Universal Values — Ideas
Contributed by Dominique Collin 


We see universal values as falling into - and sometimes cutting across - three distinct spheres : two of which, the governance sphere or public sector and the market sphere, which includes both business and knowledge sectors, are almost entirely encompassed within a third, the community sphere or civic sector.

Included in the governance sphere are the values and the institutions whose goal it is to provide peace, order, security and social justice. The market sphere includes the commercial and intellectual values and the institutions that provide for efficiency in the exchange of information and goods. In "Systems of Survival", Jane Jacobs describes how each of these two spheres has its own legitimate set of ethical values which she calls the "guardian" moral syndrome and the "commercial" moral syndrome.

For an overview of the guardian and commercial moral syndrome please click here.

We see these two spheres as nestled within a third, the community sphere:  the social and cultural bedrock of shared values that gives legitimacy to governance and market values and validates the roles of government and business institutions.  At the heart of the community sphere is a group of fundamental civic values that are distinct from the governance and market values.  These are the values that underlie what we call Philia, that reserve of human warmth, affect, enthusiasm and generosity that nourishes and stimulates the fellowship that is at the heart of civic life.  These values which include hospitality, resilience, reciprocity, trust, civility, tolerance, forgiveness, respect, courage, and love, are not carried by political or market-based institutions, but rather by what is increasingly referred to as "civil society".  They are very close to and overlap with the traditional list of personal virtues expounded by philosophers since antiquity : temperance, wisdom, courage, justice, generosity, compassion, mercy, gratitude, humility, simplicity, tolerance, etc. and include some of the political virtues of the good citizen identified by Mark Kingwell in his recent book “The World We Want”.

Civil society is made up of all the voluntary, formal and informal associations and bonds between groups and individuals that do not pursue governance or market related goals : from immediate family and neighborhoods to virtual communities on the Internet.  It can be considered the cultural and social incubator for both the public and the private sides of life in society.  Social science has directed much attention to civil society in recent years. There is a concern that the invasion of private life by government, technocrats and experts, as well as business, is slowly but surely eroding the "social capital" which makes democratic debate and institutions possible and provides the informal basis of the trust relationship that makes economic exchange possible.

The following graph illustrates the relationships between the three spheres described above.

The expression "universal values" is sometimes used to mean values that apply - or should apply - to everyone, in every society and every culture. Since the beginning of times, conquerors and colonizers of all creeds and colors have justified their claim for domination by posing as defenders of sacred and universal values - their own.  In today's world, two competing groups of values have emerged as modern candidates for universality : governance-related values and market-based values.  Civic values, embodied in informal and uncoded community ways, increasingly tend to be dismissed as traditional, "local" or tied to specific cultures.

It has been argued that universal values are culture-free; this is said to be the case for religious and material values, including the laws of science, technology, logic and mathematics, as well as some - but not necessarily all - of the values related to social communication, trade and debate.  We think that universal values are universal in that, in a general way, they are shared by all societies and fundamental to social life. However, we acknowledge that most of them - and this includes many of the governance and market-related values - manifest themselves in very different ways from one society, culture or tradition to another, and within societies, from one epoch to another. Hospitality, for example, is a value found in every known society.  The fact that it is manifested through different ways, institutions, laws, customs and codes of behavior in each culture does not make it any less universal for that.

Political domination has long rested on the capacity of governments to control the private lives of populations and curbing the liberating influences of commerce, science and technology. In the twentieth century, communist, nationalist and theological regimes have attempted to subordinate all aspects of private and public life to political and ideological control, limiting movement and personal decisions of individuals, controlling communications, imposing religious beliefs and dress codes, curtailing basic rights, fixing prices and setting unrealistic technical and material production objectives, with disastrous results to individuals, economies and the environment.  However, commerce, science and technology have also been used by power elites to dominate both private life and politics and even now market values are held up by defenders of free trade and global markets to be the only universal truths, with the result that all aspects of private life and governance are reinterpreted through the vocabulary of technical and financial efficiency : governments are increasingly judged by management standards and private lives subordinated to economic considerations, with equally disastrous results in terms of social justice. 

It may well be that one of the main aspects of modernization in the twentieth century will have been how private selves and public spaces have been usurped, in some places by political regimes, in others by corporations and firms.  A consequence of this is that universal civic values increasingly tend to be redefined in terms of governance or market considerations.  Reciprocity, for example, is often considered as a primitive form of social redistribution of wealth (a governance function) or an informal exchange of goods (an economic concept). In fact, reciprocity has a larger, more generous, sense in most traditional or pre-modern societies : it is not an interested bilateral exchange subject to market considerations of equal value or "fair" trade; and it is not an "enforceable" right set down in statues.  It is a voluntary form of mostly non-symmetrical behavior : the service rendered by A to B is most often not directly repaid by B, though A may, at some point, receive other, different services from C.

We are persuaded that despite the modern trend to reduce community life to governance or market values, there remains in our society a solid and healthy core of vital and indestructible social values and virtues that are at the heart of community. They are also at the heart of what trust relationship there remains with respect to governments and business, and provide both with their sometimes fragile sense of legitimacy. We see them emerge vibrant and intact in times of crisis, when neighbors emerge from their social cocoons to engage, cooperate and assist each other. Looking at these universal values more closely can help us rethink community and citizenship in ways that will let the natural resilience of communities repair the living tissues of our communities.

For an overview of Jane Jacob’s Systems of Survival, we recommend a review by Mary Ann Glendon found here.

To explore the concept of social capital further, click here.

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