One Value to Rule them All

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I’d like to talk a little bit about value monism–the philosophical idea that all of our moral beliefs ought to be reducible to a single guiding principle or value. There is a tendency, in some circles, to see value monism as inherently dogmatic or unreasonable, to prefer value pluralism, the idea that there are multiple independent moral values. I’d like to counter that argument and illustrate some of the ways value monism advantages us by clarifying our thinking and simplifying the moral landscape.

Utilitarianism is the most popular form of value monism. In utilitarianism, the principle of utility is the ruling value. Utilitarians seek to maximize happiness and minimize unhappiness for whatever class of beings they consider morally relevant. Most utilitarians are to some degree rule utilitarians. That is to say that most utilitarians use general rules or guiding principles in their day to day lives in order to maximize utility. These rules often take the form of subordinate values. For instance, a utilitarian may believe that liberty and equality are both valuable, but he affirms these values only insofar as they affirm the principle of utility. For the utilitarian, all non-utility values are instrumental; they are affirmed only when they in turn affirm utility. This is why utilitarians employ general rules rather than absolute rules. Utilitarians may generally value liberty or equality quite highly, but when one of these values conflicts with the principle of utility, utilitarians will always side with utility.

By contrast, value pluralists deny that there is any one ruling value that subordinates all others. They believe that their values are all intrinsically valuable independent of whether or not they affirm any additional third value. A value pluralist might claim that liberty and equality are both valuable not because they are generally conducive to happiness but because they simply are, and that to value liberty or equality only instrumentally is to fail to appreciate the true importance of these values.

This all sounds very high-minded and tolerant, until you consider any case in which two or more of the pluralists’ values conflict. Imagine that I am a value pluralist who affirms two values, honesty and life. I believe that it is wrong to kill living things, and I believe that we should always be honest with one another. Now, let’s say I live in France in 1942, and Hans Landa has come to my home in search of Jews. It just so happens that I am indeed sheltering enemies of the state. If I am honest and reveal their location, lives will end, and if I am to save their lives, I will have to lie. Let us presume, for the sake of argument, that I will not personally come to harm either way, so there is no personal risk to me if I continue to hide the Jews. How do I resolve this moral dilemma? The natural, gut response is to say that clearly the lives of the Jews I am sheltering are more important than is adherence to my compunction to be honest. Most people leave it there, and claim that they made this moral decision intuitively and easily.

But this is not satisfying. The lives of the Jews are not more valuable merely because I feel that they are. There is surely some prior reason that justifies that feeling. Surely I would be ashamed to be unable to offer any substantive reason why the lives of people are more valuable than my belief in honesty. Worse, what if I were a sociopath, someone with abnormal moral intuitions? Would the mere fact that my moral intuitions were different justify putting my sense of honesty before the lives of morally relevant human beings? Surely not. Indeed, the very fact that I have had to resolve this moral dilemma by appealing to my feelings rather than an argument is evidence that I have abandoned moral reasoning entirely in favor of merely feeling my way through the decision. Anyone can follow his conscience and do whatever “feels right” to him. There are a great many varieties of conscience and a great many varieties of behavior that will result from that. When we engage in moral philosophy, we’re trying to do something much more rigorous, to give reasons for our choices that are comprehensible and potentially defensible to people of diverse moral intuitions.

This issue with pluralism is revealed by the mere presence of a second value. Most moral pluralists affirm some number of a whole host of different things–dignity, liberty, equality, truth, love, life, temperance, hard work, prudence, respect, the possibilities are endless. In every moral situation, the existence of multiple independent intrinsic values makes things very difficult, for not only must we be wary of contradictions we can only resolve by instinctive, animal-like gut responses, but we must also consider independently how every value we have might impact the decision we are making.

Value monism cuts through all of that by giving us a ruling principle to appeal to when resolving conflicts among our general rules. It is in reality less dogmatic than pluralism, because instead of affirming a whole host of values absolutely, it affirms only one absolute value and is flexible in its use of subordinate values. Even if I think it’s generally good to be honest and to avoid killing things, if I’m a value monist I can evaluate the decision of what to say to Hans Landa rationally, by appeal to my ruling value. If I’m a utilitarian, it’s clear that I should lie to save the lives of the Jews because killing the Jews generates much more unhappiness than does the lie. I’m not merely responding to the question emotionally, I’m engaging with it philosophically.

To the extent that there is justifiable fear of value monism, it is the fear that moral philosophers will choose ridiculous ruling values. If I decided that honesty was my ruling value and that in every scenario it was my duty to conceal nothing from anyone, I would not merely be responsible for the death of the Jews in the extreme case I offered above, but I would be an exceedingly unpleasant person to be around, as my every negative thought would have to be broadcast.

That said, by having one ruling value we minimize the number of wholly arbitrary moral moves we make. Once I’ve chosen my ruling value, I proceed to argue logically and rationally from that value in a consistent way, and if someone points out a way in which my behavior contradicts the ruling value I purport to affirm, we can have a meaningful argument about whether or not that is so. By contrast, when pluralists argue, they inevitably find themselves spleen-venting, as different pluralists have different moral gut feelings and intuitions to which they appeal and possess no argumentative mechanism by which they might inter-subjectively resolve those tensions in a consistent way. It is for this reason that to be a value pluralist is to abandon the project of reasoning about morality in its entirety.