2: The Second Dimension: Value Experiments

1. The Second Dimension of Value

In what we may call a second dimension of value, value expands outward from mere subjective experience into the realm of action and practical engagements with the world, including activities in the pursuit of purposes or interests and attachments to things and persons we care about. Some basic value experiences may be momentary, while others, such as enjoying a horseback ride, will be stretched out over time. Experience stretched out in this way is sentient life; and when this life involves purposive activity with practical goals and attachments to things cared about that go beyond mere enjoyment or pleasure, we arrive at a second dimension of value.

This second dimension includes not only experiences, but also activities undertaken by individuals in the pursuit of plans, intentions, interests and purposes. If horseback riding is merely an enjoyable pastime for a man or woman, then the value of it for them is merely first-dimensional. But if the riding also has some further purpose, such as rounding up cattle or delivering mail, then we are into a second dimension of value.

The man or woman may also enjoy the riding for its own sake in addition to its serving a useful purpose; and in that case they would experience value in both the first and second dimensions. Such “fusing” of value from different dimensions is especially satisfying and is one reason why people place such importance on having a job or work they also enjoy doing.

Value in this second dimension is a measure of the success or failure of the practical activities we pursue and the attachments to others we care about (say, to friends or family). We build houses to shelter ourselves or impress our neighbors, plant seeds to grow food or to adorn our environment with flowers, play games to win, cultivate friendships, and so on. The value (or disvalue) here lies in the fulfillment (or non-fulfillment) of the purposes and interests of those undertaking the activities and in the flourishing of the attachments they care about.

It follows from this that value in this second dimension is obviously also plural, indeed more evidently so than in the first dimension. There are many possible activities we may pursue and attachments we may care about that may be part of fulfilling lives. And often we may have to make choices among them.

2. Inclusion and Overriding

One important thing to notice right away about this second dimension of value so conceived is that it includes the first dimension. This is so because practical engagements in the world, such as purposive activities and ongoing relationships with others involve a succession of experien­ces through time. Purposive activities and personal relationships are “lived through” and, as such, include diverse value and disvalue experiences such as enjoyment, exhilaration, pride, sadness, frustration, disappointment, and the like, as one-dimensional lines are included in two-dimensional spaces.

The second thing to note is that second dimensional value so conceived can sometimes over­ride first dimensional experiences, as when short-term enjoyments or pleasures, such as eating a piece of cake, are sacrificed to attain long-term purposes, such as losing weight. What is prima facie good in the first dimension is not good when viewed from the broader perspec­tive of the second dimension. Similarly, what is prima facie bad in the first dimension, such as the pain of stretching a damaged ligament, may be a necessary means to a valuable long-term purpose, the rehabilitation of a surgically repaired leg.

And yet value in this second dimension can itself be overridden and is therefore also prima facie or defeasible. Suppose a man plans a camping trip with friends. He has many purposes in doing so—to get some needed rest and relaxation from a stressful job; to bond with long-time friends; the chance to fish in mountain streams, and so on. Alas, he learns that his daughter’s high school graduation is scheduled the same week as the planned trip and she will be devasta­ted if he does not attend. Since the camping trip cannot be rescheduled, he chooses to forego it. Its value is overridden by something more important to him, his daughter’s happiness and his family commitments.

In this way and others, activities that may fulfill our purposes or interests in the second dimension of value may in principle be overridden when viewed from a broader perspective. But, as was the case with first-dimensional value experiences, if such second dimensional activities are not overridden by more important goods or in higher dimensions of value, they can also be objectively good for the persons undertaking them.

If the daughter’s graduation had not conflicted and the man had gone on his trip and if his purposes were fulfilled—he managed to get the needed relaxation, bonded with his friends, etc.—then the trip would have been objectively valuable for him. Of course, the trip may also have turned out to be a disaster: It may have rained the whole time, the friends may have quarreled, reviving old grievances, in which case the trip would not have been valuable for him.

This shows that value in the second dimension also depends on more than not being overrid­den. It also depends on how activities or undertakings turn out, whether they succeed or fail in fulfilling the agent’s purposes and interests. Second dimensional value is thus also relative value, like first dimensional value, since it is a matter of fulfilling or failing to fulfill the purposes or interests of particular agents. But this does not rule out its being objectively good for the agents involved and those who may care about them, if it is not overridden in any higher dimension.

If a woman succeeds in building a workbench that will please her husband, the fulfillment of her purpose and the activity through which she fulfilled it are second-dimensional goods for her and for those who care about her and for whom she cares, such as her husband.[1] These are relative goods for the particular persons involved. But it is an objective matter of fact whether or not these goods do fulfill the purposes and interests of those persons. In this way, value in the second dimension, like value in the first, when it is not overridden, can be both objective and relative—“objectively relative.”

