The Oxford Handbook of Value Theory - A Review

Oxford University Press recently released another entry into their series of Oxford Handbooks, this time the topic is value theory. Like most of their handbooks, The Oxford Handbook of Value Theory is designed to be a mid- to upper-level reference volume and not an introduction, at least not an introduction to someone without some background in philosophy.

Value theory is a key concept for ethics. How do we determine what is of value, especially what is of ultimate value? How do we evaluate between two things that are each good? Where does value come from?

The twenty-two new essays in this volume are a worthy attempt at bringing some clarity to an otherwise exceedingly complex portion of philosophy. Indeed, I found that though some of the essays challenged me with symbolic logic and dense philosophical prose, my understanding of contemporary value discussions was improved significantly.

After a brief introductory chapter by the editors, Iwao Hirose and Jonas Olson, the book is divided into three sections. The first is on foundations. In ten chapters, authors provide overviews of the differences between evaluative and deontic value (quality versus morality), intrinsic and extrinsic value, value and emotion, and more. These first tend essays tend to be simpler and clearer for the relatively uniformed. The second section deals with the structure of value theory. There are important definitions of incomparability and incommensurability, a discussion of ranking different value structures, and an evaluation of theories of value aggregation. The six essays in this section are more focused and philosophically dense, but they inform the reader of important arguments in the field of value theory. The final section includes six chapters that apply the earlier concepts. How will health be valued? What is freedom worth? Can we assign value to nature? The practical orientation of these chapters relies on the framework provided in the earlier discussions, but rounds out the volume to show why the whole discussion matters.

The essays tend to be expository, which is to say they are not strongly polemical. The authors are trying to explain the field more than sway the reader toward one system or another. This is an essential characteristic of a handbook like this.

This is a not a book for the faint of heart. Indeed, it is a reference book that will best serve individuals with some background in philosophy to improve their grasp of the field. In reality, the world would be better served if more people understood value theory more thoroughly and were able to differentiate between aesthetic goodness and moral duties, or, in some cases, see value in aesthetics at all.

Ethicists and moral philosophers should begin petitioning their librarians to get a copy of this book in their collections. It is the best entry into the depths of value theory that I have found, and I have looked before. Reading this volume has been enormously helpful in my understanding of discussions in environmental ethics, which I hope will pay dividends in the future.

Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.