On value, utility, and morals

As mentioned here recently, I’m engaging in a slow-motion blog-off of sorts with Tony Wang of Philosopher 2.0 about the nature of value and how it relates to different sectors. In my posts leading up to this discussion earlier this summer, available here, here, here, and here, I started off by showing that value and money are not the same thing, and continued on to argue that even confining ourselves to very traditional and narrow definitions of economic wealth, a number of what economists call “externalities” (costs or benefits to third parties that are not reflected in the prices of individual transactions) play important roles in determining the potential for net wealth creation for society.

Tony weighed in on the subject two weeks ago with a post entitled “The Implicit Theory of Value.” In it, he sort of shrugs his shoulders at my attempts to map out a set of causal links to a specific goal (in this case, “increased transactions for goods and services”), saying that

…if we assume utilitarianism is true and believe that we should maximize the greatest good, the question then becomes what is the good? And I think here is where we find contentious beliefs, even among reasonable and good people. Is it ok to sacrifice environmental goals to alleviate poverty? Is economic growth better than no economic growth? How should we weigh the arts against other issues like homelessness? Given $1,000,000 each person would choose to allocate money differently; some would give more to international health while others would give more to domestic education. To debate which issues are more important may ultimately prove ineffectual – if the past two millennia since Plato and Socrates and the diversity of philanthropic interests are any indication.

Essentially, Tony is saying that it’s all well and good to be able to map out a strategy to achieve a certain goal, but it doesn’t do us much good unless we know what the goal should be. And how should we determine that with any degree of logical rigor? Tony seems to think that it’s no use bothering to try; instead, he lays out a fundamentally pluralistic vision of value, arguing that decisions we make as individuals and organizations are informed by an “implicit theory of value,” a particular set of priorities, judgments, and beliefs unique to each of us:

In any conversation about social change or social justice, we necessarily assume some sort of implicit theory of value – that we believe certain things are better than others.The belief can be as simple as believing that justice is better than injustice, or as controversial as believing that removing a thousand tons of carbon is better than feeding ten children. But it is under this implicit theory of value and the corollaries that it can be maximized and that the choices we face can theoretically be measured for the value that they generate, that we can best understand the sectors.

Before we fast-forward to the discussion about the sectors, though, I’d like to spend a little more time contemplating this pluralistic framework for thinking about value, because I’m not sure if I totally accept it. To be sure, there are many things to like about this system, not least of which is that it unburdens from us the responsibility to decide what’s good and what isn’t. Effectively, utilitarianism argues for crowdsourcing morality–the more people who believe a thing more strongly, the more right it is. Yet this refusal to privilege certain values over others can get us into trouble, I think. To take an extreme example for illustrative purposes, a whole lot of people in the 1700s thought that slavery was a perfectly legitimate industry and business practice, and derived significant utility in both financial and nonfinancial terms from having slaves at their disposal. So does the fact that the collective utility of slavery was much higher then than it is now mean that it was reasonable, or at least not as wrong, at the time?

Well, perhaps not, if we consider that the slaves experienced significant negative utility from being forced to endure atrocities for their entire lives. So in fact, we can presume that the net utility for society was hurt by slavery, even if some people benefited from it. And certainly we can declare that slavery was not the optimal path to maximizing the collective utility for all human beings.

If we’re going to go that far, however, I don’t see why we have to stop there. If our goal is to maximize collective utility, why do we need a pluralist notion of what value means? Doesn’t value just equal utility? And aren’t there some absolutes, some things we pretty much know to be true about what human beings want and don’t want? Each one may not be true for all human beings, but even if we have a rough idea what percentages of people care about which things and how deeply, unless those things change drastically over time and between cultures, shouldn’t it be possible to set up policies and practices (and philanthropic systems) that maximize collective utility?

At the risk of embarrassing myself (if, indeed, I haven’t already) by treading tired old ground in the field of philosophy, I want to try to get some additional clarity on these questions before we take the plunge into what will eventually become a conversation about organizational structures — because I feel that a strong understanding of the relative value of various issues can only aid our understanding of the relative value of organizational structures within those issues.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted September 19th, 2009 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Hi Ian,

    I’m a new reader and have not yet had time to read the thread of posts that led here, so I don’t really know the full context of this discussion yet, but here’s an initial thought:

    While I am attracted by a utilitarian definition of value, I find it interesting to consider its practical limitations. Even assuming the pluralistic model of value is false, we’re still burdened by overwhelming practical limitations. We often have only the dimmest insight into the search space of utility, much less the algorithms which can lead us toward a maxima. As you note, money doesn’t capture the whole picture, so what do we even measure and how do we measure it? What are the units of utility? Since we don’t have a good universal unit, I guess that’s why we select other measurements to do the best we can: money when it is convenient, or mortality rates, or unemployment numbers, or whatever else when it seems more fitting. While these units can’t capture the whole picture, surely some of them fall into the realm of the “absolutes” that you mention above.

    So while I’m biased toward a utilitarian definition of value, and unconvinced that value gets the free ride of being inherently, unaccountably pluralistic, I am nevertheless struck that the practical limitations of a utilitarian definition look an awful lot like the pluralistic definition: lacking the right tools and measurements to do better, we fall back on doing our fallible best, invoking whatever gut instincts and personal biases we might have to reach a “best shot” conclusion.

    If this is true, it still leaves us in a state where un-resolvable disagreements will pop up between good and well-intentioned people. (“Un-resolvable” as opposed to “reasonable”, because we’re talking about a place where reason has no traction.)

    But it also leaves the door open to the idea that, for any such disagreement, it won’t necessarily always be this way. We might still come up with a set of measurements and methodologies to clarify the debate, and collapse our previously disparate viewpoints into a more narrow range. Therefore, I’d argue that while we should honor the complexity of assigning value, we don’t get to right the process off as inherently pluralistic.

  2. Posted September 19th, 2009 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    > we don’t get to right the process off

    We don’t get to WRITE the process off. Sorry.

  3. Posted September 19th, 2009 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Hi Chris,
    This seems more or less right to me, with one point of slight disagreement: I think that the complexity of measuring utility, awesome as it is, may yet become an evaluable research problem in our lifetimes. The tools we have at our disposal to collect and process data about our collective desires and preferences have never been so advanced and powerful as they are today, and it doesn’t look like that trend is going to let up anytime soon (given that many parties have a vested interest in the results–hello, market research analysts). We still probably won’t have perfect information anytime soon, but we might not that long from now have enough to make these kinds of discussions a little less academic and a little more practical.

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  1. By The Value of Pluralism « Philosopher 2.0 on September 30th, 2009 at 12:47 am

    [...] kickoff my response to Ian’s post here (which traces the conversation through to the original posts) let’s start with a [...]

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