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Value Is Vitality
Progress & Phenomenology, Part 1: What Is Value?
Hi, I’m Oshan. This newsletter explores topics around emancipatory social science, consciousness studies, and together, the worlds they might weave. This is the first of three shorter installments from my larger essay, Progress and Phenomenology: A Vitality Theory of Value.
Value is the positive flow of vitality into a living system. The primordial structure of value emerges through the subjectivity of a living system. Let me explain.
Theories of Value, Past & Present
What is value? The answer, whether implicit or explicit, generally steers a society’s trajectory, like a rudder submerged and unseen, but ultimately responsible for a ship’s course.
Value and wealth are different ways of seeing the same thing. Value is a flow, a rate of change measured over an interval of time. Wealth is a stock, a snapshot of a quantity at a given point in time. To ask about value is equivalent to asking about wealth, and so we can use them interchangeably.
In Ancient Greece, the stuff of wealth and value was generally counted in terms of the number of slaves one owned. As the political theorist Hannah Arendt writes, slave ownership was the measure of wealth because it enabled one “to be master over one’s own necessities of life and therefore potentially to be a free person, free to transcend his own life and enter the world all have in common.”
Classical economists developed a narrowed, analytical notion of value. Adam Smith saw the value of an object as, ultimately, the toil and trouble that object can either save the purchaser, or command from buyers. David Ricardo and Karl Marx saw something’s value as proportional to the amount of labor required in its production.
Today’s dominant theory – marginal utility theory – sees value as the ‘marginal utility’ (additional satisfaction, or utility) provided by one extra unit of a good or service. A diamond is expensive (valuable) relative to water because one additional diamond would bring me greater satisfaction that one additional unit of water.
In the universe of economic math, marginal utility exists as a quantity that can be measured and manipulated. In the real world, of course, utility does not exist, and cannot be measured.
Instead, the economist Paul Samuelson suggested there’s no need to measure utility, since rational agents will ‘reveal their preferences’ through voluntary market transactions. And preferences are ultimately expressions of utility. In practice, then, marginalists define value as the prices that form as an economy settles into equilibrium. For marginalists, price equals value.
This is a problematic societal rudder.
Wealth Begins Where Exchange Ends
This progression of value theory strikes me as exactly backwards. We’ve gone from defining value as the exclusion of necessity-driven action from life, to the general reduction of toil and trouble, to merely anything that generates a price.
Even across all three eras, wealth has no inherent, or intrinsic value. The virtue of wealth lies in its exchange value. The positive character of wealth, what it ought to be exchanged for, is left up to individuals.
This is how we can wind up with a society of some fabulously wealthy individuals, who, in the final analysis, have very little worth having. Very little of value. Wealth is only conditionally desirable, only if it functions within a larger system that guides its possessor on what exchanges can ‘cash wealth in’ for something actually worth having, that actually enriches life.
Against this reduction of wealth to the accumulation of normatively agnostic means, I want to define wealth and value as the purpose of exchange, that which all exchange endeavors towards. Wealth is the normative culmination of exchange. It isn’t a means, but an end. What is valuable should be intrinsically so. To be wealthy should be intrinsically desirable.
Or, more confusingly, wealth is where means and ends converge. The French social philosopher André Gorz writes that when “the economy ceases to dominate society, human forces and capacities cease to be means for producing wealth – they are wealth itself.” Wealth, he writes, is the activity that develops human capacities:
“The source of wealth is the activity that develops human capacities…The full development of human capacities and faculties is both the aim of activity and that activity itself – there is no separation between the aim and the ever incomplete pursuit of the aim.”
For Gorz, intrinsic wealth is the spectrum of activities that are neither measurable nor exchangeable, which develop human capacities. He’s echoing Karl Marx, who similarly defined wealth – when the ‘bourgeoise form is stripped away’ – as the “absolute working-out of [humankind’s] creative potentialities”.
This all sounds nice, but horribly vague. Marginal utility theory has elevated price to become the measure of value because prices are legible, formal, and observable. What optimizing around price-equals-value sacrifices in normative substance, it makes up for in analytical ease.
To develop an alternative theory of value that can realistically displace the status quo, we need a similarly formalized theory, that offers clear political and economic guidance. Can we articulate a science of intrinsic wealth, a theory of value that doesn’t sacrifice the normative substance of value, that treats it as a worthy end-in-itself, while still providing an analytically useful tool to help guide policymaking? Can we develop a theory of value that can shift the trajectory of our world-building?
I believe we already have one, but it’s being developed out of sight of economists. Beyond what Gorz calls the “hegemonic ambit of economic categories”, an interdisciplinary effort is emerging at the confluence of biology, cognitive science, and philosophy. Loosely, the space is called “enactivism”, a domain of cognitive science. Therein, they’ve developed an understanding of value that roots it in evolutionary processes much larger than the merely human.
Intrinsic wealth, on this view, can be refined into a feature of phenomenology that arises as living systems engage their environments. Here, value is not an original economic category, but an aspect of the evolutionary process of life itself. To understand value, we can look to its roots, in biology.
