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what’s important?
november 7, 2009


Berkeley philosopher Bernard Williams did ethics (died 2003) in terms of importances, rather than values; or rather, values are understood as importances. X is valuable because it’s important. Something is important because— And there stands an important question: What’s the elusiveness and richness of the “because”?

The following introductory discussion isn’t related to Williams. I read Williams years ago, not recently; but I cherish a sense of value as an importance—not basically that a value is important, but that a value is just an importance.

To be important is to have import, of course. But is import a function of consequences for action or is import a function of relations to other things, like coherence of one’s identity or life Project? It’s both, I would argue.

But a major area of ethics has been about coming to terms with the importance of consequences, which usually can’t be predicted accurately (so how do you choose between importances?); and decision principles such as “Go for the greatest good” involve sets of activities that may each not be susceptible to clear metrics or each not measurable in the same way.

Utilitarianism or consequentialism argues that the issues of comparable metrics are what ethics reduces to, whatever one’s view of how you go about doing that. The tendencies of dispute (and social planning) are toward getting programs to be metricable, so to speak. A critical issue is how to account for emergent needs for program change, development, relative to changing circumstances, but limited in aspiration to what is measureable. This is very constraining, reductionist, and, ultimately, contrary to our nature as changing, learning, developing beings, communities, and society.

A humanistic approach views the issues of consequences as just part of a larger picture about what matters. We have to remain oriented to the communicative and community features of changing lives and environments in ways that, say, the budgetary mentality can’t appropriate, except as an integral dimension of organizational and community life that sets the topography of importances, relative to the development of lives that are integral to saying what the importances are. Ergo democratic life, internalized as organizational learning, and the kind of inter-area project flexibility you find in some organizations. As a matter of ethical theory, the organizational context is relatively straightforward.

But lives are variably organized in ways that can’t be represented like formal organizations. Lives have projects, maybe a leading Project: the children as central importance; and all else is relative to that—the homemaking (e.g., social status in leisure culture); the career, the marriage.

Usually, though, The Project is a diffuse sense of the living mix: “the life” that is all of that: marriage, career, home, children, altogether as The Project.

What do we want from parenting? What’s in the intrinsic interest of children?

What do we want from marriage? What’s in the intrinsic interest of a relationship?

What do we want from our aging? What’s the intrinsic interest of being alive and being happy when we’re old?

For me, as for many philosophers, importances gravitate around senses of intrinsic interest or importances which are humanistic in kind—humanistic importances, importances that contribute to the humanity of our being human: fulfilling enjoyment of our capabilities, in our loves, for our community, our society—maybe as engagement in the cumulative future of our humanity: the humanity of our environs, the admirability of our own lives, even some lasting importance of what we do.

Importances in the projects of lives (the importances of our lives which are its projects) are like vines weaving into the road we’re making, the inverted tree made of branches that become the telos of a life whose roots emerge as the horizon that was always drawing one on, like a reflection of our nature, made as well as given, that we were already always becoming.

So, philosophically, it’s a matter of evolution writ small in the developments we sustain.

All in all, the literary writer knows our humanity best, in all our comedy, our romance, our tragedy, and our reconciliation.

What’s important is quite obvious: As best one can, live, love, strive, make, appreciate, give,...




  Be fair. © 2017, gary e. davis