Exploring Values #1

Updated: Mar 26

I am quite interested in shared values. This is, however, hard to broach head-on as many philosophers and intellectuals, far more intelligent than I, have tried and observed. However, I can hack my way to understanding values through norms and will do so in this and consequent posts. The central assumption (and lens) is that “norms track values.” In other words, we embed our values in the norms we enforce and to which we adhere. At this point, two major things are interesting about norms. Firstly, norms are instruments for propagating values, and secondly, we judge norm violations based on motive. What does this then say about shared values?

Well, for now, we should treat values like economists and take them to be, essentially, preferences. This approach helps us understand the issue and avoid getting bogged down in arguments about what values we share, should share, can share, and so on. We will lift this constraint in later posts.

The first intriguing thing about norms, as earlier mentioned, is that they are instruments for propagating values. From an observer's perspective, we know that values, by their very nature, inspire action. Take the “shake hands when you meet someone” norm, for example. This norm tracks a general value of politeness. This means that even when you are displeased or generally socially awkward, you must shake the hands of those you meet. This helps alleviate the chaos that can come from the absence of this norm. A perfect example of this kind of chaos is what happened during the Covid lockdowns. It was a race to the bottom in the question of what norm should replace handshakes. We saw elbow bumps, leg shakes, head nods, etc. These options are not self-evidently better than shaking hands but the accepted belief that we must all participate in this relatively simple act alleviates the chaos. This clues us into a fundamental aspect of values: Values compel action (call this fact #1).

The second insightful thing about norms is that they are signals, which means that we punish norm violations based on the motive of breaking that norm. In other words, we all take the fact that evolution selects for conformity as given. When a person follows a norm, they essentially signal that they are the kind of person who would keep and uphold a value for the better progress of society. Thus, we assume that any deviation from the generally accepted modes of action could imply a genuine need to change or dissidence, and punish them based on where they fall on that spectrum. We ask, “why did you break this norm?” and mete out punishment based on the answer. This means that values must propagate for proper social order. This is fundamental and observable because, for value formation, we notice that norms, or at least the higher-order ones, are not explicitly stated but are given through immersion into a culture. Thus, call the “values must propagate for proper social order” inference fact #2.

As we progress through this series of posts, we will, hopefully, have explored the landscape enough to lift the earlier constraint and better understand our social world. This is an abrupt ending, but see you next week.

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