Universal Values, Relatively Speaking

A week ago I provided a values self-test, and asked for your help creating a complete list of human values, ranked in order of importance. I also promised to provide my own list and rankings. The chart above is the composite of the responses. It suggests that there are nine facets to our happiness: Health, Home, Connection, Discovery, Work, Peace, Play, Awareness and Self-Esteem. Each of these has aspects that vary depending on our culture, and their relative importance varies from person to person. I’ve shown Family as an aspect of Connection, but for some it may be inseparable from Home. I’ve shown ‘Work’ in quotation marks because I mean it in the broader sense of ‘making a living’, rather than the narrow sense of employment. Again, for some people, self-styled ‘home-makers’, this may be inseparable from Home. And I’ve grouped Personal Values and Beliefs under Discovery because they’re part of self-discovery, making meaning of our lives. You may quibble with my terminology and groupings, but I’m reasonably confident that this schema represents a set of Universal Human Values. In fact, I’d say it represents the values of all sentient life — from my readings and personal study of birds, I think ravens, at least, share these nine values and strive, consciously or unconsciously, to maximize their achievement. These are the things that drive us all, that motivate all activity, and because they’re all essential to survival of the species, they’re probably all coded into our DNA.

Alas, just because we may have a shared set of core values doesn’t make it any easy to achieve agreement on how to maximize and achieve them. The answer to “How Do We Best Achieve These Things” is a function of:

  • The information we can bring to bear
  • The frames through which we filter and assess that information
  • Our culture: Accepted and preferred behaviours

Let’s consider the sixth value, Peace, for example. Some of us believe it is appropriate or even necessary to take aggressive action to ‘secure’ peace, while others believe in passive resistance to peace-threatening actions. Some of us, because of the frames through which we process information about acts of violence, believe that force (forces of ‘evil’) must be met with force (forces of ‘good’), while others with different frames believe we are all good, and that the solution to violence is to address the inhuman circumstances that give rise to such unnatural and desperate acts. Some of us believe the role of the collective is to secure peace, to protect the community from hostile outsiders, and everything else is the responsibility of the individual. Others believe we are all responsible for each other in every sense and aspect of our lives, and that our collective agents (like governments) should exercise that responsibility extensively and diligently.

So, if we cannot agree on How to achieve these values, is there even any point to agreeing on What they are?

I think there is, for two reasons. First, and most obviously, it helps us to better understand and find common cause with those with different frames, since, at bottom, we’re all looking for the same thing. Secondly, it can help us look rationally at our beliefs and behaviours, to assess whether they really make sense in light of what they are intended to appreciate and achieve.

Here’s an interesting example of the latter: One thing most liberals and most conservatives seem to agree on is the value, at least in theory, of globalization. Liberals don’t like the way globalization can cause massive social and environmental damage, or how it’s been abused to force third world countries to adopt Western political and economic policies and give up control of their economies, land and resources, but most believe that it is quite possible to mitigate these negatives and still reap the benefit of free movement of goods and services at market prices as a mechanism of humanitarianism and eventually economic, social and political improvement. Conservatives see globalization as the ultimate manifestation of a ‘free’ (unimpeded by government) economy, and as a means to export ‘good’ Western values, but even they are more than a little worried about a global government that they don’t control (hence their loathing of the UN).

What is implicit in the both the liberal and conservative worldviews of globalization’s benefits is that cultural homogenization is a good thing. To the conservative, one world adhering to American values would be free of terrorism — if we’re all brought up with the same values and beliefs (and believing in the One True God) the only crime that would be left would be crimes of sloth and similar individual moral weakness, universally abhorred and ‘nipped in the bud’ by a uniform global ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ criminal justice system. All believing the same, growing up the same, with the same ‘opportunity’ — what better way to achieve World Peace? To the liberal, one world adhering to an agreed-upon consensus of laws, standards and values would be the ‘UN done right’, where with only one government, there would be no ‘other government’ to wage war on, and with a global meeting-place for sharing ideas and resolving disagreements, there would be limited support for civil war as well.

These neo-liberal and neo-conservative views, though, both implicitly see cultural heterogeneity as a threat to world peace. What is interesting about this ‘if we’re all the same we’ll get along’ rationale is that it is imperialistic and utterly ignorant of the anthropological reasons why such cultural heterogeneity arose in the first place. Indeed, most anthropologists argue that man is already astonishingly culturally homogeneous already, and that cultural imperialism and cultural homogeneity have grown in near-perfect lock-step with the scale of human violence and war.

