In favor of tabooing the word “values” and using only “priorities” instead

by chaosmage1 min read25th Oct 201811 comments


Ethics & MoralityDefinitionsRationality
Personal Blog

I don’t know if this is trivial/obvious or absurd or anything in between, so maybe you guys would like to help me judge?

The idea is simple. I’m confused by the term “values” in the moral and ethical sense. The way I often see it used, it makes personal and societal “values” seem hard to define/operationalize, incommensurable, uncountable, frequently in conflict with each other and usually in unclear relationships to each other and to those who hold them. But the word “values” is everywhere in normative discussions, and normative discussions are important and interesting, so I wish they weren’t being muddled by that word.

Is it just me, too stupid to get some perfectly clear meaning? Or is “values” really as vague and mysterious as it seems to me?

I think all of the useful work that the word “values” does can also be done by the word “priorities”. Priorities tell you what to do, they help you decide between alternatives. They are a language for describing agreement and disagreement on normative questions.

And all of us, including people who think in terms of values, already think in terms of priorities when we’re in projects and in everyday life. The confusion of “values” is in more abstract, longer-term regions of our thought. I think it is better to extend our thinking about priorities into those regions, rather than use a completely different set of terms and operations.

“Priorities” can also more obviously build on, or be derived from, each other. A priority can be strictly subordinate to another, as a means to an end. We’re used to having “higher” and “lower” and “overarching” priorities, so we can use those qualifiers rather than need to invent subcategories of “values” like “instrumental values” and “terminal values”.

Example: I have a priority to finish this post. That's a means to my higher priority, which is to find out if this idea is useful, and float it in the rationality cluster if it is. And that in turn is a means to my next higher priority, to contribute usefully to the memeplex that makes our species increasingly powerful and helps accelerate the colonization of the galaxy. You might call colonization of the galaxy my terminal value, but I prefer to call it my overarching priority.

And “priorities” implies commensurability. Which is great, because everything is commensurable. The priorities are still in competition over resources of course, but since they’re commensurable and they have means-ends relationships and “higher” and “lower” the competition can probably be quantified. This helps against what seems to me the most grating aspect of “values” - the relationship between competing values often remains undefined, which implies the possibility of irreconcilability and presents as an unsolvable problem.

(Utilitarianism already has utility, which also replaces “values” and achieves roughly the same results. But non-utilitarians would still be better off with an alternative to the word “values”.)