Our values have a huge impact on our lives, but there are no good or bad values… or are there?
The unexamined life is not worth livingSocrates
For some strange reason, since Trump got infected with covid-19 a few weeks ago, I had a constant urge to check Twitter and follow what was happening in the US election campaign. Despite recently urging against the risks of social media addiction in my review of The Social Dilemma, I seem to have fallen into the same trap myself. I am a Spanish guy living in Singapore, so the US election doesn’t have much to do with me, but I seem to be enthralled by it. I can’t help it.
I find the Trump phenomenon fascinating. If you listen to him for a few minutes, it is clear to see that he is a selfish, narcissistic, misogynistic, egotistic, and bigot man with no clear policy. Still, he seems to have a solid base of around 40% of the American population who follow him, agree with him, and will defend him whatever he does. That’s a lot of people. If you follow the discussions on Twitter or other fora, you can discard some posts written by bots, idiots, or fanatics, but seemingly intelligent and well-educated people write many other posts defending him.
Some Democrats say that all Trump supporters form a cult, and you cannot reason with them, and many others are just dumb. There is probably some of it, but there are still many intelligent and reasonable people who will vote for Trump. It is too easy to dismiss people who disagree with you as stupid, fanatic, or evil, but in many cases, this isn’t the case, and other things are at play.
These differences of opinion are caused by biases, amplified by social media, but also because we all have different values and perceptions of reality.
It happens the same in all countries. I was born and raised in the Basque Country in Spain. In the 80s and 90s, when I was growing up, we had Basque nationalist and Spanish parties on the right and left; one party aligned with the independentist armed band, ETA, and another one the direct heir of fascist Francoism. There were 6 or 7 different political parties at any given time, all with a relatively considerable following, all with seemingly intelligent people voting for them, but with very different views of the world. Who was right, and who was wrong?
When I was a kid, I thought only my side was right; therefore, all the rest had to be wrong. It is only with age that I realized that politics, like many other things in life, are not an exact science, and there is no right and wrong, only interpretations, perceptions, values, and opinions we like more or less.
We all give importance and relevance to different things, and we perceive things differently based on our genetics, education, culture, and past experiences.
The origin of values
No values are better or worse than others. There are no intrinsically good or bad values. This may sound polemic, but it’s true. The mere sense of something being “good” or “bad” is a judgement we make based on our values. Different cultures, groups, families, and individuals have forged different values for evolutive reasons and because it was convenient for them, but no value system is better or superior to others. Some may bring some advantages in a particular area to its holders but may be disadvantageous in another one. Deciding which of these areas is important implies a value judgement in itself.
You cannot judge the worth of values without using other values.
Throughout history, different groups of people decided what was good or bad, and what was essential and what wasn’t. There are some commonalities across cultures about what is right or wrong (for example, sex between siblings seems to be taboo in most cultures; killing, stealing, and raping too, unless they are done to people from another group in times of wars, in that case, they are generally valid), but many stark differences in all the rest.
Some cultures are more individualist, some more collectivist; in some, timekeeping and punctuality are important; in others, time is a more fluid and less scarce concept; in some, work and career are the most important thing in life; in others, family and relationships are… There are many dimensions by which you can differentiate cultures, and none is better than others.
No values are intrinsically better than others, but some help us live better together and progress as a society.
Even the concept of universal Human Rights has been created by us and is a cultural product. They weren’t carved in stone by any god, they are not “natural” rights, and they aren’t necessarily good or bad. We just created them because we thought they would help us live better lives, but the men and women of the 22nd century may decide they are rubbish and replace them with something completely different. I don’t think that will be the case, but who knows?
Fast and Slow Thinking
The Economics Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman condensed decades of research on psychology and the mind’s workings in his now famous book Thinking, Fast and Slow. He explains here that the brain has two systems of thinking: one is fast, emotional, unconscious, stereotypical, and frequent; the other one is slow, rational, logical, calculating, conscious. When we think of ourselves as making decisions, we like to think we use the second system, but we use the first one more frequently than not. This is where cognitive biases come from.
Kahneman describes many of these biases in his book and how to combat them. What is relevant for this post is that we aren’t that rational and intelligent as we think we are. Many of our judgements and decisions, in politics or other important aspects of life, are not based on logical conclusions but are influenced by biases and primary emotions.
Our unconscious brains make decisions that will define our lives, then our brains justify those decisions and create stories to make sense of them. Our conscious brain is not the thinking machine; it acts instead as the PR and communications representative that has to create a credible story to justify the unconscious brain’s acts.
Economists and politics analysts make their analysis based on the assumption that human beings, homo economicus, are rational agents, but that isn’t always the case. Our values, perceptions, biases, and emotional states make us lean in different directions, and then, a posteriori, we justify our decisions rationally.
Jonathan Haidt reached a similar conclusion in his work The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. The book’s central premise is that moral judgements of what is right and wrong have their origins in gut feelings, not logical reasoning, so liberals, conservatives, and libertarians have different opinions of what is right or wrong because they give different importance to different values.
None of them is right or wrong because there is no right or wrong, only different ways to look at and value the issues concerning society. Add onto this the current deluge of misinformation and disinformation via social media, the echo chambers these same media have created and sprinkle it with some confirmation bias and other cognitive biases, and the consequence is a dysfunctional society with no shared reality or common understanding of what constitutes good or desirable.
Democracy, the least bad form of government?
Most Western countries think democracy is the best form of government, or paraphrasing Churchill, the least bad of them all. We take this for granted and as absolute truth, but it wasn’t always like this. In some other places in the world, it isn’t this way today. Many people in China will tell you their government is working well for them, thank you very much, and that they don’t need the chaos, short-termism, and decadence they now associate with Western democracies.