3. Experiments in Living

A central feature of second-dimensional value, as these examples illustrate, is the notion of what may be called value experiments. If I undertake a regimen of exercise and a special diet to lose weight, I am undertaking a value experiment. Success or failure of the experiment lies in the fulfillment or non-fulfillment of the purpose of losing weight and the extent to which the fulfillment of the purpose satisfies my desires and interests. This is where the second-dimen­sional value lies as well.

One often hears it said that one of the differences between fact and value is that one can perform experiments about matters of fact (as in the empirical sciences), but not about values. I think this common assumption ought to be viewed as a mistake. We experiment with values all the time. Any plan of action or way of life put into practice is a value experiment whose results can be tested against prior expectations, purposes and interests, like the diet regimen just mentioned.

This does not mean that there are not important differences between value experiments and scientific experiments. The most important of these differences have to do with the fact that value experimentation is personal in a way that scientific experimentation is not. This is what one might expect, given that the experiments are about values. What experiments with values test are the plans of action and ways of life of particular persons or groups. And success or failure of value experiments is measured in the first instance in terms of the fulfillment or non-fulfillment of the purposes and interests of the persons or groups that were to be realized by the plans of action and ways of living.

But this personal element in value experimentation does not mean that objectivity is thereby excluded. For, once the purposes and interests defining the plans of action are specified, there are objective facts of the matter about whether or not these purposes and interests are realized. It is an objective matter whether or not the diet regimen succeeds in its goals, whether the workbench made by the woman succeeds in pleasing her husband or whether the man’s camping trip provides the needed rest, relaxation and bonding with friends. Wanting or wishing it to be so will not make it so.

Value experiments, so conceived, are the stuff of life. A career is a value experiment in this sense, as is a marriage, a vacation, a party, a date, a camping trip with friends, a business enterprise, a research project, an economic policy, a political program, and so on. Anyone of them may turn out to be a success or a failure when measured against the interests and purposes of those undertaking them.

One philosopher who recognized the importance of value experiments in this sense was John Stuart Mill. Mill referred to them as “experiments in living” and they play a significant role in the social and political theory of his influential treatise On Liberty.[2] Mill claimed that persons were generally happier when they were free to choose their own value experiments, or experiments in living; and he considered this an important argument in favor of free societies.

Philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, in an insightful essay on Mill’s experiments in living, says that “John Stuart Mill thought that we learn about the good through ‘experiments in living’… he rejected the traditional view that we know about the good through a priori intuitions. Conceptions of the good must be tested by the experiences we have in living them out.” [3]

I think Mill is on to something important here, not only for its implications about free socie­ties. We cannot determine what the good life is in an a priori fashion. We must do it in part by engaging in experiments in living, or as I put it of in defining second dimensional value, through our “practical engagements in the world.”

Note that this idea of value experiments or experiments in living was already at work in the section on Ethics, where openness respect for various ways of life meant initially “letting them be lived or experimented with or tested in a way that is appropriate for values, in action or practice.” This idea was involved in defining a moral sphere and distinguishing plans of action and ways of life that were worthy of openness respect by others and those that were not.

I now want to emphasize that this theme of testing values through practical engagements in the world extends beyond the ethical arguments about the moral sphere. It also includes the testing of plans of action and ways of life generally through what Mill called “experiments in living.” Recall from the section on Ethics that Gandhi called his own value experiments with nonvio­lence in India his “experiments with truth.” His Satyagraha movement, which succeeded to a large extent in its goal of making the British relinquish control of India without resort to violent revolution, was one of the most significant value experiments of the twentieth century.

While value experiments differ from scientific experiments in the personal and practical ways noted, there are some important similarities between them that are revealing and instructive.

One way to bring out these similarities is to consider a disputed criterion about what makes scientific experiments genuine, suggested by the influential philosopher of science, Karl Popper. Popper’s view was that genuine scientific experiments must be capa­ble of falsifying or refuting or disconfirming the hypotheses or theories they are testing as well as providing evidence in their favor. [4] Theories are genuinely scientific, on Popper’s view, if they are capable of being falsified by experience or experiment.

In criticism of this much-discussed criterion of falsifiability, historians and philosophers of science have often pointed out that widely accepted scientific theories are not always defi­nitively refuted or falsified by one or even a few disconfirming observations or experiments. Theories are often adjusted in the face of contrary evidence rather than abandoned entirely. Or their adherents may wait for some future explanation of the unexplained facts rather than completely abandoning an otherwise successful theory.

