Vehicle Principles
2nd October 2016

There are a handful of principles which act like they contain moral value, when in fact they are devoid of value; instead, they are vehicles for actual moral values. Or, put another way, they are principles about how actual moral values should be applied.

What is being addressed here isn’t novel, but I haven’t seen it named or discussed in this way before; and if it was widely-known, I should have heard of it by now!

There are two big examples of Vehicle Principles, Efficiency and Proportionality, which I will use here to explain what I mean by ‘vehicle principles’.


Efficiency is the ratio of useful output to total input. A lightbulb’s efficiency is how much light it puts out compared to how much electricity is put into it. A delivery service’s efficiency would be how many deliveries are made for the time and cost. And so on.

These are straightforward calculations — but as a function, it requires values to be plugged into it, hence it being a vehicle principle. In those examples, it is clear that a lightbulb is meant to provide light and that a delivery service is meant to deliver things, and that the cost is negative. This is what efficiency is good at.

But as soon as there are competing values, efficiency alone is no good: it doesn’t tell you what actually matters, and by appearing as a rational tool it can obscure the underlying value considerations.

For example, a restaurant, in the current culture of management theory, might decide that it wants to be more profitable by making its serving staff more efficient. A consultant tells them that they should incentivise their staff to be quicker by linking their pay to how many customers they serve per hour. It works: the staff serve 15% more customers! Except that they do this by spending less time with each customer and removing the friendly, chatty demeanour that they used to have. More customers may be served, but the customer experience is worsened. Perhaps customers are less likely to return to the restaurant, recommend it to their friends or leave positive reviews online, and that as a result the restaurant is worse off. It could also be less fun for the staff, with a higher-pressure environment making them feel on-edge, and there could be a higher turnover.

These were values that were not taken into consideration in the efficiency equation, which looked only at the output of customers served and the time-cost of the staff. This demonstrates how the efficiency principle is only a vehicle principle! It may still well be useful, and a good consultant would have taken this into account as part of the cost-benefit analysis of introducing the new bonus payment.

Tangent: Naive Intervention and Iatrogenics

[This is also an example of Naive Intervention, which is when the intervention thinks it is being clever but is actually based on insufficient information, and this is increasingly common in our post-enlightenment thinking that humans are almost gods, able to remould reality in line with our will. We can get people out into space, can destroy mountains and create lakes, and can also cause environmental crises by polluting enough to change the whole climate of our planet and cause a crisis of biodiversity. Hence the naivety. It is also an example of ‘iatrogenics’, the costs of intervening, which are commonly ignored and the concept not recognised much, especially outside its original domain of medicine. Both of these concepts I learned from Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragility, which I highly recommend.]


Let’s turn to proportionality, which is a common legal principle. It means that the value of the action must match up to the harm the action causes. In criminal law, the punishment must fit the crime by being proportionate to it. In human rights law, if a journalist is to be silenced, it must be justified by making sure that the value of the public benefit of silencing them is greater than the value of the right that the journalist (and society) have to free expression.

It’s clear in the proportionality principle that it doesn’t talk about the underlying moral values: it doesn’t say how important freedom of speech is, or whether it is acceptable to torture somebody; it only says that if you limit a right, it must be justified by having a greater public benefit. This is recognised a fair amount in law, but not enough as it should be.

Conclusion (save some additional thoughts)

So, that introduces the concept of Vehicle Principles. It’s the best name I’ve come up with for now, and am very open to other suggestions, or if this concept has been written about already, point me to it!

This is an occasion where there is a clear cost of not being right: if efficiency or proportionality are used blindly, without paying attention to their limitation, it can be damaging. They ought not be used without consideration of the underlying moral values.

This is also a strong argument against the current destruction of the state by privatising public services. Perhaps it is more ‘efficient’ to privatise a hospital (which is quite unlikely already!), but the profit-maximising enterprise probably won’t pay as much attention to the dignity of the patient or give the same quality of care if they are optimising for services provided. With the use of ‘proportionality’ as a legal principle, we must not forget that it does not tell us of the value of certain things.

A Few Follow-On Considerations

1. As well as proportionality, ‘reasonableness’ is another vehicle principle, far more common to english law. Proportionality has been imported via European Union law and European Human Rights law, whereas reasonableness is all over the place in english law. Use of violence against someone in defence is justified, if reasonable force is used; consumer rights law protects consumers from contract terms which are unreasonable; and public authorities are not allowed to do anything that is particularly unreasonable.

2. Aside from vehicle-principles, there are some hybrid vehicle principles, which fall somewhere in the middle. They have some moral value themselves, but are meaningless without actual moral values. Hybrid vehicle principles include equality, fairness and justice, and have the same issues of needing underlying moral values to be fully effective.