January 11, 2019

“I have for many years thought the problem of the incommensurability, and still more the incompatibility, of some values to be central to all ethical, social, political and aesthetic issues.” Isaiah Berlin.

One of the more interesting features of the Brexit debate is the way it raises a question of how human beings argue about incommensurable values. By this, I mean values that are not comparable on some common scale – values that are so intrinsically different that they do not lend themselves to any sort of direct comparison or ranking.

You might say, for instance, that those who think the Brexit question fundamentally revolves around issues of sovereignty, and those who think it is all about prosperity, are appealing to values are so different in kind that they can only ever talk past one another. Could it be that much of the anger generated in the exchange between these positions comes from a frustration at managing debate between incommensurable values?

Those, like the great Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who believe that there are incommensurable values in human life are known as ethical pluralists. Those who believe that human values can ultimately be reduced to one super-value – often something like utility, or happiness – are known as ethical monists.

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By Tom Chivers

The dominance of economics over the way we talk publically about the things we esteem in human life, and the way this has played into so-called ‘evidence based policy’, has meant that public discourse is often, de facto, a form of ethical monism. The attraction of monism to the tidy-minded is that it promises to make comparisons between apparently different things easier, assigning each some common and comparable value.

In other words, the monist argues that apparently different values, once properly understood – that is, translated in term of the super-value – can be plotted on the same scale, and thus easily compared, assigning each some sort of numerical value. Value A has X units of super-value Alpha, value B has Y units of super-value Alpha. Therefore, in deciding between the two, one has only to compare X and Y to see which is the greater. Moral decision-making is that straightforward.

But, unfortunately, the monist achieves this simplicity at the expense of a proper estimation of why certain things are valuable. The debate over the importance of the arts in education, for instance, is often hampered by the dominance of monist assumptions, with the arts being required to justify themselves in terms of their utility, something that STEM subjects, for instance, find it much easier to do.

The problem here, of course, is that music and engineering are valuable for totally different reasons, and cannot be compared by reference to some common scale of values. In terms of value, they are not just different, they are irreducibly different. In moral terms, the life of a nun and the life of a mother can both be seen as valuable, but in entirely different terms. Likewise, justice cannot be plotted on the same scale as mercy. Or creativity and security. Or equality and liberty. Or prosperity and democracy.

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A few months ago, I wrote a slightly tongue in cheek piece for UnHerd expressing qualms about the global dominance of the metric system. “I’d love to return to pre-metric diversity,” I wrote, “If only to fight back against that politically dangerous mythology that there is only one way of doing things, and we must all submit to a common standard.”

I could have written another piece, arguing for the reintroduction of £sd. The deeper point here, semi-seriously intended, grows out of a desire to disrupt the growth of monism. Because life is more complicated and messier than the instruments that we have chosen to measure it by. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made,” said Kant – a quote Berlin loved and often repeated.

So to the presenting problem: the nature of the antagonism that exists in the current debate over Brexit. And I suspect our culture of default monism has something to answer for here. Because monism promises that moral decision-making is a relatively straightforward calculation between comparable goods, the monist has to reach for some alternative explanation if people keep on permanently disagreeing. And that alternative explanation is typically to question the ability or the good faith of one side. If the monist is right, and all moral disputes are simply disguised disputes between the same super-value – say utility – then one side is either too thick to make the right calculation or has ulterior motives for backing it. And that is precisely what Remainers and Leavers accuse each other of doing.

Monism, with its promise of decision-making without conflict, is a noble aim. But misconstrued. Because if values are genuinely incommensurate then the contest between them is inherently agonistic. There is no right answer. That is why rationality can never act as some white knight Deus ex Machina that will rush on stage to sort out these sort of feverish disputes. And so for some, the argument will consist of trying to find the most captivating voice in which to articulate one’s own position (that, I suspect, was the essential genius of Dominic Cummings as brought out by James Graham’s Channel 4 film, Brexit: the Uncivil War). For others, unfortunately, it will mean screaming insults at those with whom they disagree.

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Isaiah Berlin credited an obscure Victorian judge, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, with the first articulation of value pluralism. And I quote the following passage in full because it seems to sum up so precisely the situation we find ourselves in with Brexit:

“There are innumerable differences which obviously add to the interest of life, and without which it would be unendurably dull. Again, there are differences which can neither be left unsettled nor be settled without a struggle, and a real one, but in regard to which the struggle is rather between inconsistent forms of good than between good and evil. In cases of this sort no one need see an occasion for anything more than a good-tempered trial of strength and skill, except those narrow-minded fanatics whose minds are incapable of taking in more than one idea at a time, or of having a taste for more things than one, which one thing is generally a trifle. There is no surer mark of a poor, contemptible, cowardly character than the inability to conduct disputes of this sort with fairness, temper, humanity, goodwill to antagonists, and a determination to accept a fair defeat in good part and to make the best of it.”1

Berlin and Fitzjames Stephen lived long before argument was coarsened and weaponised by social media. But reading Sir James’s distinction between worthy and poisonous argument, you can almost imagine he was looking down on us from above as he wrote it, watching the yellow-jacketed thugs screaming “Nazi!” at Anna Soubry, watching the sneering superiority of those who think the other side to be ignorant fools, watching so many of us descend into a pit of pettiness and rancour.

  1.  Stephen, James Fitzjames (1874), Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.


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