These and other criticisms of Popper’s criterion of falsifiability are widely acknowledged. Yet, there remains a kernel of truth to the criterion that most of its critics do not wish to deny. Genuine experimental tests of a theory must take a risk; they must be capable of providing evidence that counts against the theory as well as for it. This makes sense, for if we put forth theories that could not be falsified by any possible experience or experimental test, then we are merely spinning ideas in our heads and not making objective claims about the world at all. If our theories claim to be about objective facts, then the world ought to be capable of fighting back by showing the theories false as well as true.

But what is interesting is that value experiments can take such a risk of failure as well. Consi­der the examples given earlier: a diet regimen, a career, a marriage, a vacation, a party, a date, a business enterprise, a research project, an economic policy, a political program. All of them take risks and all can fail in various ways to fulfill their intended purposes or satisfy the inte­rests they were intended to serve. Gandhi’s experiments with non-violence in India might well have failed; they were in fact extremely risky. With value experiments, the world also fights back and objective evidence can count against their success as well as for their success.

4. Value Experiments, Plans of Action and Nozick’s Experience Machine

As a consequence, there is greater degree of objectivity in the second dimension of value than in the first dimension. For people can be, and often are, mistaken about the objective success of their plans of action. The woman may believe she has made a sturdy work bench that will please her husband and may feel quite satisfied with herself for doing so. Yet the bench may in fact be flawed and her husband will be disappointed. She is mistaken about the objective success of her experiment.

Note here an important difference between second dimensional value and the basic value and disvalue experiences of the first dimension. An experience of joy at what you believe is the reception of a gift is a first-dimensional value, even if you are mistaken in believing the gift was for you. Similarly, basic disvalue experiences, such as humiliation, shame, or anxiety, are first-dimensional disvalues even if their subjects have no good objective reasons to feel humiliated, ashamed or anxious. It’s the subjective feeling in itself that is good or bad in the first dimension, whether or not it has any objective grounding in reality.

This difference between first and second dimensional value is the first hint of a general theme of some importance. As we move to higher dimensions of value, value becomes more objec­tive, and less subjective, even though some elements of subjectivity and relativity may remain. At each higher dimension we move further beyond our own subjectivity and out into the wider world beyond ourselves. In the second-dimension, we are not merely interested in experien­cing something, but in doing something—in making a mark upon the objective world. Hence there is greater risk of failure, but also greater hope of satisfaction and meaning.

This greater objectivity in the transition from first to second dimensional value is nicely illus­trated by Robert Nozick’s well-known example of an “experience machine.” [5] By electroni­cally stimulating the brain, Nozick’s experience machine can give one the illusion and there­fore the pleasure of any activity whatever, even though one is not actually engaged in the activity. In such an experience machine, all value would be first dimensional. There would be no value in the second and higher dimensions.

Nozick himself thought life in such a machine would be deeply impoverished because he argued that we desire more than just to have experiences in life. We desire to do something, accomplish things, and make a mark upon the objective world. Whether or not one agrees with Nozick on this point, his experience machine provides a nice illustration of the distinction between the first and second dimensions of value. In a Nozickian experience machine, all value would be merely “one dimensional.”

5. Success and Failure

I have been arguing that second-dimensional value, which is bound up with plans of action and ways of living that are tested by value experiments, has a measure of objectivity that goes be­yond the first dimension of value. But, is it always easy to determine when or whether a parti­cular value experiment has failed or succeeded? And if it is not easy, might judgments of success or failure (and hence judgments about second-dimensional value) be “merely” subjective after all?

Objective success or failure of the diet regimen is clear enough; and Gandhi either does succeed in getting the British to leave India on his terms, or he does not. But other examples are not so clear. Careers and marriages were said to be examples; and heaven knows many of them fail. But how do we know definitively that a career or marriage has been a failure or success? The simple answer is that we do not always know definitively, if that means with finality or certainty.

It seems that careers and marriages, like many other things in modern life, are plagued by pluralism and uncertainty—in this case, pluralism of choice and uncertainty of outcome.

Consider careers. A young lawyer may be unsatisfied with her work, but at first she adjusts. She changes laws firms, gets new colleagues, turns to a different area of the law that suits her talents better. However, over time, as dissatisfaction mounts and these changes continually fail, she may conclude that a career in law was a failed value experiment for her. She may abandon it and become a teacher.

