About this topic
Summary Two options or objects a and b are said to be incommensurable, incommensurate, or incomparable with respect to some value when the comparison is not malformed or irrelevant, but with respect to the value in question, (i) it is not true that a is better than b, (ii) it is not true that b is better than a, and (iii) it is not true that a and b are precisely equally good. A famous example (from John Broome) is the comparison between Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral: which is more impressive? Incommensurability raises two main sets of issues. First, what is the semantic and metaphysical status of a comparison between incommensurate objects? Second, how can practical reason operate when it must choose between such objects?
Key works Many of the central works in this area are found in Chang 1997, including several of those listed here. For arguments that there really are incommensurate options, and not merely those that are equally good, see 'small-improvement arguments' in  De Sousa 1974, Raz 1985 and Sinnott-Armstrong 1985. The latter also argues that incommensurability can ground moral dilemmas. Recent criticism of small-improvement arguments may be found in Gustafsson & Espinoza 2010. Chang 2002 argues that there is a fourth comparative called parity which sometimes holds between incommensurate objects. Broome 1997 argues that incommensurability is vagueness, or indeterminacy; Carlson 2004 criticises the central principle of this argument. Constantinescu 2012 is a recent defence of that principle. The self-described 'designated eccentric' who rejects incommensurability (at least with respect to the Moorean 'good') is Regan 1997.
Introductions Chang 1997 is a comprehensive survey of the issues.
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  1. Value Pluralism and Valuable Pluralism.Joaquín Jareño Alarcón - 2006 - The Proceedings of the Twenty-First World Congress of Philosophy 9:91-95.
    One of the most influential ideas in recent discussions in political philosophy and philosophy of values has been Isaiah Berlin's value pluralism. Given that different ways of living embody different applications of values, it is really difficult to talk about objectivity in the domain of morals. But if we reject the existence of criteria that allow us to judge among different moral proposals, we are led to recognize the prejudiced character of our convictions: their ethnocentric character. In my opinion, this (...)
  2. Joseph Raz, Value, Respect, and Attachment, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001, Pp. Vi + 178.Andrew Altman - 2003 - Utilitas 15 (3):376.
  3. Parity and Comparability—a Concern Regarding Chang’s Chaining Argument.Henrik Andersson - forthcoming - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice:1-9.
    According to Ruth Chang the three standard positive value relations: “better than”, “worse than” and “equally good” do not fully exhaust the conceptual space for positive value relations. According to her, there is room for a fourth positive value relation, which she calls “parity”. Her argument for parity comes in three parts. First, she argues that there are items that are not related by the standard three value relations. Second, that these items are not incomparable, and third, that the phenomena (...)
  4. Propping Up the Collapsing Principle.Henrik Andersson - 2015 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 18 (3):475-486.
    According to a standard account of incomparability, two value bearers are incomparable if it is false that there holds a positive value relation between them. Due to the vagueness of the comparative predicates it may also be indeterminate as to which relation that holds - for each relation it is neither true nor false that it holds. John Broome has argued that indeterminacy cannot coexist with incomparability and since there seems to exist indeterminacy there cannot exist incomparability. At the core (...)
  5. Incommensurable Alternatives and Rational Choice.Chrisoula Andreou - 2005 - Ratio 18 (3):249–261.
    I consider the implications of incommensurability for the assumption, in rational choice theory, that a rational agent’s preferences are complete. I argue that, contrary to appearances, the completeness assumption and the existence of incommensurability are compatible. Indeed, reflection on incommensurability suggests that one’s preferences should be complete over even the incommensurable alternatives one faces.
  6. Ruth Chang, Incommensurability, Incomparability and Practical Reason.Norbert Anwander - 2001 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 4 (2):193-195.
  7. Millian Superiorities.Gustaf Arrhenius & Wlodek Rabinowicz - 2005 - Utilitas 17 (2):127-146.
    Suppose one sets up a sequence of less and less valuable objects such that each object in the sequence is only marginally worse than its immediate predecessor. Could one in this way arrive at something that is dramatically inferior to the point of departure? It has been claimed that if there is a radical value difference between the objects at each end of the sequence, then at some point there must be a corresponding radical difference between the adjacent elements. The (...)
  8. Deliberare, Comparare, Misurare.Carla Bagnoli - 2007 - Ragion Pratica: Rivista semestrale 26:65-80.
    © Carla Bagnoli DELIBERARE, COMPARARE, MISURARE É opinione ampiamente condivisa che l’incommensurabilità e la commensurabilità sono ipotesi sulla natura del valore che pongono delle condizioni pesanti sulla deliberazione e sulla nostra capacità di compiere scelte ragionate. Pragmatisti e pluralisti si sono adoperati ad argomentare che la commensurabilità non è un requisito necessario alla scelta razionale. In questo articolo sosterrò che vi è un argomento ancora più radicale di quello pluralista e pragmatista secondo il quale la commensurabilità, così come l’incommensurabilità, non (...)
