monk and dog

Universal Values – bound by hugs divided by ladders

We all care…

Are there values we all hold dear? From Botswana to Vancouver are all humans bound intrinsically together by one goal? If we are to have a cohesive peaceful and sustainable planet we must have! But many have given up on this “Utopian” idea they would prefer to “crises manage” and “minimise harm” from our conflicts rather than create a world based upon Universal Values.

The question is do we have this binding force? And if we do? What are these universal values? For all humanity to hold them they must be intrinsic, not a reaction to external stimuli but coming from within us. To change the world around us they must be what philosophers call a priori, existing before, not learnt from a parent or educators. For we need universal values to exist in any educational environment, in any home, in any country and on any planet.

There have been many politicians, theologians, philosophers and even economists telling us what we should value and sometimes declaring what we “do” value.  Be it; self interest, love or God but the multitude of surveys done on people’s values – I’m sure you’ve done one in a management seminar or uni psychology tutorial – show a broad range of values; everything from work, money, power, and fame to family, sex, sport, and health. These studies have been tabulated by sociologist Shalom Schwartz who found that the individual description of values changed (work,effort,success,wealth) across countries but the broad desires motivating these values were common to us all.

He said our values can be grouped into:
Universalism; which is a wanting for the higher than self (the idea of universal values would fit into this group), Benevolence,






Stimulation, and finally Self direction. We of course don’t value all of these equally or in perpetuity. Schwartz went further to add opposing dimensions to these value groups. Openness to change ( Stimulation and self direction what I would call freedom) opposed by Conservatism (encompassing conformity tradition and security – the products of fear) and Self-transcendence ( universalism and benevolence the neighbour of freedom) opposed to Self Enhancement (achievement and power the neighbour of fear) each of us sits floating in this four dimensional field of values.

But this doesn’t really help us much. It gives us an arena to place our values and also highlights we often have to choose one value over another depending upon external factors but does not help us find an intrinsic a priori value which is common to us all.


There is one, and when you think about it it is blatantly obvious. It is Life. As the Marquis De Sade said in Justine there is only one thing that is wrong in all countries civilised or not and that is murder, the taking of another life we all hold intrinsically as wrong because we all value our own. Sade of course thought everything else up for debate, and experimentation. We intrinsically value life, our own life at least but with the help of mirror neurons (a part of our brain that replicates the emotions of others) we can empathise with anothers pain, fear and joy so we can transfer the value of our own life to the lives of others, and from this spring’s the most commonly believed universal value, the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Let me live and I let you live. Or rather I make you happy for I want to be happy.

As we progress we find that all values be they power or benevolence are intrinsic, they are not given to us by others but nurtured by our environment. The tree is intrinsic in the seed but it needs soil, water, and sunlight to grow, and how tall and in what direction will depend upon a myriad of factors influencing it.

Networks and why we have (or display) certain values and not others

I have been reading Nexus: Small worlds and the groundbreaking Science of Networks by Mark Buchanan and the reason we hold certain values and not others became clear. We are not solo units rolling around space. To survive we need to interact with food, water, the sun and our family, most poignantly our mother for the first 6 months at least. After the first 6 months we interact with friends at school, teachers and teammates, later we join hierarchical employment, are connected with manipulative and supportive media, and are put into positions of power either by our subordinates or our children. All these connections influence the direction of our value branches. Our intrinsic value seed (life/empathy) grows according to the environment it inhabits. These are connections which make a network, and this network influences which intrinsic value potentials blossom and which are smothered in darkness.

In the study of networks whether they are in the business world or with our family there are what are called horizontal connections, those connections you have with an equal and vertical connections those with superiors and subordinates. The egalitarianism of the connection is the determinate in the values nurtured. Vertical connections encourage the values of power, self interest, security and safety. Horizontal connections nurture freedom, exploration, empathy, and universal ideas of peace and benevolence.
Sociologist Mark Granovettor the originator of small networks theory puts it like this “ horizontal relationships may involve trust and cooperation, and vertical relationships power and compliance, well beyond what individuals’ incentives can explain” (Nexus page 200)

And Milgrim the father of obedience to authority experiments said this about those who are vertically influenced (see article on leaders closing their minds) “the person entering an authority system no longer views himself as acting out of his own purposes but rather comes to see himself as an agent for executing the wishes of another person. Once an individual conceives his action in this light, profound alterations occur in his behaviour and his internal functioning. These are so pronounced that one may say that this altered attitude places the individual in a different state from the one he was in prior to integration into the hierarchy” (Nexus page 201)

Milgrim is saying our values (or at least the values we act upon) change with vertical relationships, as you will read in the studies following this has been proven and our normative state is not self interest and power but cooperation and benevolence those higher values. These connections (relationships) pull and push our values, we are moulded by our environment but the vertical connections so distort our intrinsic values that we can become someone quite different to the one we believe we are.

We live in a very hierarchical world most of the wealth and power is held by 1% of the human population the rest of us are in some way subservient, this is why such values as power and self interest, work and security show up in so many surveys they are a reaction to the hierarchy.