Such career changes need not be the result of merely subjective judgments. The woman’s judg­ment that her talents and interests were not well suited to law—and that she went into it for the wrong reasons—may in fact be true. Her talents and temperament may be better suited to teaching; and she may find success and happiness as a teacher. Ethical considerations might also be involved. She may have a family to support requiring a higher income. But in that case her decision would be viewed from a higher dimension that would override even practical and personal considerations of the second dimension.

Such patterns are familiar. We also see them in marriages. Persons usually do not give up on marriages with the first signs of trouble. More often than not, only an accumulation of diffi­culties over time, lead to the abandonment of a marriage or career. For long-term investments are involved. How do the partners know when such a point has been reached? They do not know with certainty, any more than the young lawyer does; nor should they jump too soon to the conclusion that this point has arrived. Divorce is as much a value experiment as marriage and is fraught with as much risk for all concerned.

Ethical considerations may also be involved—as with careers—especially where children are concerned. In such an event, the decision would be viewed from a still higher dimension that overrides the personal and practical considerations of the second dimension. If we could be certain of the outcome or rightness of our value experiments before we undertook them, life would be easier. But would it be human life? Indeed, would it be life?

One may object that marriages are undertaken with a “commitment” (“till death do us part”) that makes the term “experiment” inappropriate to describe them. “Living together” prior to marriage (or in lieu of it) may more appropriately be termed an experiment. But marriage, it might be said, is a sacred bond, involving a prior commitment inconsistent with the thought that parties are just “trying it out.” But even if we acknowledge that marriage is a sacred commitment, acknowled­ging this commitment is still consistent with saying that marriage is an “experiment in living,” in Mill’s sense. For, what is crucial to value experiments, in Mill’s sense, is that people learn from experiences through undertaking them. The undertakings may be successful or unsuccessful to varying degrees, when measured against the interests and purposes of those undertaking them.

Such things can be true of marriage even when undertaken as a sacred commitment. What makes value experiments “experimental” is not how, or with what commitments we get into them. It is rather, that the commitments with which we get into them are no guarantee of how they will turn out.

6. Value versus Scientific Experimentation Revisited

Let us return then to the point that, even when abandoning a career or marriage is an option, people do not usually give up with the first signs of trouble. Usually, it is an accumulation of difficulties over time, which seem to have no resolution, that leads to the abandonment of a career or marriage. For long-term investments are involved. But what is noteworthy is that these features of value experiments also have analogues in scientific experimentation.

Recall the objections to Popper’s falsifiability criterion. Some of these objections were made on the grounds that, in the history of science, theories are not always definitively refuted or abandoned on the basis of one, or even a few, disconfirming observations or experiments. Such hesitation to abandon a theory is especially strong if the scientific theory has been successful in other areas, and no clearly better alternatives exist. In that event, adjustments may be made to the threatened theory; or theorists wait for some future explanation of the discomforting anomalies.

Reluctance to abandon a theory in such circumstances is quite rational. Over time, however, the accumulation of disconfirming evidence and failed adjustments, and the availability of alternatives, may lead to a rational judgment that the theory is a failure. Ptolemaic astronomers did not immediately abandon their theory when Copernicus came along. They drew more epicycles to explain anomalies in the planetary orbits, and only abandoned their theory after a century of contrary evidence had accumulated. (Some of the contrarians simply died, but that’s another story.)

Interestingly, we see a similar pattern with complex value experiments such as careers, mar­riages, business enterprises, social policies, and so on. They are not abandoned in one fell swoop, but only after the accumulation of difficulties (anomalies) that resist adjustment and appear to have no resolution. Even then, they may be abandoned only in the presence of potentially better alternatives.

Actually, this similarity of pattern should not surprise us. Scientists often have a significant investment in their theories, an investment very like our investment in long-term life-plans and value experiments. We should not expect scientists to abandon their theories too easily either. Nor need there be a clear or definitive cut-off point at which they say “that’s enough” (fifty epicycles? one hundred?). Likewise, there is often no such clear point in careers and marriages. Yet in the end, failure may come to be acknowledged for good reasons.

The differences between value and scientific experiments do not therefore lie in the fact that it may take an accumulation of evidence to refute the life-plans or theories being tested. Nor do the differences lie in the fact that there is no pre-established cut-off point. The difference, as suggested earlier, lies in the fact that the success or failure of value experiments is related in a more personal or agent-relative way to the purposes and interests of the persons engaged in the experiments. In the case of scientific experiments, the personal aims and interests of the expe­rimenter are not relevant in the same way to whether the experiment was successful or not.

