Sunday, November 02, 2008

a theory about why values matter

Yesterday I met up with some friends to discuss things that we are all interested in. One of our friends talked about different value systems, and said that the thing that ties most people to a value system (and not another) is not rational choice, but habit and emotion. He said societies should have serious debates about "morality", what is right and what is wrong. I decided to think through this idea and its implications.

First of all, why is there a need to have a public discussion about moral issues? Because value systems do not stay contained within one individual's life or one clearly-defined group. The value system of a policy maker will bear on his policy choices and affect all groups in the society.

Secondly, what is a "value system"? My definiton of a value is "the best way of doing something or solving a problem" for an individual, and a value system is a network of (ideally) mutually consistent and enforcing values. At the core of all these values is one or more assumptions. The validity of these assumptions is often not tested (or by nature cannot be tested). However, they provide answers to big fundamental questions. The system, then, gives answers to all the smaller questions based on the big answer at the core.

I will give an example from my own value system first. Let's say the question is, "should I drink wine?" My core assumption is that my actions should not harm myself or anyone, because that's bad, useless and troublesome. Then the answer is a simple "yes, but in moderation!" Let's take a devout Muslim. When faced with this question, he will go back to his core assumption: That God is the creator of universe and Hz. Muhammed is His prophet, and the best way to live life is to follow the rules prescribed by the Kur'an. Drinking wine is a sin according to the Kur'an. Moreover, if this person has never seen their family or friends drink wine, he will view a sudden change of habit as betrayal to his heritage. If he breaks one rule, would he lose his anchor, would his life lose its consistence, coherence and meaning?

Now let's see how this person's value system would affect his policy making. He sees people drinking wine in restaurants and bars, and they seem a little too happy and annoying. They might go out and drive and commit indecencies. Even if he realizes that wine drinkers do not harm him directly, he might simply take upon himself to spread the good in the society. Then our policymaker would adopt policies that limit wine drinking.

This theory can be applied to other social issues such as religious rights, abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage and women's rights. More significantly, policymakers may impose their value systems on the youth through the education curriculum and the media. Debates over the teaching of "intelligent design" versus "evolutionary theory" in the US is a good example.

But the remit of value systems is not limited to social issues, and assumptions are not always religious (although they demonstrate "religious" qualities). Economic policy is influenced by its own value systems. For example, neoliberalism was the most popular value system until the most recent crisis. Its core assumption, that market forces will allocate resources more efficiently, and regulation should be minimal, was considered almost as a law of nature by its proponents. The latest crisis demonstrated that this assumption was not tested in all circumstances. Communism was its own value system, and it didn't stand the test of time.

Another example can be national security and freedoms. Civil servants in Turkey, for example, typically belong to one value system. The core assumption of this system is that "the unity of the Turkish territory and nation should be protected against divisive ethnic and religious forces at all cost". Now, the validity and effectiveness of this assumption is open to question, but because of it, national security takes precedence over individual freedoms.

Having blind faith in the truth of a value system may be comfortable, but what if your assumptions are wrong? What if there are better options out there? What if evolution makes more sense than intelligent design (or visa versa)? Wouldn't we be closing ourselves to other possibilities, turning a blind eye on lessons learned from experience and research, limiting our potential for growth?

What matters is what you learn after you know it all.

In some areas, a society of free-thinking individuals would converge to value systems whose truth stands the test of time. In other instances, it may decide that some issues are personal, and the society should have no bearing on an individual's choice. But we should be open to listening to each other and changing our minds, however difficult and disconcerting it is. This is the only way forward.

No comments: