Thinking out loud

Monday, April 02, 2007

Of value systems

Of late, I have begun to think a lot about value systems, moral codes and ethics. In recent discussions, I came up with some theories of my own and figured I'd do well to put them down in writing. Hence this.

The first and most important observation is that there is no objective way to tell if a value system is good or bad. This is impossible, by definition. A value system itself defines what is good and what is bad and hence cannot be judged as good or bad except in light of another value system. Having established this, we must look for other metrics for evaluating value systems. One metric that does come to mind is "consistency". Infact, there can be two varieties of consistency on which a value system may be evaluated. These are internal consistency and external consistency.

By internal consistency, I mean that the system must not contain statements which are contradictory to each other. Unfortunately, this is a common flaw amongst most systems in place today (or atleast the ones that are used in practise). To put it mildly, any one who follows such a value system is a hypocrite. [I would like to make a case that we are infact a society of hypocrites, but this is hardly the place to discuss that. Perhaps some other time.] To understand why this is so common, we need to understand how a value system must get built and how they usually end up getting built.

Ideally, when an individual or society wants to define for itself a moral code, it must start with a small set of core beliefs. These could be things like - "the duty of any person is to make life as comfortable for himself as possible" or "the duty of every individual is the protection of its lands". This set should ideally be small and free of contradictions. At worst, if it needs to have beliefs which might be contradictory, there should be a clear priority amongst those so as to be able to objectively make a choice if and when they clash. Having established this core set of beliefs, one can start making logical inferences. For instance, if the fundamental responsibility of an individual is the protection of the lands, it follows that he must face up to an army of any size in direct conflict or use any cunning means to overcome the enemy.

However, as societies mature, things cease to be as simple. Situations arise and people make choices that they find more convenient. Soon these choices tend to become part of the value system. The side-effect is that inconsistencies are introduced. When an individual is now introduced to this complex mass of rules and bye-rules, he is confused. To be able to make his own decisions consistent with this system, he tries to find the underlying core beliefs and finds that the corollaries are inconsistent with these core beliefs. It is at this point that he feels frustrated. This is the plight of the average youth everywhere. It is, therefore, imperetive that anyone who intends to follow his own value system accepts the logical consequences of each of his core beliefs.

The other sort of consistency, external consistency, is a source of much strife in the world. It is, apparently, the principal cause of the so-called generation gap. A youth, disillusioned by the "restrictions" of the currently socially accepted value system looks for an alternative. Often, he does succeed. Infact, the system may also be internally consistent. Nobody can objectively prove this system incorrect while remaining within the bounds of the core beliefs of that system*. This is where the senior generation usually blunders. They try to prove to the youth that their system is wrong in and of itself, which it may not be. The youth, obviously, are not convinced. The correct 'attack', if any, is the one based on external consistency. The argument stems from the fact that an individual is not an island and must live within a society. Therefore, his system must be consistent with the broad value system of society.

This works till the time that the individual realises that there is no reason why conformity with the 'incumbent' value system should be a part of their core beliefs. As soon as this assumption is thrown out, the whole argument starts again. At this point, it is for the individual to make a choice. At this point, the individual has to decide if he can live with the consequences of non-conformity with social norms. Depending on the society in which he lives, the consequences can be as 'harmless' as being ignored or as 'harsh' as being ostracized and being declared a social out-caste. Whether this is fair is not in question at the moment. Each one has to make this choice for himself.

*(An example is the story of the beggar lying by the street. A wealthy man asks him why he does not work. The beggar asks back why he should. So that he could make some money... and so on till the wealthy man says that this will eventually let him lie down and rest. The beggar says that that's exactly what he's doing now. This is the classic example of how both systems are internally consistent but clash head-on with each other because one promotes the way of comfort, the other of hard work.)


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