Axiological ethics is concerned with the values which we hold our ethical standards and theories up to. It questions what, if any, basis exists for such values. Through doing so, it explores the justification for our values, and examines if there is any beyond arbitrary preference. While axiological ethics can be considered a subfield within the branch of ethics, it also draws in thought from other fields of philosophy, such as epistemology and value theory.
Ethics and axiology
To understand axiological ethics, an understanding of axiology and ethics is necessary.
Axiology is understood as the philosophical study of 'goodness' or value. It is concerned with two main areas of question. The first is in regards to defining and exploring understandings of 'the good' or value. The second area is the application of such understandings of value to a variety of fields within the social sciences and humanities.
Ethics is a philosophical field which is concerned with morality, and in particular, the conduction of the right action. The defining of what the 'right' action is influenced by axiological thought in itself, much like the defining of 'beauty' within the philosophical branch of aesthetics.
Axiological ethics can be understood as the application of axiology onto the study of ethics. It is concerned with questioning the moral grounds which we base ethical judgements on. This is done through questioning the values in which ethical principles are grounded on. Once there is recognition and understanding of the underlying values hidden within ethical claims, they can be assessed and critiqued. Through breaking ethics down to an examination of values, rather than the good, morality can be reconstructed based on redefined values or confirmed on already set values.
Value theory is concerned with how value is defined. There have been multiple developments within this field throughout history. The three common understandings are discussed below.
Instrumental and intrinsic value
This understanding of value can be traced back to Plato in the Republic. The value of the object can be understood in two ways, intrinsically or instrumentally. Intrinsic value values the object as an ends in itself, meaning that the object has value purely because it is that object. Meanwhile instrumental value is based on the objects use as a means to perform an end, meaning the object's value is based on how useful it is to obtain something further. Intrinsic and instrumental understandings of value are not inherently mutually exclusive, as objects could fit into both categories.
Pragmatism and contributory goodness
Introduced by John Dewey in his book Theory of Valuation, the value of the object is based purely on the outcome. This perspective is based on Dewey's empiricist approach to value, and thus rejects the notion of intrinsic value. Value is understood in two ways. The first is based on the idea of pragmatism, meaning the object is valued in that it is most appropriate for the context. Dewey's second understanding of value is based on a contributory conditionality, meaning the object is only of value when combined with others.
Hypothetical and categorical goods
Based on the influential thought of Immanuel Kant, value is redefined in two ways. The first of which is known as hypothetical value, where value becomes dependent on specific contextual situations. Kant showed this through the use of a statement with an "if" clause, e.g., in the sentence, "Sunshine is only good if you do not live in the desert." Kant would go on to search for a categorical good, where the value is absolute and universal regardless of context. This value would be based on his concept of the categorical imperative. As such, the object or action is of categorical value if it could be universalized.
J. N. Findlay's Axiological Ethics
John Niemeyer Findlay, a moral philosophy and metaphysics professor at Yale University, wrote Axiological Ethics in 1970. Findlay's book is a modern historical account of academic discussion around axiological ethics. As such, it contains discussion of other philosophers' and his own concluding remarks regarding the topic. Findlay advocates for inquiry into values behind ethical theories and what justifications exist for them. Through assessing the thoughts of his academic peers, Findlay's final thoughts on the topic is that an objective justification for values would be unlikely. Rather, since validation is recognized as coming from the subject, values would have to be assessed internally.
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