Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Incommensurability of Value

I want to do further damage to the idea that value can be reduced to happiness. In fact, I want to present a couple of arguments against the idea that value can be reduced to any single thing – happiness, pleasure, well-being, preference satisfaction.

In recent posts, I have argued that moral theories should be judged by their ability to account morality (“Evaluating Moral Theories”). It needs to account for such things as mens rea, excuse, supererogatory actions, moral dilemmas, moral argument, and the like.

I further argued that Richard Dawkins fails to do this (“Richard Dawkins: Morality and the Selfish Gene”). He has some important insights into the possibility of altruism, but doesn’t say much of anything about elements like those listed above.

I also argued that Sam Harris’ reduction to ‘happiness’ and ‘freedom from suffering’ fails to account for reports of unwillingness to live in an experience chamber (“Sam Harris: Morality and Religion”).

The Experience Machine argument applies to any attempt to reduce issues of value to the intrinsic value of some psychological state such as happiness. Today, I wish to add another argument against the idea that value can be reduced to a single commodity.

The Incommensurability of Value

That objection comes from the inability that single or small-number value theories have in accounting for the incommensurability of different values. If there is only one value, then there can be no incommensurability of value. There cannot be two incompatible things if there is only one thing.

Commensurable values are substitutable. To understand commensurable value, imagine an investor with a number of investment options. Assume that one option pays 6 percent, and another pays 5 percent. The term of the investment (e.g., 1 year) and risk (insured by the FDIC) are the same.

When the investor chooses the 6% option there is no sense of regret for having not selected the 5% option. He took the best option available, and the options not chosen are simply dismissed as irrelevant – as not good enough.

Incommensurable values, then, are values that cannot serve as a substitute for each other. Consider the case of a Montana kid who got accepted to Harvard University. He could go to Harvard and get his degree, opening up a number of future career opportunities. However, if he goes to Harvard, he will have to leave his girl friend behind. He also wants to be with her. He wants never to be parted from her.

If these were commensurable goods, then, even if both options had equal value to the agent, it would be like choosing one container holding $50,000 and another container also holding $50,000. He can only pick one container. He would just shrug his shoulders and grab one. It does not matter which. There is no loss or sacrifice here that comes from the fact that grabbing both is not an option.

However, in the choice between college and staying with his girlfriend, there are regrets. There is a loss. These are incommensurable goods. College is not a substitute for staying with his girlfriend, and staying with his girlfriend is not a substitute for going to college. Even if both options have equal value, he cannot look on the choice as one of casual indifference. “Six of one, half dozen of the other, it doesn’t really matter.”

Any attempt to reduce value to a single entity – pleasure, happiness, freedom from suffering – has a problem with the incommensurability of value. “I will get 50,000 units of happiness if I go to Harvard. I will get 50,000 units of happiness if I stay with my girlfriend. One is as good as the other. It really doesn’t matter which I choose.”

However, this is not what happens when a person makes a choice like this. His competing desires pull him in both directions at once. If he chooses one, it is not like picking one of the suitcases full of money. No matter what the agent chooses, something is lost – something is given up – some sacrifice has to be made.

Every example such as this is further evidence that humans act on more than one value.

Desire Utilitarianism and the Incommensurability of Values

Desire fulfillment theory handles the incommensurability of value because each desire generates its own value.

Here is a mistake that a lot of people make when I talk about desire fulfillment. They think that I say that where a person desires that P (for some proposition P), where there is a state of affairs S, and P is true in S, a special property emerges that is called ‘desire fulfillment”, and it is this special property that holds all of the value intrinsic to that state of affairs.

There is no ‘special property’ that holds the value in these states of affairs. There is nothing in this state other than the desires, the state of affairs, and the relationship between them.

If I were to claim that desire fulfillment were emergent property that holds all of the value of a given state of affairs, then desire utilitarianism would fall into the same pit with all of the other forms of utilitarianism I mentioned above. Here, we would have to describe the agent as making a choice between 50,000 units of desire fulfillment vs. 50,000 units of desire fulfillment. There would be no incommensurability problem because there would be only one type of value.