  9. Breaking Ties: The Significance of Choice in Symmetrical Moral Dilemmas.Carla Bagnoli - 2006 - Dialectica 60 (2):157–170.
    In symmetrical moral dilemmas, the agent faces a choice between two incompatible actions, which are equally justified on the basis of the same value. These cases are generally discounted as spurious or irrelevant on the assumption that, when there is no failure of commensurability, choice between symmetrical requirements is indifferent and can be determined by randomization. Alternatively, this article argues that the appeal to randomization allows the agent to overcome a deliberative impasse, but it does not really resolve the moral (...)
  10. Value in the Guise of Regret.Carla Bagnoli - 2000 - Philosophical Explorations 3 (2):169 – 187.
    According to a widely accepted philosophical model, agent-regret is practically significant and appropriate when the agent committed a mistake, or she faced a conflict of obligations. I argue that this account misunderstands moral phenomenology because it does not adequately characterize the object of agent-regret. I suggest that the object of agent-regret should be defined in terms of valuable unchosen alternatives supported by reasons. This model captures the phenomenological varieties of regret and explains its practical significance for the agent. My contention (...)
  11. Skepticism About Ought Simpliciter.Derek Baker - 2018 - Oxford Studies in Metaethics 13.
    There are many different oughts. There is a moral ought, a prudential ought, an epistemic ought, the legal ought, the ought of etiquette, and so on. These oughts can prescribe incompatible actions. What I morally ought to do may be different from what I self-interestedly ought to do. Philosophers have claimed that these conflicts are resolved by an authoritative ought, or by facts about what one ought to do simpliciter or all-things-considered. However, the only coherent notion of an ought simpliciter (...)
  12. Decision Theory for Agents with Incomplete Preferences.Adam Bales, Daniel Cohen & Toby Handfield - 2014 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 92 (3):453-70.
    Orthodox decision theory gives no advice to agents who hold two goods to be incommensurate in value because such agents will have incomplete preferences. According to standard treatments, rationality requires complete preferences, so such agents are irrational. Experience shows, however, that incomplete preferences are ubiquitous in ordinary life. In this paper, we aim to do two things: (1) show that there is a good case for revising decision theory so as to allow it to apply non-vacuously to agents with incomplete (...)
  13. Practical Conflicts: New Philosophical Essays.Peter Baumann & Monika Betzler (eds.) - 2004 - Cambridge University Press.
    Practical conflicts pervade human life. Agents have many different desires, goals, and commitments, all of which can come into conflict with each other. How can practical reasoning help to resolve these practical conflicts? In this collection of essays a distinguished roster of philosophers analyse the diverse forms of practical conflict. Their aim is to establish an understanding of the sources of these conflicts, to investigate the challenge they pose to an adequate conception of practical reasoning, and to assess the degree (...)
  14. The Problem of Semantic Incomparability.Johannes Bechert - 1991 - In Dietmar Zaefferer (ed.), Semantic Universals and Universal Semantics. Foris Publications. pp. 12--60.
  15. The Quantum Structure of Knowledge.Michel Bitbol - 2011 - Axiomathes 21 (2):357-371.
    This paper analyzes how conflicts of perspective are resolved in the field of the human sciences. Examples of such conflicts are the duality between the actor and spectator standpoints, or the duality of participancy between a form of social life and a socio-anthropological study of it. This type of duality look irreducible, because the conflicting positions express incompatible interests. Yet, the claim of incommensurability is excessive. There exists a level of mental activity at which dialogue and resolution are possible. Reaching (...)
  16. Parity, Incomparability and Rationally Justified Choice.Martijn Boot - 2009 - Philosophical Studies 146 (1):75 - 92.
    This article discusses the possibility of a rationally justified choice between two options neither of which is better than the other while they are not equally good either (‘3NT’). Joseph Raz regards such options as incomparable and argues that reason cannot guide the choice between them. Ruth Chang, by contrast, tries to show that many cases of putative incomparability are instead cases of parity—a fourth value relation of comparability, in addition to the three standard value relations ‘better than’, ‘worse than’ (...)
