on the incommensurability of values
April 1, 2016
Now that I’ve apparently become a liberal apologist, I wanted to take a moment to discuss the number one reason why I’ve always been caught up within a liberal framework (regardless of whether or not I recognized it as such). Of course… it isn’t even like I actually subcribe to this political framework but… My views really are most closely aligned with some aspects of liberalism (and some really are not).
As far as I can tell only liberalism has a serious answer to the problem of the incommensurability of values. While liberalism, quite rightly, gets criticized for the way that it (can) entail a certain kind of white individuality that contradicts the basic communal/collective level in which humans tend to operate, this same ‘problem’ becomes a solution at the meta-level.
When I say the ‘incommensurability of values’ I’m talking about when two different belief systems (or ideologies) have values that fundamentally contradict one another. The way this is usually framed is in terms of cultural or religious values. Religion is the easy one to pick, since it is often the source of incommensurate values.
For example: monotheistic religions have, at their very core, the belief that there is only one diety. So when you have two monotheistic religions, both insisting that their diety is the only diety, a conflict arises. Respective to each religion, there is only one ‘correct’ value here.
The basic problem here is: how do these two religions co-exist peacefully?
One solution is that each religion just does what it does and that’s okay. This only works, though, if both are willing to mind their own business. But what if one has an evangelical aspect and also believe it is their duty to convince everyone that their diety is the one, true diety? Not a problem on its own right, if all the evangelical religion does is use peaceful means to persuade others.
But… as we know from history, this isn’t soemthing we can rely on. Christianity, for example, has a long and glorious history of forcibly converting people using coercion and/or violence. Not that Christianity is the only culprit here, but its an easy one to pick on given that the majority of my people are Catholic for this very reason.
If we can’t rely on altruism or a general expectation that people will not use coercion or violence to push their values on other people, then how do we create a context where both religions can peacefully exist?
This is a perennial problem. And one that cannot be ignored or disregarded in our current globalized context. For better or worse, most of the earth is connected and aware of the other parts. And even when this wasn’t true, we were still at least aware of the people beside us who weren’t like us. Certainly, this caused enough conflicts in history.
The reason I can’t wholly abandon liberalism (as an ideology) is that it is one of the few around today that actually has an answer to this problem. The answer, of course, relies partly on cultural relativism but also on the basic value of liberty. Cultural relativism isn’t strictly necessary (since this is really a thesis about how to understand the values of other peoples). What’s most important is that, within a liberal framework, the main value of liberty asserts that each culture ought to have the freedom to live according to their own values.
And so within this framework, we take this as a primitive, and now we can focus on ways to coexist peacefully while also preserving our liberty. Indeed, a great deal of liberal thought is devoted to solving this exact problem (ie, figuring out the boundaries and limitations of ‘liberty’ that maximize everyone’s liberty).
This is where rules like “you can do what you want as long as you don’t try to force me to do it too” come from. Because such a rule obviously places some restrictions on everyone’s liberty since there is now at least one thing we cannot do (or should not). And it basically goes on from there. (Hopefully you can see how this basic notion is what grounds both most constitutions and international politics).
My issue with most/all radical and conservative positions is that they rarely (if ever) have any real answer to the incommensurability of values. Or, rather, they have answers that I personally don’t find very palatable – because most of their ‘answers’ are basically ‘force everyone to live by our values’.
While we all understand how this manifests for conservatives (since its all over the news all the time), it isn’t always immediately clear why this is generally true of most radical positions. So let’s have an example….
My path to making peace with being a liberal started with that critique I wrote a while back about gender nihilism (and its sibling gender abolition). One anon totally called me a liberal (although with some prompting from me), since one of the frequent things I’ve seen as motivating this particular viewpoint is the proliferation of ‘liberal identity polictics’. The basic position is that Gender is an oppressive, colonial thing which must be dismantled.
Understandly, this isn’t really something everyone finds palatable. Some of us do think that the white/colonial gender system ought to be dismantled, but this leaves intact ‘gender’ as a general thing. So we can dismantle that but I get to keep my indigenous gender. When this objection is raised to the nihilists, however, the usual response is ‘well, we aren’t saying that we want to get rid of your indigenous gender because it isn’t really Gender and thats want we want to dismantle’. Or some such handwaving.
Overall, it isn’t a very convincing reply to the main concern. Simply saying that my gender isn’t really a gender and I’m part of the problem for thinking it is, kidn of leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
However, given the ideology as framed, they can’t really give any other answer. Since they want to dismantle Gender, which always and only the colonial one, acheiving their goal means no more gender. And, yes, this is the only way to free ourselves from gender-based oppression. And, no, it doesn’t matter what you think or how you feel about your own gender.
How is this substantively different from the right-wing conservatives who tell me that being trans is a mental illness and that I need to be institutionalized or whatever instead of having access to healthcare?
Both tell me that how I understand and conceptualize my self/gender is wrong. And that this Wrongess must be corrected. Or else. And so we have incommensurable values. Conflict is pretty much inevitable in such a situation.
One of the main differences, however, is how we approach this problem on the meta-level. I’m perfectly okay with the gender nihilists pursuing their goals. Like… have at it. Dismantle Gender. But I’d also like them to leave me out of it (they won’t, but it’d be nice). For my part, sure, I think they are wrong but I’m not particularly concerned with either proving them wrong or trying to convert them (by pursuation or coercion) to my way of thinking.
Same goes with conservatives. I quite obviously disagree with them. But I don’t really care what they believe so long as they don’t actually try to force me to live by their values (which sadly, they have far too much political power for this not to be the case). They can think I’m a crazy tranny all day, everyday, but as long as this belief doesn’t entail a denial of my access to public accommodations or healthcare or whatever else, its fine. And I don’t think they should be forced, within their own communities, to think that being trans isn’t a mental illness. Whatever.
Of course, the problem here is that neither radicals nor conservatives are willing to grant me the same courtesy. Within their frameworks, it isn’t possible for them to simply leave me be. They have the One True Path and everyone needs to walk it.
(Of course, there is a meta problem here in the sense that what I’m talking about is itself a value system. And in advocating for this liberal approach I am, ultimately, insisting that everyone adhere – on some level even if just the meta one – to a liberal ideology. So perhaps I’m not better than what I criticise. But this is a problem for another day.)\n