The Enactivist Theory of Value
The key enactivist point is that the mind does not merely represent what exists out there in the world. Through engaging with its environment, the mind enacts, or gives rise to, or co-creates, the world it perceives. Living systems, engages in “transformational and not merely informational interactions: they enact a world.”
It’s in this transformational interaction with the environment that living systems give rise to “the primordial structure of value.” It’s here that enactivism provides the roots for a new theory of intrinsic value:
“The primordial structure of value … manifests in what can now be called the subjective dimension even for the simplest organisms … A world without organisms would be a world without meaning; and it is in life’s incessant need, that a subjective perspective is established.” (source)
Let’s delve into this.
Value Is Significance Is Valence
On this view, living systems comes with an inbuilt purpose: to exist (see: the free energy principle). This incessant ‘drive to exist’, or 'self production', or the infamously wordy ‘autopoiesis’, is the defining property of all living systems and generates a mode of being that the philosopher of cognitive science Evan Thompson calls “concern”. To exist in a mode of concern, that is, to be a living system, is to “instantiate a locus of subjective value in an otherwise valueless and subjective world”:
“…self-production generates ‘concern,’ an endogenous interest in or motivation for self-preservation and self-enhancement; such ‘concern’ is a form of existence or mode of being, not a mental state; and it instantiates a locus of subjective value in an otherwise valueless and subjectless world.”
The biologist Andreas Weber writes that to exist in this mode of concern is to be “already embedded in value-creation”:
“As living organisms, we as biological creatures are already embedded in value-creation…Bringing forth a body follows a primary goal – to exist. This puts a universal grid of good and bad over the perceived world. Being an organism means constantly producing existential value. So we need to recognize our bodies and emotional existence as sources of value prior to deliberating about which theory of value may be best.”
Here, ‘existential value’ is a phenomenological category, a feeling that arises in our bodies prior to any deliberation. You can imagine the body as a seismograph, or a thermometer plugged into its environment, giving off readings of value in the form of our ‘emotional existence’. The sociologist Hartmut Rosa refers to humans as “seismographs of resonance”.
Still, this is vague. Can we be more rigorous? What is ‘existential value’, and how does it arise? In Enaction, Di Paolo, Rohde, and De Jaegher describe things in greater detail:
“…organisms cast a web of significance on their world. Regulation of structural coupling with the environment entails a direction that this process is aiming toward: that of the continuity of the self-generated identity or identities that initiate the regulation. This establishes a perspective on the world with its own normativity…Exchanges with the world are thus inherently significant for the agent, and this is the definitional property of a cognitive system: the creation and appreciation of meaning or sense-making, in short.”
Recall that my critique of past notions of wealth was the absence of a normative character. Here, we’re told living systems naturally generate a normative perspective, buried deep in our phenomenology, which ‘entails a direction’ that our living aims towards. This process is alternatively called sense-making.
To sense-make is to navigate these ‘universal grids’ or ‘webs of significance’ that living systems ‘cast’ onto their perceived world, in pursuit of continuing their existence. Given a vast landscape of potential actions, living systems act so as to move themselves in the direction of what Di Paolo & friends call “significance”, or what Weber called “existential value”. Note that value and significance are being used as synonyms.
Evan Thompson gives three pillars of the sense-making process:
Sensibility as openness to the environment (intentionality as openness)
Significance as positive or negative valence of environmental conditions relative to the norms of the living being (intentionality as passive synthesis— passivity, receptivity, and affect)
The direction or orientation the living being adopts in response to significance and valence (intentionality as protentional and teleological).
Now, if you recall that enactivism uses “significance” and “value” interchangeably, and re-read that second condition, you’ll see a theory of value.
I conferred with Thompson in the Public Square (Twitter), and he loquaciously confirmed that enactivism takes the two as synonyms:
The enactivist theory of value:
(2) value as positive or negative valence of environmental conditions relative to the norms of the living being.
So, significance is value is valence. What’s valence? Valence refers to the overall subjective feeling, or pleasantness, of a particular experience. Joy, uncontrollable laughter, and the aroma of a freshly-cooked favorite meal all have positive valence. Sadness, fear, or anxiety all have negative valence.
When Weber says “we need to recognize our bodies and emotional existence as sources of value”, he’s pointing out that valence is not an idea we might hold about a particular experience, but its phenomenology, the pleasantness of the sensation.
For enactivists, value is the valence brought forth, or enacted, by a living system as it engages with its environment. The more positive the valence, the higher the value.
But if we were to stop here, then our theory of value would simply define ‘vitality’ as positive valence. Anything that feels pleasant would have value, and society’s normative direction would be that of increasing pleasantness.
Were this the case, you may justifiably respond that we’ve simply reinvented hedonism with some lipstick on. On the surface, this theory of value could not distinguish between heroin addicts with an infinite supply and truly vibrant, radiant, value-brimming human beings.
