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Human Values Project (Explanations)

Complexity: Understanding value systems

Human Values Project

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1. Understanding of value classes

In the light of the above it would seem useful to distinguish sets of value functions. It is also useful to attempt to distinguish for each case between: a positive interpretation (p); a negative interpretation (n); a paradoxical negative interpretation of the positive (pn); and a paradoxical positive interpretation of the negative (np):

  • Class I: Efforts at recognizing "the" one fundamental underlying value governing human society, readily labelled by different constituencies as "love", "profit", "peace", "justice", etc according to orientation (p). This then tends to be used in an overly simplistic or fanatical manner resulting in a form of behavioural blackhole (pn). These value terms are however readily deconstructed into a referential void that is characteristic of this class and the (entropic) pull that it exerts on the constructions of other classes (n). Such seemingly "negative" aspects of this function are also recognized in references to existential despair, alienation and emptiness (n) --which is valued in spiritual disciplines for the perspective (np) that it gives ("dark night of the soul", "ego death", etc) and its mysterious relationship as a catalyst or matrix for the creativity of Class IV (Nishitani, 1982).
  • Class II: Value sets as assiduously elaborated by international constituencies in an effort to achieve universal consensus on a framework for action and governance (p). Such sets are also characteristic of religious dogma (eg sets of virtues). They may be viewed as essential to society for the reasons well argued by their advocates. They can also be viewed with suspicion as straitjackets on that very development of value sensitivity and diversity which ensures their relevance to living systems (pn). From a Class III perspective, such value sets are quite claustrophobic and inappropriate to a learning environment, to the point of being associated with outmoded patterns of dominance (n). Such sets may thus be seen as continuously decaying into Class I in the mindsets of the disabused and alienated. But it is precisely their "outdated", predictable, dependable, disciplined quality which constitutes a vital complement (np) to the chaotic and evanescent value experiments of Class III, providing the stability through which Class IV can emerge.
  • Class III: Value systems created by individuals and groups to frame and enhance their particular, and often private, experience (p). The freedom and experimental quality of such value creation reflects the views of social constructionists and an appreciation of diversity. Not necessarily viewed as (to be) widely held, permanent, coherent, or systematic. They are essentially unstable and unaccountable (pn) and may be quickly abandoned (through a decay process into Class I) although they may undergo a form of reification (into dogma) into Class II, possibly accompanied by some form of institutionalization. Some, notably those advocating Class II frameworks, severely question and condemn the social incoherence and irresponsibility of such value relativism where "anything goes" (n). It is however precisely in their role as an evanescent, exploratory complement (np) to Class II that Class III creates a dynamic environment through which Class IV can emerge.
  • Class IV: Emerging, surprising, new value patterns reflecting new degrees of sensitivity, coherence and fundamental groundedness as a source of inspiration (p) that contrast with those of Class II. In contrast to the chaos of Class III, these carry a recognizable quality of stability and integrity (failing which they decay into Class III, or directly into Class I). They tend however to attract a pathological enthusiasm, in a manner somewhat analogous to Class I, as offering "the secret elixir" by comparison with the perceived irrelevance of other classes (pn). Through a form of value narcissism, they distract from the vital functions of other classes (n). They can be confused with more familiar values in other classes through a failure to recognize their originality and as such run the danger of being coopted under the frameworks of those other classes. It perhaps precisely in this manner that the new strengths renew the values in the other classes (np).

2. Class discrimination and demonizing

The sociology of value advocates and creators is characterized by much bitterness and demonizing. It is the argument of this paper that this is the consequence of a failure of class discrimination --where the notion of "discrimination" itself evokes the demonizing process.

There is an interesting recursive feature to the levels of demonizing:

  • Identity: In the effort to establish the legitimacy and role of any of the above value classes, the others may be condemned and rejected outright. Something is right and everything else must necessarily be wrong. Co-existence of values is inconceivable. This may be seen as a form of demonizing conditioned by a Class I dynamic.
  • Framework: In the effort to establish a working framework (whether for Class II, III or IV) other approaches to values are demonized as inadequate, inappropriate, and inferior, and as such dangerous (unless subsumed). Alternative frameworks, and the choices they imply, are unacceptable. Such discrimination may be seen as conditioned by a form of Class II dynamic.
  • Dynamic: In the effort to ensure a dynamic, developing approach to values other approaches are demonized as constricting and rigid and therefore unresponsive to changing circumstances. Any constraint or criticism is viewed as intolerable and symptomatic of all that needs to be superseded (notably the "problem-solving mentality"). Such discrimination may be seen as conditioned by a form of Class III dynamic.
  • Emergence: In the effort to cultivate new levels of value coherence other approaches are demonized as outmoded, simplistic and less elegant. Such discrimination may be seen as conditioned by a Class IV dynamic.

The issue of demonizing is in practice far from trivial, as indicated by use of the epithet "satanic" by fundamentalists in political and religious discourse. But whilst this might be expected of those focused on Class I or Class II values, the often rabid fanaticism is surprising in those advocating Class III values -- whether under a banner of postmodernism or political correctness.

Again the situation can be usefully illustrated with a family. Some families exhibit extreme suspicion of non-family members and their values (Class I). Whether in strong patriarchal or matriarchal systems, family values may be strongly laid down with severe sanctions for deviance (Class II). Adolescents and young adults may explore a variety of value systems consecutively or in parallel, adapting to others holding values which may be quite incompatible, and reacting very negatively against any dominant value pattern (Class III). Couples or colleagues, concerned to create a relationship characterized by viability and newness, are especially attentive to the complementarity of their values and the need to strike a balance between destabilizing tendencies towards Class II or Class III values (Class IV).

The "demonizing" functions have their place in distinguishing different approaches. They become completely dysfunctional when they obscure recognition of their complementarity and thus oppose the coevolution of the different value classes.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


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