many goods are incommensurable

There are many simple ways of saying things pretty similar to what I’m saying here, such as:

  • To each his own.
  • One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
  • It’s apples and oranges.
  • It’s all good.

But I don’t like these easy sayings, because it’s not all good – what I’m trying to get across is hard to understand and hard to live, and has little relation to the soft-headed permissiveness implied in those easy clichés.

This happens to be the only life lesson that I actually learned in a classroom as the direct subject of a lecture, and this lecture justified a year of college tuition all on its own.  “Incommensurability” is a simple enough concept – it just means that there are things that do not share a common standard of measurement, like the proverbial apples and oranges.

Apples aren’t oranges, could anything be simpler?  But it struck me as a thunderbolt to understand how this affects the search for the good life.  I’d always thought that the task of living a good life was largely about understanding the difference between good and bad.  Maybe I’ve got a moral compass that doesn’t have a reliable fix on true north, but that difference hasn’t always been obvious to me.

As life goes on, it has become easier to tell the difference between good and bad – or rather, it’s become harder to delude myself into believing that that there isn’t a difference or that I can’t see it.  Now I can see that choosing between good and bad was simply the entry-level exam for the good life.  The hard task of living a good life is to choose among things that are good that can’t be compared with one another.

Choosing among incommensurable goods is sad because you are by definition choosing not to do things that are good.  You know that the choices you make will sacrifice things that you would also like to have.  The good things you choose may be vastly outnumbered by the good things that you gave up.  And yet, your choices are a triumph that isn’t second-best to any other set of choices.

One of the great things about understanding this is that you won’t be limited, as many people are, to only having friends who have generally made the same moral choices that you have.  You’ll be able to see that others chose among the same set of incommensurable goods that you did, and even if they made different choices, they are still people who share a common sense of good with you.

Just to make sure that this isn’t interpreted with a mushy morality that I actually despise:  This doesn’t mean that everything and everyone is all good, it doesn’t mean that any set of choices is as good as any other, it doesn’t mean that you can be friends with anyone, it doesn’t mean that there’s no difference between good and bad.  It just means that many goods are incommensurable, and you should think carefully about what that means as you make your choices for a good life.

3 thoughts on “many goods are incommensurable

  1. Thought provoking! I agree with your premise. The difficult part is avoiding the slide into moral relativism, where there is some good in every choice, so all choices are good.


    1. Absolutely Bob – in fact I’d count moral relativism itself as among the choices that are undeniably bad.


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