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Values and Virtues: A Modern Confusion


Much of our learning and education is to learn what words mean and the power of words as everyone, for good or ill, has learned through history, is an extremely important power to command.


What I have been asked to speak on, and I gather the way this has been advertised locally here, is the topic "Values and Virtues: A Modern Confusion". Like many of the things that the center does, and many of the projects I'm involved with generally, it's a task really of clarifying language. Language, as we all know, is extremely important: it is how we communicate truth, it is one of the ways we communicate love, it is how we communicate many of the most important things in our lives. Without language, perhaps thought itself is unthinkable.

Much of our learning and education is to learn what words mean and the power of words as everyone, for good or ill, has learned through history, is an extremely important power to command. But what has happened in the modern age is that many of our key terms have been either diffused or confused. They have lost their power, or they have been twisted, and in perhaps no area of language is this more important than with respect to morality, and with no term is it clearer than with the term values.

What I am talking to you about tonight is a very simple point; but it is a point that it may take you a while to see the relevance of. I only learned this myself after all my university training was finished, when I was giving a lecture at the University of British Columbia, and a graduate student came up to me afterwards and said, "You know, I really enjoyed your paper." It was a paper on the Canadian philosopher George Grant, who passed away in 1988. He said, "I enjoyed your paper on George Grant, but I wonder if you have considered that you are using the term 'values' in your paper, and that is a term that George Grant had a great deal of difficulty with. He said it was a corrupted, moral term." And I didn't realize that, and I said, "We must go for coffee and you can tell me more" and as with any good exchange that can change one's life, that exchange in many ways changed my life, changed my intellectual understanding.


Why "Values" Language is not a Moral Language

I hope that if I can give you anything tonight, it is to give you a very serious doubt about the utility of this term 'values'. What I want to do is explain why that is. Why, when we speak about values, we are not talking about something that is true? When we speak about 'Catholic values', we are speaking not about the truth that the Catholic faith upholds, but to the world around us, we are speaking about the values that a Catholic has. The same problem exists for any joint term such as "Canadian values" "American values" "family values" "religious values" etc. Though we may think these terms have some real identifiable meaning they do not. A term such as "Catholic values", to return to that phrase for a moment, makes no claim on culture whatsoever because people hearing that think that those principles or "values" are no more and no less than the "values" that are situated within Catholicism. Or when we speak about "family values", those other values relative to families, and if I don't like the person who is speaking, or the group they represent, it is only their personal views and their values simply "slide off" and have no grip between us to catch onto.

I want to explain a little bit why that is, where that language came from, and try to leave you with a suggestion that if we are going to reclaim culture, if we are going to reclaim moral language in our time, in our children's time, or in our grandchildren's time, one of our first tasks would be to get (by rediscovery and recreation) a richer moral language than values.

If you look in an Oxford English dictionary, under the term 'values,' you will discover that it was not used as a moral term until later in the 19th century. It is very recent. Prior to that, people didn't speak about values as moral language. 'Values' was a language restricted to economics, and when you think about it, the value of something is how much you pay for something, what is its cost. And we know that with respect to aesthetic choices such as clothing, or sports, or whether I will be (like the people in the next building) at bingo tonight or listening to a talk on values, those are, in a sense, personal choices that can be related to aesthetics — to how things look. You may value a burgundy T-shirt more than I value a blue blazer, and you have your values in that area, and I have mine. But is it the same thing to say that you value justice, and I don't? Can I say that I value courage, and you don't? I don't think so. I think if somebody says, "I don't value justice, you do, that's part of your value system," we would say there is something wrong there.

Yet this language of values, where all morals, all the categories of morality (and I will get to those in a minute), all of what used to be called virtues, are treated as values, makes no distinction between justice and the colour of a T-shirt. The idea of an objective moral principle has been reduced to a matter of personal choice and aesthetics. The German philosopher Nietzsche saw all this last century but in all disciplines and at all levels (judges in law, ethics professors in medicine, university professors in a host of disciplines, politicians in all parties and, alas, religious leaders in all traditions) have not realized this point and continue to speak about "values" when they often seem to be discussing something they believe is true.

