Human beings are valuing animals

Valuing things makes us human. If we admire people who have acquired the art of valuing things (even while we complain of their snobbery), it is because valuation (and the act thereof) is part of what defines us as human beings. Valuation is what enables our moral and aesthetic sensibilities. Without the ability if evaluate, for example, a good book, a great piece of music, a film, some perfume or a glass of wine, we would be incapable of making many of the judgements that we take for granted everyday.

Valuation is the determination of the value of something. This could be anything: a car, building, painting, or idea.

There are four basic kinds of valuers:

* Professional valuers who gauge the price or market value of an item
* Connoisseurs who reflect on aesthetic value
* Moralizers who adjudicate moral value according to a rule or set of rules
* Gurus who muse on ethical value (in terms of happiness, profit, success)

What is common to these activities is the reckoning itself, the assessment of value. The activity of valuing this item or that item, be it a landscape, an ecosystem, a society, a community – this is a human activity.

The oldest known cave paintings (in the Chauvet caves in Southern France) were completed by Cro Magnons 32000 years ago. In the film ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ (2010), Werner Herzog notes how the Neanderthals who lived at the same time as the Cro Magnons left no cave art behind. At the birth of what is recognizably human, we have the appearance of valuation. A hand moves a stick of charcoal on the cave wall and a mind says: that means something. It has value.

Take away a human individual’s capacity to evaluate options and you strip this individual of their humanity. Other animals value the world in their own ways. Human beings are the only creature that is able to reflect on valuation and to process the experience of valuation through symbolic systems.

Question: do we posit value, and bring it into the world, or does value reside in things? It is a bit of both. Value emerges in and through our relationship with things, be this good or bad. We process these relationships, break down what is good and bad in them, and use our reflections to posit goals for orientation into the future. Three kinds of relationships are particularly significant:

* Our relationships with (and attitudes towards) money and wealth
* Our relationships with (and attitudes towards) people
* Our relationships with (and attitudes towards) natural ecosystems, the planet

I’ve published these notes as a mediation and hopefully the beginnings of a conversation. I don’t know where these ideas are taking me. I’m about to go on holiday – hopefully things will be clearer when I return. In the meantime, you are welcome to add comments and thoughts.


  1. alex vincent says:

    Using notions of value can be slightly misleading because value describes a commodified relationship. Instead as you touched on in your post, the things we appreciate the most are the things we’ve given most of ourselves too.
    Reality is an individualist experience made richer the external stimuli

  2. Hey Tim,

    I found this piece really eye-opening – especially the very first sentence, which really captures that almost sublime relationship we have to people who are capable of cutting evaluations.

    I would suggest slightly different labels for your categories of valuers, though. For one, a person can take on any of the categories of valuation as a profession (e.g. an art or food critic is a professional aesthetic valuer), so I’d change “Professional” valuer to “Commercial” valuer. I think it captures the relationship to markets and money better.

    Also, Moralizer is a bit too loaded a term for what is usually an innocuous, but important skill. For example, an umpire or referee is a moral valuer in the sense of evaluating conformity with and transgression of a set of rules. A better term here might be simply “Judge”.

    Can’t wait to hear more…


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