2: Fourth-dimensional Value and the Mosaic of Value

1. Inclusion and Overriding: The Four Dimensions Revisited

The ethical principles and rights at which the retreatants arrived by the reasoning of the pre­vious part were meant to apply univer­sally to all persons at all times. These principles and rights would therefore be examples of fourth-dimensional values. But it is important to note that the fourth dimension of value would contain much more than these abstract principles and rights. To see why, we must recall some­thing that was further said about fourth-dimen­sional value: The fourth di­mension of value includes aspects of all three other dimensions of value while transcending them, just as the other dimensions of value may in­clude, yet transcend, dimen­sions of value below them..

To see what this means, recall briefly what the other three dimensions of value in­volve. The first dimension is experiential. As Spinoza noted, our first human encounter with value, good and bad, is through experiences of certain kinds, such as joy and sadness. The first dimension of value consists of a broad array of such experiences—on the positive side, “basic value expe­riences,” such as joy, delight, amusement, pride, sensory pleasure, enjoy­ment, and others, and on the negative side, “basic disvalue experiences,” such as sadness, lone­liness, frustration, pain, bore­dom, humilia­tion, anxiety, and others.

It was noted that we may think of these basic value and disvalue experiences as prima facie good or bad respectively, that is, good or bad in the first instance, unless they are overridden in some higher dimension of value. Thus, the delight a small child expe­riences when first seeing a squirrel is one thing, the delight a terrorist takes in torturing a priso­ner is quite another. Spino­za and other philosophers cited earlier would say that in the latter case, the delight of the tortu­rer is not a good at all, but an evil.

This would also be true if the Ends Principle and the other ethical principles arrived at by the retreatants were examples of fourth-dimensional value. Since the terrorist violates these princi­ples, treating his victim as a mere means, his delight in torturing his victim would be overrid­den in the fourth dimension and would not be good, but an evil. It would not be worthy of being regarded as good by all persons from all points of view.

But the important point we want to attend to here is that not all first-dimensional goods need be overridden in this way in higher dimen­sions of value, including the fourth di­men­sion. Consider the joy or delight the small child expe­riences when first seeing a squirrel. If this innocent joyful experience does not involve any harm to others, or using others as mere means, and is not over­ridden in any other higher dimen­sion of value, then it would be a good in the fourth dimension of value as well as in the first dimension.

In other words, something (the child’s joyful experience) which is a value in the first dimension (and hence something that is good from the point of view of the child and those who happen to care about the child) would be “raised up” to the fourth dimension. It would become some­­thing that should also be recognized as a good from the points of view of all persons, whether they ac­know­ledge it or not. The good so raised up or transfigured would then have not only relative va­lue or worth for the child and those who care about the child, but would also have objective (non-relative) worth that should be recognized as such from all points of view.

And so it would be for goods in the other two dimensions of value as well, if they are not over­ridden in higher dimensions. The second dimension of value, for example, includes not only subjective expe­riences, but also practical activities in which we pursue various goals; and it also includes rela­tionships to other persons or beings we care about, family, friends, spouses, children, and so on. Such practical activities and ongoing relationships of the second dimension may also be overridden in the fourth dimension, if the activities involve using other persons as mere means to attain certain goals, such as cheating other persons to make money. Similarly, rela­tion­ships can be harmful as well as beneficial, as when young persons are led into a life of crime because of their relationships with older friends.

But if other goods realized by practical activities and personal relationships of the second di­men­­sion (making a work-bench for a spouse, a family gathering, a camping trip in which one bonds with friends) do not involve using others as mere means, and are otherwise not overrid­den in higher dimensions, then they too would be goods in the fourth dimension as well. They would not only have relative value for those en­gaged in the activities or relationships, but non-relative value that would be worthy of being recognized as such from all points of view

And the same would be true of the third dimension of value, which includes the values embo­died in what Alasdair MacIntyre calls “practices” and “tra­ditions”—socially established human activities by which we strive to realize goods by achieving standards of excellence appropriate to the activities (architec­ture, physics, medicine, law, teaching, and many others). Through the pur­suit of such practices, it was noted that humans seek a number of goods that are central to this third dimension of value. These goods included “mastery,” the experience of doing some­thing well, “contribution,” the fact that what one does makes a valued contribution to the ­ com­munity and forms of life with which one identifies, “excellence” of achievement, and “virtues” which contribute to the flourishing of the commu­nities and forms of life of which one is a part.

If the realization of these goods in various groups, communities or forms of life do not involve using other persons or groups as mere means to the ends of those who seek the mastery or ex­cel­lence, then the third-dimensio­nal goods rea­lized in such practices and forms of life, would be goods in the fourth dimen­sion as well. They would be worthy of being recognized as good by all persons from all points of view, and not merely by those within the prac­tices or forms of life who directly benefit from them.