So when a school system, a Catholic school system or a public school system, puts in a so-called "values education" module, they are completely confusing the moral education that they are giving children because that language fails to distinguish between the aesthetic preferences and moral categories. Let me give you an example from the province in which we sit this evening, British Columbia. In the BC Ministry of Education's grade 8 - 12 obligatory program, entitled Career and Personal Planning, it is made clear that only experts ought to give any training in First Aid, yet what expertise does the average teacher have, to ground students in moral responsibilities, true freedom, and the arguments in favour of a robust sense of citizenship? The content of the Career and Personal Planning program, with respect to morals, is not called 'morals' at all. What it is called is 'values', and the whole section is called 'A framework for values', and the list of things it contains includes these sorts of things: "physical attractiveness", "an adventuresome life", "achieving something special", and so on.

The teacher is expressly told to not judge the children's selection of what they value most. They are told to simply encourage the classroom discussion about what the children select as their 'values'. So someone could put at the top of his or her list of "values" 'physical attractiveness' saying, in effect, "this is the most important thing in my life, that's the top of my values system", and what is the teacher expressly told? The teacher is directed "Don't impose your values on the students' values". What good does this do for a person, what good does it do for society? It assumes that each person is the origin of "values selection" because there is no "truth" they can or should be taught. Yet, in many, many areas of the curriculum and actual teaching of students and in the discourse of society (as represented in speeches by leaders, newspaper articles etc.) we are interested in "truths that are out there."

Consider, for a moment, the outrage expressed at certain logging practices or when a politician fiddles the books. Here there is a claim by environmentalists or citizens that certain conduct is "right" or "wrong" but our very education system no longer has confidence in these notions so masks the attempt to teach moral positions by calling them "values". But the entire project is confused and incoherent. We cannot have a meaningful notion of "tolerance" "respect" or "dignity" based on an incoherent base of "values." Yet that is our current state in Western education — and, sadly, all too often religious education, even Catholic education, is implicated in this slide into "values relativism." I spoke at a Catholic Educator's conference a few years ago and was shocked and disappointed how speaker after speaker spoke in the "language of values" without realizing that this language is the enemy of the very "truth" such speaker's believed themselves to be promoting.

We all know that — "don't impose your values". Remember a few years ago we had an elected politician in this province who was accused — because he wanted to take moral positions on certain issues — of "imposing his values" on other people. Well, what kind of a country are we going to have if the citizens make no distinction between courage, justice, wisdom, or moderation, which were the four cardinal virtues of Aristotle (and they are referred to in the Catholic catechism, as such) and "looking good" or "having an adventuresome life"? You see what the problem is there? Something that is a byproduct of how we live, "having an adventuresome life", or "looking good" — which may in fact be given to us genetically or not given to us genetically — is not really the same thing as learning to develop the habits of honesty, or learning to value wisdom, to give preference to courage, to learning how to choose, to be just, and what justice entails. What has happened is this language of values obscures moral discourse; it does not further it.

Now George Grant, the Canadian philosopher, whom I mentioned a while ago, made this point in an important comment on a CBC radio program a few years ago. Here is what he said, "values language is an obscuring language for morality, used when the idea of purpose has been destroyed. And that is why it is so widespread in North America." In North America, we no longer have any confidence that there are any shared purposes for human life. We don't. It is that dramatic. Consequently, we cannot order any human action towards an end, because all means are related to ends.

The means are the techniques of disciplines, what we study, how we live together, how we choose to live in a family. Those are all means towards an end. What is the end? If the end is spoken about as living virtuously, where virtue is crowned by love and love is shown to us by particular acts and stories then we have something to teach and something to learn. It is not "imposing values" but "teaching in truth" for, after all, how we learn to love is in the context of the lives we choose so that loving will be highly personal as well as shared. This is how "virtue" is similar and dissimilar to "values."

