While the study of artwork certainly can bring someone closer to God, artwork nevertheless does not require that benefit in order to account for its value. We may want to study artwork for its own sake, because we seek to appreciate its intrinsic value. Such a study, we might say, is an intrinsic good; its goodness is self-constituting, not needing any exterior element to explain or justify its goodness.

Before we go further, the value theory I wish to propose needs to be laid out. In his set of lectures, Value, Respect, and Attachment, Joseph Raz discusses three types of goods: instrumental, non-instrumental intrinsic, and goods in themselves. Instrumental goods are those that are “valuable because of [their] contribution[s] to something else which is valuable.” Non-instrumental intrinsic goods are similar to instrumental goods insofar as they, too, are valuable by virtue of what they provide to other valuable things. But unlike instrumental goods, non-instrumental intrinsic goods are not appreciated for their outcomes as such, but rather for their very goodness itself. Lastly, two features characterize goods in themselves: i) “there are things which are good for it;” and ii) “their being good is not conditional on it contributing to the good of something else.”

Now we may see how these classes of goods operate with respect to each other. Instrumental goods are good because they contribute to something else that is valuable. A hammer, then, is good only by virtue it of contributing to a person being able to use it to build or repair something. Non-instrumental intrinsic goods are also good because they contribute to that which is valuable, but their contribution is qualitatively different than instrumental goods insofar as the goodness of these non-instrumental intrinsic goods comes from those very goods. So when I attend an art gallery, it would be a complete mistake to characterize the value of seeing and analyzing the artwork as achieving some end outside of appreciating the very artwork itself. And goods in themselves are those goods whose goodness, by definition, cannot direct us to another valuable thing; it must terminate in the good in itself. Persons, for Raz, are paradigmatic goods in themselves.

On Raz’s account, the fact that something has value is prima facie reason to accord it with the proper response. But just what can that mean? Raz notes that when discussing the proper responses to objects that have value, we can conceive of three ways of responding to such objects that vary in degree. The first and most basic way is to acknowledge its proper value and arrange our beliefs and emotions to accord with its value. Second (although not necessarily more demanding), we can also commit ourselves to not destroy or defame the work of art. Third, if we are, in fact, truly appreciate of the value that this work of art has, we may also interact that work of art according to its proper value. To interact with anything according to its proper value is something of an amorphous property; it deeply depends on the nature of the object in question. So with a work of art, to interact with it properly is to appreciate its splendor and beauty, to admire and attempt to extract all that is aesthetically beneficial from it, and so forth.

Notice that the first two kinds of responding to value are crucially different from the third kind. The first two kinds amount to holding beliefs and volitional states that accord with the object’s value as well as not ruining or destroying the object, respectively. The third kind, by contrast, assumes a greater affinity between the agent and the object of value. This is because to engage with something according to its proper value is to assume that one wishes to engage with the object in the first place. This affinity, then, is the product of our banal but critical tendency, indeed pressing desire, to adopt objects of value as ends we wish to pursue. Of course, not everything that is valuable can be pursued in this way. But just because we choose not to engage in certain valuable things does not mean that we are entitled to devalue them, and all the more so are we not entitled to defame or destroy them. The first two kinds of responding to value – that is, having the proper beliefs and dispositions towards valuable objects and not destroying or defaming those objects – serve as the obligations for according objects of value their proper respect.

Despite having gone far afield, as some would say, we may now return to the question of the Torah u’Madda argument. The kind of things that are typically understood to constitute Madda are also those things that are understood to be, on Raz’s account, non-instrumental intrinsic goods. These goods include the study of art, philosophy, literature, physics, and other arts and sciences. As we noted earlier, these goods, if one chooses to engage with them, should be engaged on what we called the “third kind” of responding to value, which means that they should be engaged on their content. So the study of philosophy, say, will require that if one wishes to engage with it in this most intimate way, one ought to read the philosophical texts closely and carefully, one ought to examine and respond to the provided arguments critically, and so forth.

But the heart of the problem doesn’t lie there. For the Torah u’Madda argument fundamentally turns on the nature of the value of the object in question. The argument positions itself to assume that Madda is merely an instrumental good – it is good only insofar as what it can do for us, that is, what it can do to help us understand God, His universe, and so forth. But that is to neglect the true nature of Madda’s value, that is, as a non-instrumental intrinsic good. So the argument employed to (ostensibly) defend Madda from its assailants attempts to do so only at the price of surrendering its rightful, and more forceful, claim on value.

And here is the upshot of all this. Recall, Raz argued that we have an obligation to respond to value according to the “first and second kinds.” This means that we are obligated to both have beliefs and attitudes that concord with the nature of the value in the valuable object, as well as not destroy or defame the object, respectively. The issue here, however, arises with respect to the first kind of responding to value. In justifying the study of Madda solely by referencing its value in understanding God or His world, one, in fact, assumes that Madda merely has instrumental value. To make this assumption, then, is to harbor a belief that is not in accord with the nature of the value that Madda actually holds. So this would be a violation of one’s obligation under the first kind of relating to valuable objects of failing to recognize the true nature of the value in question.

Now, is this to say that Madda can never appeal to God in order to justify itself? Surely this is not so. We may of course use both instrumental and non-instrumental intrinsic goods for the sake of contributing to something else which is valuable. Indeed, that was one of the main comparisons between these two types of goods. But this cannot be done at the expense of abandoning Madda’s true value. So while we may use it to help us pursue other goods, such as understanding God and His world, or even getting a job, we cannot say that its goodness comes from those benefits. As a non-instrumental intrinsic good, its goodness is such because it is good. It is that simple.

The upshot, then, is a lesson in respecting value. Those things that are intrinsically valuable by definition cannot appeal to anything else to account for just why they are valuable. We must also remember that the violation we have noted – failing to harbor proper beliefs about the nature of the valuable in non-instrumental intrinsic goods – is not the full extent of what it means to properly engage with valuable objects. That requires treating these objects with a sense of reverence, perhaps even love. Valuable things beckon us to engage with them properly; we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to do so.