Why Is Universalizability a Good Thing?

Back in 2010, Greta Christina wrote a piece about liberal and conservative moral systems. At the core was a set of studies showing that while everyone shares the same core values — fairness, minimizing harm, authority, purity, loyalty, and a few others — that liberals and conservatives prioritize these values differently: liberals tend to put a higher value on fairness, for instance, while conservatives tend to put a higher value on authority.

She then argues that “liberal” core values like fairness and harm-reduction are better than “conservative” ones like purity and authority, because the liberal ones are universalizable: they aren’t parochial, and apply to every human being (and possibly animals and extraterrestrials) equally.

That explanation is okay, but I’m not quite satisfied with it. I kept asking why the fact that a value applies to everyone is a good core value. And that led me to the open marketplace of ideas.

And to do that, let me step back and look at the open marketplace of, well, markets.

Everyone in a capitalist society understands why, say, $3.79 is a fair price for a bag of chips: thousands of sellers pick prices at which to sell their goods, and millions of buyers make decisions as to whether to buy at that price or not. Of course I’d prefer to buy chips for a nickel, and of course the store would rather charge me twenty bucks. But I understand that that wouldn’t cover manufacturing costs, the store understands that if their price is too high, I won’t buy it, and out of many such interactions, of people either buying or not buying, a consensus emerges: $1.00 is too low, $10.00 is too high, and that something like $3.50 is a price that everyone can live with.

There are also times when prices can be tilted to favor or penalize some group of people or set of goods, such as “Buy American” campaigns or boycotts, or when a designer like Louis Vuitton convinces people to pay extra for goods that have a particular logo on them.

Over time, we will act as both buyer and seller, comparison shopper and haggler, and can appreciate at least the rudiments of everyone’s views.

Now, since morality is a way of regulating interactions between people (if it weren’t for the fact that we live together, we’d have no need for morality), I claim that a similar calculus takes place: that we are constantly negotiating The Rules in a corner of the marketplace of ideas.

Just as the store would love to charge me $20 for a bag of chips, I would like for everyone to call me “Your Highness” and let me skip ahead in line at the store. The problem is persuading people to treat me that way.

I also know that if someone else wanted to be treated that way, I’d resent and resist it. Nor can I come up with a convincing argument for why I should get special treatment, one that I would accept if the shoe were on the other foot. And so collectively we negotiate a compromise that we can all live with, in which nobody gets called “Your Highness” and we wait in line in first-come, first-served order.

And gosh, it sure looks as though this sort of free negotiation favors those rules and compromises that everyone can agree on. That is, universalizable values.

Now, unlike the economic marketplace, where I will by turns take the role of buyer or seller, in the marketplace of moral ideas, I will never be a woman, or Asian, or left-handed, or gay. But I do interact with people who are. Even if we ignore for a moment the effects of sympathy, and consider that everyone just wants the moral rules that most favor themselves, men will argue for rules that privilege men, and women will argue for rules that privilege women, and over time, they ought to compromise on something that isn’t what anyone wanted, but that everyone can live with, like equality.

In this analogy, asking why one group gets special privileges is like asking why one brand costs more than another. Sometimes there’s a good answer (“Brand L jeans are more durable than brand X”, “You should give up your subway seat to older people because they need it more”), and sometimes there isn’t (“Brand A costs more because we just redesigned the label”, “Men should be in positions of power because they have a Y chromosome”).

And yes, this process takes far longer than anyone would like, partly because (for the vast majority of people) it’s not a conscious process: we don’t set out to figure out what moral rules are best for us, for our loved ones, for the rest of society; we just sort of go along with what’s around us, and either complain when we don’t like something, or adapt when other people complain about our behavior. There are many other complicating factors as well.

But on the whole, this semi-conscious marketplace should favor those values that apply to everyone with a voice, or at least an advocate. That is, things like fairness and harm reduction.

2 thoughts on “Why Is Universalizability a Good Thing?”

  1. I assume you’ve run across John Rawls and the Veil of Ignorance? That arbitration process is just which you would agree to, even if you did not know in advance which side of the dispute you are on.

    1. Yes, and also its more practical cousin, “what about your yet-to-be-born grandchild, whom you already love and for whom you want the best. What kind of world do you want him or her to have?”

      But the Veil of Ignorance pretty much assumes that universalizable values are good. I wanted to see why they’re good (or at least better than parochial values).

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