Please Persuade Me! The Role of Values

New Zealand readers will be well aware that we are in the thick of a political campaign. The campaign is fascinating for a bunch of reasons – the Maori Party and the Greens potentially both battling for survival while Labour surges ahead, the old legend Winston Peters resurfacing again like Poseidon from the deep poised ready to bestow the Prime Ministerial crown on his favourite. Or perhaps, waiting like a midwife at a birth ready to declare whether it is blue for a boy or red for a girl. Child poverty, abortion, climate change, housing, and many other issues have been raised, and all are important for Christians to consider.  

But, in this post let’s briefly consider the place of values more generally. Bill English said that Jacinda Ardern’s values won’t pay for the groceries – probably true, but if they can’t pay for shopping, what can values do? In our consumeristic world are they even useful anymore, and in our scientific world are they believable? The central task of values, I think, is to persuade. If they are to do anything useful, they should serve as reasons for action in one direction or another. Reasons, for instance, to pick the blue or red, or another, team to run the country.

We can all understand that scientific or economic facts can be reasons to act (or vote) one way or another. If consuming a particular substance is scientifically shown to be likely to harm me, or pursuing a particular course is likely to make me go broke, I will probably decide against it. But values, surely they’re more ephemeral, more abstract – perhaps not even necessary in an adequately scientific society? We have to go slowly here though. The choices made on the basis of science or economics (physical harm or going broke) were actually made on the basis of both empirical facts and values. Only if we wish to avoid harm, or avoid going broke, will the empirical facts be relevant to the decision we make. So, we need values in order to decide what to do, even when deciding on the basis of scientific claims.

In a political context, and many other areas of social interaction, we want values not just for working out what we want to do (our own preferences would be enough for this), but for convincing others that they should want the same thing. Values cannot be just preferences if they are to fulfil their function, as they are intended to control not just our actions, but others’ actions – and to shape their preferences. When a politician appeals to values, they are appealing to, not empirical facts, and not just preference, but a claim about the way the world should be – a claim which intends to hold true across people with very different preferences. Values, if these things are real and useful, apply to both the poor and the rich, those that will benefit from an action and those which will not. In other words, they transcend individuals and people groups.

We live in a world where moral reasoning makes sense. It not only makes sense, but it is absolutely crucial for us and our society. Much more attention should be paid to the question of how to make sense of values, as their foundations (if any) will affect how they work in the world. This is a question which the Christian intellectual tradition has a lot to say about, and one which has contributed to many thinkers being persuaded of the reality of the personal Foundation of values. Christians should welcome open political discussion of values, in the hope that more will be persuaded of what is true, beautiful, and good.  

The Limits of Science

[pk_box width=”600″ align=”none” text_align=”left”]But science is never the end of the story, because science cannot teach humans what they most need to know: the meaning of life and how to value it. The sciences are as practical as theoretical; science has evident survival value, teaching us how to gain benefits that we desire. But what ought we to desire? Our enlightened self-interest? Our genetic self-interest? More children? More science? The conservation of biodiversity? Sustainable development? A sustainable biosphere? The love of neighbor? The love of God? Justice? Equity? Charity? … After science, we still need help deciding what to value; what is right and wrong, good and evil, how to behave as we cope. The end of life still lies in its meaning, the domain of religion and ethics.[/pk_box]

—Holmes Rolston (Genes, Genesis, and God, 1999).

Whence Cometh Value?

Samuel Skinner has been trying to articulate and defend a non-theistic version of ethics in the comment thread of ‘The Inherent Value of Human Life’. Since I don’t think that debate is proving fruitful, I’m going to undercut it with a new argument which follows on from that original article.

Samuel has conceded that the universe, in toto, is amoral: that is, that is has no moral properties at all. In his own words:

I am admitting the universe is amoral […] The universe is entirely amoral. After all, none of its component parts are moral and they do not have any emergent properties that make the universe any different. To claim it is anything but amoral is similar to claiming that for any other inaminate object.

Value conference

It seems to me that this theory of ethics relies on the fairly generic idea of value conference. This is the notion that things only obtain value when we confer it on them. Value can take many forms—we could be talking about moral value (rightness), or teleological value (purpose), or epistemic value (meaning), or whatever. But the general idea is the same. The universe itself does not have value. Its constituent parts do not have value. They’re all just various amalgamations of matter and energy—and value isn’t a property of matter or energy. Therefore, if anything in the universe is to have value, that value must be conferred, rather than existing inherently in it.

Obviously, under a non-theistic view, value conference is done by sentient beings. Particularly of interest to us is the value conference performed by human beings. Under a non-theistic view, value conference does not involve (or need not involve) a deity of any kind—human value conference is sufficient. Put another way, value conference can be subjective, such that values are conferred by individuals; there is no need for an objective value-conferrer like God.

