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Fr. 486

January 23, 2014

In a post published four years ago, one blogger makes note of the top ten philosophical issues for the 21st century, as elaborated in the 200th episode of “Philosopher Talk”. Of particular interest to those areas most often broached here are issues 3, 4, 9 and 10. To each of these issues will be dedicated a short reflection in hopes of teasing out precisely what is at stake therein.

We shall start with 10, stated as follows:

“10. Finding a new basis for common sensibilities and common values.
The world is more economically interconnected than it has ever been. But it still seethes with divisions and social fragmentation. Can we find a new basis for shared values that will bring us together rather than tear us apart?”

It is important to begin by analyzing the basic claims being put forward here.

1. The global economy and Westernization.
1a. Local and national economic interests are increasingly international in scope.
1b. Agents within these interests come into contact with one another.
1c. Increased contact promotes convergence in the values and background beliefs of agents within those interests.

2. Social and cultural differences.
2a. Agents within local and national economic interests act from different values and background beliefs.
2b. Increased contact between these agents promotes convergence in these values and beliefs.
2c. Yet there remains a fundamental divergence between agents in regards to these values and beliefs.

3. Interconnectedness and interdependence.
3a. Increased contact between agents and economic interests requires foster cooperation.
3b. Between agents and interests in competition, cooperation is secured through shared rules and constraints.
3c. Divergence in values and beliefs forestalls the adoption of shared rules and constraints.

4. Cooperation, basis and values.
4a.  Divergence in values and beliefs forestalls cooperation between agents and interests.
4b. A new basis for values and beliefs would reduce divergence of this kind.
4c. A new basis for values and beliefs would secure cooperation between agents and interests.

Having outlined the claims, we can now consider the broader implications of the problem as worded. Several small remarks are in order. First, differences between agents and interests persist despite ever increasing economic integration and homogenization. This suggests that the differences forestalling cooperation are not themselves (entirely) economic in nature, as economics would theoretically be capable of solving for divergence without resort to some other domain for constraints. For that is precisely what is called for above: moral constraints introduced through a change in values. Hence, there are, at the very least, certain elements of agents and interests that remain more or less independent of or insulated from the economic realm.

Secondly, the position calls for a “basis for shared values”. There remains much to be unpacked, particularly as concerns, on one hand, what is to be shared amongst agents and interests and, on the other, precisely what is meant by “shared”. As to what is to be shared, it seems that there are two alternate ways of understanding this phrase: “a shared basis for values” or “a basis for shared values”. The first of these suggests that agents and interests have in common a framework for deciding upon values, i.e. a formal apparatus ensuring a homology or basic compatibility of values all the while allowing for their inflection according to the needs present in particular concrete circumstances. This allows for a looser, more permissive reading of “shared”.

On the contrary, the second suggests that not only is the framework itself common to all agents and interests, but that, moreover, the values generated by this apparatus are likewise common to those agents. This proves a tighter, more demanding reading of “shared” in that both the underlying logic behind these values and their content must coincide to a large degree, enough to render them at the very least compatible.  This reading of “shared” seemingly presents greater obstacles than the first.

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