Exploring Values #3

From our exploration so far, we have assumed that values are monolithic. By relaxing this assumption we get a meta value: pragmatism. Here’s the thought process. Some values are both instrumental and terminal. Instrumental values refer to those values used to achieve higher order values. Trust, for example, is used to achieve cooperation. Terminal values are values that are useful in and of themselves. Honesty, for example, is one in this class. Some values are both instrumental and terminal, freedom is an example. Because some values are (and can be) both instrumental and terminal, we can infer a meta principle of pragmatism. In other words, the claim that there are some values we should hold as terminal and some we should hold as instrumental is a pragmatic one. One interesting question here is how pragmatism, values, and morals intersect. On its face, they do. Instinctive reactions to the sentence “pragmatism is a meta value” rely on the idea that the pragmatist is a fence-sitter who only adopts an idea if it works. But despite its caricature, society runs on quite a bit of pragmatism. We see this quite clearly when we observe human relationships. More and more complex human connections require pragmatism. In other words, as things scale, pragmatism becomes more underrated.

Taking the intersection question even more seriously, we observe that values have a moral quality. We sometimes synonymize morals with values. However, we try to avoid pragmatism at many critical margins. To make it less abstract, take marriage as an example. Pragmatism as a meta value obviously does not work. In fact, if you said to your spouse “the claim that I ate the last slice of pizza that magically disappeared from the fridge is true only if it is useful…” you better be ready for the consequences. That established, when we zoom out and observe more macro societal trends, we see that pragmatism is the name of the game. It even fits the blue team vs. red team divide. The deeply conservative part of pragmatism applies when we hear claims like “we will only do things if they have a proven track record of working.” This has its utility. On the other hand, the liberal sentiment could be, “we will allow this coalition because we have a greater goal of alleviating the pain of the oppressed.” This is also useful. Thus, the claim that there are meta values is fact #5.

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