Because of this agent-relative feature, value experiments are not as easily generalizable as many scientific experiments. The woman who left a career in law to go into teaching was not passing judgment on the goodness or badness of the practice of law in general. Rather, she came reluctantly and gradually to the conclusion that a career in law was a bad thing for her, given her talents, temperament and interests.

And about this conclusion, she may have been objectively right, even though the result could only be generalized to persons with relevantly similar talents and interests. Second-dimen­sional value is in this respect objective, notwithstanding the personal element in it. We should not be surprised that physicists can generalize more from their experiments than persons can from value experiments. The electrons and protons they deal with are alike by comparison with persons.

If the success or failure of value experiments is related in a more personal way to the purposes and interests of agents who undertake them, then, there will be one final reason why success or failure will be difficult to assess: Different and conflicting purposes and interests have to be considered. Success or failure of the diet regimen is easier to assess because it involves one reasonably clear goal. This is not so with more complex value experiments, which include not only careers and marriages, but long-term projects, business enterprises, political programs, and so forth. These may be satisfactory in some ways, not in others. Trade-offs must be consi­dered between desires and interests of the different parties involved that are satisfied, and others left unsatisfied. As Isaiah Berlin said, “The ends of human beings are many, and often they come in conflict with one another.”

When Berlin made this comment, he did not have in mind only the conflicting purposes of different persons. He also (and very importantly) had in mind the conflicting purposes and interests within a single person. We often want things that cannot be simultaneously obtained, and we only find this out by painful experience (that is, by value experimenting). This is especially true of the young, who often think the can “have it all” without significant trade-offs—marriage, career, children, adventure, romance, excitement.

Dealing with such trade-offs is another way in which value experimentation can show us—by succeeding or failing—what purposes and desires can and cannot be simultaneously realized. When desires and purposes cannot be simultaneously realized, we have to go back and re­assess which of them should be modified. In such cases, the world fights back against our plans and projects. They bump up against an objective reality; and the assessments we make are not merely subjective. If we delude ourselves about success or failure, we risk paying a heavy price.

7. Practical Reasoning and Practical Inquiry: Happiness

A final point about value experiments that must be mentioned is that they can and often do take place “in the head.” We imagine scenarios, consider possible outcomes and consequences of action, all in the attempt to decide which plans or intentions are worthy of being pursued in reality. There is also a scientific analogue to this feature in the “thought experiments” of scientists. Indeed, much of what we call practical reasoning or deliberation takes this form of what we might call “vicarious value experimenting.” We weigh possible consequences of plans of action in order to determine which ones are worthy of being tried in practice.

Elijah Milgram makes a persuasive case for thinking about practical reasoning in this way in his insightful book, Practical Induction (1997).[6] A good deal of what is called “practical wisdom” (phronesis to the ancient Greek thinkers) is knowing enough about ourselves and about others and the world around us to aptly choose which experiments in living are likely to be fulfilling and which not. The capacity for such value experimenting “in the head” is a distinguishing feature of rational agents.

The ultimate test of success for value experiments of individuals in the second dimension of value is happiness or flourishing. Here we understand happiness or flourishing in the sense that the ancient philosophers described as “satisfaction with one’s life as a whole.” But what exactly happiness amounts to in this general sense is a contestable matter; and its specific nature was highly contested even among the ancient thinkers who proposed it as the goal.[7]

To understand what happiness is, one would have to consider how the many purposes and interests of life fit together in a meaningful way, and what purposes and interests are ultimately worth pursuing. But the answers to such questions would move us beyond the second dimension of value to higher dimensions. In such a higher dimension the questions would be not only what happiness may consist in, but whether it alone—or something else—is the ultimate goal of life. In this way, the second dimension of value, like the first, poses questions that can only be fully addressed by going beyond it to higher dimensions.

[1] There can thus in principle be intrinsic second dimensional values (as well as intrinsic first dimensional values). Examples would be fulfilling careers, happy marriages, satisfying friendships, which may be good for their own sakes, even if they may also be instrumentally good for other things (raising well-adjusted children, etc.). There may be instrumental second dimensional goods as well, such as the workbench if it contributes to a happy marriage.

[2] Mill 1956: 75-81.

[3] (1991: 5)

[4] Popper 1965.

[5] Nozick 1974: 42-5.

[6] Milgram also argues persuasively that we can engage in practical reasoning about what ends are worth pursuing, as well as about means. Richardson 1994 makes a strong and wide-ranging case for this as well, as does Vogler (2001) in her brilliant study of Mill’s views about value and practical reasoning.

[7] Annas 1993 is a comprehensive study of debates among ancient philosophers concerning this notion of happiness.

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