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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. This includes, for example, the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental values. 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.
Franz Brentano's descriptive psychology constitutes an important precursor of axiological ethics. He classifies all mental phenomena into three groups: representations, judgments and phenomena of love. Of particular interest for axiological ethics are phenomena of love since they constitute the basis for our knowledge of values: an object has value if it is fitting to love this object. This insight into what is good then informs the discipline of ethics: "the right end consists in the best of what is attainable".
Max Scheler, one of the main founder of axiological ethics, agrees with Brentano that experience is a reliable source for the knowledge of values. Scheler, following the phenomenological method, holds that this knowledge is not just restricted to particular cases but that we can gain insight a priori into the essence of values. This insight reveals that there are different types of values, which form a hierarchy from lower to higher values: pleasure, useful, noble, good and true and beautiful, sacred. This order is essential to ethics: we ought to promote the higher values rather than the lower ones in our actions. The order of values is objective but our perception of this order is subjective and may therefore be distorted. Such distortions may lead us to prefer the lower values to the higher ones.
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.
Proponents of axiological ethics often contrast their view with both Kantian ethics and eudaimonism. Kantian ethics is rejected mainly on grounds of its formalism, which is exemplified e.g. in Kant's formulation of the categorical imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law". The main criticism of ethical formalism is that it tries to define right action in purely formal terms without reference to whether the resulting action is valuable in any sense. It ignores that our actions are guided by various values which we try to realize. The critique of eudaimonism is not that it ignores values altogether but that its view of what is valuable is too narrow. Our actions should be guided by a wide variety of values, including promoting pleasure and avoiding pain, but also other values like health, beauty, etc. This can be seen in Scheler's hierarchy of values, in which only one level of values, the lowest, is reserved for pleasure and pain.
Axiological ethics has been criticized for its epistemology and metaphysics. Most of its proponents rely on the idea that we can gain an insight a priori into the essence of values. While this thesis is itself controversial, it becomes even more problematic when combined with the idea of value-blindness, the thesis that some people may be (for various reasons) unable to properly intuit the essences of values. This can easily lead to a dogmatic position where the proponent of axiological ethics justifies her own view through intuition and dismisses opposing views as misguided due to value-blindness.
The metaphysical critique of axiological ethics concerns the tendency to reify values and treat them as proper entities of their own. This tendency is present in many proponents of axiological ethics but it is most explicit in Hartmann's position.
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