Understanding Value
Draft, May 28, 2012
By Chas Crandon

Please note that this is a very rough, preliminary take on an idea I've been exploring. The thesis has not been fully vetted - or even clearly laid out in my mind - and the logical implications remain to be explored.

I also wrote this quickly without taking the time to plan out a clean, straightforward structure, so it may read like some confusing postmodern garbage. Please excuse the mess.

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Recently, over coffee, I had a conversation with a friend about the essence of love. (We have a tendency to have unnecessarily intense conversations when we hang out - mostly because I tend to always have intense conversations, and she's willing to put up with me.) The primary question we discussed was what is meant when you say that you're in love with some - specifically, what does the term "love" in that context refer to. Say Billy loves Annie, right? Does that love refer to an emotion felt by the subject, Billy? Or does it refer to an attribute possessed by the object, Annie? Or could it lie elsewhere?

I'd be hesitant to conclude that "love" describes a purely internal emotion felt by the subject, mostly because it seems to allow for love without a real object. Annie could be a figment of Billy's imagination, and we could still call it love. Though this solipsistic view of love may be accurate - I'm not sure - it certainly is depressing. (A philosophy postdoc once told me I must live in a cold, dark world for proposing such a view of love.)

But describing love as an attribute possessed by Annie doesn't seem to make much sense either. Could Annie possess Billy's love without Billy being aware? It certainly would seem as though one could not describe love as being purely an attribute possessed by an object; the attribute of "being loved" must work in conjunction with a subject that can be said to be "in love" with the object. So, at first pass, it seems as though we are referring to two things when we say that someone is "in love" - both the emotion felt by the subject and the attribute possessed by the object.

However, this answer is not wholly satisfying. Breaking it down this way seems to miss some of the essence of love; certainly love manifests itself in the feelings of the subject and the attributes of the object, but that seems to leave something out. Specifically, it omits a description of the relationship between the subject and object. Such a definition is agnostic to how the subject and object interact and relate to one another.

For example, if we understood love to be something that is described by purely subject-object attributes, circumstances where a teenager has a crush but is too shy to actually hold a conversation could count as love - the teen has a subjective emotion very close to "in love," and there is clearly an object to which that love can be attributed. Perhaps more darkly, circumstances where a pervert lusts after a celebrity could count as well.

It may be fair to argue that, perhaps, these examples could count as "love." But I think that trivializes an important distinction - specifically, the distinction between lust, a crush, and love. Alternatively, it may be possible to make this distinction in our understanding of the emotion felt by the subject - love, lust, and a crush may each feel a bit different - but that seems like it could be a difficult and potentially contentious road to take. What exactly distinguishes love from a crush? What about the feeling makes it distinguishable? How can we tell the difference?

I prefer the route of incorporating some description of how the subject and the object relate to one another into our understanding of "love." Love is not just a set of attributes held by a subject and an object - rather, it describes how two people interact. Specifically, I think "love" works a lot like "friendship." Friendship does not describe raw attributes of subjects and objects - it describes relationships. It is a descriptor applied to the interaction, the connection, between two people. Specifically, it describes a two-way interaction; I cannot be your friend without you being my friend. If the friendship is unidirectional, it's not really a proper friendship.

Although I'm not sure love requires bi-directionality - love can be unreciprocated - I think the addition of a descriptor of the relationship (interaction, connection) is essential. Love requires some degree of interaction, some degree of acknowledgement on the part of both parties. By incorporating the nature of the relationship into our understanding of the concept, we are better able to understand it and distinguish it from other types of emotions/relationships.

I think this understanding of "love" can be expanded and applied to our understanding of value in general, or what we mean when we say that something is valuable. When we talk about things of value, things that are important to us, things like love and friendship, we shouldn't think purely in terms of subject-object attributes. We cannot localize the value, the "goodness," to one individual person or thing. It is essential to incorporate the intangible interaction between subject and object into our understanding of the value.

Take beauty for example, or the taste of a delicious meal. Or (I believe) any other thing or experience we think to be valuable. While it might be typical to attribute the value either to the object (e.g. "that painting is beautiful") or to our subjective impressions (e.g. "I really enjoy how this meal tastes "), I think there is something interesting captured by examining the interaction between the two.

I have yet to explore this framework for understanding value in depth, but I believe it may be worthwhile - mostly because it is largely reminiscent of non-dualistic worldviews which have been prevalent for a long time. While it is traditional in western thought to break down the world into subject and objects, there are many philosophies that maintain a monistic view where everything is connected or part of the same thing in some way. Though I don't currently have a stand to take on monism or dualism, I think focusing on the "interaction" between objects has a very monist, "everything is connected" sore of vibe to it.

I have begun to consider one interesting, potentially helpful application of this framework for understanding value: looking at the interaction between subject and object can help to identify authenticity.1 Or, to put it in appropriately postmodern terms, it can assist in differentiating simulations from reality.

