The Plurality and Conditionality of Values - John Kekes

Whether the world is one or many is among the oldest questions of philosophy. Is there an underlying unity behind the multiplicity of ways in which the world appears to human observers, or is the world really as varied as appearances suggest? The axiological question of whether values are one or many is one component of the larger and more complex metaphysical question. Whatever may the answer be to the larger question, pluralists believe that in the case of values at least, appearances do not deceive. The reason why it seems to us that there are many values worth pursuing is that there are many values worth pursuing. The discussion of values will be restricted throughout the book to benefits and harms affecting human beings. This restriction excludes many different kinds of values, but it serves to focus the discussion and keep it within manageable proportions. Given this restriction, then, we may illustrate the plurality of values by drawing a number of distinctions regarding the benefits and harms that normally affect human beings.

To begin with, some benefits and harms are due largely to nonhuman causes, while others are caused predominantly by human agency. The former will be called “naturally occurring values” and the latter “humanly caused values.” Health and disease are often naturally occurring, while kindness and cruelty are humanly caused. We can put this distinction immediately to use to explain the distinction between moral and nonmoral values, which we have already employed in the previous chapter, although without explanation. Humanly caused values are constituted of benefits and harms that chiefly affect either ourselves or others. We may identify moral values, then, as humanly caused values in which the benefits and harms affect primarily others. By contrast, nonmoral values will be either naturally caused values (benefits and harms stemming largely from nonhuman sources) or humanly caused values in which both the causes and the recipients are primarily ourselves. The plurality of values is due not merely to the different sources and recipients of the associated benefits and harms but also to the different reasons there are for seeking or avoiding them. Some benefits and harms are normally regarded as such by all reasonable human beings. Circumstances would have to be exceptional not to count as benefits to satisfy our basic physiological needs, to be loved, or to live in a society in which our endeavors are respected.

It would require similarly extraordinary events for being tortured, humiliated, or exploited not to be regarded as harms. It seems reasonable to suppose that some benefits and harms are, under normal circumstances, universally human. Let us call the resulting values “primary.” We should note that there is a plurality even among primary values themselves, since the associated benefits and harms are various, such as physiological (e.g., food and torture), psychological (e.g., love and humiliation), and social (e.g., respect and exploitation). In addition to primary values, there are also values that we shall call “secondary.” Secondary values vary with persons, societies, traditions, and historical periods. Their variability is due to two reasons. One is that what is regarded as beneficial or harmful often depends on conceptions of a good life that reason allows but does not require us to hold. These conceptions incorporate a very extensive range of values deriving from the social roles we have (e.g., being a parent, spouse, colleague, lover), the way we earn a living (e.g., being a physician, teacher, miner, politician), the personal aspirations we cherish (e.g., being creative, influential, well-liked, knowledgeable, ambitious), the preferences we develop (e.g., for certain kinds of food, aesthetic enjoyment, hobbies, physical exercise, sexual contacts, literature, vacations), and so forth. What is rightly valued in one kind of life may equally rightly be regarded as a matter of indifference or even positively harmful in another.

Reasonable people will share primary values because their common humanity renders some things beneficial and others harmful. But reasonable people will also recognize that there are vast individual differences that emerge above the level of the values we are bound to hold in common. Secondary values reflect these differences. The second reason for the variability of secondary values is that although the benefits and harms encapsulated in primary values are normally universal, the forms and ways in which the benefits are sought and the harms are avoided allow for enormous differences. We all have to eat, so nutrition is a primary value. But in normal circumstances what we eat, with whom, and when; who prepares it and how; whether we regard eating as a necessity or as a festive occasion; whether we do it at home or elsewhere vary greatly from context to context. Consequently, standards of appropriateness, defining corresponding benefits and harms, and thus secondary values, will vary as well. The recognition of this plurality of values—reflected by the distinctions between naturally occurring and humanly caused, moral and nonmoral, primary and secondary values—is not the exclusive property of pluralists. There is no reason why monists, for instance, could not also accept it. What sets monists and pluralists apart is their contrary interpretation of the significance of the plurality of values. Pluralists think that the plurality of values implies the conditionality of values, while monists deny that it does. Part of the significance of this disagreement is the fact, acknowledged by both parties, that the plurality of values could lead to the sorts of conflicts that may augur the disintegration of morality.

Plural values are often so related that the realization of one entirely or partly excludes the realization of the other. The disagreement between monists and pluralists concerns the question of what the reasonable response is to such conflicts. Monists think that the conflicts can be resolved because it is possible to establish an authoritative system of values in which there is a highest value that will justifiably override lower ranked values and in which the standing of all values will be determined by their contribution to the highest-ranked value. Let us call this highest value “overriding.” Pluralists deny that there is an authoritative system of values and, consequently, that there is any value that is always overriding. Pluralists think that all values are what we shall call “conditional.” A value is overriding if it meets two conditions: first, in conflicts with any other value it always takes precedence over the one with which it conflicts; and second, the only justification for acting in violation of it is that by the action its realization would be generally served. For instance, if life were an overriding value, then in conflicts with freedom or justice, life would always take precedence; furthermore, the only justification for taking a life would be to preserve other lives.

In contrast with overriding values, there are conditional values; they may be justifiably defeated by some conflicting value. If life were a conditional value, then in conflicts with freedom (e.g., should lives be sacrificed to defeat tyranny?) or justice (e.g., should lives be risked in resisting injustice?), these other values may take precedence over the value of life. We should note in passing that the distinction between overriding and conditional values is not the same as the distinction between absolute values, which permit no exceptions, and prima facie values, which hold normally but can be violated if there are strong enough reasons for doing so. Overriding values need not be absolute, because monists could agree that in any particular situation an overriding value may be justifiably violated in the interest of the overriding value in general. Pluralists and monists may agree therefore that conditional values, as well as overriding ones, were there any, are or would be prima facie. The disagreement between them is that the only reason monists accept for violating an overriding value is that doing so in a particular case strengthens the overriding value in general, while pluralists may accept as a reason for violating any particular value that it conflicts with some other value that has a stronger claim in that particular situation.

The fundamental reason why pluralists are opposed to monism is that they reject the idea of there being an overriding value. It makes no difference to this rejection what the overriding value is supposed to be. It may be a single value or the combination of a few values, it may be some principle or principles, or it may be some scheme for organizing values. It is the very idea of there being any value of which it would be reasonable to suppose that, in normal circumstance, it should always take precedence over all other values that pluralists oppose. If values were not conditional, then the plurality of values would not be particularly important, nor would it be at all difficult to resolve conflicts among values. If some value or some combination of a few values were overriding, then it would be a simple matter to establish an authoritative system of values that would commend itself to all reasonable people. Then, when values came into conflict, the overriding value would take precedence over other values, and lesser values would be ranked on the basis of how closely they approximated, or how important they were as means for the realization of, the overriding value. But pluralists are committed both to the denial that there is any value that always is or ought to be overriding and to the assertion that all values are conditional. The conditionality of values means that there is no value or combination of a few values that may not be defeated by some other value that is more important than it in that context. According to pluralists, there are no overriding values. But from this it does not follow that some values may not usually be more important than others, or that in the normal course of events some values should not regularly take precedence over some others. Consequently, one central question to which the first thesis of pluralism gives rise is whether there is some reasonable way of deciding which value should prevail in particular situations when there is a conflict among values. 

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