I was recently asked if we should not trade between multiple values. Everyone values freedom, but if we can greatly increase our prosperity for only small loss of freedom, should we not do so? This question, I think, betrays a misunderstanding of the fundamental nature of values, the ends people seek to achieve in their action. For clarity, we may separate values into intrinsic values, those valued for their own sake, and extrinsic values (also called pragmatic, particularly in LD), those valued for furthering another value. Some values are both, although typically we only pursue them for one reason, and thus they effectively fall into one of the previously enumerated categories.
The most fundamental set of values is that of intrinsic values. Many people with whom I have discussed this subject are of the opinion that our rankings of these intrinsic values are in the form of weights; if we value liberty highly, and prosperity less, we will be willing to sacrifice only a small quantity of liberty for prosperity, but will still be willing to make the trade on at least some terms. But how do we measure quantities of disparate items? Quantity can be compared only if the two quantities share a common unit or if there is some function receiving both as input, the output of which can be compared across different combinations of the input values. But this function is not intrinsic to the values. Thus, the equation is best thought of as a value itself, with the values it involves as contributing values.1 Thus, there is no way in which intrinsic values can be traded, whatever the ratio. Instead, one’s intrinsic values must be ranked sequentially, with one maximizing the first and only pursuing a lower value to the extent compatible with a complete maximization of the first value.
But this explanation of values is incomplete, because we do trade among what we value, albiet only among extrinsic values. Only rarely is an intrinsic value directly attainable by action, more typically requiring considerable foresight and coordination. While theoretically one could compute the proper action by brute force, considering every possibility for the future and every possible course of action, but the enormity of this calculation renders it practically impossible. Thus, people identify values that contribute to their intrinsic values, and pursue these extrinsic values, which are more proximate to action. But these extrinsic values are only valued for their furthering of intrinsic values, and if an intrinsic value were served by only one extrinsic value, it would be impossible to differentiate in action between the two values. Thus, we cannot construct a value scale of extrinsic values as we must of intrinsic values; instead, extrinsic values are subservient to the scale of intrinsic values. Here, trading among values makes sense, for we have a clear standard: maximize the function of the intrinsic value in terms of the extrinsic values. Thus, whenever someone claims to be trading among intrinsic values, these are really extrinsic values, and an intrinsic value appears behind them.
1 Actually, I have been somewhat lenient on those who speak of trading among intrinsic values. The units of values are purely ordinal, and thus to speak of a weight on a value is nonsensical. The concept of a function only makes sense itself if one remembers that function is not necessarily an equation but rather a mapping of input to output, which output may itself be ordinal. Naturally, many of the operations applicable to mathematical equations will be inapplicable to such an ordinal function.