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.