This is a big claim, so I'm going to step back from it for now to make a slightly less ambitious claim: I believe looking at relationships between subject and objects can help to understand and justify why two things with very similar attributes can be valued very differently. Take beer, for example. Let's say a there is a premium beer made by a small craft brewery that tastes exactly like Budweiser. There is no perceivable difference; they have identical physical attributes. But where the Budweiser is made in a large plant by generally uncaring employees, the craft brew is made by a team of five guys that simply love beer and love brewing. They are incredibly passionate about the process of brewing and put ample care and effort into the process.

I prefer the craft brew to the Budweiser, but there is no good empirical justification for doing so - the two beers are identical in terms of physical attributes. Regardless, I have this preference because I derive pleasure from knowing that the beer is made by people that are truly passionate about brewing; I vicariously feel the pleasure they get from the process of brewing.

This is already a bit of a leap, perhaps, but I have already once discussed how much I enjoy being around people who are truly "in the moment" and experiencing a great sense of joy, so I won't go into in too much depth here. Regardless, I don't believe it's too unbelievable to claim that the happiness of other people tends to make me happy, and I think something similar can be said for my relationship to the craft beer and the brewers. Though it tastes the same as the Bud, I get the incremental good feeling from the passion of the brewers.

Holding aside the criticism of "how could you ever know if they are actually passionate?" - I don't have an answer yet as I haven't spent much time on the epistemology side of questions like this - I think the major difficulty is that this "passion felt by the brewers" could simply be included as an attribute of the beer. That is, I could simplify my framework for understanding value from {subject, object, relationship} to {subject, object} by collapsing the relationship into an attribute possessed either by the subject or the object.

To be honest, yes, this could be the case. I'm not here to make a metaphysical argument about the absolutely right way to break down and understand the world, and so I have no argument to say that brewer passion should be incorporated in the "relationship" element rather than the "object" element. Frankly, it doesn't matter to me very much which is "right"; from my perspective, a framework is only helpful insofar as it enables you to "do work." That is, a framework should enable you to work towards new insights and perspectives (and, outside of philosophy, actually do science and build things) - regardless of whether it is the absolutely correct way to understand the world.

So I think it's much more informative to understand the passion of the brewer as arising from the interaction between the brewer and the beer, rather than as an attribute embedded within the beer. After all, the interaction is something that's directly observable and understandable, whereas an intangible attribute of beer is harder to comprehend.

Furthermore, "interaction" has connotations of a process over time, which I think appropriately describes the value of passion. On the other hand, "attribute" has connotations of an end result, which I find less compelling because the attribute of "being produced by a passionate brewer" could be fulfilled be any number of processes - from ones where the brewer does a good job to ones where he's drunk and messes up the whole batch but is still very passionate about it.

To capture the same information in an attribute as we do in a description of a process, we essentially need to embed the whole process in the attribute - the beer has to have the attribute of "being produced by a passionate brewer who engaged in a passionate, clear-minded, and error-free process." Why take that additional step of embedding the process in the attribute? Why not just stick with describing the process itself, the interaction between the brewer and the beer?

This can serve as a foundation for differentiating between inauthentic and authentic things: though two objects may be identical in terms of attributes, they could differ in terms of the processes by which they are created or cultivated. For example, a real work of art might differ from a simulated, or less-than-real, work of art in the underlying process by which each was developed, even if the end results look identical. In one case, an artist cares deeply about creating art and interacts with her creations with a honest and earnest mentality, whereas in the other case an "artist" cares deeply about creating something that merely looks like art, probably as a means to some other end (fame, fortune, etc.). Though the difference between the resulting works of art may be unperceivable, there is more enjoyment to be gained as a viewer of art through knowing that it comes from an authentic process.

Furthermore, I don't really think it is possible that two works of art - one real, one fake - could look completely identical. In many cases, I think it is easy to tell the difference between something that was made with care and passion from something that was not - just like how it's not that hard to tell the difference between a real badass motorcycle punk and a douchebag with a leather jacket. The passion - the care for the actual thing (whether artistic merit or punk values) as opposed to care for something else (whether fame and fortune or wanting to look cool) - is kind of just self-evident.

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Though this next point doesn't follow the flow of this paper cleanly, I still believe it to be relevant and worth making. It returns us to my earlier point about deriving joy from seeing other people's passion, other people's excitement, other people's happiness. As I mentioned, I've written about this in the context of concerts before - and I experienced it again this weekend.

Every year, Brown alumni from across the country flock back to campus for commencement and reunion weekend. At 4am this Sunday morning, only a few hours before degrees would be conferred upon a new class of graduates, a massive crowd could be found on Wriston Quad. Alumni spanning nearly a decade of graduating classes spent the entire night together, reminiscing about their shared college experiences and sharing in new experiences. It was an incredible night.

What made the experience so great was not something that each of us felt individually - it was not a collection of people that were happy in isolation. The party was not just a means to individualistic ends. Rather, it was the shared experience, the shared interaction, where the true joy could be seen. There was true community there, able to spring back to life overnight, connecting people who hadn't seen each other in years. And it worked like a feedback loop - each person was made happier by the joy of those around them.

  1. This is not meant to refer to the robust "authenticity" of Existentialism - though it does have many similarities.

This essay, in large part, was inspired by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I'd also like to thank Anagha for several discussions that played an important role in the formulation of these ideas.