Virtue is similar in that how we are (our first natures) in relation to the virtues (understood, described by stories, taught and lived by practice) is personal; but unlike "values" the virtues are also shared and cannot be simply chosen or ignored at will. That was the point I made earlier about "justice" not being something one simply didn't have as part of one's "value system." All the virtues are shared as objectively true but they are personal in how they apply to us as persons.

Remember the three Theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity? They, like all the virtues, have a structure that can be taught and that makes sense. The greatest of all the virtues "the form of the virtues" is charity (just as, the "form of all the vices" is pride).

The pyramid of virtue is structured through each other. It is structured like this: at the top is love, or charity, faith, and hope. And these three here are the three theological virtues, and under those are the four cardinal virtues ("cardinal" is from the Latin word for "hinge" because all our conduct, in a sense, hinges on these things): justice, wisdom/prudence, temperance/moderation, and courage/fortitude. These [the Cardinal virtues] are also known as the 'natural' virtues (which are perceived by natural reason), and these [the Theological virtues] are called 'supernatural' (or "inspired" virtues given by revelation).

Another interesting thing is that, within the Christian tradition, we say that Grace, the order of Grace, "perfects the order of nature", so that for Christians, what justice means is different, is richer than what natural reason can perceive. What wisdom means is different, richer, fuller, than what is natural. What temperance or moderation perceives is different, and courage as well. All these cardinal virtues have been transformed, ultimately, by Christ; in the person of Christ. You find all this in the Catechism. What is interesting is, these things are not simply, "you have yours, I have mine". They are not values. They are a world away from "values." We cannot say, "you have your courage and I have mine." What you have is much more profound, and it is, what is your nature in relation to the objective categories of virtue. But please note, the natural virtues are much closer to the supernatural virtues than either are to any category of "values."

Once we know what the virtues look like (and what stories of virtue illustrate each one) we are in a better position to determine how we are in relation to the standards of virtue we wish to achieve. How would this work with respect to an important virtue. Let's take a look at the virtue of "courage" for a moment.

The question we each have to ask is "how are we in relation to the standard of appropriate courage?" What is our personal nature like? We must ask: am I timid? Do I, for example, tend to be timid and nervous? Do I act rashly: do I tend to be brash and impulsive? The way this has been put traditionally is to ask whether one has an excess of something or a deficiency of it? Too much? Too little?

Some people are very timid. To develop a fully virtuous life, a timid person has to do develop a more courageous habit of being appropriately courageous. They would begin, in little things, say speaking up for someone who is unjustly criticized — that is an example of courage. A timid person must build up their courage by getting, in a sense, more of it. What about a rash person? Well, their need is the opposite. They are always "the first person in", always. They don't ask enough questions or act prudently, they dive-in. What do they have to do in respect to courage? They have to, in a sense, reduce it. But, here we note something interesting in terms of our discussion of "values" earlier.

It is not simply or at all a question of "you have yours, I have mine"? No. It is something that is shared and is something that is personal. That is the amazing thing about virtues, in sharp distinction to values, is that there is a framework here that we can use for public education. We can use it for citizenship education. We can use it in schools. And guess what? We can even use it in public schools. Why? Well, because virtues fit within a multi-cultural framework. Every tradition of culture (all cultures are formed by their religious conceptions) acknowledges the importance of developing the virtues and each tradition has its stories to illustrate the cardinal virtues.

The public (and private) schools ought to educate the citizens of tomorrow in ways that do not offend the family's religious beliefs or that undercut the basics we need for citizenship. The education must build up a notion of moral citizenship. Since we want the citizens of tomorrow to be respectful or the beliefs of others the curriculum must not (by design or default) close the door to faith, or to love, or to hope, even though (outside of religious schooling) the appropriate place for this religious teaching is the synagogue, church, temple, mosque or longhouse.

This means that in the schools we can and must develop a rich tapestry of stories and examples of the cardinal virtues (and other natural virtues) including justice, wisdom, moderation, and courage. Those things are so much richer, so much more powerful, so much more helpful to culture in public education, so much better as starting guides for human life than what we currently offer — let's go back to the list — the "values" of "physical attractiveness" or "an adventuresome life".

