Member, Austrian Council for Research and Technology Development; Former President, European Research Council; Chair, ERA Council Forum Austria, Vienna
|Experience and values some reflections on contemporary experience and what follows|
Experience is closely related to experiment. But while we carefully select how to set up an experiment, experience is largely formed by what happens to us and by our reactions to it. We therefore continuously e-valuate events and processes and their impact on us according to certain criteria, norms, guiding principles (including values). Together, experience and its evaluation form an experiential system of reference and orientation which is relatively stable.
Yet, as in an experiment, things may sometimes go wrong with experience as well. Expected results do not materialize, deviations from expectations may become too big to be classified as random fluctuations and can no longer be ignored. This is when the experimental and the experiential reference systems are put into doubt. Their assumptions begin to be questioned. This is the moment when the search for alternative explanations and alternative models for explaining reality sets in. The parameters of the e-valuation system of past experience are being re-adjusted or replaced.
This is what we are experiencing today. Foremost with regard to the dominant financial and economic system, but equally in our assumptions about the functioning of liberal democracies. It is happening also in the cultural sphere, as experience needs to be classified and categorized not only in terms of what, where, when and how, but also in terms of why of giving meaning to what happens to us.
If experience can lead to re-value values (Umwertung der Werte), it becomes all the more important to know which experience we take as compelling evidence for readjusting values and transformations of the reference system. Which brings me to the second reflection.
Social life is permeated by a subtle balance between the ends that any collectivity strives to achieve and the means to attain them. We like to think that the objectives we have set are linked to fundamental values human rights, democracy, inclusiveness, citizenship and so forth. Additional goals are also given high priority. We seek to stimulate economic growth for our societies and would like to see more jobs created. We can even reach agreement on all of these objectives in a relatively easy manner. Disagreement sets in when we begin to discuss the means.
Why is this so? Not only because there is no magic bullet or because the one solution simply does not exist. There is another, deeper cleavage in society which bears directly on how we define the relationship between means and ends and how we ascertain which kind of experience counts and how it is to be interpreted in view of adjusting our guiding values.
If values underpin ends, experience underpins the means.
So, what do we take to be experience, especially when it is public and collective experience, i.e. shared by many?
This is where the tension between accountability and responsibility enters.
To put it briefly: accountability presumes that everything can be counted and measured, put into performance indicators and marked by best-practice. It accepts only explicit criteria, which is why it often is accompanied by the call for transparency. Now, as Michael Power and others have shown, nobody can argue against accountability as it is an indispensible part of any governance. The problem arises when the means begin to overtake and eclipse the ends. When performance indicators take on a life of their own and when there is no room left for anything except evidence as defined by those who trust its perfection.
The other principle is responsibility. It relies heavily on judgment and on personal e-valuation of whether the best means are used to realize the ends under given circumstances. It leaves much room for interpretation and much of it remains subjective.
With accountability, we get standartization and stream-lining of behaviour, outcome and even to be anticipated impact. The means take on a life of their own and as a self-fulfilling prophecy, become more important than the ends.
With responsibility, we trust persons and their (fallible) judgments to choose the appropriate means in order to achieve the ends. What if the means are not appropriate and what if people behave in a less than responsible way?
The relationship between experience and values is therefore far from obvious. It is tension-ridden, especially in times of volatility when neither our experience nor our values can any longer be taken for granted and when a point is reached where neither is trusted. We should therefore start exploring what we take to be our experience, to carefully asses and ascertain it. Only then will we arrive at a result which we can trust to redefine our values and orientation towards the future.