The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 15.2 (2001) 137-151
Religion was the religion of the medieval period, and science the religion of centuries afterward. In the current era, economics seems to hold this role of cultural hegemony. One sees everywhere references to the pressures of globalization and competition, praise of the efficiency and economic-growth inducing effects of free markets, and emphasis on successful marketing -- including the marketing of educational "products" to prospective student "consumers." Ethics are often confined to the realm of the personal and perhaps the political; in the realm of the economic, self-interest and profit maximization are treated as inexorable. John Dewey's words seem prescient:
As an economist, I am aghast at the adherence that the idea of a value-neutral mechanistic economic system seems to currently garner. This adherence is found not only among thinkers on the free-market right, but also among many on the political left. While the right side praises market systems, and the old left excoriates them, both sides tend to share the assumption that capitalist markets form an Adam Smith-ian clockwork system or a Weberian "iron cage," with an existence and inexorable logic that are independent of human moral deliberation and purposive action.
"Market value" hence has a prime place in contemporary cultural discussions of value. According to standard economic thinking, people make choices about what they will pay for, how much they will pay, and where they will work, and the resulting prices and incomes just fall where they may. Politicians are warned against "interfering" with the working of the system, as violating its presumed laws is said to lead to inefficiency and other undesirable outcomes.
One of the important contemporary practical areas in which market valuation is problematic is that of caring labor. Childcare workers in the United States -- overwhelmingly female -- make, on average, $6.61 per hour for attending to children, a wage less than that for parking-lot attendants who attend to parked cars (Center for the Child Care Workforce 2000). Care workers in other sectors, such as nurses' aides and orderlies, are similarly low paid. Higher-paid health professionals complain that the technical and medical aspects of the work are taking over, while the listening and caring aspects are being squeezed out. U.S. policies concerning parental leave are stingy. Caring in a broader sense -- caring for the environment, caring about poverty and injustice -- also is far from being central cultural and economic concern. Preserving, sustaining, nurturing, and caring are undervalued in our society, many reasonable observers conclude. With "market values" presumably determined by a mechanistic system, however, and the terms "family values" and "morality" taken to refer to an exclusively noneconomic sphere, values and economics are rent asunder. There is no space for discussion of how care could be economically undervalued, or of how markets could possibly permit, much less promote, priorities of nurturing and sustainability.
The thesis of this article is that pragmatist and process thought, informed by recent developments in feminist scholarship and the sciences, offers a better formulation of the concept of value--one with which pressing issues of social, political, and economic import can be more sensibly addressed. Drawing on the work of John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, and others, I will argue that placing human value judgments within the context of a world that is itself vital and creative radically transforms the question. Echoing feminist analysis presented at a social level, these philosophies offer a deeply relational conception of value, one that respects the intrinsic integrity of both difference and connection, of both feeling and material outcome.
I admit at the outset, however, that I find value a supremely difficult subject to write on, and in fact took on the writing of this article in the spirit of forcing myself to directly grapple with it. Academic writing...