When you've got children killing themselves at an ever-increasing rate when they are young — our suicide rate in Canada, amongst 10-14 year-olds has gone up 1367% between 1955 and 1995 causes must be sought and attempts made at solutions. Why is it that these suicides have increased so markedly amongst what my friend Dr. Peter Kyne calls "the canaries of a generation?"

There are, of course, many reasons, but if you talk to psychiatrists who work with this age group, they will tell you that one of the most profound reasons is that these children have no sense of purpose. They have no sense that life is about something. Let's recall for a moment what George Grant said about values language? Values is "an obscuring language for morality, used when the idea of purpose has been destroyed; and that's why it is so wide-spread in North America."

We are giving our students in schools (Catholic, and Protestant, and public) "values frameworks" that have the effect of frustrating shared purposes instead of developing them. Instead of the very moral language that they need to be truly Catholic, or to develop a rich conception of the shared grounding for citizenship, values merely makes fragmentation worse.

That is the sort of 'thesis' that I have tried to develop in this talk. I have set out for you some of the categories. I would like to say this though: This problem is so deep, right now, in all Western democracies, Canada and the United States amongst them, that when we have an issue like Euthanasia, and that issue goes through the courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada, how is it debated? Is that issue of Euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide debated in terms of virtue, in terms of shared moral principles within society? No. You know what Sue Rodriguez said, very clearly into the television cameras? (This is how she is quoted in a book written on her life.):

Why on earth would anyone want to impose their own value system on me? I've got mine, they've got theirs.

See what is going on? She wants to have her values system recognized and supported by the courts. And guess what? The judges are speaking about "Charter Values" as well. What are Charter Values? What are the "values of Canadians". Like supposed "American values" cited by President Clinton, the Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien uses the term "Canadian values" quite often when he wants to affirm something he thinks we all affirm. But if, on the personal level, "you have your values and I have mine" then how, on the national level, does it make any sense to speak of "Canadian values" or "American values"? It doesn't.

We use those terms all the time. What do we mean by them? We don't know. We have had our moral language stripped from us in a serious way — it has been replaced by this 'weasel language' of values, and we all use it. If I used it after five universities, you can bet everyone is using it. And this language of "values" is being used everywhere. It has been used at the Supreme Court of Canada, it has been used by medical ethics tribunals, it has been used by politicians, it has been used right through culture. It is proliferated like the "Andromeda strain", and its effects on culture are disastrous. So, we have got to get back to, and forward to, a richer language — for culture and for character. And that language, I think, is the language of ritual, the language of truth, the language of "virtues".

CS Lewis, the great Protestant writer, who wrote the Narnia stories (some of you may know The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and he also wrote many good books on Christianity), once wrote a very interesting thing in a letter. He had a long exchange, for many years, with a Latin priest, a Roman Catholic priest in Italy, and their letters were written in Latin, and the book is called The Latin letters of CS Lewis. In this book Lewis makes a very interesting observation that touches on what we are talking about tonight. He said, "I think that for the young people today, we had better make them good pagans before we make them good Christians." What does he mean by that? Many Christians would find this incomprehensible.

Lewis was, remember, a classicist before he taught literature and was writing to a Catholic Priest who was also educated in the classical tradition. I think that what Lewis means is that if you try and make people Christians, over top of this language of "values", or over top of what is known philosophically as 'subjectivism' (the idea that whatever is true is only because I choose it) you will corrupt Christian belief. The modern view is, in essence, that "I don't conform myself to the truth, I make the truth by willing it." I just choose my "values" and there is no truth out there. I just kind of make it.

For the Greeks and the Christian tradition which incorporated Greek thought, this is nonsense. Truth or "The Good" are realities that are ought there to be pursued, learned, taught and shared. But the modern view knows nothing of the classical/Christian tradition. It has only bits and pieces of that earlier tradition ("tolerance", "equality" "respect for the dignity of the person" etc. etc.) which cannot be maintained in coherent form if we reject the notion of objective truth.

