For all living things, for so long as they remain living, some things are more important than others. For example, for plants, fertilizer and water are more important than, say, television commercials. For conscious beings, things that are important, and that are known to be important, may, upon reflection, become values, for values are not actual needs, but rather needs understood in their correct weighting and relationship with regard to the organism as a whole. (Of course, for conscious beings, anyway, television commercials aren't especially important, either.)
The situation is quite different for non-living things. For these things, nothing is, and nothing can ever be, important . Thus, it is because living things have needs, and therefore ends, that things can be of value.
No human being is an island. All of us are social creatures, raised by parents in infancy, educated by teachers as children, and sustained by other human beings performing critical functions, such as farming, as adults. In all of these interactions, other human beings have value for us.
However, other human beings, as human beings, also have value unto themselves, as do we ourselves.
The philosophy of morality is the philosophical discipline that is concerned with working out the implications of this complex situation. The general questions before the philosophy of morality are these: what responsibilities do we have to others, and what responsibilities do we have to ourselves? Moral philosophy has generally concentrated upon the first of these two questions; but questions of this nature cannot be fully answered without at least tentative answers to the antecedent question of the nature of our responsiblities to ourselves. In turn, we cannot answer questions concerning the nature of responsibilities to ourselves without some understanding of antecedent questions concerning human nature itself (and hence, more generally, of consciousness, and of living things; and, also, of ourselves as material beings).
A theory of the nature of physical things is known to philosophers as an "ontology". The ontology which we believe is the most fully descriptive and the most accurate, and therefore also the most genuinely scientific, is known as "emergentism".
Emergentists have noted that we find in nature a kind of nested hierarchy, in which all beings are material beings, but in which some material beings differ from others, most crucially by posssessing structure and function that, necessarily, has as its end the aim of remaining alive. Then, among living things, some are conscious beings who also possess purpose. At the center of human purpose are various needs, some physical, others psychological.
When we better understand our own needs, we can also become better equipped to understand the needs of others, and therefore can (but don't, necessarily) become better equipped as moral agents.
In general, life purpose is concerned with finding both our point of maximum synergy with the other individuals who comprise our society, and with working toward our own point of maximum significant accomplishment within the bounds of our individual natural abilities and interests. And all of this, of course, takes place in the context of family and society.
We will be posting much additional material concerning values at Everything Progressive. Until then, good preliminary reading concerning the ontology of living things can be found in the little book by physicist Erwin Schrodinger called What is Life? Also valuable is the discussion of structure, function and purpose to be found in Adrian Moulyn's Structure, Function and Purpose. The crucial relationship between emergentism and values is discussed in the more recent Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman. Perhaps the single most important book concerning values and their place in life is Kant's Moral Teleology by Thomas Auxter.
An ideal of human character, which pulls together the relationships between norms of morality and norms of life will eventually be found at our companion multimedia site. Much more material will be posted in the near future. Additional discussion may be found here.
The Editor / Everything Progressive