Desire utilitarianism does not face the problem of incommensurable values because it holds that each “desire that P” generates its own value in states of affairs in which P is true. Whatever may fulfill a desire that P does not necessarily fulfill a desire that Q. So, a person who acts so as to realize P may well have to sacrifice or give up on Q. He would certainly want to create a state of affairs in which both P and Q are true. Failing that, he must give up one of his values in order to pursue the other one. This is a real sacrifice – quite unlike giving up $50,000 to get $50,000.

The Force Metaphor

To explain how desires work I sometimes draw on a metaphor that uses the way that forces act on a physical body flying through space.

Whenever a body is acted on two or more forces, the total effect on the body is determined by the vector sum of the forces. If one force pushes to the right at 5 ft/s^2, and another pushes to the left at 4 ft/s^2, the object will move to the right at 1 ft/s^2.

Similarly, if the desire to go to Harvard is stronger than the desire to stay with his girlfriend, then he will go to Harvard. If the desires are nearly equal, and both desires are strong, he will go with the stronger desire, but he will do so with regret. The desire that he cannot fulfill is still there pushing with all of its strength.


There is one more consideration that is relevant when we consider that value is grounded on desire, which is a propositional attitude like belief. As I wrote in a comment to one of the earlier discussions, there is no more reason to insist on reducing all desires to a single desire, than there is to insist on reducing all beliefs to a single belief. Just as we can each believe a wide array of propositions, we can each desire a broad array of propositions as well.

The only difference is that, whenever a belief does not conform to the real world, this is a reason to change one’s belief. Whenever a desire does not conform to the real world, this is a reason to change the world.


olvlzl said...

While I've got no objection to your looking at value this way, I wonder if you don't make the same mistake that a lot of people make when they're talking about "rights". I recall a long time ago, in one of those Fred Friendly round tables they used to have on TV. Henry Hyde was gassing on against the right of terminally ill people in pain being allowed to commit suicide. He kept going on about "the right to life". Barney Frank, in a moment of illumination, for me at leats, asked who would possess this "right to life" if not the person who was making that decision. His point that rights don't exist outside of people somewhere in as an abstraction cut through many years of pondering over these kinds of issues. Though it did lead to that accusation of solipsism here the other day (answered at my blog e. ).

All of these ideas can be considered in an abstract form, I could go into it that way myself but luckily the notation I learned back in the early 60s never had much currency except in a few classes at Yale, and in places where attendees of those classes taught. So you're saved from that by the fact of linguistic extinction and my laziness.

But will an abstract consideration have any impact in the wider world? Will it make people behave better? Any consideration of values or ethics or morals that doesn’t have the actual effect of changing people’s behavior for the better is as sterile as any discussion of these considerations would be in formal notation. Even expositions people can understand on their own terms have a hard time doing that. Even those carry the risk of being too general and too far removed from people's actual lives, the part of the universe they find most compelling and most interesting. They also carry dangers for those who engage in them. Any abstraction and formalism ever devised carries its own limits and distortions. I'd say that the discovery of that in physics is as close to a proven fact as the physical sciences can produce. Forms limit themselves, they have to or they wouldn't exist as a form. They select out of life those things they can deal with. The wisest practitioners of formalism only leave out what they can't use in their exercises, the unwise deny that those things can possibly exist. The most unwise of all believe that any consideration outside of their formalism is false. They will cloak their rejection in de facto terms. But isn't that kind of rejection really a de jure matter?

I have to add that I think it's a very odd discussion of values where Dawkins and Harris are the focus. Harris in particular seems to be only a few steps away from the position of Christopher Hitchens in supporting endless wars and, as I believe you have hinted at yourself, prejudging people on the basis of the assumed results of their ideas and not on their actions. Dawkins would be slightly less of an odd choice, I don't recall him calling for the killing of people on the basis of their ideas though his intolerance of those who offend his aesthetic sensibilities is only slightly less pernicious.

I’ve decided to quit this area of action for the politics that are my real concern and the music, which is my profession. I posted three pieces on my blog to tie up some loose ends in this area. I hope that atheists who are interested in gaining their full civil rights in stead of engaging in futility and self-indulgence might find the practical analysis of that issue of use. I don't concern myself with the hoplessly childish and self indulgent and would advise anyone interested in working for serious change to do the same.

Anonymous said...

