You may remember the Greek government-dept crisis in the aftermath of 2008. What kind of crisis was it really? Was it a crisis of the Greek population, their loss of property, employment, pensions? Was it a crisis of the Greek government, their struggle to assert themselves between election pledges and the pressure from abroad? Was it the crisis of the Euro? Was it the crisis of the European Union and its future? Was it the crisis of foreign investments in the country? Well – which one is the correct interpretation?

The moment we realise it is impossible to answer this question, we learn a fundamental truth about the relation between facts and perspective in complex systems. If people argue from these various perspectives about the Greek crisis, they will find that they are not arguing about which facts are true and which are false. How many people lost their job in that period? How much did certain assets lose in market value? Who got elected by how many votes? What was the government’s proposal at the summit, and with which explanation was it turned down? These are questions about facts – and the answers are not really disputed. Instead, the dispute is about how to give meaning to these facts, how to put them in perspective. Now we can modify our question: which perspective should we take on the Greek crisis?

However we answer this question, it is not the facts that suggest one perspective over the other, but ideas and models we have prior to looking at the Greek crisis. About what is really important in such matters. How these things work. What kind of explanation we usually accept. The link between the facts and our choice of perspective is called value relation. The term was introduced to the theory of argumentation by Max Weber. Value relations are not exactly values, in terms that they don’t necessarily belong to the domain of morality. But they are what makes the difference between the essence or attributes of objects, their colour, form, size, behaviour etc., and whether these objects are good, bad, beautiful, ugly, useful, useless, interesting, boring etc. The second group of qualities are not inherent to the objects, but they are attributed to them by the beholder. And it is they that influence our choices of actions and perspectives. Depending on our assumption about which perspective is relevant, the same facts lead to fundamentally different conclusions. 

Why have we bought dark roses just now? Not just because we see they are dark, but because we believe dark roses are classier than light ones. If we like a person, we tend to see them in a favourable light. If we dislike them, we emphasize the flaws. If we want to put up a picture on the wall, the hammer and the nail are useful. If we want to exercise in the room, the hammer, nail and picture are in the way. Being useful or in the way is not an attribute of the objects, but the value relation we place on them.

It is not the things themselves that disturb us, but our view and opinion on them.

Epictetus

What the philosopher means with “disturb us”, otherwise also translated by “move us”, is the connection to action. What we find beautiful in roses has an impact on which ones we buy. If we find the hammer and nail useful, we keep them there, if we think they are in the way, we put them away. Depending on how we think about the Greek crisis, we might suggest a different course of action. The impact on action is also a strong motive why we argue with others in the first place. It is not just that we disagree with their opinion. We don’t want them to act on it. 

What conclusions do we have so far? The same reality can allow for various perspectives. People tend to act on the basis of perspectives. And the choice of perspective depends more on people and their value relation than on the facts. If these conclusions are all true, doesn’t this make arguments about what to do very difficult? Since people are free to choose the perspective they want, isn’t it down to “anything goes”? The good news is that there are ways to argue about choice of perspective. The bad news: in complex environments, this argument sometimes turns out convincing reasons for one perspective over another. Sometimes, anything goes. 

Let us explore the good news, then: how to argue about choice of perspective. Value relations are situated at the bridge between epistemology and pragmatics of communication. Epistemology is the relation between a statement and the object it refers to. When we move to pragmatics, we so to speak go around the statement and look at it form the other side. Pragmatics is the relation between a statement and the context in which it is used. The argument about the good or bad choice of perspective is part of pragmatics, not epistemology. Whether we should buy the dark roses is not just a question of their beauty, but whether they are apt for the occasion: who we want to give them to, where we want to put them, what impression they are supposed to make. “Beautiful” in terms of “classy” may sometimes be an unwise choice of perspective, not because it is not true, but because classy is not what we need in our context. The same goes for the hammer and nail. It is not just a question whether nails are useful for putting up a picture, and hammers are good for putting a nail in a wall. Relevant questions may be whether it is a good moment to make some noise, whose right it is to decide how to decorate this room, how long the picture is going to stay on that wall, and what happens to the holes afterwards. They all have an influence on whether the hammer and nail are useful here or not. 

Does this sound trivial? Do you think we already sufficiently and consciously distinguish between epistemology and pragmatics?

Let us move to the really complex then, and have a look at the discussion on the purpose of a company. If we ask the question “What IS the purpose of a company?”, we have already made the decision that we want to consider this a question of epistemology. Some say that the purpose IS to create profit for the investors and shareholders. Some, to create faithful customers. Others, to make the employees happy. And others decide against preference, by proclaiming to take into account the interests of all stakeholders. But if you look at the nature of such debates, you will find that people are capable to state their conviction, but no-one can build an argument which also makes sense from the point of view of their opponent. 

If, on the other hand, we shift our perspective, and consider the pragmatics of this question, we have to define the desired effect of the answer we search: in what context the answer to this question needs to be useful. And here we can see several fundamentally different perspectives. There is an economic perspective: how should we define the role of a company, so it makes the most valuable contribution to society? This perspective may be relevant to the lawmaker, to find out how to incentivize certain orientations of a company. They also may be relevant to ordinary citizens, just to decide how much they like certain companies over others, and, given the choice, which one they would prefer to buy their products from or work for. There is a managerial perspective: what is the most helpful way to define success for a company, so it serves as an orientation? This perspective is relevant to people working in the company, to guide their decisions in daily work. And thirdly, the perspective of wealth and ownership: what is the role of profit, and how should it be distributed? This perspective may be relevant to owners and lawmakers on corporate governance. We simply cannot compare the validity and usefulness of various answers and arguments, unless we define the use we want to make of them.