Uneasy Ethics (A Pimlico original)

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Even with unlimited resources, capacities and time, not all values could be realized. Many values are simply constitutively incompatible. The conscious self-understanding necessary for autonomous choice-making is not compatible with unreflective decency. The practices that are integral and give meaning to the life of a monk are constitutively incompatible with a life dedicated to family relationships and attachments. This ought not be taken to imply that Berlin is insensitive to the fact that the context can play a large role in shaping whether value conflicts arise and the form that they take.

To say that value conflicts would persist even under conditions of abundance is not to deny that many conflicts, particularly those that are linked in some way to acute scarcity or lack of opportunity, would disappear if the conditions that produce them change or disappear. For one thing, to claim that there are constitutively incompatible values is not to deny that moral conflicts can also arise between contingently incompatible moral goods. Second, the fact that value conflicts need not always conflict does not entail that they can never conflict, or that they will not conflict under certain circumstances.

The conflict between rights and utility is a case in point here. In many situations, the two no doubt support each other, but under certain circumstances, we know from experience, the two may conflict. To this we might add that even if it were true that the reason we are faced with a moral dilemma where we are forced to choose between two different goods, or ends, is due to contingent factors, this does not alleviate or dilute the reality of the moral dilemma, nor would it remove the necessity of having to confront it. It should also be stressed that the way in which value conflicts will manifest themselves, and to what extent they will be meaningful, is largely context dependent for Berlin.


Two things are 91 Gray, Isaiah Berlin, First, to what extent a value conflict will be meaningful and a source of concern, Berlin would insist, will depend on local factors, not least because the extent of, say, my freedom will depend on contextual factors. The extent of my freedom seems to depend on a how many possibilities are open to me though the method of counting these can never be more than impressionistic; possibilities of action are not discrete entities like apples, which can be exhaustively enumerated ; b how easy or difficult each of these possibilities is to actualize; c how important in my plan of life, given my character and circumstances, these possibilities are when compared with each other; d how far they are closed and opened by deliberate human acts; e what value not merely the agent, but the general sentiment of the society in which he lives, puts on the various possibilities.

It may well be that there are many incommensurable kinds and degrees of freedom, and that they cannot be drawn up on any single scale of magnitude. L, , fn. Berlin writes approvingly of the way in which the New Deal brought qualitative gains in equality and social justice without in any meaningful way curtailing freedoms. Incommensurability indicates that there is no common currency, no common measurement or standard, by which different moral beliefs, or ends or values can be comparatively ranked or weighed — meaning, moral values, principles and claims are irreducible to each other.

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The idea that incommensurability, does not mean or entail equality or rough equality needs to be clarified; that is, it does not entail that the different values are of equal value — nor is it the same as indeterminacy. The claim of equality would require precisely what incommensurability denies, namely comparability — it would require the ability to establish the comparative values of the different goods.

Indeterminacy is a misleading term for it suggests that the apparent incommensurability is the product of missing information or knowledge. But this is not what the claim of incommensurability amounts to: no amount of knowledge or information could make two incommensurable values commensurable. There is nothing further behind it, nor is it a sign of imperfection. For instance, a Christian who claims his values to be incommensurable with pagan values is likely making this type of claim.

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The claim amounts to saying that the value of y — in this example, pagan values — is of such a lesser value than the value x — Christian values — that the very notion of comparing them is rendered absurd. This is not what Berlin means by incommensurability. For Berlin, incommensurability signals incomparability. A 94 Raz, Morality as Freedom, ch.

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Absent a thick set of normative assumptions about the nature of man and morality, incommensurability emerges as something that is hard, if not impossible, to overcome. Berlin makes his claim, in other words, from a standpoint of epistemological modesty.

We have no reason to hold that values are not incommensurable. There have of course been numerous attempts to ground various transcendent assumptions about human beings and morality, be they Kantian, Aristotelian, Hegelian, or utilitarian. And within these systems of thought, there is no incommensurability between moral ends and obligations.

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But the problem with these sorts of assumptions, of course, is that they cannot be grounded without reliance on assumptions not dictated by reason or evidence. And because they are irreducible to each other, conflicts between the moral principles and claims they ground cannot be resolved by appeals to some neutral or objective standard. Shakespeare and Aeschylus are both exceptional tragic dramatists, but their works of drama are, arguably, incommensurable with each other. It would be false to claim that Aeschylus was a primitive Shakespeare, or that Shakespeare was a lesser dramatist than Aeschylus.

The problem is not one of understanding or information.