79 The cost of incommensurability
In this blog I have pleaded for an Aristotelian virtue ethics, according to which there are values in life that have intrinsic value, in contrast with consequentialist ethics that is focused on consequences, such as utility (see items 15 and 39). Virtues have no other goals than themselves, forming a broad notion of happiness. Deeds not only have an extrinsic, instrumental value but also intrinsic value.
The uppermost virtue is realization of potential (for Aristotle this was mostly intellectual potential, but I draw it wider than that). Other virtues are moral courage, empathy, moderation, prudence, and justice.
Also, again as according to Aristotle, happiness is not only a feeling or psychological state but lies especially in action. In human action there is no overarching measure, no guaranteed commensurability, of what is good; not all good things can be reduced to a single measure such as pleasure or utility. One cannot add up happiness in love, attending a concert, sympathy for others, etc. They do not have a common measure by which they can be traded off against each other, as economists are wont to do, from their perspective of a utilitarian ethics.
But I grant that we should not be blind to consequences. Incommensurability carries a cost. If values cannot be simply traded off against each other, then choices require debate between different perspectives associated with different values. In economic parlance, incommensurability yields high transaction costs. I would prefer to modify that term. The debate is not a matter of transactions or pure exchange, but of interchange that modifies views and opinions and aims to cross cognitive distance (see items 57, 58), trying to bridge differences of view and opinion or recombine them in a new, common opinion, in some kind of crossover.
So, for economic reasons we should not assume incommensurability where it is not strictly needed. In other words, we should try to make trade-offs whenever that seems warranted.
When it is not warranted we have to leave it up to debate, to political decision-making. It is the task of politics to deal with incommensurability. That is why it should not be left to economists who do not recognize incommensurability. But then, citizens should also voluntarily put in the effort involved in the debate. They also should not leave it up to technocrats.
Next, to take into account specific conditions of individuals, time and place, such debate often needs to be conducted locally, in communities. That is needed also for the reason that otherwise the number of people involved would be too large. In classical Athens the people eligible for participation in the debate were just small enough to manage, in the public square (agora). In modern societies the number is too large and the debate must be left, in many cases, to the usual channelling through political parties. But as much room as possible should be allowed for debate in local communities. Perhaps politicians need to be rid of their agoraphobia.