The Ethical Value Behind Numbers

As a general rule, I steer clear of politics in anything I write. Not only is it potentially divisive, but sadly, we’ve reached the point in our public discourse where the veracity of almost all political statements is open to question. But today, I’m going to make an exception, or at least take my queue from a comment made by the UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt. Speaking a few days before his Autumn Budget he said, — and I paraphrase here — that balancing the books isn’t just about numbers, it’s also about the values we aspire to.

And in this regard, he’s absolutely right.

Whatever you may think of politicians and governments, it’s undeniable that the budgetary decisions they take, reflect not only their view on economics but also the priorities and policies they wish to promote. In choosing between tax and spending or investment and services, they are — as every administration must – making decisions about the kind of society they wish to see in the future. Furthermore, in the choices they make, even the most fiscally focused are drawing on beliefs and assumptions that reflect values such as compassion, responsibility, fairness, and even courage or learning.   

It’s the same in business. 

Almost all companies will undertake a formal budgeting process, typically annually with reviews and revisions as the year progresses. And while the principle aim of this exercise will be to forecast ‘the numbers’, the reality is that the conclusions reached will reflect on an organization’s values as much as its financial goals. Indeed, I’d argue that transparency of a company’s budgeting process (if such a thing were possible) would be the best way to judge whether their pronouncements on mission and purpose were merely vacuous statements or true commitments to something more than the pursuit of profit.

None of this is to suggest that there are not times when some fiscal detachment is necessary. Nor is every decision values-driven: paying our taxes is a legal requirement; so too is abiding by labor laws and safety regulations. At the other extreme, some choices may be more a question of preference than of virtue: the charities we chose to support, the choice of IT platforms; the color of the office walls…

But in between what we might call the two rocks of compliance and preference, lies the whirlpool of value judgments, where effective decision-making is shaped by our perceptions of quality and beliefs on the best way forward. Value judgments are not random choices, but neither are they fixed in the way of scientific formulae. Think of the way we would judge, say, a history essay; there’s a need for some objective criteria in terms of content, grammar and structure —but there’s also room for more subjective factors such as choice of examples, quality of insight, and even sheer rhetorical style. 

When you think about it in these terms, moral value judgments are all around us. Every day at work or home we make choices that balance the objective and subjective, driven as much by our desires as by any determination of absolute truth. Value judgments are actually how we navigate through the nihilistic notion of relativism, which in its purest form argues that there are no true foundations to any values and beliefs, only relative standpoints. Russia’s Putin would appear to take this view in his pursuit of aggression, but few of us are prepared to apply the same logic to the way we live our lives – or the companies we work for.

I’m conscious here of getting mired in technicalities — or worse, dragged again into politics — when the key point I want to make is simply that values are all around us. When we talk of ethical-based decision-making in the workplace, that’s not some behavioral mode that we need to switch into; rather, it’s simply allowing ourselves to be guided by the beliefs we hold, our care for others and our innate desire to flourish – ideally, in a way that allows others to do the same. At root, it’s about trusting our better instincts and not surrendering to a putative objectivity that claims decisions on ‘the numbers’ should come before other concerns.  

They cannot… as any politician will tell you.

This brings me back to the UK Chancellor, albeit briefly. Jeremy Hunt has now delivered his budget, combining tax rises with spending cuts, providing reassurance to some and sending tougher messages to others… Its detail is not what concerns me, nor are the rows and repercussions that will follow thereafter. What’s relevant, is that in setting out his stall he has amply demonstrated how, even in times of budgeting crisis – indeed, now I come to think of it, ESPECIALLY in times of budgeting crisis — values and numbers are as entangled and indivisible as the quantum particles that make up our universe.  

And whatever our politics, I for one, think that’s a lesson we should all remember.

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