The term â€˜valueâ€™ immediately suggests its background: it was raised in the fertile fields of Economic theory. The way for â€˜valueâ€™ to enter ethical discourse was opened through the influence of 19th century Utilitarian philosophy – itself almost entirely an application of economic principles to ethical theory.
The use of â€˜valueâ€™ as an ethical term is most prominent within Consequentialist Ethics, although isnâ€™t necessarily restricted to this domain. Unsurprisingly, given the name, Consequentialism places the primary focus of ethical judgement onto the consequences of actions. It regards the end toward which something is directed, the result of an action, as the proper domain of ethics, rather than individual character traits or actions in themselves.
There are a number of different ethical theories under the broad umbrella of Consequentialist Ethics, the most well-known being Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism argues that an action is morally â€˜goodâ€™ when it results in the greatest amount of â€˜utilityâ€™ (use, pleasure, preference satisfaction) being generated in the world.
â€˜Valueâ€™ relates to the contribution of a particular object towards achieving a desired outcome. It is a way of breaking down the larger Utilitarian calculus (what result will produce the greatest utility?) into smaller parcels. When we speak about â€˜valueâ€™ we are assuming the goodness of the outcome we seek, and are now concerned with the ability of this object to help us achieve that outcome. In this way, someone might value a rifle in order to defend his country, or to murder his neighbour. Whether the total end result is good will determine the total â€˜goodnessâ€™ of the actions, but the usefulness of the object toward that end result will determine its value, its â€˜goodnessâ€™ within the total list of possible actions.
In this sense, â€˜valuesâ€™ are relative to the end being sought. A hammer might be particularly valuable for building a house, and significantly less valuable for performing neurosurgery. The end result determines the value of all other objects through their relation to that end.
A concept of â€˜valueâ€™ enables us to speak clearly about something we all do: we prioritise certain â€˜goodsâ€™ over others. When we form an intention to bring about a result in the world, we also create a structure of relative â€˜goodsâ€™ things that will help us achieve that end, and we engage in some hierarchical processing of these â€˜goodsâ€™. â€˜Valueâ€™ enables us to examine the quantifiable aspects of ethical decisions, in contrast with the â€˜qualities of beingâ€™ at the core of Virtue Ethics.
As a result Utilitarianism, and â€˜valueâ€™ language has become dominant in Governmental and corporate contexts. It works well in a pluralist culture where the precise qualities of a virtuous person are not agreed by all parties; where decisions need to be justified with quantifiable data; and where positive economic outcomes are often regarded as equivalent with positive ethical outcomes.
Christians have too frequently baulked at any form of consequentialist ethics, usually reacting against the relative nature of â€˜valuesâ€™. Our Christian intuition is that ethical goods must be rooted in the character of God, and therefore are not subject to change according to circumstance. In addition, some brands of Consequentialism appear to justify actions that Christians find morally outrageous, i.e. it would appear to legitimise the euthanasia of severely disabled people in order to stop them being a drain on the resources of their families or the State.
However, before we hastily back away, it is instructive to note that the New Testament does occasionally employ consequentialist reasoning. For example,
â€œIf your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.â€ (Matt 5:29 HCSB)
or more provocatively,
â€œYouâ€™re not considering that it is to your advantage that one man should die for the people rather than the whole nation perish.â€â€ (John 11:50 HCSB)