There is increasing talk about Values within society. It has a much deeper significance than it appears. Values are delivering new sources of social capacities that are heralding a tectonic shift in how society is run.
To understand how and why the shift is happening, it is worth defining that a society is the facilitating of people to live and work together for mutual benefit. A fine objective for society is to maximise the aggregate quality of life for its members. This objective embodies a level of fairness in distribution of resources, because new wealth generation increases quality of life far less at the top end of society than at the bottom end. The structure we design for people to live together impacts on how well we work together; and how we work together impacts on how well we live together. This feedback mechanism that delivers quality of life has profound implications for the structure of society, which have largely been ignored in traditional systems of economics and politics.
Why focus on values?
The fundamental question facing society is how best to structure itself. At the heart of the structure is the way we interrelate with each other. The way we treat someone else directly impacts on their quality of life. It also impacts on how well they will work with others, which in turn impacts on the effectiveness of economic production.
Values is one way to describe and assess how well we interact with each other. We are developing ways to measure values and wellbeing. This provides the means to assess one of the key components of how efficiently society is structured, in order to deliver its objective of maximising quality of life - human interaction.
What are values?
Values are principles that drive behaviour. We have well over 100 values, which include fairness, compassion, collaboration and happiness. It is interesting to note that we seem to apply values to everyone or to no-one, not just to those we select. When we have no patience for others, we become impatient with ourselves. If we are tolerant of limitations in others, we can be tolerant of our own limitations. If we do not give other people respect, we lose our own self-respect. This is why values are of such importance. They affect how we judge ourselves and how people respond to us. If we are intolerant or fail to respect others, they are unlikely to want to befriend us, or work with/for us with much enthusiasm. The values we choose to follow directly impact on our wellbeing, and indirectly impact on our relationships and our productivity. It also impacts on the productivity of the society we live in, which impacts on how well it can provide for our material needs.
Why are values important?
The focus on values is the focus on human interaction.
It seems that humans have a number of core values we like, irrespective of our culture and our upbringing. Values such as justice, tolerance, patience and respect are universal. There are other values that are given higher importance in some societies than in others. Loyalty is admired by some cultures as essential to their existence, but seen by others as inappropriate dismissal of rights of others. But the positive universal values alone are sufficient to deliver a significant improvement in the efficiency of society. In a values-driven society, behaviour is not imposed. Limits still have to be set, to protect against the people who choose not to behave in accordance with positive values.
What is the impact of values in practice?
Through our adolescent eyes, it can be difficult to conceive how a values-based society might work. Yet there are now many values-based micro-entities that show not just how they work, but that they work. It transpires that where values are taken to the heart of an organisation, positive universal values flourish.
The world of education seems to be leading the change. In values-based schools, the environment is substantially less confrontational. Relationships between teachers and pupils significantly improves. There is substantially less friction between students, with negligible bullying or racism, irrespective of the child's upbringing. At the heart of things is that students gain greater self-esteem. This supportive environment impacts directly on their wellbeing and on the wellbeing of others. Students have the self-confidence to be creative, where trial and error is seen as part of a learning process rather than as a potential mechanism for quantifying failure.
In values-driven businesses, long term profitability is given greater emphasis. Businesses focus on the contribution they provide to society, and on the relationships they build with everyone. The practice recedes of bleeding a company to maximise the immediate return to investors and directors, with complete disregard to the wellbeing of customers, suppliers and the local community.
In the world of software, a values environment has developed through open-source. This is a system where software developers give away their software to anyone who wants it. In exchange, other software experts review the software to improve its quality, which enhances its value to its originator. Other people's software also becomes available to everyone, including everyone else who shares software. And quality of available software tends to be excellent, the quality being boosted through universal collaboration. Competition remains as fierce as ever, but its nature is different. In place of destructive competition, open-source has developed constructive competition. When one person comes up with a great new idea, it is shared with everyone. There are enough great ideas flowing from this system that everyone benefits. Over half the world's internet servers are run using open source software. Google and Facebook are direct products of open-source concepts and practices. Their birth through provision of free services secured some very strong relationships with its users, which has been at the heart of both of their successes.
Values and democracy
Democracy is a relatively recent system of governing. It depends on sufficient numbers of people or groups with their hands on the levers of power, that no one person can dominate without a reasonable level of consensus. The blessings of power being spread is also a limitation on progress. How do we achieve allocation of resources without a single leader to dictate?
From its birth to its current state, we have developed a concept of destructive competition. Let producers compete with each other to the death. Survival of the fittest would ensure resources are channelled to the producers who will use the funds more effectively than anyone else. One of the major attractions of the system is that it largely runs itself, without interference from people with vested interests. Ironically, it success is also its weakness. Producers are rewarded from destroying their competitors. A key objective of any producer is to achieve a monopoly in production or resources, since profits become very much higher. The two key failures of monopoly are its focus on maximisation of wealth over quality of life; and its removal of competitive pressures that push innovation and advancement. The current patent wars of the big IT companies almost embody this conundrum.
The model of democracy could probably not have succeeded through any other trajectory. Its initial focus was on survival. The struggle for democracy happened over centuries. Its achievement of wresting control of society from small numbers of leaders to significantly larger numbers was more a function of chance than of design, and every democracy is capable of descending back to anarchy and centralised control. But those democracies that survived the traumas of birth and childhood have done so almost universally by rewarding those with fierce self-interest and introspection. If the development of democracies has analogies with human development, the advanced democracies have fully embraced the introspective stage of adolescence, and the new developments of which values are a core component herald a new era in democracy; its transcendence, its coming of age. The new focus on quality of life over absolute wealth creation, and on values-based human interaction over myopic self-interest creates the climate for a fundamental improvement in the way resources are allocated to meet society's objectives.
The future of values
The focus on values is part of a new perspective on society. It is shifting our focus towards what makes humans tick, and to make better provision for our needs. It provides people with a better awareness and understanding of ourselves and each other, to improve the way in which we live and work together. It is providing a new source of social capacities, that will enhance the efficiency of how society works.
Values has the prospect to create a new era, a coming of age of democracies, which will rival the Industrial Revolution in its transformation of how we live together and how we benefit as a result.