So this is where we return to Schwartz, the values we express from the intrinsic potentials we have will depend upon our environment, those with more freedom, psychological distance and perhaps – as some studies suggest – intelligence are likely to value openness to change and self-trancendence more than those that are struggling to survive or feel threatened for this forces conservatism (security)and self enhancement. Construal level theory, the psychological trolley experiments into moral behaviour and economic games testing co-operation and benevolence support this;

Contrual Level Theory

Psychologists Tal Eyal and Nira Liberman have coined the term construal level theory to describe what common sense tells us to be true. Put simply people have higher core values and subordinate values, higher values are altruism, justice and love (Universalism) and subordinate values are liking nice clothes, fitting in with the clique, getting dinner tonight (Security). The more distance we are from the decision to be made, distanced by time, space and psychological distance the more likely we are to follow our higher values than our lower values. When asked, do we care about sweatshop workers in Cambodia? We will say yes! They should be paid more but when we are in a store buying a shirt we are more concerned about the colour, fit and how we look in it than the worker who made it. One is distanced the other is immediate. In an experiment by Agerstrom and Bjorklund in Sweden participants were asked to imagine a morally wrong act occurring – a woman in Darfur Africa being raped and beaten by the Janjaweed militia – they then asked the participants how wrong it would be for other Swedes not to do something about this by donating money to stop it.They also asked how angry they would be if the other didn’t take this action. They found that more distant moral failures such as donating money in 6 months time were judged more harshly than giving money today. In another study they asked participants how much money they were willing to donate to help the situation in Darfur and found people are more likely to act when imagining the giving in the distant future rather than the immediate, now. (Agerstrom, J, & Bjorklund F (2009) “Temperal distance and moral concerns: future morally questionable behaviour is perceived as more wrong and evokes stronger prosocial intentions.”Basic and applied social psychology, 31, 49-59) We judge others actions as being more morally wrong if they put them off, our intrinsic desire is to do the morally right thing now, but we are more likely to do the morally right thing ourselves if we can put it off to a time that isn’t filled with immediate concerns like cooking dinner, finishing the report or taking the future Maradona to soccer training.

As Liberman and Ayer put it “psychological distance increases the attractiveness of alternatives that are desirable but difficult to obtain” because “desirability issues receive greater weight over feasibility issues”. ( Ayal T, and Liberman N “morality and Psychological distance: a Construal Level theory Perspective, Tel Aviv University (in Print)) In the short term we are concerned about the immediate constraints on our choices, how will I look in this shirt, do I have the time and free money to transfer funds to World Vision, we narrow our thinking to what is directly around us with all its restrictions and unknowns, when we lift our heads and look at future actions our concerns about direct environmental sanctions, manipulations and restrictions fade away and we make our decisions based on our higher values of honour, love, justice and life, often labeled as sacred values, rather than more immediate values like popularity, hedonism, self achievement, and does my bum look big in these pants (self esteem).

The Trolley Experiments

In the following experiments taken from Child Psychoanalyst Sue Gerhardts The Selfish Society and also used in Jonah Lehrers How We Decide they both cite a much used moral dilemma called the “Trolley” scenario played out while the participants are in an fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine so the researchers can see what parts of their brain are activated when making the decisions. The participants are presented with a scenario whereby a train trolley is hurtling down the tracks toward 5 workmen who will be killed because the trolley can’t be stopped and the workmen can’t be warned. You can save the 5 workmen by flicking a switch and diverting the train trolley down a side track where one workman is on the track. Most people choose to flick the switch killing the one but saving the 5 because they are in a position of authority, a vertical relationship. To make this decision we use the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which develops later than the more emotional centres of the brain like the amygdala. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DSPFLC) is associated with “cool” thinking as Gerhardt puts it and working memory, it’s a slower more rational centre of the brain. The participants have made a utilitarian decision weighing up the costs and benefits. Cool thinking is being aware of what is considered right by the group you belong to not what is personally right for you or others.

When the scenario is changed and the participants are placed on a bridge above the tracks and the only way to save the 5 workmen from the uncontrollable trolley is to push another workman from the bridge onto the tracks in front of the trolley (horizontal connection) most people can’t do it. In making this empathetic decision we use a very different part of our brain the more emotional posterior cingalate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex as well as the amygdala and superior temporal sulcas those areas linked with social benefits and interactions. As Gerhardt puts it; “Killing someone when you can see their eyes, their expression, when you might resonate with their feelings, can’t be done. It feels all wrong”. (Sue Gerhardt “The Selfish Society” pg 139 Simon & Schuster, 2010) You may argue that pushing the workman off the bridge is actually the best course of action it saves 5 for the loss of one, and in an isolated position when you can use rational utilitarian thinking you will make this hard decision, and can feel relatively unaffected by the loss of the one life. (see What happens when leaders close their mind )