  17. Reply to Rabinowicz.John Broome - 2009 - Philosophical Issues 19 (1):412-417.
  18. Weighing Lives.John Broome - 2004 - Oxford University Press.
    We are often faced with choices that involve the weighing of people's lives against each other, or the weighing of lives against other good things. These are choices both for individuals and for societies. A person who is terminally ill may have to choose between palliative care and more aggressive treatment, which will give her a longer life but at some cost in suffering. We have to choose between the convenience to ourselves of road and air travel, and the lives (...)
  19. Incommensurable values.John Broome - 2000 - In Roger Crisp & Brad Hooker (eds.), Well-Being and Morality: Essays in Honour of James Griffin. Clarendon Press. pp. 21--38.
    Two options are incommensurate in value if neither is better than the other, and if a small improvement or worsening of one does not necessarily make it determinately better or worse than the other. If a person faces a sequence of choices between incommensurate options, she may end up with a worse options than she could have had, even though none of her choices are irrational. Yet it seems that rationality should save her from this bad outcome. This is the (...)
  20. Is Incommensurability Vagueness?John Broome - 1997 - In Ruth Chang (ed.), Incommensurability, Incomparability and Practical Reason. Harvard University Press.
  21. Ranking Policy Options for Sustainable Development.Georg Brun & Gertrude Hirsch Hadorn - 2008 - Poiesis and Praxis 5 (1):15-31.
    Sustainable development calls for choices among alternative policy options. It is a common view that such choices can be justified by appealing to an evaluative ranking of the options with respect to how their consequences affect a broad range of prudential and moral values. Three philosophically motivated proposals for analysing evaluative rankings are discussed: the measured merits model (e.g. Chang), the ordered values model (e.g. Griffin), and the permissible preference orderings model (Rabinowicz). The analysis focuses on the models’ potential for (...)
  22. Pragmatism, Love, and Morality: Triangular Reflections in Carol Reed's The Third Man.Laurie Calhoun - 2014 - Labyrinth: An International Journal for Philosophy, Value Theory and Sociocultural Hermeneutics 16 (2):117-128.
    Carol Reed’s 1949 film The Third Man offers a richly metaphorical expression of the view that pragmatism, love, and morality are incommensurable perspectives from which to interpret the world. Harry Lime is a black market trader whose actions are constrained only by practical considerations. Anna Schmidt, Lime's former lover, understands what is morally wrong with what Lime does, but refuses to assist the police. In contrast, Holly Martins, an old friend from childhood, ultimately agrees to help trap Lime. These three (...)
  23. Vagueness, Incomparability, and the Collapsing Principle.Erik Carlson - 2013 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 16 (3):449-463.
    John Broome has argued that incomparability and vagueness cannot coexist in a given betterness order. His argument essentially hinges on an assumption he calls the ‘collapsing principle’. In an earlier article I criticized this principle, but Broome has recently expressed doubts about the cogency of my criticism. Moreover, Cristian Constantinescu has defended Broome’s view from my objection. In this paper, I present further arguments against the collapsing principle, and try to show that Constantinescu’s defence of Broome’s position fails.
  24. The Small-Improvement Argument Rescued.Erik Carlson - 2011 - Philosophical Quarterly 61 (242):171-174.
    Gustafsson and Espinoza have recently argued that the ‘small-improvement argument’, against completeness as a rationality requirement for preference orderings, is defective. They claim that the two main premises of the argument conflict, and hence should not both be accepted. I show that this conflict can be avoided by modifying one of the premises.
  25. Parity Demystified.Erik Carlson - 2010 - Theoria 76 (2):119-128.
    Ruth Chang has defended a concept of "parity", implying that two items may be evaluatively comparable even though neither item is better than or equally good as the other. This article takes no stand on whether there actually are cases of parity. Its aim is only to make the hitherto somewhat obscure notion of parity more precise, by defining it in terms of the standard value relations. Given certain plausible assumptions, the suggested definiens is shown to state a necessary and (...)
  26. Broome's Argument Against Value Incomparability.Erik Carlson - 2004 - Utilitas 16 (2):220-224.
    John Broome has argued that alleged cases of value incomparability are really examples of vagueness in the betterness relation. The main premiss of his argument is ‘the collapsing principle’. I argue that this principle is dubious, and that Broome's argument is therefore unconvincing. Correspondence:c1 Erik.Carlson@filosofi.uu.se.
  27. Reasoning Without Comparing.David K. Chan - 2010 - American Philosophical Quarterly 47 (2):153-164.
    My paper critiques the comparability requirement that practical reason is limited by the possibility of comparing alternatives. I describe methods of reasoning that are compatible with choice between incomparable options, and discuss a mistake about intention that supports the view that comparing alternatives is the only way to choose rationally. I then explain how a model of rational choice that prescribes the comparison of alternatives invents unacceptable concepts to make comparability possible. Finally, I criticize the assumption of the unity of (...)
