Humanity, Values and Numbers

The article below, which I had obviously missed in my regular reading of Eureka Street, was brought to my attention this morning (thank you, Louise!) and it has been swirling around inside my head since I read it.

It strikes me as having much to say in so many contexts that contemporary society faces, but also which the contemporary Church is confronted with, on an almost daily basis.

The drive towards ‘metrification’, a process whereby everything becomes measurable and reducible to a number, is to be found almost everywhere. We are reminded daily of the movement in the index of the stock exchanges locally and around the world, the cost of oil, the value of gold, and lately the average price of a particular digital currency. This metrification, and the subsequent communication of these metrics, is supposed to be able to tell everyone just how the markets are reacting on any particular day and at any particular moment. There is no in-depth analysis of those metrics, no delving into the decisions made by human beings that impact thousands of employees let alone the shareholders of corporations. There is no mention of the values that may lay behind the decisions that are made either; there are just the numbers. Everything is about how the market moves according to the numbers; up is good, down is bad.

The same goes for the current preoccupation with opinion polls. And not only political opinion polls, though they seem to get the most focus. Everything is reduced to numbers or percentages of how many people are in favour of this or that, this or that policy, this or that person, this or that flavour of potato chips. There’s no conversation about values or opinions (a qualitative rather than quantitative approach). There’s not even much attention given to the content of the questions asked in these polls; there’s just the numbers, the all-powerful numbers to which everything has been reduced.

Even with the Church, we see this fascination with numbers. I’ve written elsewhere here about how it is creeping into Catholic schools, where ‘Catholic Identity’ is subject to metrification so that progress (or lack thereof) can be measured from year to year or from school to school. We can also get hung up on the percentage of Catholics still attending Mass, the ‘Mass count’ within each Parish, the size of the collections, and a whole range of other supposedly important metrics that indicated how healthy the Church is. And yet there’s no mention of the values that underly the works of the Church, the wide array of wonderful people who work with and for the Church, or even the rationale behind what the Church is doing in a particular field of endeavour. There are only the numbers, which are supposed to be the be all and end all of everything.

As Andrew Hamilton writes in his article, however, there should be something more. Not just numbers, but human beings and values that come before any numbers. Hamilton writes:

This mixture of religious fervour shown in the worship of numbers with cruder practices of human sacrifice is disconcerting. Lacking in it is the fervour and wonder attributed to Pythagoras when he discovered that so many apparently unconnected and apparently incomprehensible aspects of the world are in fact connected and can be explored by human intelligence. This wonder at the capacity of human rationality to understand the human and natural world is the proper starting point for public conversation.

From it flow questions such as what kind of a society do we want, and how will we pass it on to our children? What kind of education awakens wonder in young people and enables them to contribute creatively to society? What policies will contribute to shaping a more decent and happy Australia? What framework in economic governance is appropriate to ensure that all have a decent place at the table?

In all these questions we must begin with values and then move to an analysis of the situation. In the second stage numbers are important, as is the study of the presuppositions involved in their presentation. The discussion of values, however, should always precede the discussion of numbers.

The legacy of Pythagoras is to ground conversation in wonder at the mystery of human beings which is embodied in their capacity to understand the workings of the world. It begins with respect for humanity and for the world. Numbers are grounded in mystery, and when they are applied to human affairs they must be tested against mystery. This entails scrutinising the analysis of the human situations they decorate and the policy they endorse to ensure that human beings and the world are given due respect.

To which I say a hearty AMEN!