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Why I don’t believe in moral values: a comment on Culyer
  1. H V McLachlan
  1. School of Law and Social Sciences, Glasgow Caledonian University, Cowcaddens Road, Glasgow G4 0BA, UK; h.mclachlan{at}

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    In his paper , Culyer talks about “values” and “value judgments” in relation to equity.1 He says: “The focus is on equity in the allocation of health care resources .... These are value laden questions because any idea of “equity” must embody value judgments about what it is that makes for a good society”. He says too: “Equity in health care policy, as in other arenas of policy, is a question of ethics and therefore of values”.

    I disagree with this way of talking: it suggests a sort of “postmodernist” moral relativism. It sounds as if there might be, say, socialist beliefs which were vouched for by socialist values while conflicting moral beliefs might be vouched for by, for instance, liberal values. Relative to the values of yet other people and/or other cultures there will be—so it might seem—yet other moral truths. If there are socialist values, then why not socialist moral virtues and socialist moral truths?

    Don’t say that there are socialist values and, for instance, conservative values. Say, if you must talk of “values”, that socialists tend to value such and such and that conservatives tend to value something else or the same thing to a different extent. Say too that, regarding any particular evaluation, the socialists might be right and the conservatives wrong and vice versa.

    Ethics is not reducible to values. It is not even about values. It is true that it will rain next Thursday—and, if true, it will be true today—if it is the case that, next Thursday, it will rain. Truth is independent of what we value and of what our evaluations are. It is true that, say, we ought not wantonly to kill another human being if—and independently of what we value and of what our evaluations are—it is the case that we ought not wantonly to kill another human being.2

    What we value and what our evaluations are might cause us to make and to believe particular statements but this will not affect the truth or falsity of the particular statements that we happen to make or happen to believe. I might thus be caused to say—and, perhaps, even to believe—that the Scottish international football team will, one day, reach the quarter finals of the FIFA World Cup. A more pessimistic person who is also a supporter of the Scottish team is more likely to be led by his “values” to deny and to disbelieve this. Often, those things which it is most in our interests to believe and those statements which, most of all, we want to be true are what we find the most difficult to believe.

    Things are not good or true or right because we happen to value them. If they are good or true or right, then we should value them highly but their truth, rightness, and goodness is not dependent on our evaluations. Consider, for instance, “tolerance” and “justice”. These are not moral “values”: they are moral virtues. We should be just in our dealing with other people and, in many circumstances, be prepared to put up with people and practices which we loathe not because we value justice and tolerance (and even if we do not) but because we are morally obliged to be just and tolerant. Justice and tolerance are morally good even if not absolutely so.