  28. Parity: An Intuitive Case.Ruth Chang - 2016 - Ratio 29 (4):395-411.
    In other work I have argued that items can be on a par, where being on a par is a fourth, basic, sui generis value relation beyond the usual trichotomy of ‘better than’, ‘worse than’, and ‘equally good’. In this paper, I aim to marshal non-technical, intuitive arguments for this view. First, I try to cast doubt on the leading source of intuitive resistance to parity, the conviction that if two items are comparable, one must be better than the other, (...)
  29. Making Comparisons Count.Ruth Chang - 2015 - Routledge.
    This book attempts to answer two questions: Are alternatives for choice ever incomparable? and In what ways can items be compared? The arguments offered suggest that alternatives for choice no matter how different are never incomparable, and that the ways in which items can be compared are richer and more varied than commonly supposed.
  30. Value Incomparability and Incommensurability.Ruth Chang - 2015 - In Iwao Hirose & Jonas Olson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Value Theory. Oxford University Press.
    This introductory article describes the phenomena of incommensurability and incomparability, how they are related, and why they are important. Since incomparability is the more significant phenomenon, the paper takes that as its focus. It gives a detailed account of what incomparability is, investigates the relation between the incomparability of values and the incomparability of alternatives for choice, distinguishes incomparability from the related phenomena of parity, indeterminacy, and noncomparability, and, finally, defends a view about practical justification that vindicates the importance of (...)
  31. Making Comparisons Count.Ruth Chang - 2014 - Routledge.
    This book attempts to answer two questions: Are alternatives for choice ever incomparable? and In what ways can items be compared? The arguments offered suggest that alternatives for choice no matter how different are never incomparable, and that the ways in which items can be compared are richer and more varied than commonly supposed.
  32. Incommensurability (and Incomparability).Ruth Chang - 2013 - In Hugh LaFollette (ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Blackwell. pp. 2591-2604.
    This encyclopedia entry urges what it takes to be correctives to common (mis)understandings concerning the phenomenon of incommensurability and incomparability and briefly outlines some of their philosophical upshots.
  33. Are Hard Choices Cases of Incomparability?Ruth Chang - 2012 - Philosophical Issues 22 (1):106-126.
    This paper presents an argument against the widespread view that ‘hard choices’ are hard because of the incomparability of the alternatives. The argument has two parts. First, I argue that any plausible theory of practical reason must be ‘comparativist’ in form, that is, it must hold that a comparative relation between the alternatives with respect to what matters in the choice determines a justified choice in that situation. If comparativist views of practical reason are correct, however, the incomparabilist view of (...)
  34. Parity, Interval Value, and Choice.Ruth Chang - 2005 - Ethics 115 (2):331-350.
    This paper begins with a response to Josh Gert’s challenge that ‘on a par with’ is not a sui generis fourth value relation beyond ‘better than’, ‘worse than’, and ‘equally good’. It then explores two further questions: can parity be modeled by an interval representation of value? And what should one rationally do when faced with items on a par? I argue that an interval representation of value is incompatible with the possibility that items are on a par (a mathematical (...)
  35. Putting Together Morality and Well-Being.Ruth Chang - 2004 - In Peter Baumann & Monika Betzler (eds.), Practical Conflicts: New Philosophical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 118--158.
    Conflicts between morality and prudence are often thought to pose a special problem because the normativity of moral considerations derives from a distinctively moral point of view, while the normativity of prudential considerations derives from a distinctively prudential point of view, and there is no way to ‘put together’ the two points of view. I argue that talk of points of view is a red herring, and that for any ‘prumoral’ conflict there is some or other more comprehensive value – (...)
  36. All Things Considered.Ruth Chang - 2004 - Philosophical Perspectives 18 (1):1–22.
    One of the most common judgments of normative life takes the following form: With respect to some things that matter, one item is better than the other, with respect to other things that matter, the other item is better, but all things considered – that is, taking into account all the things that matter – the one item is better than the other. In this paper, I explore how all-things-considered judgments are possible, assuming that they are. In particular, I examine (...)
  37. The Possibility of Parity.Ruth Chang - 2002 - Ethics 112 (4):659-688.
    This paper argues for the existence of a fourth positive generic value relation that can hold between two items beyond ‘better than’, ‘worse than’, and ‘equally good’: namely ‘on a par’.
  38. Against Constitutive Incommensurability or Buying and Selling Friends.Ruth Chang - 2001 - Noûs 35 (s1):33 - 60.
    Recently, some of the leading proponents of the view that there is widespread incommensurability among goods have suggested that the incommensurability of some goods is a constitutive feature of the goods themselves. So, for example, a friendship and a million dollars are incommensurable because it is part of what it is to be a friendship that it be incommensurable with money. According to these ‘constitutive incommensurabilists’ incommensurability follows from the very nature of certain goods. In this paper, I examine this (...)
