Universal Values in the Light of System Science (2002)

The inexhaustible and potentially constantly increasing store of knowledge constitutes the exclusively characteristic survival asset of our species.

Organizers of this Conference, some members of Science for Peace and some representatives of Soka Gakai met a few weeks ago to discuss universal values, a topic that is on the agenda of this Third Conference on World Order. As expected, conceptions of universal values differed widely, not only with respect to prospects of agreement on their universality but also with respect to their definitions. A few days later, Derek Paul (who did not attend the meeting) wrote to Ken Burkhardt that (in his opinion) "It is evident observationally that there are no universal values, universal in the sense that they are held by all people. Some people value life, some their prestige, others their wealth, etc."

In this connection, James Travers of the Toronto Star called attention to the suggestion that the tobacco giant Philip Morris made last year to the Czech Republic, namely, that far from increasing the costs of medicare, smoking would reduce them by curtailing the life span and thus saving the heavy medicare expenditures on the aged. Perhaps, the believers of universal values can dismiss this example by pointing out that Philip Morris is not a person, that preservation of life rates as a universal value if it refers to the value that each individual puts on his/her own life, and so on. Since, however, from the point of view of general system theory, Philip Morris is an entity in the hierarchy of systems, it is proper to assume that the concept of universal values applies to it as well as to its managing personnel or employees.

Rather than examine the concept of universal values in the existential mode (whether they exist or not), I prefer to discuss them in the categorical-imperative mode (that is, what values ought to be universal) and raise two questions: (1) how likely they are to be realized as such and (2) what are the consequences of their being realized or not.

The beginning of the second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence is a transparent example of the difference between the existential and the imperative mode. It says: "We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." As a statement of facts, this statement is manifestly false or else meaningless. Stark inequality characterizes practically any conceivable feature distinguishing between any two persons at their birth. Besides, references to "Creator" and "created" are, to say the least, vague.

Put into the imperative mode, however, the statement can no longer be dismissed as nonsense or refuted as false. But it is far from "self evident." It can be supported or challenged. Here it is.

"People ought to be treated as if they are equal; as if they were endowed with inviolable rights, etc."

Now a meaningful discussion can revolve around the question: how likely is this condition to be realized and what the consequences of its realization or non-realization might be.
First let's see what we may mean by "values." Intuitively we associate values with "goods," that is, something valued. This interpretation is implicit in the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would them do unto you." That is to say, do "good" unto others. However, this dictum tacitly assumes the existence of universal values, as conditions longed for by everyone. But, as Derek Paul suggested, this may be far from being the case. The foundation of universal values seems to be more solid when expressed by the converse of the Golden Rule, as in the version suggested by Rabbi Hillel a contemporary of Jesus: "What is hateful to thee do not do unto thy neighbour." In this version, rather than define universal values by "goods," it seems more fruitful to define them as "bads."

Now an obvious "bad" on the level of a species is, clearly, extinction; for if ways of avoiding extinction were not built into a sufficient proportion of the members, at least until reproduction time, the species would not exist. Here, then, we have a universal value at least on the level of the species: namely, survival. To see how it applies to our species, we must examine the characteristic survival mechanisms of humans.

Comparing some survival mechanisms of mammals with corresponding ones
of ours, we see that ours are not impressive. We can run but not as fast as the cheetah. Our swimming is clearly inferior to that of a seal. We are carnivores, but our teeth can't compare with those of wolves or tigers. To what, then, do we attribute our phenomenal success as a species? Most likely to our mode of communication with each other, namely symbol language. Many species can communicate by signals which refer only to here and now. Many a bird can say, "Danger! A predator!" Or "Come! I'm ready to mate!" Or "We're off! Follow me!" Many a dog can say "Hark! Some one is coming!" or "Give me a little of what you are eating!" or "I love you!" or even "I'm sorry!" But no dog can say, "When you were out, some one tried to break in, but I scared him away by barking." Or "Give me something of what you are eating, or else I shan't love you any more, and then you will be sorry!"

