Imagine a typical recipe, something you might find at epicurious.com. You have a list of ingredients with particular quantities, as well as instructions for what to do. You have some flexibility with the particulars—especially if you are not baking—some ingredients have substitutes that will work just as well or better in the recipe. Sometimes the recipe suggests a few of these substitutes, most of the time it takes judgment and experience—or barring that, a spirit of adventure—on the part of the cook. There are some contingencies that cannot be captured universally in a recipe—the idiosyncrasies of your particular oven, variation in how big or juicy a particular fruit is, and so on.
The rationalist and especially the utilitarian project since the pre-Socratics has attempted to reduce everything in human life to a single, commensurable scale. The Socrates of Protagoras thinks all problems of decisionmaking boil down to a failure to develop the techne of rationality which allows us to see everything according to this single scale, wherein everything is to some extent a substitute for everything else, of greater or lesser value in terms of quantity but qualitatively identical.
Let’s try to imagine a school of cooking which taught that ingredients were entirely commensurable, perfect substitutes for one another. Do you think that such a school would be very successful?
And yet in philosophy the equivalent schools have thrived over millennia. Today there are people who believe, for instance, that Pareto-derived utilitarianism as used in economics has basically provided us with the techne that Socrates sought so long ago.
On Monday at The Ümlaut I’m going to be talking about this in greater length, but for now I’d simply like to suggest that the ingredients for living well are just as varied and incommensurable as the ingredients for a good recipe. Some ingredients have close substitutes, but to treat every ingredient as a substitute for every other ingredient is, quite simply, to fly in the face of plain reality.
3 thoughts on “On Commensurability”
Tyler Cowen and Peter Singer’s discussion is essential watching on utilitarianism imo, if you haven’t watched it before. They discuss commensurability at 27:00 in the video or under the heading Is “Utilitarianism independent?” in the transcript:
Thanks! I’ll have to check that out.
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