In hunter-gatherer cultures, both human and animal, there is little cultural homogeneity between communities, and inter-mixing between communities is rare. Anthropologists are astonished at how tribes living just a few miles apart had rituals, beliefs, religions and even diets that were completely alien to each other, almost unimaginably different. Our civilization culture’s expansion, imperialism, and language impositions have compromised these differences enormously, but they are still somewhat observable. Even after several hundred years civilization culture is so utterly alien to North American First Nations people that they have proved almost impossible to integrate and assimilate.

Why would nature, and evolution have encouraged this innate heterogeneity, this xenophobia which almost inevitably leads to inter-cultural conflict? The obvious reason is resistance to disease. As AIDS has shown so horrifically, and the Plague before it, movement of people between cultures brings the risk of epidemics, and the more culturally homogeneous the species, the greater the risk that such epidemics will wipe out the entire race. This homogeneity-caused fragility is not unique to humans — we’ve seen it in the Avian Flu, and the spread of Mad Cow, and the devastation that this fragility caused during the Irish Potato Famine should be enough to make us think twice about the desirability of us, and our staple foods, being increasingly genetically indistinguishable around the world, and the desirability of our being able to travel around the world and infect so many others with new exotic diseases so easily.

That’s the evolutionary explanation for nature’s abhorrence for homogeneity, and possibly the reason we are inherently so xenophobic and intolerant of other cultures. But beyond the genetic fragility of cultural homogeneity, cultural homogeneity also brings with it memetic fragility — a lack of variety of ideas. You can already see evidence of this poverty of imagination in corporations and cults where intellectual and behavioural conformity is strongly encouraged: no innovation, group-think leading to inflexibility and denial of the existence of problems, vulnerability to seduction by false comforts, and brainwashing.

So assuming that cultural homogeneity is an inevitable consequence of globalization, at least the globalization models we’ve come up with so far, is the resultant genetic and memetic fragility that we would get along with ‘world peace’ worth all the wars and imperialistic devastation necessary to achieve it? Is the benefit of increasing Peace, one of the nine universal human values, outweighed by the commensurate reduction in Health and Home and Discovery, three of the other values?

I prefer to take my learnings from nature, which may or may not be as ‘smart’ as we are but which demonstrated, especially prior to the advent of civilization, a remarkable resilience and ability to optimize these nine universal values, not just for pre-civilized man but for all other life on the planet as well.

Nature would suggest, I think, that the answer is not One World, homogeneous, a single world political and economic and cultural system, but instead a rediscovery of community, of diversity, of the richness and strength of cultural difference, of heterogeneity.

Nature would suggest that community, not nuclear family or ‘household’ or nation-state, is the place and level of aggregation where we will find the true meaning of Home, of Belonging, of Love and Relationship and Connection and Self-Sufficiency, and that the land and environment and all the creatures on it that constitute our Home are sacred and inviolable and belong to no one.

Nature would suggest that Discovery and Learning and Personal Values and Beliefs are most effectively found by personal exploration, by trial and error, through all of our senses in the real world, not by reading textbooks in classrooms.

Nature would suggest that ‘Work’, making a living, is done most successfully and meaningfully by cooperatively and collaboratively, as equals, beholden to no one but one’s chosen partners, helping ourselves and others meet real, unmet needs.

Nature would suggest that Peace comes from respecting the differences and sovereignty of other communities, in celebrating their diversity as robust and astonishing communities in the human experiment, and in trading ideas and goods reciprocally when it is necessary and to the benefit of all.

Nature would suggest that Playfulness and Awareness and Self-Esteem are part of the very essence and meaning of life and that our modern civilized world which trivializes and veils and manipulates our achievement of these things turns a world of joy into a prison and cripples us as human beings.

But I’m not sure I could convince a conservative, or a radical Islamist, or even a Third World child captivated by the possibility of modern American life, of this.

We may share the same universal values, but we see them, and the road to their achievement, through utterly different eyes.

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2 Responses to Universal Values, Relatively Speaking

  1. Paul says:

    I basically agree with your conclusions regarding the importance of the community in fashioning living conditions conducive to individual happiness and fulfillment. I guess the question becomes “how do we move from here to there?” The trend, globally, is certainly towards more homogeneity, not less, and the way our cities are being designed and built, with “big box” stores and suburban wastelands where nobody walks anywhere because there’s nowhere to walk to.

  2. Cyndy says:

    I think there may be a backlash building at least toward Americanized homogeneity. I can also see glimmers of backlash in the US as well, even on a conservative ‘front’. A lot of it indeed hinges on the threat of losing natural areas. The roadless rule in the forests is a battleground that the few conservatives who are aware of it are engaged in. Another, Drilling Plan OKd for Rare Desert Land isn’t going to go over well either.The conservatives whose ‘One True God’ is bringing the rapture soon obviously don’t care but there are other conservatives who do care and reaching them through pointing out the threat of more loss of natural areas is one answer to ‘how do we move from here to there?’

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