University of Earth
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Human Values Project (Explanations)

Comments: Interrelating values

Human Values Project

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1. Universal set of values

There is a continuing belief that a universal set of values can be formulated for the global community, possibly elaborated in the form of a hierarchy. This view is echoed in a recent study of the Club of Rome for UNESCO (1987): "It seems strange that we should be obliged today to proclaim, at the most acute stage in the transition towards a new civilization, the obvious fact that no culture is possible without agreement on a foundation or solid base of common ethical values. This search for fundamental guidelines has been a constant feature of our historical and probably prehistoric past....The most recent form of this need to have a consistent set of mental images is represented by "human rights". It is interesting to note the similar concerns expressed by the sacred texts of the Vedas, the Gita, the Bible and the Koran....If there is no basic system of reference, there is no possibility of consensus and not even a possibility of challenge or rejection: discussion necessarily takes place in a vacuum. It would therefore be a tragic backward step to lose such basic values or not to replace them by more effective ones....The human person is nothing in itself, from the practical or even from the moral point of view, if it shuts itself off in isolation. Its value lies in its relations with others. It only acts, it is only capable of acting, in "communication" and this communication is impossible unless there exists a broad base of values common to the individuals involved. That is why, whether we like it or not, we must give special prominence as the fundamental data base, to a "system of ethical and moral values". However, the sharing of a common base is not yet enough. We must add the availability of a set of models representing the rules that will enable communication to take place...". The report argues that: "Values such as collective human survival, the primacy and protection of human life, the preservation of nature and the dignity of mankind, justice, freedom and equity, already form the nucleus of universally accepted values upon which a real consensus has formed among peoples, but not among governments."

2. Conflicting systems of values

However, the same report of the Club of Rome to UNESCO continues: "Meanwhile, in many societies we find a growing antagonism between some of these new values, conveyed by the mass media, and the traditional values inherited from the past."

The history of the relations between traditional value systems (exemplified by those of the major religions), as well as the present stresses between fundamentalist interpretations of them, is not encouraging for those believing that a universal set of values is emerging. The report is obliged to acknowledge the continuing presence of conflicting values: "The emergence of certain universal values such as human rights or respect for nature does not mean the end of ancestral values. They may contradict each other...in addition, individual values may sometimes conflict with collective values or one value with another....Certain changes and contradictions in the hierarchy of values are taking a dramatic turn for individuals or communities when they are intensified by agitation aimed at arousing the emotions needed to achieve political ends."

The report accepts that the harmonious co-existence of very different values is nothing new and asks the question of how co-existing and contradictory value systems are to be reconciled. It suggests, hopefully, that: "We should not attach too much importance to the problem as value systems do not function in the same way as logical systems. The human mind is capable of absorbing systems which include traditional elements and other more modern or future-oriented elements as well as individual and collective criteria." On this point it concludes that: "the interesting and important point is that different systems of values do in fact co-exist even though their co-existence is sometimes coloured by opposition and mistrust. Indeed it is not so much a question of the co-existence of contradictory value systems as of the values being interpreted in different terms. When all is said, the factor that makes such co-existence, the plurality of interpretations and the society of uncertainty, possible is the capacity for dialogue."

3. Beyond "credos" to requisite variety

There is little recognition in the discussion of universal values that society is likely to remain complex and that this complexity is necessary to the long-term viability of society. The impression is frequently created that an updated set of "ten commandments" could be based on worldwide consensus on ten universal values. There is even concern as to how such values should be "implemented". This raises the question of the treatment to be accorded to those who do not subscribe with equal enthusiasm to that same set of values. It also raises the question of how those values are to be refined if simplistic efforts to institutionalize them are not challenged.

A great deal of hope is placed in the possibility that everyone naturally accepts that "peace", "love", and "justice", for example, are unquestionable "goods", or that people can be educated into this understanding. The arguments of Section KD, for example, suggest that, whilst efforts in this direction are necessary, they are of local rather than global significance. There is a strong possibility that efforts to reduce the complexity of the value system to a limited number of values may be quite unhealthy. Using an ecological metaphor, it may be equivalent to the naive belief that only a few species are required in the natural environment to sustain human life.

