Values and the zeitgeist

Troppo Armadillo is clearly in tune with the zeitgeist. I posted a long article about values and civility several weeks ago. Now I see Don Arthur has also posted a shorter piece on the subject, musing that “deep civility” might be regarded as a core value of classical liberalism:

We don’t know how to resolve disagreements about whether a good life is one devoted to serving God or one devoted to enlightened self interest. We don’t know how to reach a consensus about which moral values are most important or what words like freedom or fairness mean in practice. It’s impossible to say that these are not important issues but it’s also impossible to reach agreement. People don’t disagree with us about these things because they are mad, ignorant, or stupid.

The liberal response to differences like these is to agree to disagree. We don’t give up our own beliefs, our own ambitions for society, or our own feelings about what others say and do. What we do is agree to respect other people for who they are and in return we ask them to respect us for who we are.

Neale Talbot, however, who’s just made a comeback to blogging after a hiatus, isn’t so impressed with all this focus on values:

When politicians start talking about values, it’s time to strap on the bullshit detector and fire up the hypocrisy quotient indicator, because there’s hardly a politician alive who’s going to live up to their rhetoric. …

While it’s certainly admirable that the people within Government have values that they hold dear, the last thing I want is for the Government itself to start going large on values and let those values affect policy. We can already see quite clearly what happens when Christian values infect Government policy. …

The problem is that values only get in the way of a Government’s primary duty: to protect and care for the citizens it represents. Until recently, Governments used to use social science and specialist expertise to determine what would protect and care for its citizens. Now we have Bush and Kerry, Howard and Latham, Blair and whoever the hell opposes Blair (anyone? anyone at all?) pushing “values” in Government, as opposed to rational, researched decision making. It is a terrible, incongruous debate that has nothing to do with appropriately Governing a country; but also one no politician can ignore. The first politician that blinks and says he’ll use rational decision making over value judgements is going to get his arse kicked in the political arena. Which is why, post November, you can lay a safe bet that the US President will be a guy who has one set of values for America, and another for his administration.

There’s an assumption involved in Neale’s reaction that’s worth exploring; namely that deciding issues ‘rationally’, and deciding them in accordance with some pre-agreed set of values, are mutually exclusive and antithetical methodologies. But is that true? Certainly the classical utilitarian critique of deontological (duty-based e.g. Kant) theories of moral philosophy would say so. Consequentialists deny the utility of deriving values/morality independently of a prior assessment of likely consequences and their capacity to maximise some generally-accepted good (most commonly happiness):

Advocates of personal liberty question the traditional duties to ourselves. For example, the right to suicide is now widely defended, and the right to self-rule implies that I can let my faculties and abilities deteriorate if I so choose. Finally, many of the traditional duties to others have also been under fire. Defenders of personal liberty question our duties of benevolence, such as charity, and political duties, such as public spirit. For some, the traditional list of self-evident duties needs to be reduced to one: the duty to not harm others. Another problem with traditional duty theory is that there is no clear procedure for resolving conflicts between duties. Suppose I am placed in a situation where I must choose between feeding myself to avoid starvation, or feeding my neighbor to keep her from starving. Consequentialist theories provide a clear formula for resolving this conflict: the morally correct choice is the one which produces the greatest benefit (either to myself, or to society at large). Traditional duty theory, by contrast, does not offer a procedure for determining which obligation is primary. Without such a procedure, it is inadequate in its present form.

But consequentialist approaches themselves aren’t immune to criticism (see Andrew Halpin, Rights & Law – Analysis and Theory):

  • It’s impossible to ascertain all consequences, and any purported attempt to do so is inherently arbitrary and biased, and may neglect other consequences that are significant;
  • The most significant impact each individual can have on the general good is by ensuring that his own behaviour is moral rather than by focusing on the remoter consequences of his behaviour in the actions of others. (This wouldn’t negate the value of governments (as opposed to individuals) engaging in a consequential analysis as a precursor to policy decisions, apart from anything else because governments have greater resources to do so and their decisions typically have much wider and longer-lasting consequences than those of individuals);
  • A contemplated lapse from moral duty may have wider consequences than the immediate breach, in establishing a pattern of conduct or attitudes that will in general do more harm than the perceived good used to justify this particular breach;
  • Shared values or morality contribute in themselves to social utility, in that they facilitate social cohesion, peace and stability, which are in turn outcomes conducive to happiness (although that may be negated to the extent that shared values are maintained by coercion, and especially if the shared values don’t include the sort of tolerance, respect and deep civility that Don Arthur discusses).

