Indian Conception of Values: Subjective and Objective


We have distinguished between higher and lower values. That is, the conception of value involves not only the distinction between good and bad, but also that between better and worse. This idea of gradation is basic to the conception. The first axiom of a philosophy of values, it has been stated, is that some things are preferable to or worthier than others. But there have been materialists in India, known as the Charvakas, who denied that there could be any such difference at all. They admitted the notion of value, but recognised only one distinction in it, viz. that between means and end or instrumental and intrinsic values. The end sought, according to them, is always pleasure. The means to it are, of course, many; but all of them, they thought, could be brought under the single head of ‘the useful’, in the sense that they were causally related to the intrinsic value of pleasure. The agreeable and the useful are thus the only kinds of value in their view, and they designated them respectively as kama and artha. There may be a difference in the degree in which a value is useful or agreeable; but any qualitative distinction, signifying that some varieties of them ought to take precedence over others, they dismissed as the convention of society, if not the concoction of sophisticated minds.

The Indian materialist explained mind as a function of matter; and the sameness of belief in regard to this important point is sure to bring to our mind in this connection modern naturalism, though it is otherwise very much different. It also holds a similar view about the higher values. But instead of denying them outright, as the Indian materialist did, the modern naturalist tries to make out that they are essentially the same as the lower ones, for they have sprung into being from them. In this genetic explanation, as it is termed, it is stated that certain features of animal existence or of primitive man have, in the course of evolution, gradually led to the notion of the so-called higher values, and that there is nothing special about them. For instance, judgments passed in a primitive society on the conduct of its members are related, as far as we can see, not to the betterment of their inner nature, but only to collective well-being; and it is argued, on this basis, that those forms of conduct which make for the survival of the society are alone praised, and those that do not are condemned. What is good or bad for the hive is precisely what is good or bad for the bee. This originally utilitation motive is, in course of time, forgotten; but the modes of conduct remain, it is explained, constituting what is now styled 'virtue'. In other words, the higher or spiritual values are here traced completely to non-spiritual sources.

There can be no doubt that, like so much else in the world, the conception of value also has undergone important changes in the course of time. But, even if we grant over and above this, that what we term the 'higher values' have originated from modes of behaviour which once served only utilitarian purposes, there is one peculiarity about them which requires proper explanation. It is that, at one stage in this process of transformation, they have come to manifest a qualitative distinction, with the implication that they ought to be sought in preference to those that are purely utilitarian in their character. The genetic theory has nothing to say about the emergence of this distinction or, 'the growth' as it has been well put, 'of what was into what was not'. That is to say, it leaves wholly unexplained what, as pointed above is essential to the very nature of value. It should therefore be concluded that there is something unique in the constitution of human nature, which serves as the necessary condition of such development. This something is the conception of the ideal life which, as already stated, is intrinsic to the nature of man, and accounts for his feeling that he is not merely a finer kind of animal but 'a nursling of immortality'. Being thus a necessary condition of the evolutionary process, as traced by the naturalist, it cannot be regarded as the product of it. If so, it is the idea of the goal of life, however vague and indefinite it may be, that should explain this process of evolution and not vice versa. In other words, though the higher values may be brought clearly into man's consciousness only later and may therefore be genetically posterior, they are logically prior[1]. So far from being merely the products of the evolutionary process, they are eternal varieties, inherent in the scheme of things, and the world as well as the process of its history will remain unintelligible until interpreted in terms of them.

There is another view of an allied character about which it is desirable to say a few words. It explains values as subjective in the sense that they are entirely dependent upon the changing opinion of the valuing agent and thus denies to them all objective validity. Men have likes and dislikes, it is stated; and they project them upon outside objects which, in themselves, are valueless. One thing is therefore as good or as bad as another, and there is consequently no standard of value, other than individual taste. This view that there are no objective values has the direst consequences on the welfare and progress of humanity. But leaving alone that question for the present, we may inquire whether it is at all warranted by facts. That some values are subjective and are purely psychologically conditioned may readily be granted. But the question to consider here is not whether some of them are subjective, but whether all are so. A little reflection will show that they are not, for they are of trans-subjective significance[2]. The appeal of many values, especially the higher among them, is as much to others as it is to any particular individual. Truth, for example, which is one of the higher values, must be the same for all. It has a certain coercive power, which precludes all dissent from it. In fact, it is impossible to deny the objective validity of all truth, for to do so would be to admit at least one truth, viz. the truth of the denial itself. It may not be so easy to prove the objectivity of the other higher value to which we have referred, viz. the right. But yet it is not subjective in the sense of being entirely dependent upon individual idiosyncrasies. When a person, for example, admires another for discharging his duty at great self-sacrifice, he, no doubt, adopts a subjective attitude towards it; but, at the same time, he expects that the deed will evoke a like admiration in all right-minded people. If what we have stated about the ultimate ideal and its relation to the right is correct, it is not a mere acknowledgement of the worthiness of the deed that is expected of them, but also the recognition of its binding character in respect of all who may find themselves placed in similar circumstances. What is subjective in such cases is merely the response by the individual to this sense of universal obligation, and not the value itself.

