By Christopher Centrella
In this paper, I wish to investigate value relativism, and give a few arguments against it. In order to do this, I will first discuss the notion of value and some of its properties. Next, I will discuss that which gives us pleasure, known as the subjectively satisfying. Finally, I will provide a brief examination of value relativism and give two arguments against it. It is my hope that after reading this paper, you might experience life in its fullness by adhering to value, appreciating what is true, good, and beautiful.
We live in a loud world, a world that screams for self-satisfaction and the fulfillment of all our appetites. But is there something beyond mere sensational pleasure, something that moves us to wonder and amazement? Imagine a beautiful sunset, rays of light glistening in the sky. What about spending a day at the beach, watching the waves splash to and fro like the leaves on a tree? Or marveling at the beauty and sublimity of a magnificent work of art? All of these have something intrinsic in themselves, something that demands a due response. We call this intrinsic property of a being its value.
Value refers to a kind of importance, a quality of a being, that makes that being important in itself. Let’s discuss this definition in more detail. First, value refers to a kind of importance. Dietrich Von Hildebrand says that importance is that quality of any object which can motivate us or catch our attention. In other words, importance has the power to captivate us, to impact our memory, to prompt us to action. For example, the beloved is so important to the lover that her image is ever in his mind.
Now value has such great importance that it makes the being important in itself. In other words, the reason that a being is important is because it has value; value is what makes the being important. Also, that importance is outside of me. It does not matter whether I think the being is important, since value has intrinsic importance. It is independent of myself and my circumstances. Imagine a beautiful picturesque scene; whether or not someone is there to behold it, it is still just as beautiful. As Etienne Gilson put it, “There is nothing that could justify the apparition of value at some point in human thought or in the scheme of things, if it were not present from the beginning.” Values have always existed, and are completely independent from my perceiving them.
Not only does value have intrinsic importance, but it also demands a due response. In other words, I should be so moved by this value that I respond to it in an adequate way. I ought to respond with awe and wonder when walking near Niagara Falls; I ought to see all persons as precious and beautiful, as people to be loved and respected, rather than as objects for my pleasure. In fact, this due response, called the value response, itself is another value. Our response is important in itself, even if someone else does not recognize that importance.
Moreover, in giving the right value response, I transcend myself; rising above my own pains and desires, I go beyond myself, into a world of wonder. For example, gazing at the sky laden with millions of stars circling above us, reminds us of the intelligence and beauty of the Creator; of our littleness in this vast universe of ours. Ultimately, we are most perfectly ourselves when we give the due value response, which leads to true happiness.
Besides value, there is another kind of importance, known as the subjectively satisfying. The subjectively satisfying refers to that which satisfies my appetites, or that which gives me pleasure. Some examples would be ice cream, soda, or a rock concert. We go to a rock concert so that we can have a good time; we eat ice cream and drink soda because they are delightful to our tastes. In fact, we base the quality of the rock concert solely on the pleasure we receive from attending it. This is in direct contrast to value, where the value is not based on our subjective experiences but on its objective importance. With the subjectively satisfying, importance is completely determined by me; I define what is important.
Another difference from value is that the subjectively satisfying demands no due response. Since the subjectively satisfying is determined solely by my pleasure, whatever response I give to it is what defines its importance; if I do not enjoy the ice cream, it is worthless since it only exists to give me pleasure. On the other hand, if I give a positive response, then the ice cream is important; it becomes important through my response. This is in contrast to value, where its objective, intrinsic importance demands that I give an adequate response.
Besides not demanding a due response, with the subjectively satisfying we are unable to transcend ourselves. In fact, when we solely follow our pleasures, we become miserable, enclosed in ourselves and disregarding the universe around us. Think of a drug addict who has nothing on his mind but the drugs; he is so absorbed in his drugs that he completely ignores the values around him, becoming enslaved by his addiction. Rather than elevating us, the subjectively satisfying can enslave us, if we place pleasure above some higher value.
With the meanings of value and the subjectively satisfying under our back, let us now discuss value relativism. To begin, I want to assert that value relativism is not a denial of importance, but rather a reduction of all importance to the subjectively satisfying. To deny importance altogether would mean that nothing drives us, motivates us, or directs our attention, which would be absurd. Rather, value relativists state that all importance is subjective; what is important is solely what is defined by me, or by us as a culture.
Protagoras, an early Greek philosopher, once said, “man is the measure of all things.” In other words, nothing has intrinsic importance in itself; importance is always given by the subject (man) and is never inherent to the object. According to Protagoras, all importance would be defined by what I personally or what we as a culture, believe to be true. This is the essence of value relativism, all importance determined solely by us, as with the subjectively satisfying.
However, our experience shows that this cannot be true. Since slaves were considered inhuman by Western society, the natural conclusion would be that their importance was solely based on their usefulness. Does that make slavery okay? Is there not some higher law which forbids such behavior? If all importance was based solely on what we considered useful, slavery would have been permissible. Rather, because all persons have intrinsic value and dignity, slavery is always forbidden, since it places usefulness above a higher value, the intrinsic value of the person.
Experience also dictates the existence of disvalues, which are parasitical; while values don’t presuppose the existence of disvalues, disvalues presuppose the presence of their contrary values. If there is injustice in the world, does this not presuppose the existence of justice, independent of my own subjectivity? Neither can hatred exist in the world, without its contrary, love. If justice and love, for example, were solely based on my own subjective interpretation, then injustice and hatred would be subjective too, and could not exist.
Furthermore, value is a necessary essence structure; it forces laws upon us. As I spoke of earlier, values imply an ought; we ought to give a right, due response. We ought to treat others with the love and dignity that they deserve, as persons created in God’s image and likeness. If we see a baby drowning in the bathtub, do we not have an obligation to save the child? Would we not be acting with grave injustice if we ignored the baby and let him or her die? If we see a young person about to commit suicide, do we not have an obligation to try to save them?
And when we give values their adequate response, we are liberated and transcended beyond ourselves; we experience true happiness and discover ourselves more fully. As mentioned before, the subjectively satisfying does not liberate us or transcend us beyond ourselves. The fact that giving an adequate response has the ability to bring us beyond ourselves must therefore presuppose the existence of some higher type of importance.
In summary, value relativism does not deny importance. Rather, value relativism attributes all importance to the subjectively satisfying, or to that which satisfies our desires and appetites. Thus, the importance of a being is based solely on its pleasure or usefulness to me, or to society. However, experience shows that there exist values which are independent of my own subjectivity. In fact, disvalues presuppose the existence of their contrary values. Finally, values force laws upon us, demanding that I give them a due, adequate response.
 Etienne Gilson, Moral Values and the Moral Life (United States: B. Herder Book Co., 1961), 79.
 Joshua J. Mark, “Protagoras of Abdera: Of All Things Man Is The Measure,” Ancient History, accessed November 14, 2019. https://www.ancient.eu/article/61/protagoras-of-abdera-of-all-things-man-is-the-meas/