The truth about the "subjectivity" of value judgments

Reading Frances Woolley's post about throwing away pumpkin seeds led me to contemplate this point.

By noting that "waste is a value judgment," Woolley seems to imply that it is "merely subjective," and therefore beyond dispute.

The fact that we can, and do, successfully challenge these judgments by others, and sometimes get them to change their mind, shows that this is not the case. But the confusion is understandable: the claim that value judgments are not subjective is often conflated with the notion that everyone whomsoever in any circumstance whatsoever ought to make the same judgment. So, a waste nanny might badger all others about how awful it is for them to throw away their seeds. And that is clearly a mistake.

The truth lies in between: it is either a good idea or a bad idea for me to save and toast my pumpkin seeds. It is not a matter of my whims. But whether or not it is a good or bad idea depends on my "particular circumstances of time and place," and, perhaps most importantly, on the sort of person I am.

The good for Socrates may consist in tossing his pumpkin seeds and spending the time he might have spent roasting them in contemplating justice. The good for a couch potato might consist in getting up off of his butt and cleaning and toasting the seeds, since he was just going to be watching bad TV otherwise. And the good for a farmer might consist in saving the seeds for next year's crop. The fact that the good can vary from person to person does not make it a matter of whim!


  1. "Woolley seems to imply that it is "merely subjective," and therefore beyond dispute."

    Perhaps I wasn't sufficiently clear - that certainly wasn't what I intended to say.

    I agree with your last point: the good can vary from person to person. If we assume - as generally economists do - that people are rational utility maximizers - then whatever a person does is what's best for them. Whatever is, is right.

    When a person decries something as "waste", they seem to be implying that there is a better way of doing things; that, by wasting, the waster is failing to make a rational, utility-maximizing decision.

    That's a judgement - though perhaps not a value judgement - I'll grant you that.

    1. Thank you for clarifying, Frances. I apologize if I mischaracterized your view. I knew I was speculating: that is why I used "seems."

    2. "then whatever a person does is what's best for them. Whatever is, is right."

      OK, I must note, this assumption is *wildly* wrong.

    3. The assumption that people know what is best for themselves or the assumption that they are utility maximizers?


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