How do values change over time?
To understand how values may change, we will understand values as emerging from earlier responses to moral problems. In line with pragmatist philosophers like Dewey, values will be seen as generalized responses to earlier moral problems. In many situations, existing values are adequate as a response to (morally) problematic situations people encounter. However, in new types of situations or due to new experiences, current values may no longer be adequate or sufficient. Such situations may require an adaption of current values or the adoption of new values.
The above description gives already some clues about how, and when, values may change. They will particularly do so as a response to new problematic situations or new experiences. On this basis, we will develop a more precise account of different mechanisms of value change in sociotechnical systems. Possible mechanisms include the following:
- Technologies lead to new types of consequences that require new evaluative dimensions and therefore new values (e.g. privacy, sustainability) to evaluate sociotechnical systems;
- Technologies offer new opportunities (e.g. to protect homes against earthquakes) that lead to new moral obligations and therefore new values;
- Technologies create new moral choices and dilemmas where previously were no choices (e.g. predictive genetics) that require new values;
- Technologies lead to new experiences (e.g. friendship online) that lead to new values or change existing values.
In addition to distinguishing mechanisms of value change, we may also distinguish different degrees of value change, resulting in a taxonomy of value change. A first thing to note here is that the verdict whether a value has changed, and to what degree it has changed, depends on how that value is exactly defined. It is particularly important at what level of abstraction, or generality, a value is characterized. Usually values are characterized at a rather abstract or general level; they are typically referred to with one abstract noun, like safety, sustainability, privacy or well-being, although also longer expressions occur.
One of the consequences of the fact that values are often understood at a high level of conceptual abstraction, is that changes in the understanding or interpretation of a value can occur while the value itself remains the same. In car design, safety may refer to the safety of the driver and passengers (occupant safety) or to the safety of bystanders like pedestrians and cyclists (pedestrian safety), and while in car design the emphasis was originally mainly on the first it has gradually also become to involve the second. This can be interpreted as a change in how the value of safety is conceptualized and specified, but it could also be interpreted, if values are understood at a somewhat lower level of abstraction, as a change in the relative importance of the values of occupant safety and pedestrian safety.
So how we exactly characterize changes in values at least partly depends on the level of abstraction that we use to characterize values. With this in mind, it is nevertheless possible to distinguish between different kinds of value change:
- The emergence of new values;
- Changes in what values are relevant for the design of a certain technology;
- Changes in the priority or relative importance of values;
- Changes in how values are conceptualized;
- Changes in how values are specified, and translated into norms and design requirements.
Design for value change Journal Article
Ethics and Information Technology, 2018, ISSN: 1572-8439.