The Value of Variety: Values and Morality

Yeah there's "value" twice in the title, not super elegant, but it'll do

Hi there!

This is the last entry in my “Value of Variety” series of posts, which is good because I’m getting a bit tired of the topic. It is also issue #33 of Light Gray Matters — one whole third of my goal to write 100 of these! After this week, I’ll return to random topics and updates about my life and whatever.

Last week, I wrote about political diversity. Today’s topic is similar, but broader: we’ll examine diversity of opinion, values, and morality.

Let’s start with opinions. Everyone has opinions. Everyone’s opinions are correct, according to the person holding the opinions. Otherwise we would just have different opinions.

I suppose I need to get a misconception out of the way. Some people may think that opinions can’t be labeled “right” or “wrong.” Those people are, um, wrong. Sure, there are opinions that don’t really matter, for instance because they’re personal preferences. And there are opinions that are impossible to confirm or deny. “The best color is purple” is an example of both (what is a “best” color, anyway?). But in general, opinions are statements about the world, and they’re always either correct or incorrect…

… at least, according to a set of values.

Yeah, values make our life more complicated here.

Maybe one of your core values is the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception. Accordingly, you think abortions are abhorrent. This is a correct opinion in the context of your values.

Or maybe one of your core values is bodily autonomy and freedom of choice. Accordingly, you think abortions are a perfectly valid thing to do. This is a correct opinion in the context of your values.

When discussing political diversity last week, I argued that it’s good that people hold different political opinions, even if having to deal with people opposed to your positions can be maddening. The idea is that we can’t be absolutely sure what opinion is correct, so we should allow debate, free speech, and political parties, eventually converging, collectively, on some policy that is considered the best (at least for the time being). This applies to non-political contexts too. If you and your spouse have different ideas of what to do with this $1000 you just won1 (a road trip, or a new TV, or put it in the savings account?), you should discuss, defend your respective opinions, and eventually reach an agreement that satisfies both your and your spouse’s values.

But what do we do when the values themselves are different? Is diversity in values a good thing?

What even is a value? We could say it’s an opinion, but of a more fundamental type. It’s an opinion about What is Right; about What Ought to Be. It’s closely related to morality.

It’s frustrating to consider diversity of opinion to be a good thing, since it implies that you may be wrong. It’s even harder to consider diversity of values to be good. How do you even accept that people may have beliefs about What is Right and What Ought to Be that are different and even incompatible with yours?

And yet it’s fairly easy to convince ourselves that diversity of values is fine, in the abstract. For one thing, the fact that people have incompatible values evidently doesn’t stop humanity from surviving and thriving.

For another, consider the example of a fundamentalist religious person. Call him Joe. Joe belongs to a cultish branch of some religion that comes with a very specific set of beliefs, including the following: everyone who does not belong to Joe’s religion is going to suffer for eternity, which is very sad, so it is important as a member of the religion to seek to convert everyone else to the religion.

A religion is in some sense a pre-packaged set of values. Fundamentalism means thinking that those values are the only correct ones. Most of us aren’t fundamentalists, and we recognize that fundamentalists are very likely wrong, and that it would be a disaster if Joe and his brethren managed to convert everyone to their cult. So if you were a fundamentalist, it would be better if you agreed that other people may have better values. Which, well, would make you not a fundamentalist anymore.

The opposite of fundamentalism is moral uncertainty.

What’s that?

Often, we may know all the relevant empirical facts, but we are left unsure about what (morally) we should do. This is no philosophical fancy: it should be familiar to basically anyone who cares about acting ethically, but takes seriously the fact that ethics is hard. (Source)

Moral uncertainty means that when you choose how to act, you recognize that you are not entirely certain what is the most ethical action. For example,2 suppose you suspect that animals might be conscious and therefore eating them is morally incorrect, but you have only 60% confidence in this. You also happen to prefer meat to vegan salads, so if animals aren’t conscious, eating meat is the right choice; it makes you happier. Should you choose the meat or the salad?

With a lot of hard work, we can over time identify morally correct actions and change our behaviors. But there’s always at least a tiny chance we’re wrong; there is never perfect certainty. So at least a little bit of ethical diversity is necessary. Even if it sometimes requires us to accept behaviors that seem intolerable to us.

As the quote above says: Ethics is hard.

Getting our values right is hard.

Getting our opinions right is hard.

Moral diversity and value diversity are our safeguards against fundamentalism, whether religious, philosophical, or political. They’re the way we avoid being wrong in disastrous, complete, irreversible ways.

Whew, I’m done. This is getting into the field of pure moral philosophy, which I haven’t studied in any sort of detail, so it is probably very superficial. If you are a philosopher, I apologize for the amateurishness.

This concludes the Value of Variety series of posts. Let me remind you that we looked at the value of diversity in the context of:

A pretty diverse set of topics! Combined with the previous essays on the abstract ideas around diversity, I feel confident I have a solid ground for further thinking around this idea.

For now, I’ll let simmer. What’s next?

Light Gray Matters, as its title suggests, is supposed to be light, and is almost always written in a few hours on the day of publication. So it is always very imperfect. There are countless ways I could improve upon each of the variety essays. I plan to do something like that as a blog post — something more serious, with more research, more links, more precision. Be on the look out for that in the coming months. (I’ll advertise it here, of course.)

(Well, except that these days I create new blog post drafts much faster than I write the actual posts, but that’s another problem.)

Yours in wondering what the hell I will write about next week,




lucky you


paraphrased from the source in the quote