Values and Moral Pragmatism

There are values, and there are the values that promote them. This is a distinction that is worth drawing, because it carves values up between intrinsic (whether they are ontologically privileged or just held to be such) and instrumental values.

But what I want to suggest is that it’s the second-order, instrumental, values that actually take priority over the first-order values when push comes to shove. And the real trick in constructing a healthy, functional and robust moral system is navigating the push and pull of the second-order values rather than quibbling over first-order values. This is what I characterise as ‘moral pragmatism’.

It might seem as though the first-order values might take precedence over all. After all, these are the values that form the very foundations of the moral system. These values are the things that we’re ultimately trying to promote, whether that be human flourishing or wellbeing (however they’re defined), or happiness, or happiness for the greatest number or some other fundamental value or values. I have my opinions about what counts as first-order values and what doesn’t, but that’s not important to this argument.

What I think is important is to acknowledge that a moral system that fails to work in the real world, one that fails to actually promote its stated first-order values – no matter how profound or ideal the first-order values might be – is a moral system that ought to be abandoned.

Any moral system worth adopting needs to be one that, at the very least, has a chance of actually working, or at best, is has the best possible chance of working in the messy, uncertain, real world.

This is why I’m no Kantian. I think the categorical imperative compels individuals to play the ‘always cooperate’ strategy – to use the game theory metaphor – and that leaves them vulnerable to defectors. A moral system that has a hope of actually working needs to assume that defectors will always exist in some proportion within the population, and it needs to be flexible enough to respond to them without spiralling towards the Nash equilibrium of ‘always defect’.

To use another metaphor, if a Kantian and his less-principled mates head to the bar, the Kantian would buy every round of drinks and go broke.

This pragmatic principle is also why we have an adversarial legal system rather than an inquisitorial one. Instead of a judge being charged with discovering the truth about a particular case, we allow both sides to state their case, even in cases where the defendant is known to be guilty, and the judge makes a call based on the cases presented.

This is because an inquisitorial system is more prone to error than an adversarial system – there are less checks and balances and more opportunities for corruption to seep in and distort justice. The price is that an adversarial system will also occasionally let a guilty individual go free and will convict an innocent individual. However, experience suggests that this happens less than in an inquisitorial system.

Likewise with moral pragmatism, the instrumental values – the checks and balances that prevent corruption – sometimes trump the values we seek to promote. Sometimes we need to accept a system that will result in erroneous judgements being made if the next best system will make more erroneous judgements.

This is why values like freedom of speech or tolerance are important – pivotally so. They’re not, in my opinion, first order values – a world where each individual flourishes with restricted freedom is better than a world with absolute freedom where people are miserable – but these second-order values are important in promoting the first-order values. They might even trump first order-values occasionally, like freedom of speech allowing for the possibility for some to incite violence – although, clearly, we’d work to minimise this risk, but we will probably never eliminate it without sacrificing some of the potency of freedom of speech. This also doesn’t mean there might not be cause to limit freedom of speech or place limits on tolerance as circumstances demand. The metric is whether they’re effectively promoting the first-order values effectively in the real world.

As I’ve mentioned, this principle already underpins our legal system, as it does modern democracies – with their checks and balances, separation of powers, term limits etc. So too should our moral systems draw lessons from these checks and balances and seek to build a framework that first and foremost prevents corruption while advancing the first-order values more than the alternatives.

Until such time as we’re privy to the unequivocal truth about the world – a day I believe will never arrive – we need to temper our idealistic moral impulses and settle for a deliberately flawed moral framework that works, rather than a flawless moral framework that has no hope of working.

6 Comments on Values and Moral Pragmatism

  1. James Gray
    23rd July 2010 at 6:40 am

    Not sure why you think that Kant require us to ignore the situation. This is not the reading that Kantian experts seem to endorse.

    I agree that second order values can take priority. Even the categorical imperative itself could be considered to be based on second order values. Virtue, the being willing and able to be moral, seems to be the highest value despite not necessarily having intrinsic value.

    However, I would also like to say that intrinsic values aren’t necessarily the first order values either. It is possible that certain desires (or desires implied by action) could be the first order values. Hume talked about this idea when he said that pleasure and pain are ultimate ends. He didn’t think they were desire-independent ends. He thought they were the most powerful, overriding, and general sorts of desires.

  2. Firionel
    2nd August 2010 at 7:18 am

    I’m mightily confused by the whole argument, but mostly there are two things I don’t quite get: One is the ‘deontological’ interpretation of the categorical imperative (which does not at all seem to be implied by the original wording, at least in my reading of it – I always took it to mean quite the opposite in fact) and the other is the question of the (implied) relationship between first- and second-order values.

    Is the argument, that only such (first-order) moral systems are worth persuing which are compatible with (second-order) societal structures which effectively enforce them? That would seem to be a bit of a truism (as others might be said to be in some profound sense impossible), though admittedly I never thought of that problem before. Or am I misreading your argument?

  3. Tim Dean
    2nd August 2010 at 10:48 am

    Hi Firionel.

    Re: Kant, the way I understand the categorical imperative is that any norm must be universalisable – or should be willed to be universalisable, so the agent acts as if it is a universal rule.

    I understand that this can still be contextual on the circumstances of a situation, but I think Kant is grounded in a decision theory version of morality, whereas I think morality needs to be considered more like game theory. As such, if an agent concocts a universal rule in cooperative ventures that they’d will everyone to obey, they’d go for ‘always cooperate’. But this strategy is vulnerable to defection. This is a notion I’ve called (in more hyperbolic moments) the ‘utopian fallacy’. I think it wise to assume there will always be defectors – this I call the ‘dystopian conjecture’.

    As for my argument, you’ve pretty much summed it up. I think second-order instrumental values put limits on what first-order systems we should pursue – and sometimes the second-order values trump the first-order ones they’re trying to promote.

    The trick is that the second-order values are defined by the first-order values, so there’s a bit of to-and-fro going on to establish a balance between them – kinda like a reflective equilibrium. This is really to avoid the utopian fallacy of adopting a moral system which, if adopted by all, would benefit all, but would be weak to defectors and ultimately unstable. So ultimately, the guiding principle – the zeroth-order value – is that of moral pragmatism.

  4. gregory rivera
    26th September 2011 at 9:41 am

    I feel that Rousseau’s simplicity in dealing with defectors was genuis in its simplicity. Merley allow and even help facilitate defectors to defect completely. If an individual is hung up on first or second order values to any extent they should be free to leave the collective or actually encouraged to do so to help maintain the social contract. I never understood why this was considered a romantic or Utopian notion as in my opinion it is as practical a concept as exhist. Actually being face with the choice of conforming or leaving I believe that the social nature of humans would have most choose to stay and adhere to the values with a greater conviction then if thy felt their individual dessention should hold a greater influence then that of the group. A value system at this point would evolve more organicly by being engaged by a naturally more well informed politliy interacting according to set values with a greater conviction. Hard line defectors would be gone and those on the fense would have an opportunity to affect change through interaction.

    17th October 2014 at 4:02 pm

    I want to know the values and features of pragmatism as part of progressivism


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