The Corner

Economy & Business

Lives and Dollars, Ctd.

A sheet of United States one dollar bills on a light table during production at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Washington, D.C., November 14, 2014 (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

I got this email (which I’ve lightly edited) a few weeks ago, in response to this column, but am responding to it only now:

Leave it to you to find a way to sneak in New Natural Law Theory to Bloomberg.

You say there’s no need to decide if lives or dollars are more important because “nobody actually acts as though they believe that health and other goods can be ranked in some global fashion.” And you say it’s a mistake “to insist that various goods — including health, play, friendship, and religion — need to be ranked in order of importance. But this is impossible to do wholesale, and we shouldn’t try.

“All of us… have to make retail judgments about trade-offs all the time.”

That’s pure NNLT: There are basic human goods and there’s no hierarchy among them. The weakness of the theory and therefore your write-up is that it makes most of our moral judgments arbitrary. Saving one million lives at the cost of canceling a football game? Insoluble, because health and play are both basic goods. You may object that there is an obviously correct judgment in that case but you have given up the ability to say there is an objectively correct one. That feels unsatisfactory and so the theory doesn’t line up as neatly with common sense morality as you say.

I say that common-sense morality incorporates the futility of trying to make moral decisions on the basis of some objective hierarchy of goods. You say common-sense morality reflects a sense that many choices to pursue one good at the expense of others are not arbitrary. Your assertion is compatible with mine, and I agree with both.

But consider your own example. If our decision turned on life’s being more important than sport, you wouldn’t need to set it up as one million lives vs. one game. You would be justified in ending all games forever to save one life (assuming, of course, some weird hypothetical situation in which any of these sorts of trade-offs were real ones). Hence my assertion: We don’t in fact reason about moral choices in terms of hierarchies of goods.

That doesn’t mean all our choices are “arbitrary,” although some of them, it is true, are not fully compelled by reason. Say, for example, a young person can either be a great scholar of the Renaissance or an excellent doctor. Either choice would promote a basic good — knowledge in one case, health in the other — and the right way to choose is not to figure out which is objectively more important. Either choice is defensible, neither is necessarily rationally superior to the other, and “arbitrary” still seems the wrong word for the decision between them.

There are, however, objectively right choices in other situations that pit goods against one another. Moral norms that are not themselves basic goods and thus our ultimate reasons for action can guide our choices in these cases — e.g., the Pauline principle and the Golden Rule. If basic goods were not rival and incommensurable, we would have much less need for such norms. We would “merely” have to identify the course of action that maximized the underlying unit in terms of which all other goods are measured, such as utils, and then take it. But since basic goods are incommensurable, this method of decision-making is impossible; and since it is impossible, it’s not what we do.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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