In this post, I discuss the topic of the future of values (axiological futurism) and provide my own interpretation of when and why it is important and what tensions it might have.
In an excellent paper ”Axiological futurism: The systematic study of the future of values” (2021), John Danaher discusses the issue of value-change in the future. Danaher points out that there have been changes in values throughout the history and these changes will most likely continue in the future. Understanding the possible changes in values in the future is “both desirable in and of itself, and complementary to other futurological inquiries”. Danaher names the inquiry into the future of values axiological futurism.
Danaher points out that there are two versions of axiological futurism: a descriptive and a normative one. Descriptive axiological futurism merely attempts to find out how human values will change in the future. It is an attempt “to map out the broad space of possible axiological trajectories that we could take in the future; to anticipate and imagine the different scenarios; and to help us to plan for those possibilities”. Normative axiological futurism attempts to tell how values should change in the future. While this distinction is a natural one, I will later point out a possible tension in it that has general consequences for axiological futurism.
Our interest in the futures is driven by values. There are explicit or implicit commitments to certain values across futures studies. Danaher points out that “risk-oriented” inquiries into futures “are motivated by an attachment to certain human values and by the worry that socio-technical changes will threaten those values”. However, those inquiries “often assume a relatively fixed or static conception of what the future of human values might be”.
To me, it seems that we should make a distinction between (a) values in action-oriented futures research, and (b) values in knowledge-oriented futures studies.
In the latter case, ignoring possible value-changes is not a problem. What we, in the present, want to know about is always, trivially, driven by our values. All science is value-laden in this benign sense: we study those phenomena that are of interest to us. This is compatible with the notion of value-change in the future. Next generations will study the phenomena they deem important to understand and this change is a natural part of scientific development. However, we cannot transcend our historical position in this development. This is due to two reasons. First, the objects of scientific interests change on the basis of previous research. What we study will determine what is studied in the future – we are laying the foundations but also making mistakes and ignoring important topics. It is impossible for us to jump on the possible topics of the future generations because we cannot possibly know those topics before our own work is done. Secondly, even if attempted to study what might be of interest for future scholars, this change would still be a change in the present science. It would shape our science on the basis of us valuing the possible topics of future scholars. The research thus produced would be our research that would be rethought by future scholars, making it impossible to study in advance the future topics.
In the former case, the value-drivenness of futures studies is more problematic. There are two reasons for this. The first one is an epistemic one: Given that we produce knowledge of phenomena that are of interest to us, we simply might fail to produce knowledge that is relevant for actions in the future. This problem might be side-stepped by noting that the knowledge is created for us to act towards the future. However, this side-stepping is problematic for the second reason. The second reason is that it is difficult to tell how our values could be able to tell what is desirable in the future, given that values change. The problem is how to get from “valuable to us” to “valuable to them, the future generations”. If we are not willing to consider how the values of the future differ from our own values, it is impossible to make a plan or act towards a desirable future. Here lies, in my view, the value of axiological futurism. There has been a constant failure of distinguishing between desirable for us and desirable for future generations. Our values can only tell what would be desirable for us. It is unclear how this is connected to what will be desirable in the future.
So we have come to a point where we recognize the necessity of axiological futurism if we wish to understand the future in order to act upon it. But how to perform such inquiry? Danaher suggests that “Our goal, as axiological futurists, is to explore [axiological possibility space], to figure out the ways in which it might vary and change in the future, and to identify some possible trajectories that human civilisation might take through this possibility space.”
The axiological possibility space can be mapped by the so-called logical space methods. The idea is to “map out the logical space of variation for a given value or set of values. The resulting logical space will help us to identify the different ways in which a value might be specified and how it might relate to other values.” Obviously, there has to be some interpretation of “possibility”. According to the widest reading, it means “logically possible”. All combinations (variations) that are logically possible can be considered as belonging to the space. Another, more narrow, reading could be something like “theoretically possible”. Here all theoretically systematic combinations of values constitute the possibility space. Even more narrow reading could be something like “practically possible”. Here the possibility space is constituted by those combinations of values that could be adopted, given the (changing!) existential limitations of human life. There is no need to choose one of such readings as the correct one; different readings could serve different purposes. Logically possible futures of values can widen our imagination; theoretically possible may provide a systematization of imagination; and practically possible may tell us where to look for when we attempt to estimate the possible trajectories of the future of values; and so on.
For the sake of the discussion below, let’s call this phase the mapping of “possible futures”.
Next, we want to be able to identify possible trajectories of the future of values. For the sake of the discussion below, let’s call this phase the mapping of “plausible futures”.
Danaher points out that “Ultimately, what we want to know are the causal relationships between potential drivers of change in axiology and actual changes in axiology”. In order to know this, “we have to rely on historical studies of axiological change, cross-cultural studies of axiological variance and psychological and small-scale experimental studies of change and variance”. How, exactly, historical studies etc. can help us to understand the possible futures is a tricky topic that cannot be discussed here. The important point is that by studying the possible trajectories of axiological change, we are able to approach the question of plausible futures of values.