The most fundamental difference between signal and symbol languages is that only the latter makes possible accumulation of knowledge over generations. A cat, for example, "teaches" her kittens to catch mice; but no cat knows more than any of her ancestors. Human knowledge has accumulated, at first as lore, and, since the invention of writing, at an immensely accelerating rate as records. So immense has this heritage become that it has been recognized as a member of the set of "systems" comprising our small corner of the universe. The biosphere is the totality of all living systems. The geosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere are their shared habitats. Normally, living things compete for them. They can be likened to conservative commodities. If I have so many acres and cede one to you, you have one more, but I have one less. In contrast, knowledge is not a conservative commodity. If I give a bit of information to you, you have a bit more, but I don't have a bit less. In fact, I may even have more: having explained something to you, I may understand it better. It is this inexhaustible and potentially constantly increasing store of knowledge that constitutes the exclusively characteristic survival asset of our species. And paradoxically, it may also be our nemesis in a not-too-distant future. That is, from the human point of view, the noosphere, the accumulated treasury of knowledge and, alas, also pseudo-knowledge, may be a universal good or a universal bad.

Let's take a closer look at our survival chances in a time span of, say, a few generations. The often assumed dimensions of values are "the True," "the Good" and "the Beautiful (or the Delightful)."

To say that any of these dimensions is a "universal value" is to assume that practically universal agreement can be realized on what is true, what is good, or what is beautiful (or delightful). We shall ask two questions regarding each of these dimensions. (1) Can universality be attained? (2) Must it be attained in the foreseeable future to avoid extinction?

la. Can universal agreement on what is true be attained? Yes. The method of science makes this possible. This is because modern science doesn't pose the question "What do we know?" but rather "How do we know what we know?" Universal agreement on the latter question has become possible to the extent that the world community of science is a part of the noosphere.

1b. Must universal agreement on what is true be attained to insure survival in the foreseeable future? Probably. It depends on the answer to the second question.

2a. Can universal agreement on what is good (or bad) be attained? I don't know.

2b. Must it be attained, if our species is to survive more than a few generations? I believe the answer to this question is (unfortunately) "Yes." Universal agreement at least on what is "bad," is an indispensable prerequisite for the realization of the Golden Rule as stated by Hilel ("What is hateful to thee, do not do unto thy neighbour.") Evidently, however, there is at present no such agreement either on the level of the individual or of any organization of individuals short of universal. It is true that in the course of the development of our species, internally cooperative organizations have grown: families, merged into clans, clans into tribes, tribes in nations, nations into alliances. But the impetus to this growth of internally pacified cooperative bodies has been typically hostile confrontation with other internally pacified cooperative bodies. The gulf between virtuous "us" and vile "them" became an unbridgeable abyss. The puerile good guys - bad guys scenario guides the policies of the so called "world leaders."

3a. Can universal agreement on what is beautiful or delightful be attained? I don't know.

3b. Must it be attained, if our species is to survive more than a few generations? No. But this is a wrong way to pose the question. Instead of agreement, one should talk about appreciation. Moreover, causes and consequences must be interchanged. Only when universal agreement on what is good or bad and on what is true or false is attained, that is, when there is no gulf separating people sharply into "us" and "them" can appreciation of the beautiful and the delightful be infused to others and adopted from others' appreciation of their cultural treasures.

Some years ago, while hiking along the Danube from Krems to Melk, I was introduced to the Wellendorf Venus, a miniature lady 35,000 years old, who looked it. Hard as I tried to imagine the feelings of the sculptor who made her, I got nowhere. So there was no way of comparing Madam Wellendorf with Madam Milo, who represents my ideal of feminine beauty. On the other hand, I had no difficulty in acquiring some appreciation of Japanese haiku and Indian ragas and sub-Sahara African and South Pacific sculpture, let alone Chinese cuisine and Buddhist philosophy. When the we-they dichotomies spawned by power addiction and dogma-dominated religion are erased, the rewards of cultural diversity can be reaped, as Torontonians have dramatically demonstrated.

Still it must be kept in mind that the range of appreciation of delight depends crucially on its source.

In particular, the keenest delight we humans can experience can be normally shared by only two persons. Yet this merging of souls is the strongest potential bond insuring longevity of our species.