If I type “value judgment” into Google’s addictive Ngram viewer, I find the phrase hardly ever crops up in its massive corpus of English-language books before the 20th century, but grows in usage from the 1920s, dropping away again from the 1970s. The variant “just a value judgment”, however, suddenly starts being used commonly around 1960, having its heyday in the decade that followed but continuing in recent years.
In this graph we see written the moral history of the past hundred years. At some point, “value judgments” ceased to be legitimate, requiring the humbling “just” to show that they are really no more than personal opinions. Things were no longer good or bad, right or wrong, it’s just our thinking made them so.
In aesthetic matters, saying that it is only a matter of opinion that Gustav Mahler is better than Bob Marley is at least democratic and non-elitist. But when you take that to its logical conclusion and say that Prokofiev is objectively no better than David Hasselhoff, the eye of the beholder is exposed for the unreliable organ that it is. Similarly, in ethics, while you might get away with saying that vegetarianism or teetotalism is not more than a personal preference, anyone who claims that condemnation of slavery, rape or torture is “just a value judgment” needs their heads and hearts examining.
The reason we got into this mess is, I suspect, that we lost faith in the belief that value judgments are objective facts on a par with the atomic weight of gold and assumed seeing them as mere preferences was the only alternative. But there is a middle way. Value judgments are human responses to facts about the world which are rooted in facts about human nature. Because they are distinctively human, they are not objective in the way that brute facts about the physical world are. But to conclude “it’s just me” is to deny our shared humanity and our shared world. Judgment is neither mere opinion nor pure fact, but something in between that requires both rationality and human understanding.
A colleague who has long hated her job announces she is leaving and going travelling around the world. Do you (a) congratulate her or (b) tell her that running away isn’t the answer – you can’t leave yourself behind, so she should stay put and deal with her issues?
Self-help won’t always help: for all the guidance available to set and achieve our goals in life, an equal amount of advice champions changing ourselves and our attitudes rather than our circumstances.
Take the example, which crops up in the positive psychology literature, of a waitress who learns to make her job more fulfilling by concentrating on her social interaction with the customers. This kind of attitude is certainly preferable to just moaning about your job. It’s not always possible to have what we want when we want it, so it’s good to take control of our wellbeing and learn to make the most of things.
But sometimes the right thing to do is to take steps to change the situation. If the waitress does not find her job fulfilling she may be well-advised to put some effort into exploring different paths, or she may end up bitterly filling the gap between ideal and reality with self-critical or world-blaming stories.
Of course, it’s not one or the other. Even if we aim to get out of an unsatisfactory situation, being in a better frame of mind can help us to take positive action towards reaching our goal. But how do we know whether to focus our energies on staying or going? Some fact-finding is in order. More important is a bit of self-examination: is the dissatisfaction really rooted in the situation, or do we have a pattern of moving on when the going gets tough? It is often sterile to keep chasing satisfaction by rearranging the furniture of our life. Above all, we could let our values be our guide: gaining clarity about what we value most can yield important insights into when it is – or isn’t – worth going for it.
Antonia Macaro and Julian Baggini’s book ‘The Shrink and The Sage’ is available in paperback (Icon, £9.99). To suggest a question, email email@example.com