Are All Genuine Values Ultimately Reconcilable?

The results of last post’s poll show a majority picking the answer “the question as it stands is ill-defined”. Indeed it is! So let’s define a bit.


What are ‘all genuine values’? In what ways might they conflict? Here’s a smattering of possibilities:

1) Conflicts between the same good, for different individuals. My freedom conflicts with your freedom, my happiness requires that you be unhappy, etc.

2) Conflicts between different goods (for the same or different individuals). This covers the sort of ‘abstraction vs. abstraction’ conflicts philosophers like – knowledge vs. happiness, safety vs. freedom, fairness vs. loyalty, beauty vs. efficiency, etc. Particular cases include:

  • Means-end conflicts: people can be made better off in the long run only by using methods that are deceitful, violent, or otherwise disreputable;
  • Paternalistic conflicts: someone wants something that is (perhaps seriously) against their best interests.

Theoretical Reconciliation

Then on the other hand, what does it mean for these ‘value conflicts’ to be ‘ultimately reconcilable’? Does this mean, for a start, reconcilable in theory or in practice?

To be reconcilable in theory might mean that it was possible for philosophers (or someone else) to formulate, ‘from the armchair’, a unified system (like the physicists’ ‘theory of everything’) that would give rules by which all values could be compared and connected. But I’m actually inclined to think that this question is fairly irrelevant, at least for political purposes.

On the one hand, theoretical reconciliation isn’t sufficient for practical reconciliation. Conflicts of type 1, health vs. health or life vs. life or whatever, seem like the best candidates for theoretical reconciliation – but if they nevertheless occur, and the survivors have to live with responsibility for the deaths of the other lot, then in any significant sense we’re still dealing with a ‘relevantly insoluble’ conflict.

On the other hand, theoretical reconciliation isn’t necessary for practical reconciliation. For instance, paternalistic conflicts, which are essentially conflicts of happiness vs. freedom, seem like a good candidate for being theoretically insoluble, but there’s a perfectly obvious way to resolve them, namely by persuading (or being persuaded) so that what people want is in harmony with what’s good for them.

Practical Reconciliation

So theoretical reconciliation of values may be a red herring. What about practical reconciliation? This might mean that in every situation, there is some option open to an agent which will avoid seriously violating any important values – that ‘moral tragedies’ where even if you choose the best option, you can’t choose a good option, never happen.

It seems that plenty of examples of prima facie moral tragedies can be imagined (e.g. someone forced to shoot one or the other of their children, or else watch both shot). Indeed it can be argued with not-insane premises that most people live in such situations – complicity in global oppression, your mobile phone massacred a Congolese village, etc. etc.

But I don’t think that this kind of irreconcilability is all that politically interesting either, at least in the context where this question arose, namely the reasonableness of ‘utopian’ visions of the future. Those aren’t about what can be done right now, or in imaginatively tragic situations.

Ultimate Reconciliation

So then we ask: is a human society possible, in which individuals will, except in very exceptional circumstances, be able to act without violating any genuine value, given sufficient wisdom?

Tackling that question directly invites us to attempt imaginative constructions, and while that might prove helpful I suspect we’d be here all day. But I think it might be useful to do what Marx recommends and focus not on imagined end-points but only tendencies.

So I would pose the question this way: for each type of value conflict, are there systematic changes that would reduce its frequency or severity, and are these changes compatible, or even mutually reinforcing?

For example, conflicts of one person’s material wellbeing with another’s are strongly connected with scarcity of various resources. So the more efficient the production and distribution of resources, the less sharply these conflicts will arise.

What about means-end or paternalistic conflicts? These seem to be systematically linked with how reasonable people are – the better informed they are, and the more inclined to open-minded discussion, the less sharply these conflicts will arise.

Now we can ask – is there a long-term conflict, or a mutual reinforcement, between material abundance and people’s reasonableness? Do people become more reasonable when they’re more materially secure, or when they’re more materially insecure?

More broadly (and this may be what much of this comes down to), do people become better as they become better off? When people are freer, healthier, and more secure, do they tend to treat others better or worse?

In some ways, everyone agrees the answer is ‘better’. If you want someone to be aggressive, get them angry, make them resent something. And there’s the obvious fact that a lot of destructive or harmful behaviour is directly motivated by financial need. But that’s only one part of the overall picture.

But there’s also various pieces of evidence that serious trauma can lead to seriously abusive behaviour, whether in humans or monkeys. Then there’s studies that find people more generous when they’re in a good mood. And perhaps, like me, you find it introspectively plausible that you’re a nicer person in your good moods than in your bad.

So to me the preponderance of the evidence seems to be for a consonance, not a dissonance, of happiness and goodness, and for this reason I’m inclined to think utopianism in the sense defined earlier is reasonable. But I may have ignored or misunderstood relevant evidence.

This entry was posted in Comments on Wright, 'Envisioning Real Utopias' and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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