In his recent book, Creative Actualization: A Meliorist Theory of Values, Hugh McDonald wades into the murky waters of value theory in order to develop a uniquely pragmatist theory of value. He ties value to what he calls "creative actualizations," or the process of introducing novelties, conditions, norms and principles into our individual and collective experience. Creative actualization accommodates a plurality of independent values, resisting the temptation to embrace a monist framework, whether by making our diverse values instrumental to a final end or relative to a single (objective or subjective) source. Moreover, as McDonald argues, creative actualization has the theoretical resources to underpin a meliorist approach to pragmatist ethics. For McDonald, a pragmatist axiology must entertain commitments beyond those found in traditional theories, exploring the frontiers of value theory in, for instance, new areas of applied ethics (particularly environmental ethics). This exploratory element is one of the philosophical strengths of creative actualization compared to other more mainstream axiological theories. Readers looking for a Deweyan account of value theory should be pleased with the direction of McDonald's project.
McDonald proceeds in three stages. First, he argues for a connection between creative actualization and values. Though not all values are creatively actualized, all are integrally related to the process of creative actualization. Second, in his account of ethics, creative actualization functions as a key source of value and morals. Finally, he criticizes traditional value theories, especially those that situate value in an objective realm, in the valuer or her subjective evaluations, or in some relation between a subject and object. The upshot of creative actualization is that it provides an alternative to value theories that rely on a sole source of value to serve as the ground of other goods or values. On McDonald's account, traditional theories of value are hierarchical, or grounded on some singular value. There is a summom bonum, and all other values have worth in virtue of their relationship to that ultimate value. Creative actualization eschews this hierarchical structure in favor of a [End Page 125] plurality of goods and values. Instead of the traditional account, we might imagine a plurality of independent goods and values, the shared basis of which is their status as either outcomes of, or raw materials for, creative actualization.
In the first two chapters, McDonald outlines creative actualization as a theory of value. He specifies the exact relation between creative actualizations and inherent value. A creative actualization is the bringing about of a novelty. It is an activity directed at producing some novelty in the world, be it a piece of art, an invention, or a norm. In some instances, this bringing about involves evaluating some imagined good as worthwhile. If it is a success, this end of the activity constitutes a creative actualization. McDonald's opening example of the origins of an airplane is helpful here. While psychological factors such as the designer's wants and desires play a role in the process that leads to the existence of flying machines, these factors do not make a flying machine a good one (10). The working plane is the creative actualization. This creative actualization marks new possibilities; it changes the world and the way we are in it in some way.
On this view, the subtle (or maybe not so subtle) changes in the world reveal "practical possibilities" and newly emerging values (13). The process of bringing about a creative actualization resembles the process of inventing or improving a design, which involves an appreciation for the potential value of the actualization. At this point, two features of the theory come into focus. First, the relationship described between potentiality and actuality echoes Aristotle's arguments for the priority of actuality in Metaphysics (Trans. W.D. Ross, Book IX.8). Creative actualizations, actuality, disclose and limit possibility, and thereby have priority regarding value. However, the process of creative actualization can involve the consideration of other possibilities than those actualized, which are themselves grounded by creative actualizations...