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Human Values Project (Explanations)

Significance: Importance of values

Human Values Project

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The importance of values is frequently cited in relation to the global problematique, whether it be in debates in international assemblies, in studies criticizing "value-free" approaches to research, or in discussion of quality of life and individual fulfilment. Values are deemed especially important in questions of cultural development and are central to concern for the preservation of cultural heritage.

1. Problems and values

Problems tend to be recognized and dealt with as concrete, practical matters. They can be defined in terms which allow them to be the subject of well-managed programmes -- indeed they may be the integrative focus of those programmes, uniting together groups that would otherwise be competing. Even the term "problem" is recognizable in many languages and is an early part of any vocabulary concerned with practical matters. The term is applied to every level of obstacle or hindrance from the most personally intimate to the global level.

The case of human values contrasts sharply with that of world problems. Where it is common and meaningful to ask "do you have a problem", it is unusual and generally unacceptable to ask "do you have a value". The term is not common across languages and is not an early part of any vocabulary. It is far from being an immediate concern in any normal programme of action. And yet there is an intimate relationship between problems and values. Basically no problem is recognizable except in the light of a value. If "justice" is not a recognized "value", then "injustice" cannot be recognized as a problem.

Human values come to the fore as the driving force in many campaigns, where people's commitment is engaged through appeals to "freedom", "equality" and the like. As such they too can unite opposing groups under the same banner but with much less ability to focus on the concrete remedial action required. Much cultural endeavour is associated with articulating the interplay of values. Values are of increasing concern to the marketing of commercial products because of the way in which markets are segmented in terms of the value profiles of consumers. Values are of course an increasingly explicit question in the debate on "green" issues and options.

Problems tend to be explicit, whereas values tend to be implicit. But both are artefacts of the human mind. Despite being treated as concrete, problems as such (like values) cannot be photographed. People interpret certain (photographable) conditions as problematic. But the future will recognize other problems in photographs of conditions today which may now appear problem-free. It may be argued that awareness of a problem-value polarity is borne of exposure to certain conditions that cause some form of suffering. In different ways this suffering engenders learning through which sensitivity to a (new) value allows the suffered conditions to be constellated into a problem.

In summary, whilst problems tend to be concrete, relatively unambiguous, detailed features of normal organized activity, values are much more ambiguously defined and less easily related to specific programmatic steps. Problems provide focus through their concreteness and specificity in dealing with the present through established channels. Values provide focus through their inspirational value and their prescriptive potential in creating a more desirable future irrespective of established views.

By juxtaposing information on world problems with that on human values it becomes possible to explore more systematically the relationships between them. Understanding of any system of values leads to greater understanding of the system of problems. In fact exercises in ordering the system of values may contribute to new ways of ordering the system of problems. Relating them may clarify the nature of the societal learning process through which problem-value polarities come to be recognized. A specific challenge is to identify more clearly the values associated with particular problems and to determine whether there areunrecognized problems following from acknowledgement of certain values.

2. Human development and values

Human development can be seen as the process of giving more effective expression to human values. Many of the advocated approaches to human development are quite explicit concerning the values in terms of which they are conceived or which they are desired to enhance. The more sophisticated approaches to policy-making and management are quite deliberate in their efforts to identify the values on which any action is to be grounded.

Through some processes of human development, providing access to more subtle modes of awareness, new value insights emerge. In such cases there may be a very intimate relationship between the state of awareness and comprehension of the value. Emerging awareness of certain states may even lead to the articulation of more subtle understanding of commonly identified values. Certain modes of awareness can be understood as the embodiment of specific values or configurations of values.

Perhaps of most importance is the manner in which certain processes of human development integrate together previously disparate insights. Values can easily decay into empty, "bloodless" categories unless they are sustained by appropriate levels of awareness. Human development may thus build a subtle connecting pattern between values. Such integration provides a new foundation from which action may be undertaken in a sustainable manner.

Again it is ironic that there is less and less in modern society that people are prepared to die for, or to allow others to die for. Whole societies can now be held to ransom for a single known hostage. Millions can be spent to maintain a comatose, brain-damaged patient on life-support for decades. Euthanasia is illegal, no matter what the desire of the person concerned. Exposure to risk is progressively designed out of society, to be replaced by vicarious experiences of risk through videos or with the protection of required safety devices. The paradox is that unknown numbers are however sacrificed through carcinogenic products, abortion, structural violence, massacres, gang murders, cult rituals, "snuff" movies and associated perversions, or a failure of food and medical supplies.

The attitude to life has become as immature as that to death. Millions are spent on efforts to maintain youthfulness, whether through cosmetics, cosmetic surgery or attempts to reverse the ageing process. Every other value is sacrificed to save lives in industrialized societies, whilst allowing others to die elsewhere. Individuals in industrialized societies are prosecuted for life-endangering neglect. But these same societies fail to apply the same standards in their policies towards other societies. Reproduction is tacitly encouraged without any provision for the resulting population growth or for the effects on the environment. Society evokes problems to provide solutions for its own irresponsibility -- a control mechanism for the immature lacking the insight for a healthy relationship to cycles.

The challenge of the times would seem to involve a call for personal transformation through which social and conceptual frameworks can be viewed anew. Willingness to sacrifice inherited perspectives is an indication of the dimension of the challenge --most dramatically illustrated by willingness to risk death. However physical death is not the issue, and may easily be a simplistic, deluded impulse lending itself to manipulation. Destruction of frameworks valued by others is equally suspect. Such dramatics provide rewards within the very frameworks whose nature the individual needs to question, but by which he or she may need to choose to be constrained.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


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