Confronting Foster's Wildest Claim: "Only the Instrumental Theory of Value Can Be Applied!"

By Ranson, Baldwin | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Confronting Foster's Wildest Claim: "Only the Instrumental Theory of Value Can Be Applied!"


Ranson, Baldwin, Journal of Economic Issues


Many of John Fagg Foster's students and colleagues considered him to have been a world-class teacher and scholar. Those who didn't know him can scarcely judge how accurate such praise of his teaching was. But the current availability of some of his writings and lectures on a CD entitled "John Fagg Foster's Contribution to Scientific Inquiry" (2007) now permits new judgments of his scholarship.

To illustrate the quality of his scholarship, I propose confronting what I believe was his wildest claim: that only the instrumental theory of value can be applied. It appeared in his lectures on value theory, in which he defined value as the criterion of judgment. Here are three variations of this assertion in his own words (Foster 2007):

   I shall take the position that there is no escape from, there has
   never been any application of, and there cannot be any application
   of, anything but what is in fact the criterion [of judgment] (94).

   ... there is no criterion of judgment in fact applied which is
   different than the correct theory of value ... (92).

   It is impossible to apply an erroneous criterion. The question of
   value is a question of fact: what is the criterion of judgment
   (93).

To assist you in evaluating this claim, I shall propose answers to four questions: 1) What does it mean? 2) On what evidence is it based? 3) How accurate is it? 4) How useful is it?

What Does Foster's Claim Mean?

The meaning of this assertion hinges on the nature of the criterion of judgment and what it means to apply it. Foster saw the criterion of judgment as a tool applied (used) in every conscious human choice. (1)

Every choice may be said to originate with a chooser's observation that an existing state of affairs is unsatisfactory or doubtful. One notes a gap between "what is" and "what ought to be." One needs a criterion as an instrument for connecting the present with the future by pointing toward actions likely to achieve every ought-to-be end-in-view. The criterion is applied by developing a proposition, "I should do this next," in order to sustain the life activity of which this end-in-view is a single phase.

   The relation between the run of the facts and the ought-to-be-ness
   involved is difficult but not complicated. The criterion is a fact,
   and what ought to be is a fact. At any instant in anyone's
   experience, the present existence of the fact of judgment is a
   present fact, even though that judgment be about a future
   attainment. The rational faculty in human behavior connects the
   present and the future. We know for certain that the future will
   become the present, and our judgments now are questions of fact
   about a particular operation of choosing among alternatives the
   functioning of which are projections in human imagination into the
   future. You can't make a judgment in the past, in that sense.
   All judgments are connections between the present and the future;
   they are hypothetical projections of choices within one's area of
   discretion into combinations which are not yet. (Foster 2007, 94)
   (2)

The criterion of judgment is applied every time a choice or valuation is made. This judging process is a continuing factor in human experience, explaining every choice. Foster called the criterion "an attribute of human judgment"(2007, 93). The only apparent exception to its universal application is by persons judged incompetent or insane, that is, incapable of meaningful judgments.

On What Evidence is Foster's Claim Based?

Some examples will provide both clarification of and evidence for Foster's assertion. We examine three supposed theories of value and their supposed applications.

The instrumental theory of value was the only one Foster considered genuine. He variously identified the instrumental criterion as "efficiency" (1981, 944) and as "developmental continuity" (1981, 1010). …

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