intellectual self-defence

Values vs Finances

I attended a University meeting recently, an open forum to discuss our strategy and vision. My small group spend most of its time talking about the conflict between values and finances. Values we might aspire to – things like helping fight climate change – and finances – the constraints from ‘the bottom line’, the need to recognise the costs of different actions. Something about how the group settled on this dichotomy disturbed me. It wasn’t that there weren’t intelligent people in the group, who make good points, but I left with the inarticulate feeling that there was something wrong with the framing around the discussion we had. I’ve been thinking about it for over a week, and I’m now a bit closer to figuring out some of the problems with the idea that values come into conflict with finances.

The first problem with this false opposition is that it positions values as a luxury, something we can only afford to think about if we service the necessity of finances. Rather, values are the necessity – and prior to any consideration of finances. How can you decide on any action unless you know what you want, and what you value? This is impossible for a person, or an institution. Sure, we have some givens – Universities teach and do research – but I’d argue they reflect implicit values which we need to articulate. Only once we know what values we share can we then start to decide what we want to do, and only then can we start to cost those actions.

The second problem with putting finances in opposition to values is that it reifies an abstract notion and gives the false impression that ‘finances’ are somehow simple and concrete. In fact, even if the University unwisely adopted the corporate directive to maximise profits that does not unpack into a clear decision strategy. Over the complex space of possible timescales, and possible strategies, and possible changes in the environment, it isn’t clear at all what actions will maximise profits. You need a sense of your mission even if you are trying to maximise profits – which we aren’t.

My sense is that in the discussion people referred to ‘finances’ as a proxy for external constraints. We’d like to teach for free, but lecturers and buildings cost money etc. My objection to vaguely referring to ‘finances’ is that it stops detailed discussion of specific external constraints – not all of which are financial (for example we’d like to recruit the best research staff from around the world, but visa restrictions hamper this).

My third and final issue with the opposition of values and finances is that it positions values as flexible – things we’ll set within whatever wiggle room finances affords us – but finances as fixed. But Universities are big enough players to change the environment within which they operate. We all are, especially though the power of collective action. Fees, funding, visa restrictions are all negotiable. We, as a society, and as a University which should play a role in shaping society, decide on how these things work. We should articulate our values and take part in doing that. I reject a fatalistic submission to the way the world is – which is often what homage to finances reflects. A ‘there is no alternative’ nihilism which promotes passivity.

3 replies on “Values vs Finances”

Perhaps the economic concept of “revealed preference” could be of help here.

To put in another way, there is a logical fallacy in the opposition of “values” and “finances”; in the jargon I think you’d say they belong to different categories. Here’s what really happens: instead of arguing about clashing values when deciding how to use the available resources, you position the choices that result from your values as an external constraint which it makes no sense to discuss. Added bonus, you can tactfully regret their conflict with your opponent’s values, so you not only do you get what you want without conflict but you even appear sympathetic to your opponent.

There’s a longer discussion to be had here about the logic of revealed preference. Following Tom Slee, I’d argue that choices are crucially different from their underlying values (as I say here ).

To be more charitable to your suggested strategy than I feel, it might work if the parties involved knew what their values were. The problem I encounter too often is that people are so bewitched by the metrics which society consumes itself with (including statistics of people’s revealed preferences), that they stop articulating their underlying values, or even – seemingly – being able to articulate them

Not sure we understand each other: what I meant to write is that “values vs. finances” is a conceptually invalid opposition, because it considers “values” and “means” to be in the same logical category, which they aren’t. So you are right to refuse it.

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