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:
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.
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:
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:
Although statements like these can be used to express value judgments, they can also be just compact ways of saying the following:
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:
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
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:
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,
is literally a command, not a statement. But, depending on the context of utterance, it might also be interpreted as expressing the value judgment.
Similarly, rhetorical questions like:
may be interpreted as the value judgment:
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:
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.
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:
This convention is not arbitrary. It can be understood as follows: Even though it is completely acceptable in ordinary English to ask questions like:
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:
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: