Subjective vs. Objective Value: The Economist and the Philosopher

Release Date
March 16, 2012

Topic

Basic Economics
Description

Economists and philosophers use the word “value” differently. Philosophy professor Aeon J. Skoble points out that while economics discusses value as a subjective thing, philosophy tends to address value as objective. Rights, for example, are something everybody has to have. There’s no such thing as “human rights” unless every human has them. That’s as objective as you can get.
When economists talk of subjective value, they’re speaking about the way the price system works. When economists say value is subjective, this means, in the philosopher’s language, that people have different tastes and preferences and people value things differently. The way to know what something is worth is to say what it is worth to someone.
If that’s true, this explains why the philosopher’s conception of objective value is a good one. If people have different tastes and preferences, we need an objective moral framework to live together in society. We have to have an objective way of knowing what to expect from each other and how to treat each other. Something like rights provides an objective framework for social living amongst people with different tastes and preferences.

Subjective vs. Objective Value: The Economist and the Philosopher
Economists and philosophers use words like “value” differently. Economists tend to speak of value as a subjective thing, whereas philosophers like to talk about values in the objective sense. Like rights, for example, are something that everybody has to have. There’s no such thing as human rights if it’s not true that all humans have them. That’s as objective as it gets.
When the economists talk about subjective value, they’re speaking very precisely about the way the price system works. And what we have here is a translation problem between different disciplines. When the economist says that value is subjective, what this means in the philosopher’s language is simply that people have different tastes and preferences and that people value things differently. One person likes chocolate, another person prefers strawberry. So how much is the chocolate lover willing to pay for chocolate? Well, a lot more than the person whose preference is for strawberry.
Some people like rock music; other people prefer country music. Some people like baseball, and some people like football. Some people would pay lots of money to see a concert that other people wouldn’t pay one dime to see. This is what economists mean when they talk about value being subjective, that different people value things at different levels. And the way to know what something is worth is to say what it is worth to someone. Things are only worth something to a particular person who values it or prefers it.
Now, if that’s true, and I think it is, this actually explains why the philosopher’s conception of objective value is a good one. If it’s true that we all have different tastes and preferences, that’s all the more reason why we need an objective moral framework for living together in society. If we’re going to all live together in the face of our many different tastes and preferences, then we have to have an objective way of knowing what to expect from each other and how to treat each other. Something like rights provides an objective framework for social living amongst people with very different tastes and preferences.