It is not my place to tell others how they should be governed or what they should value above anything else. As I already said above, there is no right or wrong when it comes to values. Some people may decide that law and order and feeling safe are very important; for others, their liberty is the most important thing; while for some others, equity, fairness, and solidarity might be the most cherished values. All these values may be desirable, but often you cannot have them all at the same degree, and you need to have some trade-offs.
What if someone happens to have racist, misogynist, or homophobic views and values a society in which some people are treated differently because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation? This has been the case throughout most of history and is still the case in many places and many people’s minds, but these values shouldn’t be acceptable anymore, and I don’t think they would enable society to grow and prosper.
Values that will allow a society to collaborate better and to construct a future together will, for obvious reasons, propel that society forward. Values that entrench divisions, create first- and second-class citizens, and create a culture of us against them, apart from being a hell to live in, will not allow society to face its challenges and grow against the adversities it will undoubtedly have to face.
There are no good or bad values. We give values their value, and we decide which ones are good or bad, but some are beneficial and helpful to build a thriving society, whereas others are like putting sticks in the wheels of progress.
How to be more conscious about our values
If Kahneman, Haidt, and other thinkers are right, we choose our values through mainly an unconscious process, based on emotions (fear is a strong emotion driving many of the values in the US election at the moment, for example), and subject to very strong cognitive biases. Before you throw your arms in despair and give up, thinking that there isn’t much you can do about it, there are a few things you can do:
– Examine your choices and values. Try to make a conscious effort to decide what it is that you really value in life and where this is coming from. Ask questions like why? What for? What is the purpose? Then try to guide your life following those values.
– Start meditation, mindfulness, or other practices that will allow you to increase self-awareness and know yourself better. Meditation will help you learn about how your own mind works through experience and practice, not theory. As you get to know your mind better, you will understand better your biases, emotional states, prejudices, and so on.
– Get the support of a coach or mentor to help you work on your values and select the right for you, the ones that talk to you, and will allow you to have a meaningful and purposeful life.
– Read (or listen to podcasts) more, especially from people who think differently from you. The more different, the better. Don’t get offended; try to understand their why and their purpose. They probably have their reasons to think like this. What are they?
– Have empathy and compassion towards others, but start by having compassion for yourself first. This seems self-evident, but we often are our harshest critics and tell ourselves things we wouldn’t say to our worst enemies.
– Limit the time you spend on social media, and broaden your interests and news sources.
– Think collectively: what values would you like everybody around you to have? What values would your society thrive in?
If we all did a bit more of these things, I’m sure we’d guide our lives by richer values, and we’d be living in a more open and understanding society.
Values of the Humane Future of Work
As I said above, it is not my place to tell others how to live their lives and what values to have, even less to say to them what party to vote for! However, as the promoter of a Humane Future of Work, I can, and I should postulate what I think should be the values prevailing in this future.
First of all, I believe in freedom and liberty as essential values in any human society and should also be present in all workplaces. Nobody should feel coerced to do anything they don’t want to, and they should feel they are free to make the choices they want, as long as these don’t impinge on others’ liberties or rights.
Self-actualization is also very important for me, and I think it should have a place in any future of work (and in the present too!). It is at the highest end of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and it is about being able to reach our full potential. We should strive to have a society in which everybody can aim at fulfilling their maximum potential. Seeing how work is organised today, workplaces should be the places for this to happen for a big part of the population. This is not an entirely idealistic value, although there is a bit of it. It is great to work for a company that allows you to reach your full potential, but it is also great for a company to employ a workforce at the maximum of their capacity, so it’s a win-win. It sounds utopian, and it certainly will be difficult, but we should try to get there.
Fairness is crucial for me, and in the Humane Future of Work, I believe everyone should have the same opportunities to succeed. There are different ways to look at this, and this topic deserves its own post, essay, or even book, but I think we should look at equal opportunities, not equal outcomes.
We are all different and contribute differently, so we should also be rewarded differently, but we should all have the same opportunities to be successful, at least as much as it is possible (obviously this is technically impossible: we already get different tickets in the genetic lottery, then are brought up by different parents, in different countries and neighbourhoods, go to different schools… each of these steps has the potential to create differences that accumulate and tilt the balance in favour of some and against others).
Linked to this point, Diversity & Inclusion are also important values to cherish in the Humane Future of Work. All companies should reflect the diversity of the societies they operate in and then ensure that everybody feels included and well-integrated in the company, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because having diverse teams will make for a more engaged workforce, richness of opinions and views, and will be conducive to a high-performing organisation.
Then there are values like human rights, looking for the prosperity and wellbeing of all stakeholders, not only shareholders, or improving the quality of life of consumers and employees. These are also values I relate to.
Last but not least, I use the word humane continuously for a reason. I hope the future of work is more humane and compassionate. We spend a big part of our days interacting with other human beings in organisations and workplaces. If we can make them more humane and foster compassion as an essential value and not a sign of weakness, people will feel accepted, thrive, and more likely give their best. Humane workplaces will be nicer places to work; who doesn’t want that?
We started with Trump, and we finished with the Humane Future of Work. How did we get there? The common theme here is values. Values, perceptions, but also biases and our ways of thinking, make us see things differently, in many different areas: in politics, on how to build a society, on how to run a business, the best way to grow a family, and so on.
We all have our own values, and we have the right to have them. Still, some values will allow us to function better as a society, run more effective companies, and live happier lives. In contrast, others will take us towards a more divided and dysfunctional society. So in principle, there are not intrinsically good or bad values, but some values are preferable to others.
We are still on time to choose well what values we want to live our lives by to prosper as a society. I hope we make the right choices.