Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What are your values?

People often take values to be simple goods or commandments as in the ancient category of virtue. Therefore there is supposed to exist a certain class of people, usually regarded as the "bad guys", who lack values. To be sure, there are bad guys in the world, but none of them lack values. The most abject, degraded soul, say, a Ted Bundy, or Charie Manson
has certain values. But their values are rather chilling and disturbing ones involving
controlling or harming others, or seeking thrills at the expense of others. But it would
be a great mistake to say these lowest of examples are examples of meaninglessness or nihilism.
Those two criminals were extremely motivated people in their milieu. Had they followed
Pascal and stayed in their room - if solitude were their highest value - much suffering
would have been spared. In their own way they were as motivated as was Obama in his fight
for the White House but motivated to destroy the soul of girls and women.

I am saying that we need to retain a more neutral understanding of the word values, whereby the name refers to qualities or conditions of the soul, or attractions and repulsions of various kinds.

Now every epoch puts forth certain character or biography as the best or most desirable.
Since the presidency of Clinton, the most desirable traits are those of extreme giftedness in social
relations, of a kind of extraversion of a kind of uncanny excellence at being able to give
pleasure to others in some way or "feel their pain." Exceptions are made for those
tinkerers and inventors who create things we value which is why allowances are made for
socially impaired computer guys for example. But in general the Clintonian type (Obama is
the newest example) is most admired. The love for this particular personality type has been
bemoaned by those enamored with older, more "masculinist" types, but society has surely
benefited from individuals like Obama and Clinton.

In earlier times other types were put forth as a model: maybe it was stubborn adherence to a set of ideas, or the
ability to solve technical problems that was more admired. That had its virtues as well.
(An example would be LBJ forcing integration in the South rather than listening to the Southern point of view in a spirit of diplomacy).

I feel Marxism in particular and sociology in general to be utterly wrong in placing impersonal classes and social
structures at the helm, unless those classes can be said to share psychological traits in common that are emulated by the masses. But large groupings have too much internal diversity for any one
characteristic to be emblematic.

That is what Emerson means when he says that "there is no history only biography".

I think the renewed interest in virtue ethics confuses the issue and blinds people to just how powerfully the individual character shapes global affairs. Virtue ethics takes certain traits as
simply the best traits but fails to notice how many other traits historically embraced but just as soon discarded have had as much salutary results; indeed some values might become vices in a given moment: obsession with technicalities, the ability to focus on one thing at a time, (“single-tasking”) sensual
indulgence, stubborness at holding values that are unpopular (this last to be distinguished from courage). Virtue ethics blinds people to the many varieties
of the good and collapses genuine variety under rather unspecified categories like "courage" or
preserverence. Buddhism, (otherwise relatively unimpeacheable) makes this mistake as did
Aristotle and Aristotelianism.

Now human acts and habits may have a good or evil character in something like an absolute sense. But more often, the verdict is a matter of bias or historical convenience. I take value to mean whenever any human being responds
negatively or affirmatively to an external stimuli. Indeed, such initial responses, our
likes and dislikes, is a precondition for the possibility of human choice. That is, each of us RESPONDS, and in responding creates a self and, with all others, makes a world. Lance Armstrong, or Billie Jean King at first responded to a pleasure in
certain physical exertion, and achievement and recognition at that athletic endeavor. But before such figures become who they are as far as the media or admiring public is concerned, they
must first have some kind of initial liking for a certain bodily activity. To complicate matters, this kinaesthetic agility may be
mixed with an initial positive response to fame or reward (and punishment). For Lance Armstrong or King certain practices matter - cycling and tennis- and maybe
other things matter too - like status recognition, and in Billie Jean King's case, a need to
identify with her fellow females and represent them. Whatever the specifics, these leaves of
likes and dislikes shoots through all of life and any inquiry that starts from unconscious motivation or departs from people’s stated or acted desires is bound to miss something crucial.

The main conflict in human life is that there are so many human ends and aims and for every Lance Armstrong there is a sedentary scientist or thinker in their book lined room making another kind of contribution. And all of these types of people go through life evaluating the world around them and the people they meet from their own biases. This is what Thomas Nagel calls “mutual imaginative incomprehension” and an earlier philosopher named George Ramsey called “self-hugging” (as researched by Steven Reiss at Ohio State). We seem to have a natural narcissism wherein we truly want to see ourselves in others, or want others to be very much like ourselves and cover over this truth with slogans like "live and let live" and "different strokes."

I am saying everything involving human affairs has this value question at the root. There
is a great deal of debate about value in philosophy these days, all of it in fact valuable
- about internalism and externalism and cognitivism and realism. But before we come to these questions we must first come to terms with our values and our diversity.


  1. It's important to think about these things, as so few people do. I agree with you in essence that the lack of awareness of different values (which leads ultimately to the assumption that one's own values are the ONLY values that exist, or that are worth preserving) is a sad and even dangerous thing in culture. There are good and bad things about this new global economy, but one of the worst and most tragic things about it has to be the feeling of us all being one world family with one set of cultural values, and the systematic erasure of all other values. One can see this narcissism you speak of at play in myriad struggles and misunderstandings in everyday life, in a world in which eccentricity, singularity, and difference are, worse than being not tolerated, not even recognized. This is surely a regression from the time that people recognized different values and were threatened by them! Today if you present different values to people, you get not opposition, but only a blank stare.

  2. Anna: Are you saying that the ideal of "that's only my opinion" robs us of the grounds for genuine disagreement or even robs us of a kind of passion borne of a feeling of connection to something objective in our values? That would certainly make sense. I see problems on both sides, where sometimes people refuse to take a stand because they can't see its larger necessity; and at other times act moralistic (rather than moral) and make their personal life the standard for others.