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What is axiology?

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Axiology is the study of values and how those values come about in a society. Axiology seeks to understand the nature of values and value judgments. It is closely related to two other realms of philosophy: ethics and aesthetics. All three branches deal with worth. Ethics is concerned with goodness, trying to understand what good is and what it means to be good. Aesthetics is concerned with beauty and harmony, trying to understand beauty and what it means or how it is defined. Axiology is a necessary component of both ethics and aesthetics, because one must use concepts of worth to define “goodness” or “beauty,” and therefore one must understand what is valuable and why. Understanding values helps us to determine motive.

When children ask questions like “why do we do this?” or “how come?” they are asking axiological questions. They want to know what it is that motivates us to take action or refrain from action. The parent says not to take a cookie from the jar. The child wonders why taking a cookie from the jar is wrong and argues with the parent. The parent often tires of trying to explain and simply replies, “Because I said so.” The child will stop arguing if he values the established authority (or if he fears the punishment of disobeying). On the other hand, the child may stop arguing simply because he respects his parent. In this example, the value is either authority or respect, depending on the values of the child. Axiology asks, “Where did these values come from? Can either of these values be called good? Is one better than another? Why?”

Innate to humanity is the desire for self-preservation and self-continuance. Like the animals, humans seek out food and shelter, and they desire reproduction. But there is another set of things we seek: truth, beauty, love. These are different needs, different values that the animal kingdom does not concern itself with. The Bible tells us the answer to why the need for truth and love and beauty exists. We are spiritual as well as physical beings. We are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). God is higher than the natural world—He is “super-natural”—and so we are created in the image of what is supernatural. Therefore, we value what is supernatural and intangible. “For in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We do not usually think of things like beauty and love as “supernatural,” but by definition they are in that they raise humanity above the rest of nature. Our values are determined by our nature, and our nature has a spiritual dimension.

In Hamlet, the title character famously says, “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” (Hamlet, II:ii). This perfectly describes the conundrum that faces us. We are formed in the image of God—we are amazing creatures. And we value that which is higher than our everyday survival needs; we want to touch the Divine. And at the same time, we are dust, subject to decay, both physically and spiritually. What will lift us up, past our natural selves, to attain that which we innately value? When the apostle Paul said, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24–25), he was drawing a distinction between “me” (the supernatural) and “this body” (the natural). Ultimately, for all of us, the answer is to return to the Source of all value, God. We accept His free gift of salvation, through faith. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1–2).

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This page last updated: June 10, 2022