So we have one final jump to make: how do we get from positive valence to vitality?
From Valence to Vitality
Let me provide the destination at the outset. Vitality is a subcategory of positively-valenced experiences where the experience raises our hedonic set-point, or the positive valence of our baseline state of consciousness through time.
Or: vitality is a set of positively-valenced experiences that kick-off positive feedback loops to sustainably raise average levels of positive valence over time. In this way, vitality maps onto Gorz's idea of 'intrinsic wealth', in that it is both a means towards generating more vitality, while simultaneously the end-goal in itself. But let me explain.
Some types of positively-valenced experiences are simple up-and-downs, like going to my favorite jazz bar with a close friend. We go out, have a great time full of positive valence, and then go home, where valence returns to it’s average level.
Others are up-and-down-and-farther-down, like taking heroin, or eating a tub of Dulce De Leche Häagen-Dazs ice cream. These provide short-term boosts of positive valence, but the come-down does not merely return us to normal. It pushes our baseline lower. Andrés Gómez Emilsson (director of research at the Qualia Research Institute) writes that whether a strategy is truly in line with a long-term view of hedonism depends on the kinds of feedback loops it instantiates. Common examples of why hedonism is undesirable, from drugs to sugar, are short-sighted because they trigger negative feedback loops that undermine hedonic set-points. It’s just bad hedonism:
“Amphetamines, traditional opioids, barbiturates and empathogens can be ruled out as wise tools for positive hedonic recalibration. They are not comprehensive life enrichers precisely because it is not possible (at least as of 2016) to control the negative feedback mechanism that they kick-start. Simply pushing the button of pleasure and hoping it will all be alright is not an intelligent strategy given our physiological implementation. The onset of this negative feedback often triggers addictive behavior and physiological changes that shape the brain to expect the substance.”
Other types of positively-valenced experience bring us up, but as we come down, we settle at a slightly higher set-point, or valence equilibrium. An example could be a successful psychedelic therapy session, where a deep-seated trauma is surfaced and mended, such that when we return to sobriety, our baseline psychological state is slightly enhanced. Another example could be a worker who transitions from a dehumanizing work environment to an enriching one. Moving from being a powerless cog in an unthinking production regime to a human with voice, power, and the opportunity to meaningfully engage with both the content and process of their work. This provides a lasting boon to average valence levels, kicking off a positive feedback loop.
Vitality is this third category: any positively-valenced experience that generates a feedback loop towards sustainably raised set-points of positive valence. Put differently, vitality is a property that describes those experiences that sustainably make us feel more alive. Vitality is self-perpetuating positive-valence. Vitality is the growth of life.
This, to my mind, is a theory of value worth developing, worth designing an economy around. This, beyond productivity or innovation, education or longevity, is the real stuff of 'progress'.
And most importantly, as the next two installments will explore, this is a theory of value with particular policy implications.
This was the first in a three-part series derived from my essay, Progress and Phenomenology: A Vitality Theory of Value. To receive notice when the next is published, you can subscribe here:
Until next time,
Never mind, of course, that economies are not equilibrium systems. Economies are better understood as the opposite, as systems always in disequilibrium; complex, dynamic, adaptive systems that endogenously generate innovation. Understanding economies as equilibrium systems is a relic of neoclassical economics, as I explore in this conversation with David Sloan Wilson.
As I’ll detail in the 2nd installment of this series, I think marginal utility theory is a good theory of price differentials (why are diamonds so much more expensive than water?). But trouble arises when this theory of price differentials gets forced into also being a de-facto theory of value. Most critiques of the price-equals-value ordeal also, implicitly, take this stance. They don’t critique its explanation of price differentials, just of the conflation of price with value. I suspect the degree to which this conflation is forced depends upon the degree of coercion citizens face to participate in markets.
Emilsson goes on with a really interesting bit on why caloric restraints are one possible reason why we didn’t naturally evolve to maximize value in this way. But now, given the paradigmatic changes in our evolutionary environments and capabilities over the past few hundred years, we not only can, but probably should, focus on ‘real value’, or increasing our hedonic set points: “Naturally one may be skeptical that perpetual (but varied) bliss is at all possible. After all, shouldn’t we be already there if such states were actually evolutionarily advantageous? The problem is that the high-valence states we can experience evolved to increase our inclusive fitness in the ancestral environment, and not in an economy based on gradients of bliss. Experiences are calorically expensive; in the African Savannah it may cost too many calories to keep people in novelty-producing hyperthymic states (even if one is kept psychologically balanced) relative to the potential benefits of having our brains working at the minimal acceptable capacity. In today’s environment we have a surplus of calories which can be put to good use, i.e. to explore the state-space of consciousness and have a chance at discovering socially (and hedonically) valuable states. Exploring consciousness may thus not only be aligned with real value (cf. valence realism) but it might also turn out to be a good, rational time investment if you live in an experience-oriented economy. We are not particularly calorie-constrained nowadays; our states of consciousness should be enriched to reflect this fact.”