How to Analyze and Evaluate Ordinary Reasoning

  Section  8:  Analyzing Reasoning Containing Value Judgments

 G. Randolph Mayes

 Department of Philosophy

 Sacramento State University

8.1  Value judgments


For reasons that will become clear below, it is very important to understand what a value judgment is. Roughly speaking a value judgment is a claim about something's moral, practical, or aesthetic worth.  Value judgments do not simply describe the world; they prescribe certain attitudes or behaviors toward the world.  When you say things like:

  • That's good.

  • That's bad.

  • That's wonderful.

  • That's a bummer.

  • That's not right.

  • That's sick.

  • That's not fair.

  • That's obligatory.

  • That's admirable.

  • That's shameful.

  • That's despicable.

  • That shouldn't be.

  • That's ok.

  • That's just wrong.

you are usually making a certain kind of value judgment.   We often say that value judgments are normative, which means they evaluate things with respect to certain standards or norms.


One way to get a quick handle on the nature of value judgments is to see that any statement of fact can easily be converted into a value judgment by introducing a value term.  In the table below, the statements on the left are labeled descriptive.  The corresponding value judgments on the right are labeled prescriptive.


Descriptive Prescriptive
The U.S. invaded Iraq. The U.S. shouldn't have invaded Iraq.
Jeremy is a student. Jeremy is an excellent student.
Sally is frightened. It's ok for Sally to be frightened.
The doctor accidentally killed the patient. The doctor should not be blamed for accidentally killing the patient.
Our teacher takes forever to return homework. It's not fair of our teacher to take forever to return the homework.
Josť is in so in love with Brittany . It's wonderful that Josť is so in love with Brittany.
I am ashamed of myself. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.
Picasso was a 20th century painter. Picasso was one of of the greatest painters of the 20th century.
Those pants are tight on you. Those pants are way too tight on you.
It's hard to find a job. You haven't tried hard enough to find a job.



8.2  Ambiguous cases


Sometimes statements will seem like value judgments when they aren't, and vice versa.   Here are some examples that can be confusing.


A. Statements that provoke value judgments but are not value judgments themselves


Some statements cause us to make value judgments even though they do not contain value terms and are not value judgments themselves. For example:

  • The prisoner risked his life to save that little boy.

  • Grandma was so happy that you remembered her birthday.

  • Damien enjoys torturing helpless creatures.

  • Lt. Craven ordered his unit to kill all the women and children in the village.

All of these sentences are purely descriptive, but they describe things that normal people regard as obviously good or bad.  The important thing to see here is that a statement is a value judgment only if it expresses a value judgment, not if it simply provokes one.


B.  Statements that use value terms but which do not express value judgments


Sometimes value terms are used to express statements that are more descriptive than prescriptive.  That's because value terms are often used simply as a shorthand for more involved descriptive statements.  Consider:

  • It's hard to find a good husband.

  • The patient suffered a bad blow to the head.

  • Genetically modified plants are good for the environment.

  • Tommy says lots of bad words.

Although statements like these can be used to express value judgments, they can also be just compact ways of saying the following:

  • It's hard to find a husband who is faithful, loving and strong.

  • The patient suffered a blow to the head that caused brain damage.

  • Genetically modified plants require fewer environmental resources to grow.

  • Tommy says lots of words like 'shit' and 'asshole'.

These statements do not express value judgments.  There is no real method for determining when statements of these kind express value judgments and when they don't.  You simply have to pay close attention to the context.


C. Statements that mention value terms, but do not use them.


In logic we distinguish between using a word to make a statement and just mentioning the word within the statement for other purposes.  This is a distinction children learn pretty early.  For example, if Bernie says to his mother:

  • Mom, Sarah said "you little bastard!"

he does not expect to have his mouth washed out with soap because he only mentioned the offensive expression, he didn't actually use it.  Sarah used it.


We often mention value terms when we attribute value laden beliefs and statements to other people.  For example, we say things likeL

  • Christians think atheists are evil.

  • Obama said a change is needed in Washington.

  • Some Catholics don't think Mother Theresa should have been beatified.

  • Homer doesn't see anything wrong with using torture to extract information.

These statements mention value terms in order to describe people as making value judgments, but the statements do not make or express the value judgments themselves.  In other words, someone who says "Christians think atheists are evil," isn't thereby expressing the value judgment that atheists are evil.  She may think that but that is not what her statement communicates.


Statements that attribute value judgments to others can express value judgments, however.  For example, the sentence:

  • It's bad for you to constantly assume the worst about people.

expresses a value judgment (bad) about the tendency to make a certain kind of value judgments (that people are inherently bad.)



D.  Commands and rhetorical questions


Reasons and conclusions are always statements.  Neither commands nor questions literally express statements, but they are often properly interpreted as expressing value judgments. For example,

  • Stop hitting your sister.

is literally a command, not a statement.  But, depending on the context of utterance, it might also be interpreted as expressing the value judgment.

  • You ought to stop hitting your sister.

Similarly, rhetorical questions like: 

  • Are you crazy? 

  • What the hell did you do that for?

may be interpreted as the value judgment:

  • You shouldn't have done that.


8.3  Why it's important to be able to identify value judgments


The reason it's important to be able to identify value judgments is that normative language provokes contradictory intuitions about whether the reasoning involved is explanatory or argumentative in nature.  To see this, consider the following example: 

  • It's wrong to eat meat because animals have just as much right to live as you do.

Is this an argument of an explanation?  It seems like you can make a case for both.  You could say that it explains why you shouldn't eat meat.  Or you could say that it is arguing that you shouldn't eat meat.  This ambiguity is typical of reasoning in support of value judgments.  Consider another example.

  • President Bush did his best to defend the country from terrorism, so I think he deserves more respect.

It seems like this could be read as an explanation why the President deserves more respect or an argument that he deserves more respect.


8.4   A convention for value judgments


In order to resolve this uncertainty in a straightforward way we will adopt the following convention:

  • If the conclusion of a rationale is a value judgment, then the rationale itself is an argument.

This convention is not arbitrary.  It can be understood as follows:  Even though it is completely acceptable in ordinary English to ask questions like:

  • Why should I do that?

this question does not express a request for an explanation, but an argument.  For example, if you ask Sam why you should lend him money, that is because you are not convinced that you should lend Sam money.  But now remember that it is arguments that have the purpose of convincing, not explanations.  So even though the use of the term "why" makes it sound like you are asking for an explanation, in fact you are asking for an argument.


Another way to grasp the convention is this.  Consider a value judgment together with it's descriptive core:

  • It is good that Bernice studied hard for her test.

  • Bernice studied hard for her test.

We could be skeptical of either of these claims, so a request for an argument may be appropriate to both in either case.  We might also completely agree with either of these claims, so you you would think a request for an explanation should be appropriate in both cases as well. 


But now notice this.  While it makes perfect sense to ask what caused Bernice to study for the test, it does not really make sense to ask what caused the goodness of her studying for the test.  The goodness of her studying is something that we might accept as a fact, but it is not really the sort of fact that can enter into causal relations.


Philosophers sometimes say that value terms like 'good' and 'bad' express non natural properties. They disagree on what sort of status these properties have, but they typically do agree that non natural properties do not have causal relations.  For us, this means that whenever you are reasoning in support of a value judgment, you are giving an argument.   So, to repeat, our convention is:

  • If the conclusion of a rationale is a value judgment, then the rationale itself is an argument.