2. Particular and Universal Values

So when it is said that the fourth dimension of value represents a higher standpoint above and beyond all finite third-dimensional points of view and forms of life, the “above and beyond” does not mean that the fourth dimension is merely ab­stract or that it abstracts from the particu­lars of dimensions of value below it. To the contrary, the fourth dimension is more accurately viewed as the summa­tion of all that is good and excellent in the particular forms of life of the first three dimensions of value that is not overridden in higher dimensions.

Such would be the case for the innocent joy of the child when she first sees a squirrel in the park (a first-dimen­sional value), a husband’s making something in his workshop that his wife really wants, or a loving relationship of parents to children, or a joyous gathering of friends (all second-dimen­sional values), or an excellent achievement in sports, a fine painting, a successful operation by a surgeon which saves a person’s life, and other fine achievements (all third-di­men­sion values). If none of these things harms or exploits others or involves using others as mere means, they can be fourth-dimensional values as well, worthy of being recognized as good by all persons from all points of view.

This is what it means to say the fourth dimension includes all three other dimensions of value, while transcending them, as the other dimensions include, yet transcend, dimensions below them.

Note also that if values are conceived in this way, they can be at the same time both particular and universal, and they can be both relative and non-relative or objective. Suppose an aban­doned child in a distant land is found and is nurtured and loved by those who find the child. The child’s experience of joy when found is a particular good for the child and those who care about her. But if the child’s experience were not overridden in any higher dimen­sion of value, it would also be a universal good, worthy of being recognized as such by all persons from all points of view.

The child’s experience would be a particular good when viewed from the first dimension (from the child’s point of view) or from the second dimension (from the points of view of those who care about the child), but it would also be a universal good when viewed from the fourth di­men­sion. Similarly, the child’s experience when viewed from the first and second dimensions, would be a relative good for the child and those who care about her. Whereas, when viewed from the fourth dimension, it would also be a non-relative or objective good, worthy of being recognized as such by all persons from every point of view without ceasing to be a relative good for the child and those who care about her.

Indeed, it’s being a universal and objective good, worthy of being recognized by all, depends upon its being in the first instance a parti­cular and relative good for the child. If being nurtured and loved when found were not something good for the child, but something bad for the child, it would not be worthy of being recognized as good by all persons from all points of view.

3. Wisdom in an Ancient Philosophical Sense: Objective Reality and Objective Worth

This idea of the fourth dimension of value as the “summation” of what is good and excellent in particular forms of life of the first three dimen­sions and not overridden in higher dimensions has an important further implication. For the notion involved of a summation of value is related in inte­resting ways to the idea of “wisdom” as understood in an ancient philosophical sense. Plato and Aristotle and other ancient philosophers held that wisdom, sophia—the love (phi­lia) of which gave philo­sophy (philosophia) it’s a name—had two goals: understanding objective reality (what was objectively real in the nature of things) and understanding ob­jec­tive worth (what was objectively good and worth striving for in the nature of things).

In the contemporary era, both of these ends of ancient wisdom and philosophy have been challenged by relativists and postmodernists. And the challenges to both ends have involved appeals to plura­lism and uncertainty. In the case of understanding what is objectively good and worthy, relativist and postmodernist challenges posed the following question: How can we say what is objectively good and should be recognized as such by all persons from all points of view, when we must understand and seek the good from the finite and limited points of view and ways of life that we necessarily inhabit?

What is interesting is that a similar problem was also posed in the contemporary era by post­moder­nist and other thinkers regarding how we could understand the other goal of ancient wisdom or philo­sophy—understanding objective reality or what is objectively real. And it turns out that understanding how this problem about objective reality might be addressed can give us clues about how one might address the other problem about objective good or worth.

Among the ancient philosophers, the force of the term “objective” in “objective reality” was usually taken to be this: As the subject matter of wisdom (or “first philosophy,” as Aristotle called it), reality was to be understood as it is in itself and not merely as it appears to us. We recognize this as the central philosophical problem of “appearance versus reality.”

The post­modernist critique of first philosophy (or metaphysics, as it came to be called) makes this prob­lem of appearance and reality especially troubling. For postmodernists argued that all under­standing of the real world is dependent upon particular “conceptual schemes,” “linguistic frame­works,” “points of view,” and “forms of life” through which we interpret what appears to us; and humans interpret their experience in terms of different conceptual schemes and forms of life. If all understanding is dependent on conceptual scheme or linguistic framework, how can we grasp an objective reality in the sense of the way things are in themselves, rather than merely as they appear to us?

