Value: A Thought Experiment

I work in investment finance, and one of the things that people in this profession are preternaturally focussed on is the concept of ‘value’. Largely the issue centres around articulating the value of the profession to others (something that has become noticeably more difficult to do since the crash of 2008), and of identifying ideas, materials, resources, and items that others may feel have this value (and, by extension, also have a numeric value; price and/or monetary worth).

On one of my quiet afternoons, I went researching on JSTOR and Google Scholar and discovered a series of articles from the early part of the 20th century that were presented as part of a meeting of the Western Philosophical Association in Chicago in late 1907 and early 1908 (later published in the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods in 1908): AW Moore’s “Truth Value” and James H Tufts’ “Ethical Value”. Lindley M Keasbey’s “Prestige Value” was published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics five years previously, in 1903.

Moore begins with a reference to the Roman amphitheatre as he praises the topic the Association has put to him: ” “How delightful to have a subject so free from the dust and blood of the arena.” For however much we may disagree, and however little we may know about the nature and the criterion of truth, we are all sure of its great ‘value’ ” (p.429). Although this statement predates Justice Potter Stewart’s threshold test for obscenity by nearly 60 years, the sentiment of ‘knowing it when you see it’ holds strong here as well. Defining truth is difficult, but we all know it to point it out. But herein lies the trouble; if we can’t articulate what truth is, CAN there be a reasonable consensus throughout human society about what it is? The myriad of world religions would suggest otherwise, and Moore comments that “truth and error are values belonging to the experience of judging” (p.430), in that all human experience and thought about those experiences are dependent on their relationship between the experience and thoughts of others. If there is no straight-up definition of truth, truth can be only relative, an ongoing logical thought experiment in human society. “What has been done so far in history of logic is to compromise by admitting the dependence of thought for its material upon the other instincts, but still clinging to its independence as a process… thought should be independent, not only as a process, but its material as well. That it should, in short, produce its own material.” (p.432, and footnote 3 – Bradley, Appearance and Reality, 2nd edition, appendix, pp 562 ff). Ultimately, Moore argues that the pursuit of truth is a continual process of redefinition, the ability to perceive and create an understanding of the nature of truth simultaneously (also predating the screenwriter of the film Inception by a century). And yet, since truth is a value belonging to the experience of judgement, conflict is required for a judgement to be reached. The trick is that truth is highly uncertain, and so our judgements are equally uncertain. Moore finally does believe that absolute truth is knowable, because “this problem is not experienced as a conflict of instinctive values, but is experienced from the very start as cognitive problem, as a problem of knowledge” (p.436). Truth is ever redefining itself, but it does so through a complementary process of judgement.

James Tufts’ paper begins with the following assertion: “The voluminous literature on valuation which has appeared during the last few years has served at least to bring out more clearly a fact which would not seem to the psychologist to be in great need of demonstration. This is that value belongs to objects of consciousness, not to objects or things apart from consciousness” (p.517). He further states that the “ethical consciousness is a choosing or valuing consciousness, implying at least a formal subject as active in the process” (ibid). As with truth and truth value, ethics and ethical value cannot and do not exist in a vacuum but rather are interactive and relative elements within human understanding. Tufts even offers up a definition of sorts of economic value: “The measurement, actual or possible, by a single comprehensive end is one point of difference between ethical and economic value. In economic valuation, objects which satisfy are given value in so far as they may be exchanged and thus measured up, one with another. But each object so valued needs no other credential than that it is wanted” (p.519). Value, truth value, ethical value, or economic value, exists as something wanted. By extension, that desire can be regularly redefined and open to new judgements.

Keasbey begins his paper on prestige value by quoting a certain Professor Clark: “there is present to the mind that makes a valuation, the conception of a concrete thing, of a quality to that thing, and of the quantitative measure of that quality” (p.456). He himself goes on to flesh out this statement as follows: “The concrete thing is that which satisfies a want, or what is called a good. The quality of the the thing that renders it capable of satisfying a want, that makes it a good, is its usefulness, or utility… usefulness is a question of degree” (ibid). He argues that, between use value and exchange value, another type of value developed as human society grew more complex: prestige value, that which possesses value “not because [it] can be exchanged, but because [its] possession implies power… [when] value is merely a circumstance of things” (p.462). What I find most fascinating about this hypothesis is that Keasbey believes that prestige value existed before exchange value, that prestige itself became a manner of exchange. And so, value exists in the mind as a judgement on a concrete thing. The value of that thing may be intangible but the thing itself is very much so.

It is certainly possible, especially in the last half of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries, that our collective understanding of value – continually being redefined and judged – has become so intrinsically linked to a tangible object that the very elusive nature of value matters less than that a thing has this value. Furthermore, the truth perceived as inherent in this value – the concept of knowing it when you see it – has so clouded our ability to maintain this continual process of redefinition that our economic system could be stagnating under the weight of its own inertia.

How’s that for a disjointed thought experiment, eh? More to follow…



Keasbey, Lindley M. “Prestige Value”, in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol 17. No 3 (May 1903), pp.456-475. Oxford University Press.

Moore, A.W. “Truth Value”, in The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Vol 5, No 16 (July 10, 1908), pp. 429-436. Journal of Philosophy, Inc.

Tufts, James H. “Ethical Value”, in The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Vol 5, No 19 (Sept 10, 1908), pp517-522. Journal of Philosophy, Inc.


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