In my previous post about manners, values and civility, I attempted to provoke a discussion about what shared values Australians might be able to agree upon. I failed dismally, possibly because most readers didn’t bother to wade through to the end of a very long post. So I’ll try again, because this post is a bit shorter. J.M Ross, who was the last of the notable deontological theorists, proposed the following list of shared values/duties:

  • Fidelity: the duty to keep promises
  • Reparation: the duty to compensate others when we harm them
  • Gratitude: the duty to thank those who help us
  • Justice: the duty to recognize merit
  • Beneficence: the duty to improve the conditions of others
  • Self-improvement: the duty to improve our virtue and intelligence
  • Nonmaleficence: the duty to not injure others.

I would add the following:

  • Deep civility: the duty of tolerance and respect of others’ behaviour, opinions and being;
  • Democratic participation: the duty of democratic citizenship, which minimally involves exercising one’s vote in a reasonably informed manner, and preferably involves rather more than that (participation in opinion-forming civic dialogue – like the blogosphere).

Perhaps some of the above list might appropriately be regarded as legal duties (i.e. enforceable), but most are better regarded as purely moral duties i.e. there are no immediate consequences for breach other than social disapproval. Moreover, the extent of disapproval will vary from duty to duty and between particular situations. For example, the extent of my disapproval of a broken promise might depend on the consequences of the breach for the promisee, and disapproval of failure to thank someone might depend on how much effort or sacrifice they put into helping you and how much benefit you received. Similarly, I’m unlikely to disapprove strongly of a person who habitually engages in ad hominem abuse declining to participate in civic dialogue. In fact I’d prefer they didn’t. Assessment of consequences isn’t absent from the operation of a practical deontological approach, it just post-dates determination of the content of duty.

Moreover, even up-front assessment of likely consequences is necessarily part of a deontological approach. Kant’s Categorical Imperative inherently involves assessment of consequences in answering the question of whether my conduct is fit to be “a universal law of nature”. Consequentialist and deontological approaches aren’t diametrically opposed, they just emphasise different aspects of the process of deciding what’s right and wrong and acting upon those rules. In fact both consequentialist and deontological approaches necessarily derive norms intuitively: – a proposed rule/duty can’t be derived independently of history, culture and experience. However, consequentialist approaches aspire to test likely consequences of a proposed rule in a more extensive and systematic way than (say) Kant’s Categorical Imperative. The other difference is that deontological theories maintain that there may be some rules which will apply irrespective of the balance of actual or likely consequences e.g. deliberately killing a child is always wrong, even if thousands may benefit).

Feel free to dispute any of the above list in the comment box, or add your own. The main criterion is that they must be values/duties that we should regard as common core values of all Australians, and therefore proposed shared values need to be ones that take account of the fact that Australia is a multicultural, wealthy, secular western liberal-democratic nation where citizens hold a variety of religious beliefs (at least so I would argue). Of course, as Don Arthur notes, it’s unlikely to be possible to reach complete agreement on a set of values like the above, unless they’re so minimalist and vague as to be totally meaningless. But I reckon we might be able to reach a pretty significant level of consensus, and in any event I think the attempt to do so is valuable in itself.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Stan
Stan
2022 years ago

I’m not sure whether you mean that these values should be representative in government or in the population.

For my part I don’t believe that you can prescribe values to government, rather governments should have interests. I can’t remember how the quote goes exactly but it says something like “countries don’t share friends they share interests”

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Stan,

Fair point. Most of the list is appropriate primarily in guiding individual behaviour. However, some of them (e.g. fidelity, reparation, justice) are almost equally relevant to governments.

Then there’s “beneficence”. I’m not convinced it should be there at all, but I left it in because it was part of Ross’s list. The problem with “beneficence” for governments is that many ways of benefitting others are zero sum games i.e. some people gain at the expense of others. Maybe governments should only exercise beneficence where:
(a) it isn’t a zero sum game and a consequentialist analysis suggests net benefits will strongly outweigh detriments, and
(b)significant infringement of individual liberty isn’t involved in the delivery of the beneficence.

Stan
Stan
2022 years ago

PS. I agree though that there is value in trying to describe the values you seek, for personal growth for example, but but then where do we go with that?

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

but but then where do we go with that?

I’m not sure. Maybe we don’t need to go ay further than to derive (or attempt to derive) agreement about duties/values as a partial antidote to the selfish modern “rights culture” with all its anti-social, “greed is good” results. Maybe if all we achieve is a broad consciousness that a sustainable social order necessarily requires fundamental duties as well as fundamental rights, that’s enough (without needing to achieve complete agreement on exactly what those rights and duties are or involve).

