Sustaining a critical conversation about values and other difficulties.
Defining values can be a confounding activity because the aspirations that shape a practice are difficult to isolate and they resist being named and collected into an exclusive list. Nevertheless, using the language of values to describe and share the aspirations of a practice holds promise because values are the sort of rare words that carry an extra load of meaning and are useful to evaluate the merits of various actions. John Dewey says: "If values were as plentiful as huckleberries, and if the huckleberry patch were always at hand, the passage of appreciation into criticism would be a senseless procedure." If one thing tired or bored us, we should only have to turn to another. But values are as unstable as the forms of clouds. The things that possess them are exposed to all the contingencies of existence.1 In other words, useful values are both uncommon and difficult to define.
The Gulf Coast Community Design Studio staff has been discussing values for nearly a year in a series of group conversations. These meetings started with several "Super Value Meals" in which eating together was followed by sharing thoughts and concerns about values. Once these after-dinner conversations seemed to be getting slowed down by debate over the meaning of particular words, we all agreed to leave words alone for a time and to each do a diagram about values. The pin-up of the diagrams and several meetings that followed led to an increasing realization that the goal of listing our values was impossible if we were to remain faithful to what we had learned from each other and from the people we work with in the community. To say our "values" suggests that values are something that we have, either things we carry around, like the "valuables" that we are warned to put in the hotel safe, or defining attributes, like a person's height and weight. Instead of something we have, it is more considerate to think of values as guiding word tools that are part of the language of our time and place and are available for all to use. At times values work like common framing tools such as a ruler, a square, and a level, to guide specific practical decisions. At other times values are aspirations to help us improve our work by being able to imagine doing things better. In either case care should be taken to avoid a possessive attitude that makes a claim that we own values.
The problem with defining values is that once identified they are typically collected into an ideal realm of words so that they can be analyzed and discussed. This ideal realm of analytical language unavoidably strays from the uncertain realm of experience, and the particular words being used to define values take on a sort of unnatural weight. People start privileging the word "values" with leading words such as "central," "basic," "core," "fundamental," and other structural terms. Soon the discussion tends to get overly concerned with precise definitions, one word contesting another in a search for the perfect word that can stand proudly as the finalist in a pageant of possible words. In the process of polishing the language the value statement gets further and further from experience.2
Once values are isolated from experience in this way they are thought to be able to be measured according to some common scale of goodness. But good things are not all compatible; they can't be weighed according to a common standard. This is because the freedom to choose between good things is a value in itself. In other words, the extent of our liberty to choose to live as we desire must be weighed against the claims of many other values such as equality, or justice, or happiness, or security, or public order. The fact is we cannot have everything all the time; not because we can't afford it, but because at times one good thing takes the place of other good things.
Isaiah Berlin's 1958 influential essay, "Two Concepts of Liberty," makes a useful distinction between negative freedom and positive freedom.3 Negative freedom is "the degree to which external forces do not interfere with my activity,"4 and positive freedom is "the wish to be my own master."5 Even though these two types of freedom appear to have nearly the same end results, the thinking that leads to each of them is significantly different. Negative freedom acknowledges the various external forces that shape social experience and strives to mitigate those forces that keep a person from being able to make choices. Positive freedom stems from an ideal of self-rule, independent from external forces. In short, negative freedom imagines an empirical, heteronomous self, and positive freedom imagines an ideal, autonomous self.
Such a distinction is useful to discuss values, because the concept of negative freedom offers a way to see that not all good things can or should be brought under a single idealized measure, and to see that the urge to be one's own master can blind a person to the consequences of his actions on other people. Berlin points to such a condition of blindness when he states that "if the essence of men is that they are autonomous beings-- authors of value, of ends in themselves, then nothing is worse than to treat them as if they were not autonomous, but natural objects, played on by causal influences, creatures at the mercy of external stimulus."6 Yet, the reality of human experience today, in both a social and natural world, is the increasing realization that we are not independent from social forces and should become more mindful of the consequences of human actions on each other and on the natural world.
Acknowledging that values are not commensurable is not to say that values do not have a significant role in shaping our actions. In fact, the realization that our values can not always be analyzed and ranked gives us added insight into the complexity and uncertainty of experience and makes us more careful to watch our actions so we don't harm other people. Wise words come to mind:
To realize the relative validity of one's convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.7
This is the first lesson learned from the discussion on values.
Using values to shape practice and practice to shape values.
