The Freedom Universal

The Meta-Problem


Why Spiritual Progress Has Lagged Material Progress

Human history presents us with an intriguing conundrum: We have made great strides in the material world—scientific breakthroughs, technological wonders, business productivity. Yet, as many thinkers have lamented, our spiritual and social progress has lagged far behind, and in many ways it seems as if we have made no progress at all. Why should this be so? The reasons for this fall into two categories: the domain of problem solving, and the domain of implementation.

Orders of Complexity

Part of the answer is that there is an increasing order of complexity as we move from simple forms of matter to highly complex forms of spirit—from inanimate matter, to living organisms, to conscious organisms, and finally to organisms with a volitional, conceptual consciousness (human beings). Given the complexity of human beings, and the added complexity of large numbers of human beings living together in society, it is not surprising that progress in the social domain has been slower than in the relatively less complex physical sciences and technologies.

But this can not be the whole answer, for when we dig deeper into this puzzle, a curious fact comes to light: Solutions to many of our major social problems already exist—in fact, in many cases they have existed for a very long time—but they do not get implemented. In other words, there is a deeper, meta-problem to be solved: the problem of getting solutions implemented. Why do social solutions so often fail to be effectively implemented? We can identify a number of reasons:

The Problem of Coordination

How to coordinate ends (values) and means (institutions). This can be broken down into:

The problem of culture: How to agree the ends (values). Solutions are often resisted because they are perceived as clashing with deeply held cultural values.

The problem of institutions: How to create the means (the institutions) to achieve the agreed values. Even when solutions have widespread mainstream support, their implementation fails, or they do not get implemented at all, because of the perverse incentives operating in our political institutions.

The problem of scale. Social solutions require large scale society-wide support and implementation. Solutions in the domains of science, technology, and business, by contrast, only require support and implementation on a much more limited scale: the scientists, inventors, and business persons involved in solving the problem. It is far easier to achieve sufficient consensus and implement solutions for a small group of people than for an entire society. Complexity increases exponentially with the size of the group.

The Problem of Transition

How to get from here to there. Many proposed solutions would work if we were already there, but provide no good mechanism to transition from where we are to where we want to be. A complete solution needs to include practical, realistic, sensible, and balanced phase-in mechanisms that are not too painful or disruptive to implement.

To begin to see how such a solution might be approached, let us more closely examine the nature and dynamics of ends, means, and values.

The Confusion of Ends and Means

We cannot make progress on anything if we disagree about what it is that we are trying to achieve. Before we can create the means, we need to agree the ends. Why, then, does it appear to be so hard to agree on ends, when they relate to our social problems?

In addition to the points raised above, a key reason is the common confusion of ends and means: we often assume that our disagreements are about ends, when in fact they usually are about the means to achieve our ends. Most people do not disagree about fundamental values. On the contrary, there is a remarkable degree of agreement about fundamental human values. Disagreements mostly are about how to achieve our shared values—the technology of how to get there, the means to achieve the ends. For example, people everywhere overwhelmingly support peace, not war; order, not chaos; health, not disease; wealth, not poverty; justice, not injustice; freedom, not tyranny. These are universal human values. Our disagreements chiefly are about how to achieve these values—rarely about these fundamental values themselves.


Central to the entire domain of problems and solutions, is the concept of value: A problem—by what standard? A solution—by what standard? Progress—by what standard? To define what constitutes a problem, a solution, and progress toward a solution, we need a standard of measurement, we need a value that serves both as the goal or end of action, and as the standard against which to measure progress.

But what are values? Intuitively, values are that which we pursue. And why do we pursue values? Either because they are ends in themselves, or because they help us achieve values that are ends in themselves. This is an important distinction; values fall into one of two categories:

The Ultimate Value

Which values, then, are ends in themselves? Observe that the fundamental alternative in the universe is existence or nonexistence—life or death. It is this fundamental alternative—life or death—that gives rise to values. Nonliving things cannot die—and therefore have no values. For something to have values, it must be alive—values being that which serves its life. Fundamentally, therefore, there are only two possible ultimate values—two possible ends in themselves—life, or death. All other values derive from one or the other of these two possible ultimate values.

Life forms without free will are programmed to automatically pursue that which serves their life. Life forms with free will (human beings), on the other hand, are free to choose values that do not serve their life, but in fact serve death. The evidence is all around us: suicide, suicide bombers, and self-destructive behavior in its many and varied forms. Human beings have to both choose their ultimate value, and discover all the derivative values that serve their ultimate value.

Thus values exist in a hierarchy, from the most fundamental (the value of life itself) to the most derivative (the various subsidiary values that support the organism's life). Fundamentally, there is only one value—the organism's life. Derivative, subsidiary values are only values to the extent that they serve this fundamental value—the organism's life.

Conflicts of Values

Before we can solve any particular problem, we need to solve the underlying meta-problem of finding agreement on what our ultimate values are, and which derivative values best serve our ultimate values. Progress depends vitally on agreement and cooperation—on shared values. That is why we have made such tremendous strides in the material realm—because, agreeing on a goal or end, we have focused our energies on realizing the goal through appropriate means. In the spiritual and social realm, by contrast, we have tended to assume that we disagree about the goal, thus we have focused our energies not on realizing the goal, but on trying to prove ourselves right and those who disagree with us wrong (or worse: engage in outright hostilities).

As mediators are well aware, a conflict of values can only be resolved by finding agreement on deeper, more fundamental values. No resolution is possible between a person who holds life as their ultimate value, and a person who holds death as their ultimate value. Of course, few, if any people are completely consistent. Most of us, to one degree or another, consciously or unconsciously, hold or pursue some beliefs and values that serve our lives, and others that do not. And that is the root of the difficulty—and the reason for hope. It is the root of the difficulty, because it is what we believe and do that does not serve us, that causes so many of the problems in our personal and social lives. It is the reason for hope, because it is by identifying those beliefs and secondary values that do not optimally serve our primary value of life, and replacing them with beliefs and values that better serve us, that we can greatly improve our lives and our communities. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of people are dominantly focused on life-affirming values and activities. Yet all of us can continue to grow further by bringing those of our beliefs, values, and activities that do not optimally serve us, into alignment with those that do.

The Hierarchy of Values

Now we can see why the above discussion about values is so crucially important: if values did not exist in a hierarchy from greater, fundamental values to lesser, intermediate values, if there were no final, self-justifying values to guide our choice of intermediate, subsidiary values, if most people disagreed about their choice of ultimate values, if all values were of equal status or importance—there would be no hope of resolving conflicts of values peacefully. It is only because values do, in fact, exist in a hierarchy from derivative values to ultimate values, and because the overwhelming majority of people agree on the ultimate value of life, that there is any hope of resolving our differences by appealing to our shared ultimate value. The supreme value of each of our lives, is the standard against which we can measure any derivative values, to discover whether or not, in fact, the derivative values serve our ultimate value: our life. The conscious awareness and choice of life as our ultimate value, allows us to be more open to considering whether, perhaps, there might be better ways of serving our ultimate value than we had thus far considered.

These insights alone—the confusion of means and ends; the nature of values; the distinction between ultimate and derivative values; the hierarchy of values; life as the supreme, ultimate value—if widely known and applied, can help resolve many of our conflicts and focus our creative energies on finding productive solutions to our common ends.

This then, in essence, is the intent behind the Freedom Universal: to identify fundamental social values that we can all agree on, to provide a mechanism that allows us, as a society, to discover those derivative values that in fact serve the universal social values we agree on, and to build institutions that help us achieve these values.

Next: The Problem

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