Are There Family Values?

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Are There Family Values?

By Norm Hirst

Family values are a popular topic, but before getting into it I believe we need to give a great deal of thought as to what values are. I find it remarkable that it is only in my life-time that knowledge has become available to understand values.

It was fifty years ago that I met Robert Hartman who was a philosopher specializing in value theory. He was a visiting professor at MIT so I took his course. From him I learned that so little progress had been made towards understanding values. In 1943 G. E. Moore wrote his third book trying to define “good”. He decided that goodness is not a natural property but it depends entirely on the natural properties that the thing said to be good has. But, how did it depend? Hartman proposed that good means the thing has all the properties it is supposed to have. But who decides what all the properties are. The person who calls it good, of course! Thus the judgement of goodness is in the mind of the beholder, and it may be different for every beholder.

Values exist and function in the living. This reveals a reason why we understand so little. Twenty-five centuries ago Greek materialists decided that all that could really exist was matter and space. Change was just a rearrangement of matter. There is no life there. I am astonished to find that in spite of all that has been discovered in today’s physics and biophysics the idea of a material universe still hangs on. Just the other day I read an article suggesting that freewill is just an illusion and asking if we can escape the limitations of living in a material universe. There was even reference to the hackneyed idea that we, you and I, are just meat machines. It is time to notice that today’s leading edge research has laid those ideas to rest.

Since the early 1970’s the most recent discoveries in physics and biophysics are pointing to a living universe. Matter is not fundamental. Energy is. All that is manifest is created by energy flows guided by the logic of life itself, a logic not at all what we have known to call logic. I believe that logic, the logic of life itself, should be the foundations for new sciences, including the science of value.

Now to get an idea as to how life itself works

Dr. Mae Wan Ho, a prominent biophysicist, has used advanced technology to observe living organisms as they live. After 27 years of laboratory observation she describes a human as a society of 70 trillion cells functioning in a pure democracy. Unlike computers there are no controllers or set points. It might be described as a super jazz band including instruments as small as 10-9 meters to as large as 1 meter and performing in 72 octaves. Our bodies are not doing computations, logic as we know it, nor anything our technology-oriented world is prepared to understand.

Life is the process of forming a coherence or unity within, which is developed through a multiplicity of events within and coupled with events without. It is a series of evolving events of birth, growth, maturation, integration and fulfillment.

The key concepts for understanding life are process, coherence, freedom and harmonization. These processes do not function by causal mechanisms. Instead these processes function by value decisions I call valuation.

Living processes are carried out by living entities capable of acting. Actions are based on perceived facts when an event is starting. Those facts set the stage for what is possible. Value processes select the most effective acts. The living entity acts and the stage is now changed to include a mixture of old and new perceived facts ready for the next event.

I think of coherence as conditions permitting freedom to act in parallel with a multitude of acts without destructive interference. For example, driving on a designated side of the road. That gives maximum significant freedom to drive anywhere without crashing into someone else.

Harmonization is the process by which we creatively find a way to resolve differences between conflicting coherence conditions to find a new coherence unity. Understanding the role of values and valuation is essential to carry out this process.

When we talk about values our linguistic habits turn values into ideals to live by. For example, always tell the truth. But there are times when truth is essential. There are times when truth is better not said. What life requires of us are the value process skills to know when truth is required and when it is not. If you think values are ideals, then you make harmonization impossible because your values are right and theirs are wrong and there is no room for harmonization. Ideals are abstractions. Abstractions do not hold the entire reality in which they are thought to function. Thus they cannot be achieved, and even if they could be, given the dynamics of life, there is no absolute right and wrong set of ideals that apply to everyone all the time.

To talk about values I want to look at the events in a living process, i.e., those events when you choose a set of acts for the next step in your evolving process.

Living Process Events

  • In this oneness moment of now, what might you be aware of? It is certainly not restricted to sensory input. If you only believe in what you can touch and measure you are not keeping up with recent discoveries. You are connected to the oneness of all life. Your intuitions and feelings are telling you all about it, if you don’t choose to ignore it.
  • In your "wholistic" awareness of the oneness moment, three distinct value domains are interwoven. Each domain requires a different way of thinking and processing.

The three domains are:

  1. Living entities that are self-defining, self-valuing and self-acting. Any interaction with a living entity will produce results beyond our expectations and, perhaps, beyond our control. To be valued intrinsically, living entities must be valued for their own uniqueness that is called unconditional loving.
  2. Things; that are passive. They cannot violate forces of nature. Otherwise we can control what they do. Things are judged extrinsically by comparison to other members of the class concepts to which they belong, i.e., chairs or jobs.
  3. Structures and rules that are invented by us. They are invented to provide order, reason, agreement and the possibility of creativity. Since we invent them, they are what we say they are. We judge them by applying them to our experience and then judging them as to whether or not they work, judging them as right or wrong. This is the domain of systemic values.
  • Now begins valuation leading to harmonization- valuation

Step 1 in valuation is to learn what domain each item of your experience is in: living entities, things or rules/structures.

Mistakes here are common and life destroying. For example “No Child Left Behind” leaves no child free to be self-defining, self-valuing and self-acting, able to learn, self-manage or find meaning.

Similarly the external focus of values as rules to live by produces most crippling results. For most people when thinking about themselves, they show disinterest in the their intrinsic value compensated by striving hard to fulfill some theory of what they ought to be. Such self-theories can never be fulfilled leaving people with a constant feeling of failure and discontent.

But I believe the most serious mistake results from the failure to understand life itself and the role of values. Life itself needs a huge variety and harmonization. The many different societies are like different cells in the larger organism of unity. Each society has it's own coherence. However too often, people have different criteria for coherence. Some societies are seen as analogous to a cancer cells needing to be destroyed. Finding ways to harmonize and utilize that variety creates a healthy body/world. However, not being aware of the possibility of harmonization we resort to violence and destruction.

Step 2 in valuation is recognizing what ever is to be valued can be valued intrinsically, extrinsically or systemically. For example a person is of intrinsic value. Intrinsic valuation is some form of love, appreciation. However they can be valued extrinsically. For example in hiring some one, you might choose them for their combination of skills primarily. Or a person can be valued systemically, for example, in how you determine their rate of pay. Also there is the possibility of disvaluing in all three ways. A person may be intrinsically disvalued by hate, extrinsically by being fired, or systemically by inadequate pay.

Step 3 in valuation. What one values is up to each one, there are no laws governing what should be valued. However, there are laws of valuation that are absolute and universal. In deciding how to act in any situation there may be conflicts to be resolved. If so, intrinsic values take precedence over all. Next extrinsic values take precedence over systemic. This is the natural value hierarchy. Evidence shows, that many cultures have inverted the hierarchy.

While there are no family values in the sense of ideals, the value processes are extremely important for family life. If family is the first primary relationship we experience in this lifetime and it is a context in which we first learn to act and find our way, this is where harmonizing values should begin to be learned. If a child has learned the value skills of harmonizing values as in recognizing their own intrinsic value because they have experienced it in this primary event, he/she can continue to be herself and express herself while finding her way in different contexts. However, children are usually taught to conform to the ideas and ideals of the family and then to society and are not given the freedom to develop themselves and their unique processes. Consequently, they are prevented from learning how to be themselves while adapting to circumstances. We suggest there isn't one set of family values, but societies of family values that form through the valuation process we've just described. The valuing that goes on inside families by family members is as unique and as many as there are families on the planet. Maybe this discussion can now be used to begin to better understand what the heck we're talking about when we use the term "family values."