Frameworks for evaluating values

I recently came across a very interesting 2001 paper by Daphne Koller that dealt with influence diagrams and how they could be applied to game theory.  I came across the paper while doing some background reading on a talk on decision making in accordance with our core values by a friend of mine, Somik Raha.

Influence diagrams are a formalism (very similar to probabilistic graphical models) that are used for making decisions.

What Somik Raha has attempted to do is come up with a framework for making decisions while also taking one’s values into account (either as constraints or as inputs into the decision model).  To do that he proposes extensions to influence diagrams.

What I found interesting when I thought about Daphne Koller’s work and Somik’s together, is that they could possibly give you a framework to evaluate your values.

Koller’s formalism reduces to a game theoretic model, which can be evaluated to determine the outcome of the decisions made by a group of people.

Plug in a formalism based on Somik’s ideas and you just might be able to create a way to quantity the benefits of values.

The Importance of Values?

I have been thinking a bit about values these days because there has been a horrific gang rape in Delhi, and there have recently been numerous incidents of bad driving where friends of mine have been injured in Bangalore.  Then there is corruption.  Our society seems to be quite happy with inequality and vast differences in the distribution of wealth.  It make me wonder if our values are to blame.

I have often wondered whether some of our problems originate in our value systems and whether the value systems that we consider sacrosanct in India are really very good ones.

Let me take just a couple of values that most Indians would consider to be very good values

  1. Non-violence
  2. Obedience

and let’s discuss them in more detail.

  1.  Non-violence

This value appeals not just to people in India.  You see variants of the value of non-violence appear in Tolstoy’s writings and in Semitic religions, as you can see from the Bible (“turn the other cheek”) and the Quran (“give alms to one who begs from you, even if he comes on the back of a horse”).

The issue with this sort of value is that it makes a person (and those around him/her) extremely vulnerable to injustice.

In India, we restrict the liberty of women – in their choice of clothing, company and lifestyle – for fear that they could be in danger if they violated societal norms.  This shows that none of us want to fight society or cross swords with someone who might make disparaging comments about personal choices.

Moreover, possibly as a result of the value of non-violence, very few Indians if any are taught fighting skills in school.  So, even if a person really wanted to act, say to protect a friend, he or she might not really have the skills to take down an aggressor.

So, instead of protecting and standing up for people who might be vulnerable, we become their tormentors and make their lives more miserable, just so we don’t have to get our hands dirty, or because we don’t have the skills and strength to do squat.

I’ve written about how bribes are openly collected by traffic policemen.  It should be very easy to put a stop to such behavior if you’re willing to fight.

If non-violence is not a core value, then how do we protect people from tearing each other to bits?

We could start with a question like:  non-violence for what purpose?  (turning it into an extrinsic value)

If the answer is something like, “so that the weak feel protected”, why not make protecting the weak our core value?

I’d prefer teaching kids values like “Don’t ever turn your back on a bully” rather than values like “Don’t fight anybody, and just come home safe, child!”

2.  Obedience

Indian parents love to boast that their child is “such an obedient child!”

Is that a good thing?

Obedience is different from politeness or respect.  The latter are mutual but the former is one way.

So, the politics of obedience creates a hierarchy of subservience.

In India, Parents expect complete obedience from Children.

The Police expect complete obedience from People.

The Politicians expect complete obedience from Police.

Teachers expect complete obedience from Students.

Managers expect complete obedience from Employees.

The creation of the hierarchy (through expectations of obedience) can be very dangerous in many ways.

1.  It can stifle creativity and problem-solving ability.  There is a bias against ideas flowing up a hierarchy because those higher up the hierarchy claim their place above those required to be obedient to them on the premise that they are somehow superior to those below them.  A good example is how parliament will not accept that people have a right to demand a bill against corruption (members of the Indian parliament claim that parliament is supreme in a parliamentary democracy – not the citizens that the parliamentarians represent).

2.  It can leave young people ill-equipped to defend their personal spaces.  I read in a paper on rape that many rapists approach victims by testing their boundaries.  They make comments and otherwise violate the intended victim’s personal boundaries.  If these are not strongly resisted, the probability of an assault becomes greater.  Another strategy used by rapists is to move their intended victim to a new location where they are more vulnerable. It is very important for people to be conditioned so that they do not obey an order by an attacker to relocate under any circumstances.

3.  The hierarchies perpetuate the power of stronger (bigger, older or richer) parties by providing social sanction to their dominant position, and so hinder social mobility.

4.  The obedience hierarchy could allow a few people at the top to amass too much power. It might have, for example, prevented cops from disobeying those in power during the Gujarat riots.

5.  Obedience means valuing rules above truth.  Obedience implies not challenging the rules or the status quo.  So there is little scope for discovering if the rules really are good ones for everybody.  People often defend something they assert with a “because I said so.” – that is, you are expected to believe them because of their authority, and not because they can substantiate their assertion.

Obedience as an absolute value is not entirely harmless.  It could be dangerous to us as a society because corrupt politicians can use the pliability and obedience of people around them to get away with evil (remember the activist who was hacked to death on the orders of a corporator from Bangalore, the journalist who was burnt to death in Uttar Pradesh, or the shutdown that the former Chief Minister of Karnataka State ordered when he was about to be investigated for corrupt dealings?).

I’d love to replace “obedience” with something else, perhaps “honesty” and “trustworthiness” and “pride”.

Summary

I understand that we as Indians are very proud of our values but I’ve tried to argue that our values need to be re-examined.

Personally, I’d love to see the day when we replace all our values with just the value of trustworthiness.

Trustworthiness as a value would mean we’d fight for each other.  It would mean we’d protect the weak.  It would mean we’d be on time.  It would mean we’d be honest.  It would mean we’d be capable and skilled and strong.  It would mean we’d be proud of each other.  It might mean we’d never lose another war.

Reading Koller’s and Somik’s work you get the feeling that one day you might be able to evaluate the comparative benefits of two sets of values, and pick the better one, using plain math.

And hopefully, by showing them mathematical proofs, you can convince people to change their values and pick better ones for themselves.

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3 thoughts on “Frameworks for evaluating values

  1. very well written. a great deal of problem are because of means-end displacement. our means have become our ends. our instrumental values has become ultimate values. Its time to have a re-look and you have put excellent argument for that.

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