Stan
Stan
2022 years ago

And of course with “beneficence”

Stan
Stan
2022 years ago

Sorry. Third last sentence should read:

That’s why politics often comes down to the personalities, not doctrine or dogma.

Stan
Stan
2022 years ago

Maybe if all we achieve is a broad consciousness that a sustainable social order necessarily requires fundamental duties as well as fundamental rights, that’s enough (without needing to achieve complete agreement on exactly what those rights and duties are or involve).

I guess I’d agree with that but I see a problem. Once upon a time in human history, you could join society (or some other measurable community) or not. If you didn’t share the values of the particular community, you could leave.

Perhaps that’s where some of the friction in our daily lives evolves from. You could move from one local government jurisdiction to another if you didn’t agree with dog breed laws in your town, but where do you go if you think your country is a bunch of warmongering racists? Even the most talented of us find it hard to change citizenship at will.

This dilemma is only temporarily postponed even for citizens of say, the EU, where movement amongst nationstates is fairly easy. Eventually, assuming some sort of global government one day, the values of the majority will be shared across the globe.

It seems eventually you have to convince people that your values make a better contribution than the ones they presently hold, and invoking higher orders of government (like the UN for example) to trump the views of your own government, might one day bite you on the arse if those views one day in the future are at variance with your own.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Stan,

Yes, that’s why I think we need to stick mainly with individual duties/rights/values, and confine ourselves to Australia (I don’t claim that my list would necessarily be applicable to some other country, especially a third world one without an extant liberal-democratic culture). Once we start to look in any detail at the government level, we get into a whole raft of issues such as the ones you mention. It becomes a completely different discussion. I’ll muse separately one day about the sustainable role of supra-national bodies (like the UN) in trumping domestic governments and evolving broader, more universal values. But it’s a huge topic. I think I’d prefer eating the elephant a small forkful at a time.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, on the empirical question of what values are most commonly held, there is a very large research project coordinated at the University of Michigan looking at cross-cultural data across a very large population of nation states. You can read about it and the findings here. This also has the benefit of being a time-series data set, with surveys ranging from 1990 to 2001. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to read and summarise the findings, but my recollection is that it’s exceptionally interesting. As far as I know, this is one of the largest social science research projects conducted to date.

Neale Talbot
2022 years ago

Ken, the problem here is that your value set and my value set will inevitably conflict, and conflict with the value set of those around us. I disagree with your confligration (is that the right word?) of values and duties. Values are something we aspire to; duties are a role we must perform. They are different things with different purposes, and they influence each other. If my duty is to protect the common good, and I have pro-life values, I may believe I am achieving my duties by shutting down abortion clinics.
The reason we cling to the rule of law, is that a rule of values is automatically swayed by the value set of the ruler. Value can play a very positive part, and in the end I’d probably agree a Government needs a defined set of values to form a framework with which to carry out it’s duties, but I’m hesitent to suggest that values make Government better.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Neale

You’re quite right that I’ve deliberately conflated (probably the word you had in mind) values and duties. It might have been better if I’d teased out the distinction as you’ve done. Don Arthur makes the same point in a slightly different way on John Quiggin’s discussion thread, when he says:
I’m far more optimistic about our being able to agree on WHAT to do than I am about our agreeing on WHY to do it. It seems to me that politics is about being able to agree on practices when we can’t agree on principles.

That gets closer to the heart of it. We might not be able to agree on values (the “why”), but we might be able to agree that we should perform concrete duties and possess concrete rights (the “what”).

I’m (mostly) not talking about the role of values and duties for government, and I think I mostly agree with you in that respect. I’m mostly talking about these things for individuals.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

“If my duty is to protect the common good, and I have pro-life values, I may believe I am achieving my duties by shutting down abortion clinics.”

This example highlights another aspect worth discussing. Couching a duty at a high level of abstraction (e.g. “to protect the common good”) inevitably gives rise to these sorts of extreme divergence of outcome. It’s one of the problems I have with Ross’s inclusion of “the duty of beneficence”: what the hell does it mean or entail? Similarly (although to a slightly lesser extent) with “justice”. Duties expressed at this level of generality will inevitably result in wildly diverging and even opposite actual behaviour, depending on an individual’s values that underly those “duties”. If duties are couched in much more concrete form (e.g. to thank people, not break promises, vote etc), those sorts of things mostly don’t arise. Of course, it isn’t practical or desirable to couch duties in such minute detail that there’s no room for individual conscience/choice as to what the duty requires in a given situation. Where does desirable flexibility become useless indeterminacy? I don’t know, but I think there’s worth in exploring the parameters of what unites us as well as the boundaries of our diversity. Maybe by working out what basic concrete duties and rights (and possibly even some of the underlying values) we nearly all believe in, we can also begin to pin down the characteristics of the more general concepts as well (like justice and beneficence).

