Hannah Arendt on distinguishing the terms ‘value’ and ‘worth’

Pater Edmund highlighted a great passage from Hannah Arendt where she distinguishes “value” and “worth”. We hear such an emphasis on “values” in our political discourse, but values, which this risks obscuring the real point. We’re not concerned with protecting or advancing subjective value preferences, but rather we want to protect and advance that which has true worth, that which is truly good. What we “value” may or may not correspond with what has true worth or what is truly good. We might “value” in error, prizing that which is, in fact, harmful to us or to the wider political community:

The confusion in classical economics, and the worse confusion arising from the use of the term “value” in philosophy, were originally caused by the fact that the older word “worth,” which we still find in Locke, was supplanted by the seemingly more scientific term, “use value.” Marx, too, accepted this terminology and, in line with his repugnance to the public realm, saw quite consistently in the change from use value to exchange value the original sin of capitalism. But against these sins of a commercial society, where indeed the exchange market is the most important public place and where therefore every thing becomes an exchangeable value, a commodity, Marx did not summon up the “intrinsick” objective worth of the thing in itself. In its stead he put the function things have in the consuming life process of men which knows neither objective and intrinsic worth nor subjective and socially determined value. In the socialist equal distribution of all goods to all who labor, every tangible thing dissolves into a mere function in the regeneration process of life and labor power.

However, this verbal confusion tells only one part of the story. The reason for Marx’s stubborn retention of the term “use value; as well as for the numerous futile attempts to find some objective source–such as labor, or land, or profit—for the birth of values, was that nobody found it easy to accept the simple fact that no “absolute value” exists in the exchange market, which is the proper sphere for values, and that to look for it resembled nothing so much as the attempt to square the circle. The much deplored de-valuation of all things, that is, the loss of all intrinsic worth, begins with their transformation into values or commodities, for from this moment on they exist only in relation to some other thing which can be acquired in their stead. Universal relativity, that a thing exists only in relation to other things, and loss of intrinsic worth, that nothing any longer possesses an “objective” value independent of the ever-changing estimations of supply and demand, are inherent in the very concept of value itself. The reason why this development, which seems inevitable in a commercial society, became a deep source of uneasiness and eventually constituted the chief problem of the new science of economics was not even relativity as such, but rather the fact that homo faber, whose whole activity is determined by the constant use of yardsticks, measurements, rules, and standards, could not bear the loss of “absolute” standards or yardsticks. For money, which obviously serves as the common denominator for the variety of things so that they can be exchanged for each other, by no means possesses the independent and objective existence, transcending all uses and surviving all manipulation, that the yardstick or any other measurement possesses with regard to the things it is supposed to measure and to the men who handle them.

It is this loss of standards and universal rules, without which no world could ever be erected by man, that Plato already perceived in the Protagorean proposal to establish man, the fabricator of things, and the use he makes of them, as their supreme measure. This shows how closely the relativity of the exchange market is connected with the instrumentality arising out of the world of the craftsman and the experience of fabrication.

We “value” what we perceive to be good, what has worth. But our “values” are not themselves super important, because they merely gesture to apparent goods. We have to distinguish apparent goods from authentic goods, and then secure those. Securing what’s truly good for human persons is the true work of politics.

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