The issue is one of requisite variety. How much variety and diversity is required in the value system(s) to ensure the sustainable development of human society. The question raised by Sections VC and VD is therefore which of the 960 constructive or 1040 destructive "values" implied can the psycho-social ecosystem afford to lose. What others need to be reflected there from other cultures and languages?

There is a great difference between: (a) designing a limited universal set of values in the light of questionable assumptions and (b) identifying the range of extant (or potential) values which might have some function in a universal system of values. It is this second strategy which has been tentatively explored in this section.

4. Challenge to comprehension

The problem is partly one of comprehension. Such value terms are understood very differently in different cultures and languages. They also lend themselves to every variety of (mis)interpretation. Most of the world's problems can be said to result from actions guided by differing interpretations of "peace", "love" and "justice" - the other person's interpretation always being perceived as at fault.

As noted by the Director-General of UNESCO, René Maheu: "Behind the misty wall of words, the diverse, even contradictory, interpretations, motivations and utilizations are an indication of fundamental divisions concerning values. In particular, the most basic human rights are more frequently invoked as a weapon of attack or defence against some party, rather than recognized and practised as the royal road to a positive relationship between individuals and groups in an objective form of fraternity." (15th General Conference, Paris, UNESCO, 1968).

The arguments of this section suggest that it is somewhat simplistic to expect the word "justice", for example, to carry the full set of connotations necessary for it to fulfil all the functions expected of it. As noted in Section KD, global consensus on any of these terms, or any set of them, can best be conceived as being characterized by an inherent uncertainty. This uncertainty is not to be regretted for it is that which is a guarantee of the dynamics through which a more profound understanding of values emerges. A neat definition of any value can only be of significance to a necessarily limited local group prepared to be bound in that way for some period of time, until its members are once again transformed by the global dynamics.

It may be argued that a significant number of words in Sections VC or VD should not be considered as carrying values. As with the possibility of "problem-less" problem names in Section P, these would therefore be "value-less" value names. But, as with the "name-less" problems discussed in Section PZ, there is also the extremely interesting question of "name-less" values. Clearly it is more than probable that the present vocabulary does not have words to denote many values which will be distinguished in the future, and which some may already distinguish at this time (as implied by Section HM). The challenge of "qualities without a name" implies the need for an organization of value information which will facilitate their emergence and recognition -- somewhat as with the role of the periodic table of chemical elements.

5. Nature of the requisite dynamic framework

This said it is not simply a question of accepting value relativism. As Kenneth Boulding (1978) points out: "There is not, of course, a single set of human values and each human being has his or her own set. There are however processes in the ecological interaction or society by which these differing values, though not reduced to a single set, are at least coordinated in an ongoing evolutionary process."

The question is then how the holding of any particular value fits into some such dynamic framework through which it is transformed by learning processes. Particular understandings are then better conceived as local way stations on learning cycles composed of complementary value sets. What is as yet far from clear is how such cycles are interlinked and how the transition to cycles encoding greater uncertainty can be accomplished. This question have been explored in relation to sets of human needs (Judge, 1980).

It is quite amazing that efforts to articulate value sets or systems seem to limit themselves to the simplicity of checklists or simple hierarchies. Whilst structural reductionism of this kind may be possible by collapsing rich structural detail, it is totally inadequate to the task of demonstrating how the ecosystem of values is woven together. Such simplistic structures totally fail to incorporate any degree of dynamic challenge to counteract the naturally tendency towards simplistic interpretations of values such as "peace", "love", etc. It is for this reason that a structure based on the natural challenge of value polarities opens up richer possibilities of embodying greater variety.

In such polarities there is truth and falsehood in both extremes. The polarity itself reflects the lived dilemma of acting in terms of the values represented. The polarities signal the existence of learning arenas in which individuals and societies respond to the tensions of the dilemma. Through experience of the dilemma comes understanding of the hidden weakness in "constructive" values and of the hidden truth in "destructive" values. There is then recognition that "constructive" initiatives are not always appropriate. As many religious traditions and mythologies recognize, appropriate renewal may well need to be preceded by "destruction".