Now, here comes the big tension in axiological futures. It is usually thought that we should study (i) possible futures, (ii) plausible futures, and (iii) desirable futures. The desirable futures must be studied because our actions affect the future and we wish to affect it the best possible way. But what would the study of desirable axiological futures look like? How are we to determine which values are desirable in the future? Should we rely on our own values in determining which values are desirable in the future? This does not sound quite correct. Prima facie, if we consider our values the correct ones (why would we have adopted them if they were not?), we probably judge that preserving those values is the desirable thing to do. However, if we attempt to ground our judgments of the desirable axiological futures on what could be valued by future generations, we should know what values they will have. The problem is that our choices will affect the values of the future no less than other aspects of the future. We cannot decide to steer toward a particular future because it is desirable for future generations since what they will consider as desirable depends on the very decision we make. In its darkest form, the problem is that we could, in principle, steer toward a morally catastrophic future and at the same time steer our value system towards such a perverted state that, according to a future version of it, the morally catastrophic future is judged as the morally perfect one.
Because we create, to some extent, the future through decision-making and actions, the normative and descriptive versions of axiological futures are intertwined. Ideas concerning what the values in the future should be have an effect on how they will be. Moreover, there is the problem that it is difficult to tell on which considerations the normative judgements could and should be based on. How can we balance what would be desirable for us and what could be desirable for future generations?
When I first came across the problem of future of science, I started to worry about the possibility of judging which futures of science are desirable (see some discussion here). In order to approach this question, we need to ask how we know what is valuable in the present science. If we knew this much, perhaps we could have the beginnings of answering the future-oriented version of the question. I have suggested (here) that we should use the method of reflective equilibrium (RE) to decide which features of science are valuable. Scanlon describes the method of RE (in the context of philosophy of justice):
“One begins by identifying a set of considered judgments about justice. [–]. The second stage is to try to formulate principles that would “account for” these judgments. [–]. [The] third stage in which one decides how to respond to the divergence between these principles and one’s considered judgments. Should one give up the judgments that the principles fail to account for, or modify the principles, in order to achieve a better fit?” (2003, 140–141.)
In other words, we wish to have a systematic set of principles that capture what we consider valuable.
I do not think that it is possible to escape our current values when attempting to tell which axiological futures could be desirable. Our current values serve as a necessary starting point of axiological futurism even if attempted to understand what could be valuable for future generations. The crucial question is how we can modify our system of principles in the face of possible future changes in the material, social, intellectual, emotional (and so on) aspects of the world. RE provides a fruitful way of looking at the issue. If we have a set of principles that explain why certain things are valuable, we can approach the future of values in terms of such principles. First, we can operate on our systematization of principles by excluding, adding, or replacing certain principles and tracking the overall change of the systematization. In this way, we can track possible future effects of changes in principles. Secondly, we can track how the principles would change if our judgements about the value of some particular things changed. The principles are formulated in order to capture such judgements so changes in the judgements necessitate changes in the principles. Finally, we can study how the principles are connected to our material, cultural, and social context. Understanding about the connections enables us to estimate how the principles could change if the context was to change. Consider an example: For example, we might currently consider as significant (valuable) that science provides simple explanations and find out that this judgement of significance is (partly) based on our limited cognitive abilities and our willingness to be able to effectively cope with phenomena. However, we could estimate that the processing power of computers increases and that the main problems of the future, related to climate, for example, are extremely complex and conclude that, in the future, simple explanations are no longer preferable to complex models that enable us to make accurate predictions. Here we have projected the willingness to cope effectively with important phenomena onto the future but have re-evaluated the preference for simple explanations in the light of other estimates of future possibilities.
A fundamental problem is that we cannot have scenarios of the future independently of a description of the future of values. We cannot have value-free scenarios to which values are added later, as it were. If we knew everything else that will happen in the future except what values are adopted, we could use the above considerations to track down the possible set of values in a relatively straightforward way. However, we do not know that much. The problem is not merely an epistemological one. The problem is that our judgements about the desirability of a future determine (to some extent) whether the future will be realized. In order to know which values will be adopted in the future, we have to know how the future will be like in other respects. However, in order to know how the future will be like in other respects, we need to know which values are adopted as the values shape the future. Future values and their context come in the same package.
It seems that the only thing we can do is to formulate many possible systematizations of values that might hold in different types of scenarios of the future. The scenarios must be descriptively-normatively balanced: The description of the context must be compatible with the values inserted in the context and the description of the values must be compatible with the context. To provide a toy-example, we should not formulate a scenario where there is no funding for science but enormous appreciation towards scientific knowledge; if there was such appreciation, science would receive funding.
The ultimate problem is that, by this technique, we can formulate many descriptively-normatively balanced futures but have no grounds for telling towards which of the futures we should steer. The ultimate question “What should we do now?” is left for us to be solved. Ultimately, we have to decide now what kind of future is ethically tenable. The future of values is of no help in answering the question.
Danaher, John (2021). ”Axiological futurism: The systematic study of the future of values”. Futures 132.
Scanlon, T. M. (2003). “Rawls on Justification”. In Freeman, Samuel (ed.) Cambridge Companion to Rawls. Cambridge University Press