Lewis and Don Giovanni Calabria (the authors of the exchange of letters — though we have only C.S. Lewis' in the book) knew this. They knew that if you try, as our generations have increasingly tried, to place Christian moral principles upon the top of that kind of corroded or corrupted base, you will in fact corrode and corrupt Christianity itself. Christianity can only be established on the firm base of truth and confidence in truth and the substance of objective virtues.

Yes, these virtues ought to be fully developed in light of the Gospel of Jesus, but, as a social starting point, the virtues provide a firm guide for action that allows engagement with other "truth claims" including those of Jesus. But when "truth" itself has been relativized into subjective "values" then the entire project of moral search and education becomes compromised at its root and Christianity becomes, through detachment from the natural order, increasingly Gnostic. Much of contemporary Christianity, particularly of the Protestant evangelical type has exhibited dangerously Gnostic tendencies some of which have been the subject of comment by Protestant writers themselves. [1]

Both the Greeks and the Christians affirmed the existence of reason and its reliability (and limitations) towards truth. Revelation aids reason but there is natural wisdom and supernatural wisdom just as there is natural faith and supernatural faith. It is a serious error to overlook both the distinctions and similarities between them. Proper recognition of the distinction will aid the task of apologetics and cultural engagement in our own day. [2]

The proper awareness of truth categories found outside the Gospel and that can be incorporated and enriched by it, was considered important by Lewis. He saw this base as present in the pagans, because it was the Greeks who developed this category of virtue, and in the Western tradition we took it on board and 'Christianized' it. So if we have an uncomfortable feeling about the direction morals are going in our time, we have got to get beyond mere feelings and subjective "values", towards a richer language for virtue and culture. And I want to suggest that of the terms we have to reclaim, 'values' is near the top of a list of other important concepts: a short-list would contain, in addition to that term, "secular"; "tolerance"; "freedom" "unbeliever/believer" and "tradition." Just quickly I will touch on a few of these other terms to show why it is crucial to re-think how these terms are used as well.


Faith is not just Religious: "Natural Faith" and "Supernatural Faith"

Who has faith? Answer: everyone. The real question is, what are people's faiths in? Many times religious people will speak as if the only people who have faith are those who are religious; they do this, I am sure, without thinking about it but it is important that they begin to think about the implications of speaking of the "secular" as made up of "unbelievers." This kind of expression is almost the opposite of the truth. Unless we note the error, we miss a huge opportunity to connect with people around us; an opportunity that is frustrated if we speak of "unbelievers" and a "non-faith" "secular." The "secular" is the realm of competing faith claims and there are no "unbelievers."

The secular is a realm of competing faiths not a realm of "no-faith".

What is the secular? It certainly cannot be a realm without faith (see above) though religious believers often speak of it as if it is. It is important not to make an erroneous distinction in how we think about society by viewing religion as somehow separate from the secular. Let me illustrate this with an example.

The other day I went to a talk by a medical ethicist. A very good talk, but he put a diagram on the board, in which he made a distinction between the view of autonomy that is present in what he called the 'secular world', and the 'religious world'. That is a very grave error to make that distinction that way. Why? Because in addition to a failure to note that both religious and non-religious views are based on "faith" such a division removes or tends to remove (where secularism is entrenched as an ideology) the very explanations of faith that have the longest traditions, deepest adherence and most widely known stories to explain shared meanings: the religious traditions.

The world is not divided between those that have faith and those that don't however much contemporary anti-religion (or poor religious articulations) suggests this is how it works. The Catholic Church, in her formal teaching (as opposed to the less finely-honed expressions of devotees) has ever made the distinction. The Catholic Church has always understood that 'the secular' simply means 'in the world', or 'of the times'. That is why we have the category, in the Catholic Church, of "secular priests" — we don't mean they are non-religious but that they have a different function from "religious" who have taken vows to live in certain types of religious communities. The "secular priests" are in the world — a world just as much informed by the activities of those priests in their day to day jobs as it is informed by the "faith" of the atheists who believe many of their things on faith (such as the non-empirically verifiable belief, widely shared by non-religious people, that "all human beings have dignity" or should be accorded tolerance and respect).