The first thing to note in response to this question is a point that has been made by a number of contemporary philosophers: The central theme of the postmodernist critique—the scheme de­pen­dence of all understanding—does not of itself imply that we must relinquish notions of objective truth and reality. Philosopher Donald Davidson puts this point nicely when he says: “In giving up dependence on the concept of an uninterpreted reality, something outside all schemes and science, we do not relinquish the notion of objective truth.” Let us see why this might be so.

The first thing worth noting is that when it is said that “if all understanding is scheme depen­dent, we cannot grasp the way things are in themselves,” trouble is already brewing in the expression “the way things are in them­selves.” This expression assumes that there is such a thing as the way things really are, when it is likely that there are different ways things are, described in dif­ferent vocabu­laries for different purposes.[i] Think of the history of a city, like New York, over a twenty-four hour period, as told by a society columnist, an economist, a weatherman, a political reporter, a social historian, the director of sewers and sanitation, and other interested parties. Each of them gives us a different description of the city from his or her limited point of view. But what is the true picture? What is the real New York “in itself”?

This question seems odd and unanswerable, if an answer were to require (as postmodern critics of metaphysics sometimes claim) identifying a neutral perspective from which the city could be described as it is “in itself,” but not from any particular point of view or not in terms of any particular conceptual scheme. Yet there is an alternative to this requirement, suggested by some contempo­rary philosophers. The real New York may be regar­ded, they argue, as the summation of what is correctly described from all the different points of view and in all the different vocabularies. The real city would be what is correctly described by the wea­ther­man plus the social historian plus the director of sanitation plus the society co­lum­nist, and so on.

Then it would be true that there is no neutral description of the city; we can­not avoid descri­bing it from some point of view, in some vocabulary. But the objective point of view of the city would not require such a neutral description. Rather it would be the summation of the true statements about the city from the different finite points of view. Each point of view might tell us something true, not about a phantom New York, but about the real one. Each would fall short, not in failing to describe the real New York, but in not being the whole story about it.

This idea is by no means new. It can be compared to the ancient Buddhist tale of the blind men describing different parts of an elephant. Each man has a different story to tell depending on whether he feels the legs or the trunk or the torso; and each wonders what this “thing” could really be. One point of this tale was that each blind man has it wrong, if he claims to be descri­bing what the elephant “really” is. But one need not thereby conclude that the real elephant is some unknowable thing-in-itself. It may be what is correctly described (if only partially) by each of the blind men and by others from other perspectives. Each blind man goes wrong only in claiming to have the whole truth about it.

This theme is importantly related to what was said earlier regarding the retreatants’ “aspira­tion” to wisdom about what was objectively good—namely, that the whole or final truth is not something finite creatures can possess entirely. Indeed, Plato made the point many centuries ago by intimating that the objective truth was not something any one person or group could possess, as someone might possess a pot of goal, hoarding it from others. Rather the Truth, he intimated, is something that humans should seek to partake of or participate in from limited points of view. This is what the weatherman, society columnist and the economist do when they describe New York from their perspectives, or the blind men when they describe that part of the elephant they can touch, but not see.

Or think of a small cube described by astronomer Phillip Morrison. A chemist would tell us, says Morrison, that the cube is made up of very thin alternating strips of different metals and he would give us a full physical analysis of it. But the chemist would fail to say that the cube tells the story of Huckleberry Finn (the thin layers of metal form a code). Chemistry lacks the vocabulary to do that. But it does not follow that the chemist is not describing the real cube. He is, but so is the person who says that it tells the story of Huckleberry Finn.

Of course, the chemist and the code breaker must do their jobs well. They must correctly des­cribe their aspects of the cube in accordance with the best standards of evidence and reasoning available to them. And so it is also with the weatherman, the sanitation director, the economist and others describing New York City. If they do their jobs well, they will correctly describe objective truths about the city. And thus they will participate in revealing the truth about it, even if they do not have the whole truth.

The point is that “the ways the world is” may be accessible to us only with the proper concep­tual schemes or language games or forms of life in place. This much (i.e., the “scheme-depen­dence of all understanding”) supports the postmodernist critique of wisdom or first philosophy. But it does not rule out the possibility of describing an objective reality. For the way the world is may simply be all the different ways the world is, described in the different vocabularies. To fully describe it would require learning and using many vocabularies or language games. To learn about particle physics one has to learn about mathematical objects called vector spaces; and to do this is not only to learn a new vocabulary, but a new way of thinking.

Yet human beings can learn new ways of thinking and speaking, adding them to the ones they already have. If some of these ways of thinking or speaking should be irreducible to one ano­ther (if they cannot be wholly translated into, or reduced to, some one level of description), so be it. Reality, like value, may come in layers, as some philosophers have put it[ii]; and objective truth may be the summation of truths from different levels of description.