We have tried to meet the objection that values are subjective by showing that some of them at least, viz. the higher among them do not depend for their validity upon individual caprice but upon their acceptance by many, if not by all. The statement that values are subjective may, however, be taken differently as meaning that external objects are neutral in respect of values which are therefore entirely relative to the individual. The answer to the objection, in this form, is naturally more complicated for, while nearly all the Indian doctrines admit a trans-subjective standard in judging values they differ in regard to the exact place of external objects in value situations. These differences are what we shall have to consider at a later stage in dealing with particular doctrines. It will suffice for the present to point out that there are some among the Indian doctrines which do recognise that external objects are in themselves valuable. We shall re-state the objection to such a view, and indicate how it is met in one of the doctrines, viz. realistic Nyaya[3].

If external objects are held to be valuable in themselves, it is said, their appeal should be based on their intrinsic nature, and therefore be the same in the case of all. But it is notorious that it is not so. A thing, which satisfies one, may repel others. It may not satisfy even the same person at another time as, for example, food which gives satisfaction if one is hungry but not otherwise. On account of this uncertainty, it is argued that objects external to the subject, cannot be reckoned as possessing any intrinsic value and that the conception of value is entirely dependent upon the subject and his mental processes. The Naiyayika points out a great flaw in the argument here. He admits that the appeal of objects differs according to individuals; and he also admits that value-objects, once found satisfying, may not be so at another time. But he adds that it is not right to jump from this to the conclusion that no contribution is at all made to a value situation by the objective factor. To do so would be to isolate the object from the context in which it appears. Every object has to be regarded for this purpose not only in its intrinsic nature, but also in its spatial, temporal and other context. That is to say, in deciding whether an external factor contributes anything to value realisation, we must take into account the whole objective situation. When we do so, the uncertainty of appeal referred to above disappears, for the situation, taken along with the valuing subject, furnishes a complete explanation of the appeal it makes as a value or fails to do so. To express the same in symbols: If A is the object in question, we should, in deciding whether it is valuable, take not it alone, but A÷mnpxyz, where mnp represent aids that are helpful to the realisation of its value and xyz the hindrances to it. That is, though the object is essential, its final appeal is determined by the context in which, we should add, the character of the valuing subject also is included. It is clear, from the position assigned to the subject here, viz. As one of the determining conditions that value is fundamentally a feature of the objective factor, and that all valuation must reckon with the primacy of that factor.

Our definition of value that it is what is desired may make it appear to be subjective, that is, entirely dependent upon what the valuing subject may choose to desire at the time. But it is clear from the above that it need not. It is a comprehensive definition, meant to include not only values that are personal but also these that are over-personal and are acknowledged generally, if not universally. We shall refer to this point soon again.


1 This, as we shall explain later, is the significance of describing the Veda, which reveals them, as beginningless (अनादि).
2 The Sanskrit word for value. viz. पुरुषार्थ (पुरुषैः अर्थ्यते इति) seems to express the general tendencies of human nature, as such, and thus to support the above view. In extolling another type of value, viz. Dancing, Kalidasa assigns the universality of its appeal as the chief reason for doing so: नाट्यं भिन्न-रुचेः जनस्य बहुधाप्येकं समाराधनम् (Malavikagnimitra 1.4)
3 See Nyaya-varttika-tatparya-tika (Chowkhamba Series), p. 29. Cf. Shabara on Jaimini, 4.1.1-3.



Prof. Mysore Hiriyanna (1871-1950) was a renowned philosopher, author, and teacher. The corpus of his writings form some of the finest works about Indian philosophy in English. 'The Quest After Perfection,' 'Art Experience,' 'Indian Conception of Values,' 'The Mission of Philosophy' and 'Popular Essays in Indian Philosophy' are some of his prominent works.

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