There is an urgent need to reclaim an understanding of "the secular" that allows it to be properly described and for faith claims (religious and non) to debate openly about their positions within it. It does not assist this important series of tasks to further a division which rules out faith claims of one sort (religious) but gives priviledged access to another (atheistic faith claims for example). We have got to describe the secular realm more accurately — and how do we do it? We do it by pointing out that every man, woman and child alive is dependent upon faith. They walk on the ground that they assume is there, they don't prove it for themselves. They have faith it is there. They use a car's rear view mirror — they don't test it. They assume it is telling them the reality of what is out the back window. They take their rear view mirror on faith. They go to a restaurant. They eat food prepared by people they have never met. Sometimes, they have no idea even what they are going to see on the plate. It's all faith. Now, it is not religious faith, but it is faith in things they are not empirically proving.

The modern person often wants to say "oh, faith is for religious people. I'm not religious, therefore I don't have faith." A lot of religious people play right into that. The really key distinction is, the key thing we want to point out to them is, everyone has faith. The question is, what is their faith in? And does it explain sin, and evil, and self-sacrifice, human dignity, why we all have worth, and why we are all brothers and sisters, why love is greater than hate, fear worse than hope and meaning richer than nihilism? Does that faith on a diminished level that many people have, come anywhere near to explain these things? No. Do religious traditions explain them? Yes. The secular around us, this whole secular society, has to be a realm of competing faith claims. Not 'faith out there, secular here'


Believers:" Why it is Important to Realize that Everyone is a Believer

It follows from what I said about "faith" and the "secular" (the secular being a realm of competing faith claims), that we have to rethink an inaccurate or over-reaching use of the term "unbeliever." Simply put, everyone is a believer. This phrase used by religious people all the time, more by Protestants than Catholics, but used all the time, 'so-and —so is an unbeliever' 'so-and-so is a believer' is true if we are speaking very carefully about belief in Christ, or belief in Christianity. But it can often mislead us, lead us away from this important realization that everyone is a believer in something. [3] And the question is, if we approach them as believers, we sometimes have a better bridge to help them understand what we believe and to begin to understand what they believe "on faith."

I would like to share a few insights from the tradition of virtue that I believe are important and profound. One is this idea that grace perfects nature. And two wonderful phrases: Pride is the form of all the vices. All the vices — you could draw a diagram setting out what human vices are. The form, the jelly mould that gives shape to all of those vices, is pride. Pride was seen by St. Thomas as the greatest sin, and it is the basis of all sinfulness. The form of all the virtues is love. Love is the jelly mould of all virtuous conduct. If you learn to love well, you will learn to live well. So all of the virtues, in a sense, flow out of this deepening of our understanding and our practice of caritas. The other thing that it is important to realize is that there is a difference between knowing a thing and living it. You can know an awful lot about virtue and not live it. The key thing is to develop good habits.

In the Scriptures there is an important verse which informs us that: if you don't love others, you don't know God; love is linked to action. [4] That actual loving of other people is the key to knowing God, and it is important to remember that this business of virtue is only half, or even less than half, of the story, but it provides the framework for living a richer life, understanding why we act, why we may not act. We may be afraid, we may need to learn that courage without wisdom is mere rashness, honesty without discretion cruelty and justice without humility self-righteousness. All these virtues interrelate, and we need to learn about that.

But my point tonight is that these things can be taught in schools, they can be taught in families, they can be taught in church, and they need to be rediscovered, rebreathed within not only the Catholic faith, but within culture. And I think that the fact that this bloated use of "values language" beyond its proper place in aesthetics and economics is a real indication of what trouble we are in as a culture in the West.

The question isn't whether or not we have some kind of metaphysics. We have a metaphysics, whether or not we know it. Similarly we have to understand whether we have a good understanding of virtue or none at all. At the moment, contemporary liberal society wants to take little tiny bits that it needs of the tradition of virtue and plug them in like sealing wax when it discovers that society is hemorrhaging somewhere. So now as we saw a glimpse of it from the Supreme Court of Canada in the Rodriguez case dealing with whether we should maintain the law against "euthanasia", the judges will grasp at some straw sticking out of the tradition. But it will not work. It is not convincing to deal with moral traditions this way.