6. Local vs Global

The key question then remains by what norms should action be guided. Clearly people can only be adequately motivated by the values they fully understand. Local values necessarily avoid the uncertainty inherent in global values (to which local communities may have an equivalent of the body's immune response reaction). Until such local values are acknowledged, respected and given a place within any global value framework, it is not to be expected that local communities will respond, other than in token form, to global values. This response is effectively a built-in safeguard. Local "shoulds" are a response to local conditions. Global "shoulds", as society is currently able to define them, are insensitive to the variety of local demands and are therefore effectively disempowered. They would engender a highly vulnerable society if expressed locally in their present form, aside from the possibilities of abuse.

At present the need is therefore for different local groups to act in terms of the different local values they perceive as meaningful. "Local" includes the "peace" movement(s), the "human rights" movement(s), the "green" movement(s), the "development" movement(s), etc, whose fundamental differences are an indication of the non-global nature of their specialized preoccupations. Thespastic or paralysing global consequences of such differences may be overcome when values can be embodied as phases in learning cycles, with a local/global dimension, rather than perceived as static categories invoking territorial dynamics.

7. Human development as the resolution of value dilemmas

Erik Erikson (Childhood and Society, 1963) has explored the possibility that, at eight stages of the development of an individual through the life-cycle, distinct value conflicts are encountered. The implications of this sort of approach are outlined in the Introduction on Phases of human development through challenging problems.

8. Interrelating values through tensional integrity

In order to interrelate such competing value systems, frameworks such as the tensional integrity (tensegrity) structure can usefully be explored (see page 826). For such structures are brought into existence, and acquire their globality, precisely because of the countervailing dynamics between the local systems of which they are composed. Their integrity as a whole is engendered by the dynamic relationship, whether supportive or antagonistic, between the parts.

A truly universal system of values is thus better modelled by a tensional integrity structure which offers distinct niches for competing value systems, whilst ensuring a dynamic relationship between them. It is brought into existence by using the tensions between competing value perspectives -- using the energy of opposing perspectives to engender a larger structure. The complexity of such structures can be scaled up or down, by collapsing particular features, to the degree required for particular levels of comprehension.

Schematics illustrating potentially more fruitful ways of comprehending the integrity of a universal set of values
(namely structures onto which the "value polarities" of Figure 3 might be mapped)
A tensegrity structure, with each strut representing a particular value polarity to constitute a complete, but comprehensible representation of a universal set of values A spherical structure indicating the kinds of global pathways that might need to interlock as the pattern underlying the tensegrity structure on the left
Union of Intelligible Associations:
remembering dynamic identity through a dodecameral mind
, 2005 [images]

Conventional presentations of value systems, as lists or hierarchies, reinforce the unfortunate illusion that the subtleties to which many are sensitive are adequately embodied in them. In spherical tensional integrities, the focal point around which the individual elements are structured is unoccupied by any concrete element. As such the structure leaves open the nature of that focal point, in sympathy with many of the arguments and intuitions outlined in Section H of this Encyclopedia. The centre is empty, and it is through the emptiness of that centre that the parts specified on the periphery acquire their meaning in relation to one another.

Given the possibility of such elegant representations of the universal system of values, honouring their rich complexity, it is difficult to justify the simplistic patterns of values which are favoured conventionally. Why is it that such simplistic representations are so rarely challenged?

9. The dance of positive and negative

This scheme suggests a much healthier approach to "positivity" as a slogan and "negativity" as an anathema in society today. The more responsible approach is wellillustrated by the following: "What does it mean, to be whole? It means that we must be willing to conceive of, to contain within ourselves, whatever is "other than" any limited idea. It means knowing that when we emphasize a positive, we are at the same time creating a negative. When we choose an ideal of knowledge, then we must deal with the ignorance that is other than the knowledge. When we emphasize an ideal of holiness, then we must live with the sin that is its companion, and accept our responsibility for having awareness... If we allow that ugliness is always within us, then we are free to create beauty. If we know that stupidity is always within us, then we are free to emphasize this intelligence." (Thaddeus Golas, 1971)


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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