A Google search of “the total value of everything” will reveal articles relating to “how much is the world worth”? (in dollar denomination); “how to calculate the value of your estate”; and a definition of gross domestic product.
Value is often automatically assumed to be monetary, but we all know instinctively that that what we value is multi-dimensional and diverse.
Most people will agree that there is an ethical dimension to value. This becomes clear when examining the word in its plural. Values are important ideals relating to what is good or bad. Often such values will be culturally determined and as such are not objective.
Empirical Versus Ethical Interpretations
Modern social scientists are understandably concerned by this subjectivity and have attempted an empirical approach to what people value without any ethical dimension. An example of this is Marxist labour theory which values everything according to the amount of labour required for it to be produced. Thus, a life-saving drug and a chemical substance for mass annihilation would be considered of the same value if they required the same amount of labour to produce.
Things which are valued by humans range from what may be regarded as good, neutral or bad from the perspective of ethical philosophy. The extremes are illustrated by the life-saving drug and the chemical weapon, with perhaps a glass of fine red wine in the middle.
Modern history, fraught as it is with cyclical financial crashes, wars over scarce resources and environmental disasters, with all the human suffering which these entail, is compelling us to revisit what we value from an ethical perspective.
Inevitably societal and environmental matters will increasingly integrate with the financial and empirical, whether some branches of social science or some corporates (including governments) like this or not.
Value As Defined By Contribution
In this article, value is linked to contribution made to the wider community. The ethical stringency of the contribution and hence the difficulty by which it is delivered is increased as the community is defined more broadly.
The premise is: if all act in their own self-interest, then collective value is diminished. If all contribute more to the collective than they take out, then a surplus is created.
The opposite is also true. If all are there to take as much as they can get, without consideration of the impact of this, value is diminished and a deficit results.
The surplus/deficit continuum may be of a financial nature but also applies to all aspects of human endeavour.
Social Value During Covid-19
Let us take the current Covid-19 as an example. If people act in self-interest to satisfy their immediate agendas (for example by ignoring social distancing) they put themselves and others at risk with all the financial and societal cost entailed. Value is diminished. Medical staff who courageously suspend their self-interest by tending to those who are affected by the virus assist in restoring people to health and shorten the time period in which economic activity is curtailed. Value is added.
Whether to act in narrow self-interest (individually or a collectively) or to act in the broader interest is a matter of choice. The decision to act in accordance with ethical values, as opposed to in expedient self-interest, inevitably involves risk – which explains why expedient, short term decisions are all too prevalent.
As an illustration, an error by the manager of a chemical plant results in a large spillage of toxic material being released into the natural drainage system. This manager may be faced with a choice: cover up the spillage and thereby protect himself from possible disciplinary sanction or own up to it, enabling remedial action to be taken and reducing the likelihood of a reoccurrence. In the former value is diminished and in the latter value is added.
Pre-Industrial People Knew Better
Where individuals take out more from the collective than they contribute the resultant value deficit will ultimately lead to the demise of the collective. Pre-industrial people understood this principle very clearly. They knew that to exploit natural resources in a non-sustainable manner would “kill the golden goose” and lead to famine and death.
More modern societies have found ways of blurring this principle and postponing the fatal outcome of taking out more than is contributed. For example, if there is a financial deficit governments may print more money. Clearly this is short term and cannot be sustained.
They know this, but maybe the words of Louis XV of France apply, “Après moi, le déluge” (“after me the flood”). His grandson. Louis XVI. paid the ultimate price for this mode of thought at the guillotine.
The consequences of taking more than giving are becoming more and more apparent within all spheres and levels of human endeavour. Louis XV’s flood is at hand.
As individuals and as collectives, we need to urgently re-examine our reason for existence and how we can align our intentions and actions with holistically serving the external world. Yes, this is difficult. Yes, this is almost Stoic behaviour. However, it is what is required for the sustainable survival of us all.
We need the following: more subordination of narrow self-interest, responsibility and respect (involving the assessment of impact) and gratitude, which unleashes the will to contribute more without conditions attached. In this way we can add to the total value of everything by the creation of a surplus borne of benevolent contribution.