Development through Alternation

9.3. Implications for values and norms

Anthony Judge

There is a widespread belief that a universal set of values can be formulated for the global community, possibly elaborated in the form of a hierarchy. 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 this paper suggest that, whilst efforts in this direction are necessary, they are of local rather than global significance.

The problem is partly one of comprehension. Such 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, Rene Mahen:

"Behind the misty wall of words, the diverse, even contradictory, interpretations, motivations and utilisations 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 paper 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 the previous section, 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, however, 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.

This said it is not simply a question of accepting value relatevism. As Boulding 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 of society by which these differing values, though not reduced to a single set, are at least coordinated in an ongoing evolutionary process." (152, p. 22)

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. Aspects of this question have been explored in relation to sets of human needs in an earlier paper (24).

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 we are 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. The spastic or paralyzing global consequences of such differences may be overcome when values can be embodied as phases in learning cycles, with a lobal/global dimension, rather than perceived as static categories invoking territorial dynamics.