The Incommensurability of Values (and objectivity, subjectivity, and reason)

Jmeqvist posted an excellent entry on the inability of interpersonal reasoning-based dialogue to resolve all value conflicts in a polity, and although I disagree with his thesis, today I want to touch on a difficulty for moral/value discourse he points to, and what consequences it suggests for metaethical theorizing.

Jmeqvist notes that value conflict resolution seems near impossible when there is incommensurability between two value sets. In such instances the basic values of one person are radically different from another, such that discussing policy matters that ride on these values gain no traction; these persons are effectively talking past each other. No one can deny that such conversations do occur – I’ve certainly experienced this feeling when advocating for more egalitarian distributions of wealth when in debate with a (brilliant, mind you) libertarian. The question that concerns us here is whether, after enough reasoned discourse, we might begin to not talk past each other, perhaps by locating and assessing our basic values, thereby opening up the possibility of revising our value beliefs and thus, our assessments of morality and politics.

Of central importance to addressing this question is considering whether a state of affairs has value objectively or subjectively. A state of affairs has value subjectively if that state of affairs has value only because a subject believes it to be valuable. Now, if all value is subjective there still can be convergence on values in a polity due to it being possible to convince all persons of certain beliefs, and thus, certain values. Nevertheless, such convergence is less likely if value is subjective rather than objective (where objective value is value that something has in virtue of the actual facts about that entity, rather than what a subject believes about that entity, as with subjective value). So our question becomes: is value objective or subjective, and if value is objective do we have epistemic access to it through reason?

I think it is obvious that if a state of affairs has value then it does so objectively – it might be possible, however, that, per an error theory, because of the metaphysical makeup of the world, value does not exist on an ontological level due to there not being value-properties. Value must obtain for entities objectively, or it must objectively not obtain for any entities. Value must be objective because if value were subjective then an entity would have value due to the occurrence of our belief, not because of the truth-value of the belief, which would entail that our belief is neither true nor false. But a belief must be truth-functional, so it follows that I don’t actually have a belief about the value of an entity, which contradicts the subjectivism thesis, revealing the absurdity of such a position.

The difficult question here is whether we have real epistemic access to objective facts about value through reason. I tend to think that reason does provide us epistemic access to objective facts about value, but that we begin from self-evident general propositions to more specific propositions – in other words, a foundationalist moral epistemology. Still, the self-evident propositions I have in mind (such as: “pleasure is better than pain”) are so general as to lead to differing conclusions on more specific propositions. So even if there is objectivity to value, it is possible for there to be errors in reasoning that lead to widely diverging values. This explains why there is disagreement on a wide range of value conflicts without it necessarily being the case that there are no objective facts about the value of states of affairs. But more to the point, that errors in reasoning from self-evident value propositions to more varying specific conclusions have caused widespread disagreement on values suggests that value sets might not be so incommensurable. Through reasonable dialogue we might uncover where someone took a wrong turn in reasoning, and thus resolve the value conflict.


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  1. #1 by jmeqvist on March 22, 2014 - 7:18 pm

    This is a compelling and thought provoking entry. Also, thanks for the plug. I appreciate it. However, I am not sure if I am entirely in agreement with you on the nature of value.I do agree that states of affairs have value objectively, and that we do have epistemic access to facts about value. However, I am unsure if disagreement on value can be best explained by reference to the errors in reasoning as we move from general principles to more specific values.

    One reason for this is the fact there are some moral values that seem to be genuine values in so far as people can give coherent and reasonable reasons for them, and yet it is hard to see how this value might flow from self -evident intuition like pleasure is preferable to pain. For example, the aristocracies tended to highly value greatness which was a combination of generosity (noblesse oblige), strength, courage among other things, but this value was not valuable because it avoided suffering or ensured respect for people, but because of the value of being a certain kind of person. And the aristocratic ideal of character seems to be a genuine value as reasons can be provided in favour of it and we seem still seem to find elements of it appealing and noble. Furthermore, the principle that it is good to be magnanimous may support the aristocratic value set, but this principle is far from self-evident. For all of these reasons the aristocratic value set does not seem to be something that can be plausible construed as originating in self-evident general principles.

    Now I know this is a differing kind of value than you are thinking of as you specify that you are considering values of states of affairs, as opposed to the value of being a certain kind of person, but I think character based value needs to be taken account of, because even if it is not central to morality, it is central to living well. One possible way around this is to suggest that the value of character or being a certain kind of person is aesthetic as opposed to ethical, but I am unconvinced by this route of explanation as to refer to the value of character as merely aesthetic seems to reduce the question of living well to a question of beauty, rather than goodness.

    I don’t have a solution to this problem myself, but it seems to be a problem that needs to be addressed.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on March 23, 2014 - 1:21 pm

      Thanks for your insightful comments, and it is my pleasure to link to your blog, you always write on interesting topics and others would benefit from reading your posts.

      But you are right that I am hesitant to speak of the values of character traits. I’ve argued elsewhere that for our moral beliefs to have explanatory potency they must be rooted in descriptions of the supervenience relations between naturalistic descriptions of actions/states of affairs and their supervening value. Supervenience relations between character and value invite too much of a possibility for subjective construction of value to be welcomed by a realist.

      Still, it might be argued that certain character traits are valuable derivatively for their producing a tendency to perform actions that do have value in virtue of objectively describable supervenience relations. Perhaps the aristocratic virtue of generosity is derived from the self-evident proposition that it is better to cause pleasure than pain, and thus to cause more pleasure than less pleasure.

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