In Rodriguez we saw that the bit the judges felt they needed was something called the intrinsic value of human life. They actually said, 'the sanctity of life', and then the judge realized that the term 'sanctity' was rooted in religion, so he said, in brackets, "I mean, by sanctity, sanctity in the non-religious sense." That is what I mean by taking a little bit and plugging it in. "sanctity in a non-religious sense". That's nonsense but he could not bring himself to say that we get our grounding for respect of human beings from our historic commitment to a religion which sees each man, woman and child as a unique creation of a loving Creator.

So, we have our work cut out for us, as people who have been given parts of this tradition. We have got to do what we can to polish off, enrich, strengthen, nail on a few new boards, pull out a few rotten ones and pass on a more seaworthy ship of state to our children for the benefits of our children's children's children.

Thank you. If there is time for questions, I'd be happy to entertain some.


You gave us a clear definition of values; can you give us a definition of virtues?

Virtue is right conduct. The virtuous person is the person who lives well. There are also specific virtues as well.

How is instruction in a virtue accomplished?

Through stories and narratives, like Aesop's Fables, Scriptural Stories or exposure to and discussion of such sources as William Bennett's Book of Virtues, alongside a framework of the virtues (content and structure of virtues, discussion of habit, the "golden mean" etc.).

There was a book a few years ago that became a publishing phenomenon, called the Book of Virtues. It's interesting — William Bennett, who used to be the Secretary of Education of the United States, was told by the publishers that they wanted to call it the 'Book of Values,' and Bennett said "No, the Book of Values is the Sears catalogue." He would not allow them to call it that. Interestingly enough, the book is an interesting collection of stories about virtue, but it fails, I think, as a teaching tool. Why? Because he didn't explain how the virtues relate to one another or how you may have an excess or deficiency. So he has a whole bunch of stories on courage, and some of them may illustrate a lack of courage or so on, but it would have been helpful to have an introductory essay to set out the 'Golden Mean' — the point of balance or middle way between certain types of the virtues.

The Golden Mean does not apply to all the virtues — there is no middle way with respect to love, for example, but there is with respect to courage. Habitus — the development of good habits, the replacing of good habits for bad habits, could have been spelled out. The way to get rid of a bad habit is to start replacing it with repeated actions of the 'other side' — good ones. And slowly, over time, what happens is whether you have the error by nature, your repetition of the good action continues until it becomes second nature. So all of these terms he acts that way, it is second nature to him. You are building on this perhaps erroneous primary nature that you had to learn to do the other things well. So 'habitus,' the development of habits, is done through practice and perseverance. For Catholics, this is not strange because they know all about the notion of interior life, the development of the interior life, the notion of the confessional leading to resolve to proceed in a particular direction.

That is not common language to many of our Protestant brothers and sisters who do not have a wide appreciation of the notion of interior life, by and large. They do not have the tradition of the virtues, and are often strongly opposed to virtue. Why? Because they think it is a work of the mind that will lead us into boasting, and there is a very strong risk within certain kinds of evangelicalism of rejection of anything on the natural order, and reason, if they perceive it to be natural reason, they see it as a diminution of God's sovereignty, power, and majesty, as well as a diminution of grace. But why is that view wrong? Speaking as a former Protestant, it is because they do not see Grace as operative in creation — nothing on the natural order is anything we can boast about because every single atom of our being is a gift.

Every single atom of creation is held in being, moment-by-moment, by God's grace. Therefore there is nothing for us to boast about by exercising any of the natural categories. Because Protestants do not have a strongly developed understanding of ontology (confidence in creation by God is the essential grounding for sacramentalism), the goodness of creation and the holiness of being, that "Franciscan" insight into materiality, they do not respect the natural order the way we as good Catholics should.

How would you distinguish your use of "Metaphysics" and Shirley Maclean's?

