Culture wars. Clash of civilzations. Family drama. These areas of conflict inspire a host of social commentaries, ideological debates and calls for immediate dining-room meetings. At the heart of each is concern over just what values should be of focal interest. Not only of interest, but precisely how they are to be manifested in societal relationships. It is all well and good to speak of valuing life or equality, but speak to a conservative or liberal, neither of whom deny the legitimacy of such values, and there will be quite diametrically opposed notions concerning how they appear in social and legal structures.

Let me back up a bit. Often values are equated synonymously with principles. I want to remove that at the outset. In the relational system being promoted here the two are connected but not the same. Principles reside in a similar, and parallel, track as the innate bio-social structures that each person is brought into this world and raised in.

Before going further, here is a more specific definition of principles: “Principles, rather, are basic premises that provide the grid through which values and social context create behavior. Principles provide the fundamental cognitive framework by which a person interacts with life, whether in circumstance or with people.”

Moving back to the two tracks, one biological and the other cognitive, they work in tandem to set up our perspectives. For instance, quantum theory, that delightful physics theory that is the darling of every spiritualist and self-proclaimed “metaphysician,” holds that a single subatomic particle can be in two places at the same time (also called superposition). The human brain is not actually capable of holding this idea except verbally and mathematically. In psychological studies testing this, the results indicate our brains continually posit the existence of two different, though seemingly identical, particles. This doesn’t mean the theory is wrong, simply that the universe is a little weirder than we as a species were, in our evolutionary history, needing to understand.
Just as there are biological limitations, so then there are cognitive limits as well. These, however, are in some way controllable, at least in so far as we are capable of reflectively determining what they are and shifting them accordingly. For instance, a person who looks at the world from a fatalistically deterministic point of view, where nothing they do effects the inevitable events of their life, will not only often seek immediate material reward but have fewer close relationships. Note that this belief or principle has less to do with their behavior than it does with providing a personal space for how potential behavior may occur. The difference here is exactly the difference between principle and value.

A value is primarily manifested as a behavior. One piece of advice peddled around is when determining what a person values, see what they spend their money on or what their time is used doing. This is, frankly, an unfortunate and limiting view. Let’s go back to the fatalist. At first glance it appears that the person cares little about others and only on the temporary fulfillment of pleasure found in entertainment. However, when considered from a principle perspective, the person actually has a value of personal expression and enjoying life. The manifestation of those values, guided as it is by the structure provided by the principle, appears one way but is in fact something else.

If values stood alone we’d have no confusion here, but values do not exist all by their lonesome, they manifest dependant upon what potential  behaviors are available, and those are driven by how their minds construct their relationship with reality. Debate after debate, continual family squabbles and geopolitical grandstanding, are the result of viewing values as primary rather than derivative. Values as primary ignores how they are only partially their conceptual wording and fails to see the greater connection they have with the behavior that relates a person to their social mileau.

When considering a person’s values, ignoring how they structure their perspective through principles will result in continual separation, from the other person and from any meaningful dialogue. Being mindful of how values reside within the cognitive basket of principles means stepping back from a stand-your-ground positional warfare and into an interrelational understanding.

© David Teachout

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