Robert A. Heinlein on the relativity of value

If you’ve seen the movie Starship Troopers, erase that from your mind. This post focuses on the original novel written by Robert A. Heinlein in 1959. It’s a first-person narrative about a young soldier named Juan “Johnnie” Rico and his exploits in the Mobile Infantry of a futuristic military service branch.starship troopers front cover

Starship Troopers seems to be both a political essay and a novel. A lot of the book takes place in classrooms, with Rico and other characters engaged in debates with their History and Moral Philosophy teacher, retired Lieutenant Colonel Jean V. Dubois, who is often thought to be the voice of Heinlein. The overall theme of the book is that social responsibility requires being prepared to make individual sacrifice. The novel also discusses moral and philosophical aspects of suffrage, civic virtue, juvenile delinquency, capital punishment, and war.

During one of the debates in the required History and Moral Philosophy class, Colonel Dubois asks his students whether ‘value’ is a relative or an absolute?

Rico guesses ‘absolute’, but Dubois quickly points out to the class that value is indeed a relative:

“Value has no meaning other than in relation to living beings. The value of a thing is always relative to a particular person, is completely personal and different in quantity for each living human – ‘market value’ is a fiction, merely a rough guess at the average of personal values, all of which must be qualitatively different or trade would be impossible.”

“This very personal relationship, ‘value,’ has two factors for a human being: first, what he can do with a thing, its use to him…and second, what he must do to get it, its cost to him.”

Test this out for yourself, which scenario would you prefer and why:

You make $80,000 in a world where everyone else makes $50,000.
You make $90,000 in a world where everyone else makes $150,000.

Most people I asked that question to, after thinking about it, preferred scenario #1 despite making more absolute money in scenario #2. It shows that in this instance, they value relative wealth over absolute wealth. Simple example, yes. Think of some examples in your life where the value of something changes in relation to what that something gives you or can do for you.

How about the idea that ‘the best things in life are free’?

To this Colonel Dubois responds that “nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain.” It is more likely that the best things in life are purchased with something other than with money because the best things in life are beyond money. Their price is “agony, and sweat, and devotion…and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself – ultimate cost for perfect value.”

In conclusion it seems the only absolute is that anything of value has to have an associated costs to it, be it monetary or otherwise, in order for it to have value to us, and that value shifts in relation to each individual.

There is a lot to be gleaned from Starship Troopers. It’s a novel that stimulates some interesting debates around suffrage, civic virtue, juvenile delinquency, capital punishment, and war. The U.S. Marine Corp and the U.S. Navy both have had this novel on their reading list. I think it’s a worthy read as a citizen and as a military person.