Friday, May 27, 2016

The Value of Fine Furniture

I've recently been asked to write two papers, one on Max Scheler's theory of value perception for a forthcoming volume from Oxford University Press on spiritual perception, and the other on Dietrich Von Hildebrand for a special issue of the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. This has led me, especially during the last week, to revisit a lot of material I haven't looked at closely in some time. While I've dealt with these thinkers in my  papers on personalism, I haven't concentrated on Hildebrand  since my undergraduate days at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and not on Scheler  since I was working on my dissertation. In my professional writing, I've focused more recently on Thomistic metaphysics, especially the Thomism of the 16th and 17th centuries, and on more contemporary French phenomenology. It's been quite a treat this week revisiting in a focused, daily way, this older, more realist, more German phenomenology.

The fundamental idea of the phenomenology of value (which I've been looking at mostly in Scheler and Hildebrand, but also in Edith Stein, Aurel Kolnai, Nikolai Hartmann, and John Crosby) is that we perceive not only the sensory features of the world, but also values. We perceive the beauty of a sunset, the honesty of a trusted friend, the holiness of a saint, the usefulness of a tool. We perceive these values through intentional feelings--not mere felt bodily states like hunger or arousal, but feelings that reach out into the world and tell us about the value, the importance of things. Indeed, the feeling of these values are what guide our sense perceptions and reasoning about the world: we attend only to what shows up as valuable. These values are given as objective, and as falling into a definite hierarchy (holiness, for example, is better than utility or even aesthetic beauty). Values demand certain responses, and demand to be instantiated, and we should respond to these demands in accord with the objective hierarchy of values, striving for the highest values, while not neglecting the lower. In this way, values are the foundation for an objective ethics.

There are many criticisms of this view that have been raised, including by me. But there's also something deeply refreshing about this view. Many ethical systems are based on a single value--for example, the precepts of utilitarianism, at least in its classical form, are based only the value of pleasure, while those of deontology are based only on the value of rationality and autonomy. But that's not how the world shows up for us, as the value-phenomenologists point out. Humility, nobility, beauty, holiness, vitality all cry out for response and instantiation regardless of whether we thereby feel fulfilled or pleasured, and regardless of whether our rationality or autonomy are furthered or hindered thereby. In many cases, what is demanded by the value of a deep friendship, a marriage, a religious commitment, is sacrifice, not only of our pleasure, but also of our rationality and autonomy.

The world of values is a messier place than the sterile, one-dimensional world of the utilitiarians. It's harder to know which value precisely demands response in each situation, but that's the drama of the moral life. Values don't appeal in the same way to everyone--at least, there are many values that appeal in distinct ways to distinct people. And some people are just more gifted at apprehending and responding to value. Unlike on deontology, there's no strict moral egalitarian equality on this view, not even ideally. Unlike on utilitarianism, some pleasures are more imporant than others, and nearly all values are greater than that of pleasure. But surely this is how the world actually shows up for us.

At the beginning of his Aesthetics, Hildebrand distinguishes beauty from luxury--for some dismiss beauty as mere luxury, to be set aside for the sake of the real business of life: say, social justice, or technological progress, or authentic self-expression. Hildebrand distinguishes the person who has fifty neckties or two-hundred pairs of shoes from the person who has a hundred paintings or "who can afford aesthetically noble, cultivated furnishings" (p. 9). The former is frivolous, accumulating an unnecessary number of things whose value, Hildebrand contends, is purely to be useful. But the latter is responding to the "high value" of the artworks and furniture that he has collected. There is a value in wonderfully carved or crafted furniture. It is good that it exists--not because its manufacture employs people, or it adds to the gross domestic product, or because it can be studied by art historians. No! Rather, it is good that it exists, for the very value it instantiates. It is good that there are noble houses, and cultured people to live in them. The world would be poorer were there not--again, not because of their value for someone, but because of their value, full stop.

It's hard, living in a utilitarian and technocentric socity, to be able to see, much less appreciate, this value. We retort that such furniture could have been sold for three hundred days wages and given to the poor. We scoff that this patrician, aristocratic ethic is but rationalization for the excesses of the capitalist class. But this is all wrong. It's a failure of perception, the result of an inherently conflictual outlook on the world. To see the world as a cosmos of values is to rise above such a warlike view (the fact that Nietzsche was the first contemporary value theorist notwithstanding). There is value in fine furniture (though sadly I'll probably never own any); there is also (greater) value in serving the poor. There is only disvalue and degredation for the world in setting the two at odds with one another. (I can never read Peter Singer's "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" without horror at the utter value-blindness it evinces.) The moral life does contain the drama of trying to figure out which values to respond to, but this is not the same as setting the values in conflict.

For a conservative like me, there's a lot to recommend this ethic. Russell Kirk gives as one of his ten conservative principles the principle of variety: an opposition to egalitarian uniformity and leveling, to the ethic of the calculators, and an "affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life", a love for orders and classes. The values we all (if we are honest with ourselves) feel give the basis for these orders and classes. We must cultivate our feelings, though, if we are to recover this more human, more peaceful, more lovely vision for the world.

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