  39. Making Comparisons Count.Ruth Chang - 2001 - Routledge.
    The central aim of this book is to answer two questions: Are alternatives for choice ever incomparable? and, In what ways can items be compared? The arguments offered suggest that alternatives for choice no matter how different are never incomparable, and that the ways in which items can be compared are richer and more varied than commonly supposed. This work is the first book length treatment of the topics of incomparability, value, and practical reason.
  40. Incommensurability, Incomparability and Practical Reason.Ruth Chang (ed.) - 1997 - Harvard University Press.
    And what are the implications for moral and legal decision making? In this book, some of the sharpest minds in philosophy struggle with these questions.
  41. Introduction.Ruth Chang - 1997 - In Incommensurability, Incomparability, and Practical Reason. Harvard University Press. pp. 1-34.
    This paper is the introduction to the volume. It gives an argumentative view of the philosophical landscape concerning incommensurability and incomparability. It argues that incomparability, not incommensurability, is the important phenomenon on which philosophers should be focusing and that the arguments for the existence of incomparability are so far not compelling.
  42. Vague Comparisons.Cristian Constantinescu - 2016 - Ratio 29 (4):357-377.
    Some comparisons are hard. How should we think about such comparisons? According to John Broome, we should think about them in terms of vagueness. But the vagueness account has remained unpopular thus far. Here I try to bolster it by clarifying the notion of comparative vagueness that lies at its heart.
  43. Value Incomparability and Indeterminacy.Cristian Constantinescu - 2012 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 15 (1):57-70.
    Two competing accounts of value incomparability have been put forward in the recent literature. According to the standard account, developed most famously by Joseph Raz, ‘incomparability’ means determinate failure of the three classic value relations ( better than , worse than , and equally good ): two value-bearers are incomparable with respect to a value V if and only if (i) it is false that x is better than y with respect to V , (ii) it is false that x (...)
  44. Hope for Fools: Four Proposals for Meeting Temkin's Challenge.Christian Coons - 2014 - Analysis 74 (2):292-306.
  45. Comparing the Incommensurable: Constitutional Principles, Balancing and Rational Decision.Virgílio Afonso da Silva - 2011 - Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 31 (2):273-301.
    Balancing implies a comparison among goods, values, principles and rights that cannot be ranked on a single scale of measurement, ie there is no unequivocal measuring unit applicable to all of them. In such situations, it is common to state that one has to compare incommensurable things. Indeed, this issue has been mentioned by several authors as a strong reason in favour of abandoning balancing (and proportionality) as a rational form of judicial argumentation and decision-making. My article aims at arguing (...)
  46. The Good and the True.Ronald B. De Sousa - 1974 - Mind 83 (332):534-551.
  47. Parity, Prospects, and Predominance.Ryan Doody - forthcoming - Philosophical Studies:1-19.
    Let’s say that you regard two things as on a par when you don’t prefer one to other and aren’t indifferent between them. What does rationality require of you when choosing between risky options whose outcomes you regard as on a par? According to Prospectism, you are required to choose the option with the best prospects, where an option’s prospects is a probability-distribution over its potential outcomes. In this paper, I argue that Prospectism violates a dominance principle—which I call The (...)
  48. Expecting the Unexpected.Tom Dougherty, Sophie Horowitz & Paulina Sliwa - 2015 - Res Philosophica 92 (2):301-321.
    In an influential paper, L. A. Paul argues that one cannot rationally decide whether to have children. In particular, she argues that such a decision is intractable for standard decision theory. Paul's central argument in this paper rests on the claim that becoming a parent is ``epistemically transformative''---prior to becoming a parent, it is impossible to know what being a parent is like. Paul argues that because parenting is epistemically transformative, one cannot estimate the values of the various outcomes of (...)
  49. Violations of Human Dignity.Webster Elaine & Kaufmann Paulus (eds.) - forthcoming - Springer.
  50. Incommensurability as Vagueness: A Burden‐Shifting Argument.Luke Elson - 2017 - Theoria (4):341-363.
    Two options are ‘incommensurate’ when neither is better than the other, but they are not equally good. Typically, we will say that one option is better in some ways, and the other in others, but neither is better ‘all things considered’. It is tempting to think that incommensurability is vagueness—that it is indeterminate which is better—but this ‘vagueness view’ of incommensurability has not proven popular. I set out the vagueness view and its implications in more detail, and argue that it (...)
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