Values: complementary to knowledge and competence

I was reflecting more on what values are.

I come back more and more strongly to the position that values are what people have in common when they would make the same choices in the same situations. But of course what you do is most often affected by what you know, and certainly also limited by what you are capable of doing, or indeed what you are competent at doing. And yet, the way we use the concept of values indicates that we imagine that we may share values with people of quite different knowledge and skills.

So I think it is perfectly reasonable to say that we share values with people who would make the same choices in the same situations, given the same knowledge and abilities. Because we don't share the same knowledge and abilities, we can never be absolutely certain, but we can imagine, and I think with good reason. Values are complementary to knowledge and ability. It is the three of them together that determine choices of action, to the extent that they are determinable (which is never perfectly.)


The technological dilemma

A bit less than 20 years ago, when I was working at City University, I started to think through some technology approaches that I initially called "the CHOICE system" (Common Human Online Information Correspondence Enquiry). That developed some time later, through interaction with a couple of collaborators including Bruce Pullman, to "CHOICE Matching". Right at the beginning, I felt that the idea, though not yet quite "ripe", could make someone a lot of money in the next 5 to 10 years. I wrote this in a departmental presentation in 1994.

Why and how? Because essentially such a system would cut through the dilemma of (a) a small amount of verified information giving poor matches (b) the requirement for large amounts of information being impractical, demotivating, and against lazy human nature. Matching people, or person-sized opportunities, becomes really practical, efficient, and motivated. The system can thus facilitate one of the pillars of a choice society — to bring people together who share values, so that they can work, live, or otherwise interact together in ways that are in keeping with their values, making their lives more meaningful and fulfilling in ways that one can only start to imagine.

15 years passed, now nearly 20, and no money, no appearance of any other system that does what CHOICE could do. So where should I go? Seems to me like there are two alternative approaches to choose between — a dilemma for me.

  1. Keep the whole idea under my hat still, but keep my ears ever open for a chance to exploit the idea commercially. The main benefit of attracting income would be to facilitate people to work on the surrounding issues, for the benefit of people in common. Another benefit is that there is money to fend off any large corporate predatory interest that might want to interfere with the idea and its application. On the other hand, the danger is that it will never happen. Even if it happens later, what about all the people who could be helped in the meanwhile? I feel that pressure even now - should I already, say 10 years ago, have put all the ideas in the public domain?
  2. Which brings me to the other alternative. Give up any idea of focusing any kind of financial stream. Publish the ideas, the plans, the methods, the algorithms, as widely as possible, and try to draw people in, perhaps using open source and open standards approaches to ensuring that the IP remains free. The dangers here are both of subversion by commercial interests, and of rapacious claims to the IP (by the kinds of people serving corporate empires supporting SOPA, PIPA, etc.)

Ultimately, I don't know, and I can't tell which way to go. Perhaps it depends on the people who would accompany me on the journey. Who would that be, then? Of course, it would be so useful to have the CHOICE system to find people who have similar values to mine...


Instilling goodness - a reply to Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson, in a post yesterday "Beyond Good and Evil: Creativity and transversal competency" asked, "What would the educational processes around instilling 'goodness' look like?" What a wonderful question! Thank you, Mark!

OK, maybe there are aspects of goodness, or forms of goodness, that cannot be learned. Let's celebrate that and move on to what may be learned. If it can be learned, then there is value in at least attempting to analyse it, so that we can consider perhaps how it might be built up.

Goodness is about the choices we make. I did a quick search for "choose to do good" and came across this humble account of a particular good choice along with the exhortation to choose to do good. But choice is a matter both of real freedom and of perception. Mark's point about our environment resonates here. Our environment must allow us choice. But also we must see the choices offered by the environment, and seeing the possibility of choosing differently is surely one of the first keys to unlocking goodness. As Mark points out eloquently, an environment in which we can 'play' is one in which we have evident choice. What is a game if not an activity that we can choose to engage in, or not? If we can't escape, it's no longer a game...

In a situation where choice is present, there seem to me a few essential ingredients to goodness, badness, or indeed living up to any personal value.

  • We need to be able to carry out the choices we make. This can depend on to all sorts of things that many people call "competencies". And not having those competencies can affect what we perceive as possible – we may not feel we have an effective choice if we are not confident that we can carry out alternative actions.
  • We need knowledge of the likely consequences of our actions, for ourselves, for others, and for the rest of the world we are taking into consideration. This can be taught. It can also be taught horribly wrongly. And one kind of consideration that weighs very heavily on us is what Richard Wilkinson calls "social-evaluative threat" – threats to our self-esteem or social status.
  • With all the knowledge and ability we might have, we still are left with the weighing up of the different outcomes, as we understand them at the moment of choice. There is a widely-understood attribute of a person about to make a decision, often known as "presence of mind" or something similar. It is to do with how deep we allow the process of consideration of consequences to go. If we decide without consideration (perhaps because there was not time for it) we may miss appreciating consequences that may come back to haunt us later.

Probably everyone would agree with the points above, and surely they can be affected positively by learning, education or training. But they do not guarantee goodness. What is also necessary is, I think, the most essential 'ingredient' of all, simply because it cannot be so easily acquired. What is this?

It is, surely, how we value the consequences we perceive. Do we ultimately care about the environment; about people in distant lands; about society around us; or even about the people we know? Knowledge about the impact of our choice on them can go a long way, but in the end, the amount we care – the amount we love – is not fixed. And can we 'afford' to care? Here, there is room for enlightened self-interest, but this is not enough, particularly when considering long-term consequences.

As an aside, this is where Heaven and Hell come in. So-called religious teachers may tell us about eternal consequences for us, but curiously, that turns the calcuation back onto a self-centred basis. I don't believe that is what we want.

Where love comes in, quite irrespective of heaven and hell, is in valuing the consequences for the Other as much as the consequences for oneself. If that can be taught, I think the only way is by example.