The Qualitative Cost of Quantification

pie graph
By Donna L. McKereghan
November 7, 1997

The emphasis on the importance of quantification in Western culture is a relatively recent development in our history. It is not necessary to social life; it is a social possibility. The first steps towards its realization are commonly attributed to the development of a mechanized printing technology. We seldom appreciate the effects and implications of technology on culture. Obviously, many of them cannot be anticipated.

Numbers are concepts. However, once we began recording them on paper, we began to attribute a different kind of being to them. They no longer seem to have a metaphysical nature, as they did for the Pythagoreans or the mystical Christians. We seem to forget even the more contemporary view of them, as artificial constructs of the human mind. There they "are," in black and red, at the bottom of our financial reports. We treat them more as empirical facts. Yet, nowhere in the empirical world can we find empirical evidence that 2 + 2 = 4.

Quantification in the business world is a means of tracking and controlling capital. Its value is self-evident. Empirical support for this claim can be found in the positive correlation between good management and profit. The numbers at the bottom of the columns speak for themselves. Or, do they?

The competition between financial analysts and business executives over the bottom line of financial statements ought to signal us to re-evaluate our assumptions about quantification. Numbers, like words, have the meaning and significance attributed to them by and within a culture. The competition between analysts and executives is a struggle over the meaning that is and should be attributed to the numbers generated by business.

Meanings entail values. Whether or not what words or numbers signify has intrinsic value, that value is only realized, in a practical sense, to the extent that human beings recognize and appreciate it. Human action springs from the values that human beings attribute to things, regardless of any transcendental values that might owe to the nature of things.

The dollar is a piece of printed paper, valuable only because we attribute value to it. Productivity, as well, has attributed value. In our society, both are highly valued. What we mean when we make such assertions warrants closer scrutiny.

"Self-evident" principles influence language to such an extent that it is difficult to find the words for critical reflection on them. To criticize the implications of quantification as a cultural postulate necessitates the use of a language loaded with the quantification terms to which positive value has already been attached. Discussion of the value of productivity, for instance, almost always rests on the underlying assumption that "more is better." Higher productivity is one of the elements of increased profits. Productivity is valued in terms of dollars and cents. It is a quantified value, not a value implying quality.

The attempt to discuss the moral implications of higher productivity is labored and frustrated by the near necessity of expressing them in terms of quantification. The assertion that higher productivity and its attendant profits will produce a better quality of life in our society, even if only for a few of its members, implies that quality can be purchased with quantity. More money means better health care, finer clothes, a better diet, better education, and the like. "Better," which is often assumed to be a qualitative term, on closer scrutiny, actually means "more," a term of quantification. What is being valued in such terms is "more" health care, "more" fashionable clothes, "more" food, and "more education." None of these are necessarily "better" in terms of quality.

Several years ago, when the physicians in Israel went on strike, the mortality rate in Israeli hospitals dropped markedly. Several closets full of clothes won't keep you any warmer than a few, selected with warmth rather than fashion, in mind. On a meager rice diet, the Chinese have far less heart disease and related disorders than Americans. An expensive college education doesn't insure happiness, much less employment. More education often fails to support the assumption in both quantitative and qualitative terms.

When we speak of the social implications of assumptions that imply quantification, somewhere in the background of that discussion looms a dollar sign. What is the cost of reduced productivity? The answer is usually given in financial terms. The first thoughts that spring to mind are of unemployment, increased national debt, lower purchasing power, depletion of various pools of capital, and the like. Being "more productive" has a positive connotation, both in financial and psychological terms. When we say that one person is "more productive" than another, we mean that he produces more of what our society values. Again, in turn, we put that in financial terms.

The meaning of "value" in Western culture is quantifiable, even when the referent is "moral value." Quality has been devoured and digested into quantity, both in our language and in our practices. In Western culture, "value" means, "exchange value." (1) It does not mean "better," in a qualitative sense. It merely means "more," a term of quantification.

The bottom line ideology of the business realm, then, is not the problem. It is a manifestation, a symptom, of a disease in the culture. Treating it as if it is the problem rather than a symptom of that problem would be as useless as treating hemophilia with a box of Band-Aids. More than a change in business practice, we need a cultural change of mind.

How this might be effected is a separate question and not within the scope of this essay. However, since it entails enculturation and enculturation is a form of education, as well as a moral question, I would propose, in the most general of terms, that the solution is to be found within a renewed emphasis on moral education.

(1) Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, (Cleveland: World, 1961).

Return to Main Index