2.1 Incommensurable values
When making everyday decisions – say, what film to watch or what to have for dinner – you might simply weigh up the values of each option and choose the better one. However, in cases which pit cultural heritage against human lives, this is not so easy. One reason for this difficulty is that the forms of value held by heritage and lives appear to be incommensurable.
Two values, ratings or measurements are said to be commensurable when they can be precisely compared on the same scale. For instance, it is possible to determine, with perfect clarity, whether 100 euros is worth more, less or the same as 100 US dollars because these values can both be translated into, say, British pounds. They have a common measure, so they are commensurable. The same goes for temperatures given in Fahrenheit and Celsius, or weights given in kilograms and pounds.
On the other hand, two values are incommensurable when there is no way for them to be translated into one scale. For instance, if you were asked to compare the value of US$100 with that of a family heirloom, you might find this impossible because the value of money and the sentimental value of the heirloom are too different to be evaluated on the same terms. Thus, there is no precise way of determining the relative worth of the heirloom and the US$100 – they have incommensurable values.
Activity 3 Commensurability
Rank the following items from the list below in order of their value to you (you could type each one into an area on the grid, and make a list or lists to sort, if you wish). If an item does not fit precisely into one of your existing ranked lists, start a new ranked list in the next column.
- A tasty packed lunch
- A bag of crisps
- A slice of burnt toast
- Taking a free online course in a subject you enjoy
- Learning an interesting fact
- Watching a funny video on your smartphone
- A gourmet five-course meal
- Meeting the love of your life
- Completing a higher degree in a subject you enjoy
- Watching a fantastic comedy at the cinema
- Finding a pair of jeans that really suits you
|List 1||List 2||List 3||List 4||List 5|
|A gourmet five-course meal||Meeting the love of your life||Completing a higher degree in a subject you enjoy||Watching a fantastic comedy at the cinema||Finding a pair of jeans that really suits you|
|A tasty packed lunch||Taking a free online course in a subject you enjoy||Watching a funny video on your smartphone|
|A bag of crisps||Learning an interesting fact|
|A slice of burnt toast|
Your table might resemble the one above but don’t worry if it doesn’t. There is plenty of room for differences of opinion here.
This activity was designed to demonstrate the concepts of commensurability and incommensurability. You might have felt that some items are commensurable, and thus easily ranked in the same column. For instance, the food items could all be ranked in terms of tastiness, and the educational items could all be ranked in terms of the quantity of knowledge you gained.
However, other items may have been difficult to integrate into these ranked lists, so you put them in a different column. For instance, you might have felt that meeting the love of your life could not be weighed on the same scale as the food items. This means that the value of the food items were incommensurable with the value of meeting the love of your life.
Do heritage and human lives have commensurable values? It appears that they do not.
According to the constitutive reading from Section 1, the value of both heritage and human lives was commensurable because it could be evaluated purely in terms of flourishing. Yet, as you saw in Section 1.5, this claim turned out to be implausible. Human lives have a moral worth or value independent of their relationship to flourishing.
In addition, any other attempt to reduce the value of human lives to values only shared by cultural heritage seems likely to fail. As with the example of the heirloom and the US$100, there seems to be no systematic method for translating both sorts of value into one shared measure. The values of human lives and heritage are just too different.
This already makes evaluating trade-offs between them difficult, since there is no precise way of determining whether some particular heritage is worth the lives it would cost to save it. Yet, the problem may run even deeper than this. Arguably, the values of heritage and lives are not just incommensurable but also incomparable.