William James begins his second lecture on pragmatism with a camping story:
Some years ago, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find every one engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel; a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree's opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel? In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness, discussions had been worn threadbare. Everyone had taken sides, and was obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even. Each side, when I appeared therefore appealed to me to make a majority.8
James goes on to elaborate in detail what it means to "go round," and we read along with a smile until he comes to a very serious conclusion to the story. We are caught off guard as we realize that we have been uncritically following the seemingly trivial argument of the comical man and the squirrel, trusting James to get to the point of the story, which he does in a way that pulls the curtain back on the philosophers before him:
He says, "It doesn't matter."
He explains that if there is no practical difference then the alternatives mean practically the same thing and all disputes are idle. In other words, if a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show practical consequences from one side or the other's being right.9 This pragmatic formula is the second lesson for values and James's squirrel story serves as a standard of whether a given conversation matters:
If a difference in the words used to explain values does not make a difference in practice, it is of no consequence.
Practice is an effective critique of the language of values, more effective than language itself. The Design Studio has maintained an extended group conversation about values that began with the notion that we would produce a list of "our values." Students from several schools that lived and worked in Biloxi during the semester joined in the ongoing conversation with the full-time studio staff. People from outside the studio often participated in the meetings; their presence was a welcome challenge to the tendency that such conversations can become specialized and proprietary. The values meetings have been enjoyable and have added to the solidarity of the design studio; however, the discussion of values would have little consequence for the participants if it were not for the fact that we are working together everyday on projects that are being built by others, for others, and with other people's money. For example, if we say we value "being careful," each person generally reflects upon his or her work in the studio with the question, am I being careful in my own work? Such self analysis is part of a reflexive practice in which the work is shaped by an ongoing critique of the work.
Many students and interns have come to work in the GCCDS because they are attracted to a place that combines designing and building. Initially, they are interested in a design/build program because they expect to learn about architecture by way of construction. They come to realize that the greater lessons being learned come from the experience of designing a building for another person. Many students have been implicitly taught in school that design is a personal activity in which the ideas of the designer are being expressed. They think of their student peers and their teachers as the audience for their designs. For the typical student, designing a house for another person, especially a person with vastly different life experiences, is a new and exciting effort. The student or intern learns that design is not an autonomous activity. She learns that her own ideas are put into a complex dialogue with the future home owner. Put into a situation with a house client for the first time, the inexperienced designer often tries to replace the autonomy of the designer with the equally limiting preconceptions of the client. She thinks perhaps that the client should direct the design, supposing that the work of designing a house is to give the owners what they ask for. Eventually the designer learns that even houses have a public dimension and that there are external forces, both natural and cultural, outside of the ideas of the designer or the client that have a formative design role. This type of practice learning is a transformative experience.
In a design practice shaped by experience, values are not things we own; instead they are words used to guide the relationship of the designer and the community. Instead of using words like "core" and "central" to describe values - words that locate values internally, values are imagined as boundary conditions, not located within us but made visible in our social interactions. In building design as well as in planning work the designer makes many decisions that directly equate to costs and benefits for other people. The people that carry the costs and benefits are not limited to the project client. The consequences of building extend beyond the project; they are both known and unknown, both local and global. Working with precaution requires that we maintain a reflexive practice that is shaped by an ongoing critique of our work, so that we can see the effects of our actions on other people. A practice of experience takes care to keep from thinking that we are autonomous and watches out for a false certainty that can make us oblivious to the consequences of our work. Such important lessons make up the experience of a careful practice and are lessons that are best taught in the sort of teaching practice of the GCCDS.
David Perkes, 2010
- Experience and Nature. John Dewey, Dover Publications, New York 1958. page 399.
- The contingency of language and the critique of fundamental figures of speech is an important part of Richard Rorty's contemporary pragmatism. Rorty says, "The trouble with arguments against the use of a familiar and time-honored vocabulary is that they are expected to be phrased in that very vocabulary." Rorty echoes Dewey's similar caution. Dewey says values are usually "gathered up into the realm of values, contradistinguished from the realm of existence. Then the philosopher has a new problem with which to wrestle: What is the relationship of these two worlds." See Experience and Nature, page 394. Rorty repeatedly critiques idealist thinking that there are such "realms of values" independent from experience. Rorty says, "We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that it is not of our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effect of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human language, and that human languages are human creations. See Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989, page 5.
- "Two Concepts of Liberty," in Isaiah Berlin, Liberty, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002.
- Ibid. page 169.
- Ibid. page 178.
- Ibid. page 183.
- Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Joseph A. Schumpeter, London, 1943, page 243. Isaiah Berlin ends his essay quoting Schumpeter and adds, "To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one's practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity."
- Pragmatism, William James, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 1981, page 25.
- Ibid. page 26.