1 ft/s^2 is a unit of acceleration. A force would be 1 (ft*lb)/s^2. Divide that by the mass of the object being pushed to get the acceleration, becuase the pounds cancel. Thanks for making me remember how to decompose a Newton (kgm/s^2).

Anonymous said...

If you follow your line of reasoning it can lead to some rather hard to swallow conclusions. Let’s say a child is at an amusement park and has only time for one ride. There are two roller coasters to choose from. She reluctantly picks one, but wishes she could ride the other too, and after riding one regrets she didn’t find out what the other was like. One did not substitute for the other and there was a sense of loss. By your reasoning these are incommensurate values.
We are not allowed to say she wants to feel the thrill, or excitement, or adrenaline rush. We can’t even say she has a desire to ride roller coasters. We must say she has two separate desires that can only be satisfied by each unique roller coaster. This may solve some of the philosophical issues you are concerned with, but practically as a theory of human motivation and behavior, it’s the equivalent of saying every star is different, so there are no common principles of star formation or development.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

atheist observer

Assume that you were offered two closed suitcases. Each, you are told, contains cash, but you do not know how much.

You choose Case 1, and discover $50,000 inside.

You are still going to have some curiosity about Case 2, and some recognition that it might have fulfilled your desires better than the contents of Case 1. It is not the case that the contents of Case 2 contain an incommensurable value. It is the possibility that the contents of Case 2 could have contained more of the same value.

This assumes that the two roller coasters are unknown qualities. This is captured in your statement that she did not "find out what the other was like," comparable to not finding out what was in the other case or, upon finding out, not obtaining the additional value that she discovered was in the second option.

However, we can also look at what happens if the agent is fully aware of what both roller coasters offer, and still experiences regret for the roller coaster not ridden. In this case, there has to be a reason for the difference - some desire that roller coaster 2 fulfills that roller coaster 1 does not fulfill.

If not this, then I would have to charge that you are asking me to imagine something that makes no sense. "Imagine two things that are identical, but different."

If there is a regret under conditions of perfect knowledge, and this regret is not to be accounted for in terms of incommensurable value, you need to explain to me how that even makes sense.

I argued above that, at least as a first step, we can weakly assume that desires are like beliefs. People have a multitude of beliefs. Yet, there is no sense in saying that they do not have any beliefs in common. There is plenty of room in this theory to talk about widely held beliefs. Accordingly, there is reason to talk about widely shared desires.

Anonymous said...

Let’s take an extreme example of something unique in each instance – people. No matter how many people we know, it’s highly unlikely we consider our experiences with any two to be equivalent. However that’s not a proof that the sources of our feelings about all of them might not be a product of a relatively small number of attributes.
You used the analogy of vectors. It takes only three orthogonal forces to get to any point in space, or four types of taste receptors to produce all our taste experiences. There’s nothing to prove the entire scope of desires might not spring from combinations of a few basic ones.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

atheist observer

There is nothing in what I wrote that rules out the possibility of explaining all responses in terms of a smaller set of desires.

Whatever theory best accounts for all the data - however many desires that turns out to be - so be it.

I offer as a starting point that since beliefs and desires are a part of the same brain, both are propositional attitudes, both are motifiable (to some extent) through experience causing alterations in the structure in the brain.

I would argue that this suggests that another thing that beliefs and desires have in common is the range of propositional attitudes that may be the object of each state.

It may be the case that beliefs have the wide range of potential propositions as objects that we see while desires have a far more limited sense, but why?

We would need some sort of explanation for this difference, and that explanation (as far as I could see) would require entirely different structures.

This certainly is not a proof. However, the symmetry between beliefs and desires (and the failure of all limited set of desire systems invented so far) suggests a particular avenue of research.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I did some looking around today on Marc Hauser's claims about morality.

It appears that Hauser sees his research as describing what goes on in the brain when we make moral judgment. At the same time, he allows that we need a separate moral theory to judge these processes a right or wrong - that these processes can yield mistakes.

From American Scientist

To be explicit, the theory that I have developed in Moral Minds is a descriptive theory of morality. It describes the unconscious and inaccessible principles that are operative in our moral judgments. It does not provide an account of what people ought to do. It is not, therefore, a prescriptive theory of morality.