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Web person at the Imperial War Museum, just completed PhD about digital sustainability in museums (the original motivation for this blog was as my research diary). Posting occasionally, and usually museum tech stuff but prone to stray. I welcome comments if you want to take anything further. These are my opinions and should not be attributed to my employer or anyone else (unless they thought of them too). Twitter: @jottevanger

Saturday, August 21, 2010

No decisions without value/s

I was getting hot under the collar the other day listening to an interview with some religious type who was upset by the decision to prevent a Catholic charity from excluding same-sex couples from using their adoption service. The Charities Commission ruled that they could either change their policy, or stop acting as an adoption agency, and as far as they were concerned the former was not an option so the latter was the only possible outcome. Now, nothing is likely to bring me round to their antediluvian* point of view re parenthood and sexuality, but it did help calm me down to remember that, whilst the discussion may often hover around "facts" (because they're easier for everyone to get a grip on, even when flaky), it's actually not about something that has a right or wrong answer: it's about a decision to support one side or another of the argument, and decisions are fundamentally dependent upon values: these are the only thing that give the "facts" any weight for the decision maker.

"Facts", in principle, are established by gathering objective evidence. Decisions, on the other hand, are the reverse: they always involve value. Value, whilst it can be a purely emotional response (a desire for something, or a positive feeling towards it), can also be transformed into values (not the same thing), which in a sense provide a template for valuing a given phenomenon. In other words, value is the outcome of an assessment, whilst values are a tool that for making that assessment.

Further, values (the tool/template) may be the internal values of an individual, perhaps embedded sub-consciously in a decision or even somatic ("instinctual", if you like, though that's a debate to avoid); or they may the externalised values embodied as a set of rules guiding a decision. This ostensibly makes the decision objective, but only by removing the value judgement into an earlier stage of the decision-making: the framing stage, where the rules for the decision are composed. These rules might even be ossified into an automated process, where rules are coded as machine instructions. They may also have been distorted along the way, so that in fact the rules represent no values held by a person at all. Whichever is the case, the values of a person or a group of people have been injected at some stage in order to make a decision possible.

The push and pull of emotion are a tide that can move our internal values incessantly, and this is one reason why it is often helpful to turn values into a set of explicit rules. Another is to externalise them so that they can be discussed and referred to as law, policy, doctrine or maybe something more informal. Of course, there's a psychological cost if this then results in dissonance between the codified values and the internalised values.

So in making decisions, or trying to influence the decisions made by other people or systems, or merely trying to understand the perspective of someone who argues in a direction that you just don't get, should we focus on the facts or on the values? Should we try to gather more evidence to demonstrate that the facts are as we see them? Should we examine the values held by another party and attempt to present the facts consonantly with them? Should we even try to change the values that are so critical in turning facts into value into decisions? Well, that's a tough one. But the one thing you can't do is address value directly: value is the product of the perceived "facts" of a scenario and the process or template for assessing the value of those facts. You can address the facts, and you can address the process of assessing but it's pointless to simply state that the value is something other than the assessment itself.

Ultimately, values themselves can be shaken by enough well-aimed evidence, but these may be of a quite different category to those facts that are put together with established values in order to reach a decision. For example, the evidence or experience required to make me a Catholic and subscribe to the values of the person I heard interviewed I cannot even imagine, even though ultimately it must be possible (perhaps on the road to Damascus). On the other hand, there are some facts through which I might be persuaded that it was wrong to prevent that particular charity from handling adoptions as it chose - for example, if it were the only agency in the country and the result of this decision was that there would be no adoption agencies at all, I might (might) feel, for purely pragmatic reasons, that it would be better to let them carry on even if that meant living with their discriminatory policy. Thankfully that's not the situation!

I don't know if this framework I've outlined is useful or right. I'm not a psychologist, a philosopher or a logician. Perhaps there are people out there who have very different ways of making decisions and this model of splitting out values from assessments of value doesn't work for them. I myself can see complications in examining the adoption agency question, which is nothing if not a clash of values. For my research into the role of decision making in digital sustainability, though, I think it may be a useful distinction to make, extending the insights given by Lessig's modalities of regulation (PDF) (this is typically looked at as a legal theorem but it's really about the "regulation" of decisions).

*yes, I know