Now, if it can be shown that subjective value conference fails as a thesis, then the entire basis for non-theistic ethics (and epistemology and teleology) falls apart. If subjective value conference is intrinsically incoherent or irrational or impossible in some way, then it is clear that there are no grounds for whatever values non-theists believe exist—including moral values.

The form of the argument

What I’m going to show is that non-theists have no grounds for values. The kinds of grounds I have in mind are ontological, and not epistemological. In other words, I’m talking about whether or not, and how, values actually exist in the way that non-theists assert. I’m not talking about whether or not, and how, we can know about them. If you want to comment in this thread, make sure that you mark this distinction.

What I’m going to show is that subjective value conference is basically self-refuting. In this post, I will be focusing mostly on moral values, since that’s what’s at issue in the current debate with Samuel. I am somewhat indebted to Bill Vallicella, whose argument from meaning I am emulating.

The argument outlined

Under the non-theist’s view, some action has some moral value only if that value is conferred on it by some person. Now, the action, by the non-theist’s own admission, is intrinsically valueless. In terms of analysis as a physical system in the universe, it has no value, because value is not a property of physical systems. So the action only gains value upon the act of conference.

The problem for the non-theist is that, under his own view, the act of value conference itself is as intrinsically valueless as the action which it’s supposed to confer value upon. In that case, the question reasonably arises, how can a valueless act of conference nonetheless confer value?

The obvious answer which presents itself is that perhaps the act of conference has value conferred upon it in turn by some other act of conference. But this only pushes the problem back a step, leading to an infinite regress. That second act of conference would also be intrinsically valueless, requiring another act of conference—and so on ad infinitum.

The alternative, that value-conference is itself a valueless process, does not constitute any kind of explanation at all. It’s self-evidently absurd, and may even lead to conclusions which the non-theist would himself deny. An explanation of the origin of values ought to at least explain what it is about the process of value conference that actually confers value. If the action of value conference is, in the final analysis, a physical system, then value is not an intrinsic part of that process. What, then, about the process confers value? Whence cometh value?

Furthermore, if the act of conferring value is a process which does not itself involve value, then what distinguishes a valueless process which confers value from a valueless process which does not? It seems very unclear why such a process is even needed for there to be value, if there is to be value. It’s as if value “just exists” in the universe—but that is the very conclusion which the non-theist denies.


The typical response to this sort of argument is that value is an emergent property, just like love or art or intelligence or whatever. Non-theists often, rather ironically, try to put pressure on this argument by saying that it would reduce to non-existence all these things which we consider so important. Therefore, it must be the case that these things really do exist, but as emergent properties—of intelligence, for example; which is itself an emergent property of physical systems. But that’s the very point of the argument: to show that, under a non-theistic view, these things really don’t exist. Trying to put pressure on the argument by emphasizing its conclusion is therefore a tad naive. All the non-theist is doing is pointing out the very conclusion being argued, but disagreeing because it’s plainly absurd. But of course it’s absurd—the argument is of the form reductio ad absurdum; a “bringing back to absurdity”—a form of argument constituting a disproof of some proposition (in this case non-theism) by showing that it leads to absurd or untenable conclusions.

Appealing to emergence, as if this refutes the argument, is just like appealing to magic. It is not merely an admission that the non-theistic view of reality has no explanation for the existence of value (in marked contradistinction to the theistic view), but also an admission that non-theists would rather appeal to magic than to the clear and rational theistic explanation. As Paul Manata puts it,

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil & bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting
Lizard’s leg & howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell broth boil and bubble.

Macbeth Act IV, Scene 1

The crone throws the wing of a bat and the eye of a newt into the cauldron, mixes it up, and voilà, you have the emergence of some mystical and immaterial “protection” or “love” or “safe trip” or “powerful trouble” spell or charm.

Likewise, take the physicalist. That crone, Mammy Nature, mixes a few billions neurons, synapses, and some firing c-fibers, into that cauldron called your noggin, and voilà, you have the emergence of some mystical and immaterial mind with beliefs and intentionality and thoughts.

When appeals to the “mustbebraindidit” argument are made, I’m going to point out that this has a name: The bat wing and eye of newt fallacy.


Although my argument can no doubt be fleshed out and refined some, it is sufficient for now to undercut the value theories of Samuel Skinner, and any non-theist, by showing that they are, under his own view, non-existent or meaningless or impossible. If his own belief system provides no mechanism by which values can actually exist—that is, no ontological grounds for values—then it is pointless for him to try to defend his particular value system. Any such defense contradicts itself. He is, like all non-theists, tacitly borrowing theistic presuppositions even in presenting his non-theistic notions of how ethics work.

As for the Christian, he affirms that value actually does exist as a basic property of reality, grounded in the immutable and ontologically necessary God of Christianity.