Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 December 2001
Issue No.565
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Where have the values gone?

The "loss of sense," the "disappearance of values" or the "clash of civilisations": are these insurmountable obstacles? Jérôme Bindé and Jean-Joseph Goux* outline paths for the future

During the Age of Enlightenment, Voltaire still had no doubts: "There is only one morality, just as there is only one geometry." But that universalist certainty decomposed long ago in the face of the denunciation of a wholly human origin of morality. The suspicion of a historical and cultural relativity of values, like the demystification undertakings that reduce them to ideological clothing hiding mechanisms of power, has shaken philosophical, religious or artistic faith in the absolute meaning of Truth, Good and Beauty. This great crisis of values, which profoundly stirred up the two centuries preceding ours, led to multiple uncertainties. Does the absence of a transcendent foundation, which allows for the rooting of eternal values in an unchanging heaven, or receiving them once and for all in an unquestionable revelation, signify the twilight of values? In a world marked by the planetary encounter of cultures, should we foresee virulent antagonisms and shocks between contrasting values? In the course of this new century, will we witness surprising and innovative hybridisations between value systems of origins and orientations that are currently foreign to one another?

The century that recently ended was one of a painful questioning of our certainties regarding society, history and humanity. The contemporary crisis of values is not only one of the great traditional moral frameworks attached to inherited denominations, but also one of lay values that have taken over (Science, Progress, emancipation of peoples, solidarity and humanistic ideals). Monstrosity, which left its mark on the 20th century, once again seems to threaten our future. Does not the development of techniques, a factor of change that is at once decisive, unpredictable and uncontrollable, risk resulting in an unrecognisable humanity, which some have already designated by the disturbing term of "post-humanity"? Might the progress of the genetic revolution lead to a form of self-domestication of the human species? How, in a universe of radical innovations, unprecedented breaks that will quickly affect the human species as a whole and modify geopolitical balances, do we think about the continuity of History and maintain the desirable utopia of a better life for the greatest number? Can we maintain the aim of a universal project compatible with the multiplicity of heritages and enriched by their intertwined histories?

Paul Valéry once commented that, in a world dominated by speculation, our conception of moral or aesthetic values was approaching the model of stock-market value. There is no longer a set standard of values, a stable, absolute measure -- rather, all values fluctuate in a vast market, their worth rising and falling according to infatuations and panics of the most subjective wagers. The "spirit" value, he said amusingly, is no different from "wheat" or "coal" values, and continues to drop... Thus the phenomenon of fashion, which, up until now, concerned only areas such as clothing in which the arbitrary and convention are de rigueur, is invading our conception of values, including ethics. We live in the ephemeral, an era of accelerated obsolescence and subjective whim, as if the most sacred values, having lost their foundation, could come onto the great market of moveable values and float in turn. Arising out of certain economic conditions, this temporary, stock- market conception of values refers to a large number of ethical or aesthetic phenomena in the contemporary world. The role of information and the media reinforces this orientation since the stock-market logic of values, like that of fashion and short-lived trends, implies taking many temporary "indicators" into account, to be grasped at the moment, instant information replacing the sense of History and the recognition of its long evolutions, which have become illegible.

How, in this all-powerful context that seems to favour the frivolity of values, can we still think of the seriousness of values, especially, in a fluctuating, flexible world marked by the emotional and intellectual influence of ephemeral images? How can the central question of education find its place? The 21st century could be caught in a strange contradiction: never will the ephemeral have enjoyed such standing, and yet the emergence of societies of knowledge, which tends to make ongoing, lifelong education for all not longer merely a dream but a project, seems to prefigure the growth of a new tendency of long-term values that are not only serious, but also playful and juvenile. When the boundaries between the three ages of life become blurred, new values, both cognitive and prospective, seem to emerge: they are less inherited than invented, less reproduced than created, less received than passed on.

For this reason, are we headed towards an aesthetising of values, if it is first and foremost a question of creating these? Might aesthetics have become the supreme stage of economy and ethics? Since the Romantic era, a profound, irreconcilable divorce seemed to have developed between the artist and the bourgeois. The avant-garde has long perpetuated this fracture, pushing the independence of Art to its height. Today, this antagonism between artist and bourgeois, between "aesthetics and the political economy," as Mallarmé said, has faded. Not only is the artist fully recognised and glorified, but perhaps no other era has placed him so high as has ours or made him the very model of activity producing sense and novelty. "Creation" is everywhere. We are all "creators" or aspire to being creators. Every production, every undertaking, every action believes it is following the model of artistic creation. In personal life, in the absence of stable, eternal frameworks, everyone is forced into creation -- at least of his or her own existence -- and must invent a "lifestyle." In economic life, innovation is recognised as the very driving force of development, the market forces putting in the forefront the charms of the supply, the infinite multiplication of desires that only an incessant dynamism of attractive creations can maintain. This generalised aesthetising thus affects not only society as spectacle (media, advertising, visual and sound environment) but the very core of the ethical principle and the entrepreneurial dynamic.

Can we forecast the creation of new values? In many regions of the world, the 20th century witnessed a massive decline in the adherence to traditional religious dogmas, as well as an extraordinary diversification of spiritual-type personal or community research. Do these minority breakthroughs carry strong values that might reveal themselves as essential for the future? Similarly, as the social cement has come apart in the face of the rise of an increasingly radical individualism that destroys inherited bonds and established identities, we note an unprecedented growth in new forms of associations, new types of solidarity. What values do these original networks of affinity, alliance and communication (favoured by technological innovation) bear? In a world dominated more and more massively and explicitly by motives of economic interest, the materialistic and narcissistic values of consumption, hedonism and short-term satisfaction, can we discern, especially, the emergence of alternative values that might be called "post-materialistic"? These questions are tied up with the collapse of patriarchal contexts (with its ethical, institutional, cultural and metaphysical dimensions), a considerable fracture resulting in a feminisation of values with profound consequences that are still difficult to measure, but which will not fail to reorient all aspects of the current century.

Thucydides stated: "A statesman must not only have clean hands -- he must also have clean eyes." Twenty-five centuries later, the German sociologist Max Weber responded that it was the task of the politician to structure and manage time. Thinking about the future of values makes sense only if one lays down the value of the future. The prospective of values is therefore, indissolubly, a prospective of time which must lay the bases for ethics of the future: not ethics in the future, but ethics of the present for the future, which once again give meaning to the human adventure by reconstructing a sequence of intermediary projects and actions to fill in the deserted gulf that separates realism from utopia. The sketch of such ethics of the future is already drawn by the remarkable evolution of three concepts: responsibility, formerly turned towards the past, is henceforth concerned, in large part, with the potential consequences of our actions. The principle of precaution teaches us that the Earth, the city, the human species itself and the biosphere are perishable, and that their fate lies mainly in our hands. The evolution of the concept of heritage and its extension to all culture and all of Nature henceforth make it the very vector of the transmission to the coming generations, and no longer the simple relief of the past. The blossoming of ethics of the future could thus be opening a new road to get out of the impasses in which we are confined by the tyranny of urgency and the ephemeral.

* Jérôme Bindé is director of the Division of Anticipation and Prospective Studies at UNESCO, where he organises the 21st Century Talks, coordinator and co-author of the future- oriented world report The World Ahead: Our Future in the Making and of Keys to the 21st Century.
Jean-Joseph Goux is professor of philosophy at Rice University, Texas, and author of
Frivolité de la Valeur.

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