Note as well that if each person, the weatherman, the sanitation engineer, the social historian, gets his or her description of New York right from his or her perspective, then what each says is true for everyone (objectively true), not just for that person. If the weatherman correctly des­cribes the New York weather, then what he says about the weather is true so far as it goes for everyone, the economist, the sanitation engineer, the social historian, and so on. It would be bizarre to say that the weather as described by the weatherman is true or false only for the weatherman and his cohorts, but not true or false for the sanitation engineer or anyone else.[iii]

The descriptions of the different parties may be relative to point of view, but not their truth or falsity. If the blind man clutching the elephant’s leg correctly describes his part of the elephant, then what he says about the leg is objectively true for everyone, though he only describes part of the elephant. Where he goes wrong is in claiming the whole elephant is like a leg.

4. The Mosaic of Value

Return now to the claim in the previous section that wisdom (sophia) or first philosophy, as understood by ancient thinkers, had two goals or ends, understanding objective reality (what was objectively real in the nature of things) and understanding objective worth (what was objectively good and worth striving for in the nature of things). It was suggested that reflection on the first of these goals would throw light on the second.

The connection intended was this: Just as there need be no way to grasp the real city of New York “in itself” from some neutral perspective outside all conceptual schemes and language games, so there need be no way to appreciate objective worth and excellence from some neu­tral perspective outside all practices, traditions and forms of life. Bach is excellent in one way, Einstein in another, Michelangelo and Shakespeare in yet other ways. To appreciate the diffe­rent ways in which they are excellent requires different modes of understanding and initiation into different practices and traditions. But this is no more an argument against their objective worth, than is the claim that because descriptions of the New York are always made in some conceptual scheme or language game, they cannot be descriptions of an objectively real city.

In other words, the objective good (i.e., fourth-dimensional value) may be conceived as the summation of all that is good and excellent in different practices, traditions and forms of life, just as the objective truth about the city may be the summation of all that is correctly said about it in the different vocabularies of the social historian, the weatherman, the economist, and so on. As with the descriptions of the city, we would not necessarily go wrong in saying the achievements of Bach or Michelangelo or Shakespeare are objectively worthy of being re­cog­nized as good from all points of view, but rather in saying that any one of them represents the whole of the objective good (or fourth-dimensional value).

For the good in that sense would be the summation of all the finite goods that arise out of different points of view and in different forms of life. If grasping the objective good in this sense is elusive, that would be because there may always be more ways to be objectively good than we have yet explored. Objective worth or fourth dimensional value, transcends our finite grasp not because we are getting no glimpses of it in small and large examples of good in varied forms of life, but because there is always more to grasp.

There is an image that nicely captures this idea of the objective good as the summation of particular goods—the image of a mosaic of value. A mosaic, as commonly defined, is a picture or design made by inlaying small bits of colored stone, glass, or other substances in mortar; or by exten­sion, it is any complex picture or design made up of distinct parts put together to form a whole.

Imagine a complete mosaic of value as all that is objectively good (i.e., good in the fourth di­men­sion of value); and imagine the inlaid pieces or parts comprising it as various experiences, activities, re­la­tionships, achievements, virtues and excellences exhibited in different practices and ways or forms of life. These experiences, activities, excellences, etc., of particular practi­ces and forms of life are different in kind, like the colored pieces of the mosaic. But in the well-made mosaic, each part would make an important contribution to the whole. Remove any piece and the mosaic is less good. Similarly, to remove particular experiences, activities, vir­tues or excellences in particular forms of life would be to diminish the objective good, the total sum of the good of the universe, just as removing one of the descriptions would give us an incomplete picture of New York.

According to this image, your importance and mine, insofar as we seek objective worth in our own distinctive ways is to be a piece of the larger mosaic of value. We have to do it in our own ways, with our own talents, rooted as we must be in particular traditions and forms of life. But if we do it well, we may add however small a piece to the overall good. To seek objective worth is not to try to encompass the whole of that good, but to be a piece of it (however great or small), whose removal would make the whole less valuable. Thus we participate in the Good, as Plato intimated, though we do not own it.

This mosaic image also provides a further perspective on the openness respect practiced by the retreatants. By choosing to be open to the degree possible to other points of view and ways of life, the retreatants were ultimately seeking fourth-dimensional value or the objective good by letting the value in each objectively worthy point of view come forth and take its place in the mosaic, thereby contributing to the overall good. Considered in this way, there is no contra­diction in saying that goods can be both particular and relative with respect to persons and concrete forms of life, yet universal and objective as part of the larger mosaic of value.


[i] This point is made by a number of the authors cited in the previous note, notably Sober, Putnam, Post and McGinn.

[ii] McGinn 1999: 47.

[iii] Blackburn 2005 makes this point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.