Since the publication of Sue Gerhardts book Joshua Greene the neuroscientists who conducted the fMRI experiment has investigated the cause of this difference in moral perception, he has found that isolation or as he calls it the absence of personal force does incline us to see the taking of life as acceptable particularly when combined with an accident, or lack of intention. When the trolley dilemma is changed so that in order to make the trolley change tracks we inadvertently knock someone off a bridge we don’t see this as immoral, even though we are not isolated from them we don’t mean to kill them so it’s OK. (there is no horizontal connection) Whereas if the scenario is changed again and the side track leads back to the main track in front of the 5 workman so we need to put something on the side track to stop the train but are switching the lines in isolation we can still intentionally kill one person. And in another scenario if a fat man is walking along the line so it is our intention to kill him to stop the train we still see this as acceptable. Isolation enables that. (Joshua D. Greene a,*, Fiery A. Cushman a, Lisa E. Stewart a, Kelly Lowenberg b,Leigh E. Nystrom c, Jonathan D. Cohen c, “Pushing moral buttons: The interaction between personal force
and intention in moral judgment”
cognition 5 Feb 2009, )

There is also evidence that the powerful peaple (vertical connection) may be less inclined to moral behaviour even though they demand it of others, the old adage that power corrupts because of the isolation and sense of entitlement it brings causes those in power to expect others to follow the rules but they are allowed not to. This is a form of moral hypocrisy studied by behavioural Economist Joris Lammers (J. Lammers, D, Stapel, A Galisky “Power increases Hypocrisy”, who also found that when put in a position of power people are more likely to rigidly follow rules, (conservatism) or accepted group theories even when the outcomes were bad, whereas the powerless were more likely to look at the outcomes of their actions. (Lammers, Joris; Stapel, Diederik A, “How power influences moral thinking.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 97(2), Aug 2009, 279-289., ) These experiments show that those in isolated powerful positions can be immoral without feeling bad about it, they are justified by their high position in the hierarchy and their isolation from those affected by their actions. But when we are face to face with those being harmed we find it intrinsically impossible to harm them, we want to treat others the way we wish to be treated ourselves.

So what’s our fall back value; Power or benevolence?

Game theorists use the ultimatum game to test whether we are selfish or benevolent. It is a simple game, one participant is given a sum of money say $100 they must offer the other participant some of the money and if the other accepts they both get to keep what they have been given. The most self interested offer would be a minimal $1 for the “acceptor” should take anything they are offered as they have nothing and the “giver” has all the money. This is similar to getting a bank loan you accept all the conditions in the loan offer because you need the money and the bank has it. But we don’t give just $1 we genrally offer between $35 and $45 dollars almost half. And many studies have found the same cooperation across all countries. We like to be fair and share. The exceptions were Bolivia and New Guinea, in Bolivia offers were as low as $10 and in New Guinea they offered $75, there is evidence the highlanders may be so generous because of their non-hierarchical society. (Haselhuhn, MichaelP, Mellers, Barbara A, (2005). Emotions and Cooperation in Economic theory. UC Berkeley: Experimantal Social Science Laboratory (Xlab). Retrieved from:

However when there is a sanction involved, you are rewarded or punished for sharing (it doesn’t matter much which) sharing decreases. Intrinsic motivation to be fair is replaced by self interest. It has been shown in fMRI scans that as soon as the sanction is introduced our decisions move from what is best for “us” to what is best for “me”. The ultimatum game has also been played on those that are taught we are all selfish, economics and biology students and they too offer much less than normal, they expect selfishness so become selfish themselves.

One of my favourite experiments highlighting the value shift from a horizontal to a vertical connection comes from Switzerland. The researchers Frey and Oberholzer-Gee found that 50% of Swiss residents were prepared to accept a radioactive waste facility near their town, this seems odd I know but they considered this a public good it must go somewhere so it might as well be near my town rather than someone else’s, but when they were asked the same question and were told they would be compensated for having the site near them, the compensation ranged between $2000 and $6000 per person per annum – which is quite substantial – the acceptance rate dropped to 25%. ( Frey, BS and Oberholzer-Gee, F “The Cost of Price incentives: An Empirical analysis of Motivation Crowding out” the American Economic Review: Vol 87, No 4 Sept 1997, pg 746-755) The reward removed control and crowded out intrinsic benevolence. The residents wanted to be nice if they had freedom of choice but as soon as they felt coerced they resisted. A top down vertical connection changed our values from benevolence to self interest.

There is evidence again from game theorists that co-operation and forgiveness would be evolutionary desirable (See article on We evolved to co-operate and forgive) to live within a group, and for that matter on a planet to which we are fully dependent. Dependency encourages the evolution of traits that make us care for that which cares for us, and learn to get along with and value those things that gave you life. (see Sustainable Outcome from Equality )

I think overtime these values of benevolence, freedom and universality can be passed from generation to generation in either a genetic or memetic fashion and so become a priori although they are malleable to that generations environment. Free will and imagination can also create new branches on the tree of intrinsic values built on the seed of LIFE.

So yes we do have a common value; LIFE, and many interconnecting values, and most of all we have potential – with freedom – to lean to higher values of universalism, benevolence and openness to change.

David J Campbell


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