Church and family used to fulfil the role of inculcating shared values and duties. But with their partial demise, it seems to me we DO need to explore how else these social cohesion functions might be performed (or whether they’re necessary). In many ways, this post flows on from previous ones I’ve written, including one about Adam Smith, the grandfather of feral, freemarket, “greed is good” neoliberalism. Smith (who was a moral philosopher) thought a free market system would work, because the institutions of family, church and community would ensure that market participants were socialised and already shared strong understandings about social duties and values, interpersonal decency, civility etc. Those institutions either don’t exist any more or are so radically altered and diverse themselves that this socialisation function no longer works very well. It’s these sorts of questions I’m trying to explore.

Neale Talbot
2022 years ago

Well, I am more than happy to agree to the distinction between the WHAT (or duty) with the WHY (the value) as a simple distinction between the two. However, which leads to which?

For an individual, I’d be inclined that the WHY informs the individual of WHAT should be done. For an organisation, I’d be inclined to suggest it’s the other way round, that the WHAT informs the Government of WHY it should be done.

This is because individuals have their own WHYs in their head (or heart), a value system that drives what they should do in life. However, as Don Arthur suggests, in an organisation the WHY is a lot harder to agree upon, so that it is the WHAT that gets cemented in stone.

Which is why, when individuals bring their personal values into government, it’s important they don’t start chisling up the foundations of the WHAT that the government is bound to do (eg Protect the People as opposed to Protect the Party).

My conflict, I guess, comes in when I consider how such things as the market/government/religion can retain a sense of morality (a “package set” of values) vs functionality (a “package set” of duties). As of yet, I have no answer.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Neale

It’s possible that we’re saying pretty much the same things. However, while it’s no doubt true that the “why” informs or drives the “what” for individuals, Don Arthur’s point hopefully makes that distinction less important. As long as we can mostly agree about the “what”, it doesn’t really matter that we’re doing it for a range of different reasons. Don confines himself to “deep civility” in this respect, while I’m trying to broaden out a bit beyond that. Several of the Ross “whats” can be regarded as subsets of deep civility (thanks, keeping promises etc), but several items on my list go further. Yet I still think the vast majority would agree that they’re duties to which we should at least aspire.

I also agree that government “whats” (policy decisions and actions) should mostly be driven by other constituent “whats” (assessment of likely consequences of the various policy options). However, “why” necessarily comes into that assessment at various levels: prioritising the various “whats”, for instance, and deciding whether there might be some options that are beyond the pale irrespective of a consequentialist assessment.

The “whys” that governments generally shouldn’t operate in accordance with are values that aren’t broadly, almost universally held. Fundamentalist christian beliefs about abortion, euthanasia etc are good examples. On the other hand, maybe a “why” like the desirability of maximising equality of opportunity for individuals might be something we could agree on, flowing from the “what” duty of justice defined as rewarding merit, and then utilise as a touchstone for government in deciding between competing policy options. In fact, that’s a good example of how it seems to me that why and what (values and duties) inevitably interact with each other in complex ways, meaning that it isn’t possible to completely remove values from government deliberations. But I agree their role should be minimised, especially where they’re strongly contested in the general society. But that contention itself depends on acceptance of another value, namely that governments should aim for inclusiveness and policies that promote social unity, cohesion and harmony rather than those that promote division and hatred. But that value contention is then qualified by noting that cohesiveness-promoting policies shouldn’t inhibit individual freedom of choice any more than absolutely necessary. I assume that you and most readers wouldn’t argue against those sorts of why/values statements. I think it’s really hard to maintain a rigid separation between why and what in relation to government policy choices.

Cathie
Cathie
2022 years ago

Ken
In your list of shared values/duties, I would add “Fair play: the duty to neither undermine nor misrepresent others”. It could be covered by a broadening of the definition of fidelity but it can just as easily stand alone.

Neale Talbot
2022 years ago

Ken,

As long as we can mostly agree about the “what”, it doesn’t really matter that we’re doing it for a range of different reasons.

I disagree on this point. The value can be critical when informing the duty, because of the nuances the value places on how the duty is carried out.

So I guess we have the values, or the WHY; the duty, or the WHAT; and the method, or the HOW.

Let’s take one of your ideas, reparation: the duty to compensate others when we harm them, and explore it further.

Say Jenna and Mary-Kate both believe in the duties of reparation, nonmaleficence and beneficence, as your have defined them.

