Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Value and Good

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 30, 2008

Originally posted on Half an Hour, March 30, 2008.

Responding to Doug Johnson, Does the Intangible Have Value?

I think that we should question the concept of 'having value' itself. This is a quantification of what otherwise might be called 'goods' in our society. It creates the idea that something is a good if and only if (a) that good can be identified as specific instances, and (b) tehse instances can be counted.

Things can be 'good' without 'having value'. For example, I can have a peaceful thought right now. This is a good. But the having of this peaceful thought might have no beneficial consequences - it might not lower my blood pressure, it might not give me a moment of insight.

Even if the good *does* produce beneficial consequences, what I'm saying here is that the good can remain good independently of those consequences. That the good this, whatever it is, can be good in and of itself. The idea of having 'value' is that everything that is good must be assessed against something. What I am saying is that something that is good does not need to be assessed against something. It just *is* good. How do we know it is good? We *recognize* it as being good.

In the same way, the purpose of things that are good is not to stand as a unite of accounting to measure the worth of other things. The 'peaceful thought' that may in and of itself be a good does not stand as the arbiter of value for other things that may or may not lead to peaceful thoughts. There isn't a calculus that occurs here, there isn't a measurement of the goodness of entities in terms of each other.

The act of assigning value to a thing is the act of commoditizing it. It is the act of thaking the thing, and subjecting it to the marketplace. It is a way of suggesting that the good can be replaced 'for an equivalent item of equal or greater value'. It is a way of assessing the amount of good a good has in terms of its cost. It is the conversion of a good to... a good.

This is to assign to each good in the world - a sigh of happiness, a baby's face, an end to war - a type of commonality with all other goods. This commonality is the unit of value, whatever it may be. In criticism of utilitarianism, philosophers used to speak of 'hedons', or units of happiness. Today's capitalism assigns to each good a monetary unit.

But this commonality is completely artificial. There is in fact no commonality between a sign of happiness and a daisy blowing in the wind (or, more accurately, if there is a commonality, it is accidental, and represents no essential substrate of commonality between the two events). It is a property we *bring* to our perception of the good. It is not a part of the good itself.

This artificiality has several consequences. For one thing, because it is created, it can be manipulated. It can be attached to things that are not actually goods. It can be used to convince people to exchange what is genuinely a good for things that are not goods, for things that - once they have them - they recognize as being absent of the goodness they were fooled into believing they have.

The traffic in artificial goodness is widespread and it is pervasive. It is a traffic that depends on altering our means of perception itself, on creating in us perceptual errors. The good that is, say, a life of love, is replaced in advertising and media with a 'good' that takes the form of, say, Paris Hilton. This good is then used to sell cars. And when we finally obtain that good, and buy the car, we are at a loss to explain why we expected a relationship with a car to be like the relationship with a love.

The units of 'good' are themselves pervasive. I recall reading a criticism of Dave Pollard (if someone could remind me of this reference I would appreciate it) wherein the author said, essentially, that people responding against capitalism simply substitute some other form of accounting in place of money. In the case of Dave Pollard, the critic said, it is a substitution of love for money - the good comes to be measured in terms of the love we have in our lives (as though those who are not loved could feel no good in the world).

I think that we each need to have a 'good' in their lives. I think that there are several kinds of goods they need to have. Some goods are extrinsic - the need, said, to be told that you did good, for example. Or to be told that you're a beautiful person. Or whatever. And others are intrinsic. That happy feeling. A sense of equilibrium in the world. The sensation of being in love.

I think that we need these things, and I think that these things need to form the center of the purpose of our being. These constitute, literally, the 'meaning' of life. They can be things that we create - as is Kierkegarrd's 'leap of faith', for example. They can b things that we inherit by example from our parents and ancestors. They can be things that are taught to us by our spiritual leaders or through media.

These good are, therefore, in their own sense artificial. They are themselves created. What makes them 'goods' is that thy are good in an of themselves; they are not goods in the sense that they lead to other goods. They are artificial, but they are not arbitrary. The perception of a 'good' is very much like the preception of 'red'. We can be (have to be!) trained to recognize what counts as being 'red', but at the same time, our perception of a thing as being 'red' is not random, not arbitrary. It is the same with good.

And just so, just as we do not say that things that cause something to be 'red' are themselves red, we do not say that things that cause something to be 'good' are themselves good. You cannot, for any number of units of exchange (you cannot, for love or money), trade something that is red for something that is not red, and have, as a result, something that is red.

Indeed, the very thing that makes something a good is the fact that you *can't* trade it for something that is not a good. If a certain sensation is not a 'good' sensation, then you cannot trade your 'good' sensation, plus a sum of money, in for the non-s=good sensation, in such a way that you have somehow retained the 'goodness' you started with. At the very best, you are now left in a position where you need to exchange your money in an effort to obtain the original 'good' feeling again (not one of equal or lesser value, for every 'good' is unique), and - as people with money know - this is a very uncertain transaction.

Things that are good are not equivalent to sums of things that are non-good. Goods are not equivalents to sums of things that are other goods. Goods are non-transferable - which makes any economy of goods, any valuation of goods, a fallacy.

It felt good to write this post. In a way that no sum of money could replace.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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