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Foundations of Futures Studies, vol. 2, Values, Objectivity, and the Good Society.

Wendell Bell, Foundations of Futures Studies. Volume 2: Values, Objectivity, and the Good Society. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1997, 379 PP. Cloth $39.95.

As the title of this book implies, it is the second of two volumes in which Wendel] Bell attempts to provide a solid foundation for the still developing field of futures studies. Readers of this volume who have not read Volume 1 need not despair; they need only read the epilogue first where Bell pulls together the work he has done in the two volumes.

Volume 2 has as its focus the role and proper treatment of values in futures studies. It is a sweeping treatment that moves from the earliest utopian works to cutting edge values and ethical issues. Because the book covers so much ground, Bell might be faulted for his treatment (or lack thereof) of specific contributions, but he does a quite creditable job. The first chapter on values in utopian thought is an excellent review of the mainstream Western world contributions to this genre. It fails, however, on one ground that should be of concern to professionals in the field of comparative sociology: the material covered is unrelentingly Eurocentric. And this is just the first example of this unfortunate parameter of Bell's work.

Chapter 2 is where Bell is most focused and is the most thought-provoking. Here he attempts to make a case that it is possible to make value judgments objectively. He realizes that he is going against the mainstream in social science in making this argument, but that does not deter him (nor should it). In my judgment Bell does not quite make the case that he claims. He does, as he says, "demonstrate that moral assertions and value judgments can be as logically and empirically sound as scientific predictions" (p. 69), but that is not the same as demonstrating that value judgments can be made objectively. Value propositions may be tested, as he suggests, through the use of Keekok Lee's epistemic implication approach, but although the test is rational, it is not objective - at least as I understand that term.

I do not consider this as serious a difference with Bell as he might. In trying to grapple with the quandary inherent in the dispute between positivism and post-modernism regarding the availability of true knowledge, Bell has claimed too much for his resolution. Still, his resolution is one worthy of serious consideration. Lee's epistemic implication approach offers some interesting criteria for assessing value assertions. They include: 1) serious evidence, capable of confirmation or falsification by intersubjective processes; 2) referentially relevant evidence - assertions and evidence must be about the same phenomena; 3) causally relevant evidence - evidence must have a causal relation to the assertion; 4) causally independent evidence - i.e., not a self-fulfilling prophecy or a tautology; and 5) empirically testable evidence. Bell describes this approach as based on the assumption that "prescriptive statements contain or rest upon some descriptive contents that can be tested" (p. 93). In other words, when one says that "X ought to do Y," the claim can be tested by treating it as "There is a reason for x to do y" (p. 95). This resolution to the positivist/post-modernist dispute is one that allows for judging values claims by using reason and evidence, a "good reasons" approach.

But to show that values claims can be assessed reasonably is not the same as proving hat value judgments can be made objectively. In all his examples of how this approach Works, the aspect that is testable is whether an action can resonably be said to be likely to result in the value or goal desired (not an unimportant aspect of the futures studies project). But it does nothing toward an objective determination of whether the value or goal is worthy of pursuing.

Maybe differences in this matter derive from Bell's belief in the value of and need for universal values and universal procedures for settling value disputes (cf., p. 108). This belief is in evidence in Chapter 3. When he considers practical strategies for judging preferable futures, he chooses law over religion or collective judgments, a preference I suspect derives from his European roots in ways that he has not adequately confronted. Certainly, one heavily influenced by European background may be more comfortable with relational and contextual values and situationally agreed upon procedures than he appears to be.

In Chapter 4, Bell makes a claim that there are universal (or "near-universal") human values; they include knowledge, evaluation itself, justice, and cooperation. In his treatment of cultural diversity, he emphasizes the common ground over the diversity, a strategy that both leaves values at such a general level that they provide precious little guidance for action and implies that the general commonalities are more significant than are the differences. For example, he uses the world's different cuisines as a metaphor for value differences, suggesting that the need to eat is more significant than the great diversity among preferred edibles. The need to eat may be more basic for survival, but it is not clear that it is more significant with regard to values and ethics. Anyone who has faced the challenge of unpalatable food (e.g., Ethiopians facing peanut butter, or U.S. mainlanders facing Hawaiian poi) knows that cuisine preferences should not be lightly dismissed. Neither should other cultural differences, a nd Bell's readiness to do so belies, again, his Eurocentricism.

In Chapter 5, Bell focuses on "the preeminent human value, human life itself' (p. 229). In it he describes how the twin goals of enhanced quantity and quality of life are increasingly at odds with each other. He also demonstrates his anthropocentrism by arguing that the reason humans ought to value non-human life revolves around what that life contributes toward human life.

In the sixth and final chapter, Bell argues for the need to change some human values. It is because of this chapter that I suggested earlier that my differences with him regarding universal values may not be so stark as it appeared. The mere suggestion that some human values ought to change implies that values need to change according to situational and relational factors. One example of his agreement with that implication is, "The decision to promote zero population growth or not, thus, is contingent" (p. 282). I am not sure how Bell would defend the consistency of the arguments he makes in this chapter with earlier portions of the book, but I would be interested to hear such a defense because it might lead to a more nuanced explication of his position.

Finally, although one may be inclined to agree with most of Bell's suggestions regarding the direction that value changes ought to take, one might not endorse all his proposals for how the alterations might be implemented. For example, he (somewhat ironically, given my earlier critique of his Eurocentrism) argues that we need to transcend ethnocentric values, but his preferred institutional vehicle for attaining such a transcendence is a loose confederation of governance institutions smaller than nation-states. Such an arrangement might leave capitalist corporations in effective control, and one cannot be at all sure that is a preferred future.

In sum, Wendell Bell's Volume 2 of Foundations of Futures Studies is an engaging and sweeping treatment of the role of values in futures studies. Academics looking for a book to use in class on futures studies or on ethics are urged to consider it for adoption. It provides both a good informational foundation for class and an effectively argued viewpoint that should engender interesting discussions. Other professionals interested in this subject will find it to be both a fine bibliographic source and a great stimulus for serious thought.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:International Journal of Comparative Sociology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1999
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