Jenna is a fundamentalist Christian. She holds these beliefs as they reflect her moral Christian code.
Mary-Kate is a liberal femanist. She, too, believes in reparation, nonmaleficence and beneficence, as they reflect her beliefs in the equal-opportunity worldview she has.

Their friend, Ashley, is pregnant with a child, and is considering an abortion, as she has been counciled that she has a high-risk of dying during the pregnancy due to her blood preasure.

Jenna, believes that her duty towards nonmaleficence and beneficence mean she must council Ashley to keep the baby, has any termination equates to murder in her value system, and therefore goes against the duty of nonmaleficence and beneficence.

Ashley, on the other hand, believes her duty towards nonmaleficence and beneficence means she must council Ashley to terminate in order to protect herself, as continuing down the path of pregancy may mean unnecessary self-harm in her value system, and therefore goes against the duty of nonmaleficence and beneficence.

In other words, WHY + WHAT = HOW. And that how can be radically different, depending on the WHY.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Neale

Clearly seeking or even achieving agreement on a series of basic “what” propositions like Ross’s list won’t solve all the problems of the world, or provide an automatic, universal answer for any and all ethical dilemmas. No-one has argued that it could. But I DO suggest that it’s worth making the attempt, for reasons I’ve previously explained. It’s certainly true that people’s underlying values will often inform the content or detail of the way they perceive their duty in specific “what” situations. However, some of these dilemmas, and certainly the one you posited, are assisted if we accept Don Arthur’s proposition that “deep civility” (including respecting every adult person’s right to their own opinions etc) is a primary duty in a liberal democratic society. I don’t have any problem with Jenna and Mary-Kate giving opposing sincere advice to Ashley, as long as they realise that their duty of deep civility obliges them not to coerce Ashley and to respect whatever decision she ultimately makes. As long as deep civility is agreed by all as a primary duty, Ashley is fortunate to have two friends who care about her enough to give advice and loving support in such a difficult situation.

Your hypothetical situation highlights one of the traditional problems with deontological theories. There is no internal logic enabling one to prioritise duties, and therefore nothing to dictate that deep civility (or any other duty) ought to trump other duties like beneficence or nonmaleficence. As a result, utilitarans have argued that a consequentialist approach is superior, because weighing the balance of good and bad potential consequences between competing “what” propositions supposedly allows one to prioritise and choose the right course of action. But, as I metioned in the primary post, it isn’t in reality possible to undertake anything remotely resembling a full consequential analysis in any real life interpersonal situation (which isn’t the same as saying it’s not worth trying). At the end of the day, prioritising will necessarily be an intuitive exercise, just like generating the individual “what” statements in the first place. We reach by intuitive means (rather than any form of strict logic) the proposition that “deep civility” ought to trump other duties in most if not all situations. Moreover, that intuition includes some “why” (value) statements about the nature of liberalism and individual freedom. So we probably can’t completely avoid arguing (and seeking agreement) about values even at the individual/interpersonal level. But that doesn’t invalidate Don Arthur’s suggestion that maybe agreement about “what” propositions will be easier to reach than agreement about “why” propositions, or mine that society may benefit from our discussing the limits and content of shared values and duties in general. Thought and discussion in themselves increase mutual understanding and tolerance (which is part of deep civility).

Neale Talbot
2022 years ago

Ken,

I absolutely agree with you in the value of discussing, debating, and arguing waht the common sets of duties should be (and adhering to them!), and rational, philosophicla discussion about the values and methods as well. Certainly, such discussion is necessary if any kind of civil progress is to be made.

I like the degradation (classification? application?) of a heirarchy of duties; Teir 1 duties (Deep Civility, Honesty, Nonmaleficence, Teir 2 duties (Gratitude, Self-Improvement). I think a very interesting discussion would be to rank such duties. This might help the priorisation issue you’ve mentioned.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

Recently I discovered the true value of manners. Traditional English manners provide a buffer a neutral space between individuals which allows each one to be exactly who they are without causing offence or unconsidered action. Linked to deep civility and the respect that entails for the society and opinions of others I believe a code of manners is a duty that allows us genuine freedom of expression and the time and space to excercise tolerance and the familiarity with the code to allow us to be at ease if not with each other, then with the code itself. A code of conduct / manners is high on my list of duties. If I adhered to it closely it would be much harder to cause hurt or alienation – snug within the code.

trackback
2022 years ago

Respect

Don Arthur and Ken Parish have been discussing values and civility, with links to other bloggers. Both posts are well worth reading. I don’t have anything new to say on this at present, but civility is the kind of thing…