I don't know anything about Shirley Maclean's use of metaphysics, and I am surprised that she even uses the term, but terms like 'spirituality' or 'metaphysics', like an airy use of "consciousness" or "awareness" or "energy" might well be used in the contemporary age by people in a sort of disconnected way.

On the island I live on — "spirituality" includes everything from crystals through to all manner of syncretistic religious practices and this wide-eyed use of "consciousness" and "awareness." It is not a mark of chaos, but of some sort of "openness" according to these people to have a bit of Buddhism, mix liberally with some Hindu practices, add a touch of Jesus and two parts pantheism and, voila!.Voila what? Chaos.

But imagine, everything, now, is on the table, for experiencing spirituality, spirituality is this kind of openness to something beyond the self. Now on that level, I am not afraid of it at all, because I think that can be the beginning of a pursuit towards God. Newman's insight about taking hold of the truth at any point, that 'golden thread' and follow it, and sooner or later, you will come to all truth. I think that is absolutely right, and I think the key is not to try and dissuade people from searching honestly for truth. That is the key — are they seeking truth, or are they seeking merely their own self-satisfaction in an egotistical way? Sometimes these 'spirituality searches' are like nothing so much as dogs chasing their own tails. Such spiritual "tasters" are like thin and elegantly dressed ladies at a smorgasbord dipping an ever so gentle finger into this and that and tasting it.

Such people are almost consciously setting themselves up for continuous sensual experiences through spirituality, and they go from one of these things to the next, year after year, and they never seem to ask the questions that would get them out of that endless (and expensive) cycle.

'Metaphysics,' I suppose, could be misused or co-opted, like 'spirituality' could be, but by it I simply mean those aspects of existence which are not explicable, not verifiable empirically. They are beyond the physical — above the natural world, so they are 'metaphysical'. They are transcendent, so they would include, traditionally, things like beauty, truth, goodness, justice, love. All of those, although they involve the material order, are none the less, somehow beyond it.

How do you handle the Pope's dealing with the word 'values'?

There, what I hope and pray is happening within the Church right now is what Newman again refers to as "The Development of Doctrine". What I would call the error of "values language" being used when we mean a moral language has been fairly common in Catholic writers particularly from the 1950's to the present. Given his philosophical sophistication, however, it is somewhat surprising to note the appearance of "values language" as a regular part of the current Pope's writing.

In addition to this, however, there is a serious prevalence of "values language" in the work of such otherwise excellent thinkers as Dietrich Von Hildebrand. His book Ethics (1953) is pock-marked with a use of "values" language that is interesting because it is used in some sections of the book almost interchangeably with "moral virtues" as if the writer simply did not appreciate at all what was missing (and included) in "values" that was not included (and missing) in "virtues". But prior to the late 1950's I am not aware of any sustained criticism of "values" language. Later in the 1950's for example in Allan Bloom's fine introduction to his translation of Plato's Republic there is a growing awareness that "values" is bankrupt as a moral language. But it has taken and is taking a long time to get the message out. [5]

Now there has been a host of very useful books that put the matter so convincingly that I do not believe anyone who looks closely into the question can continue to support the use of "values" as a moral term. [6]

The Pope does not claim to be infallible when he writes an encyclical, and the fact that the Holy Father is unquestioningly using, on occasion, the language of values, is, I understand from people much more learned in this than myself, because of his inexperience with the degree to which the term is corrupted in North America. It may [also] be that he is attempting "to connect" with people who think in those terms.

If you look at his usage of 'values' in any of the recent Encyclicals such as Veritatus Splendor (the "Splendor of Truth"), or Evangelium Vitae (the "Gospel of Life") , or Fides et Ratio ("Faith and Reason"), you will see that in the context of the whole Encyclicals, he is talking about objective truth, he is not talking about personal values, where "you have yours and I have mine". However, if you take some of the sentences out of context, it looks like he is speaking, and I hate to say this but it is true, the mushy language of 'values'. Interestingly, when you look at the Church's settled document, that is, the Latin text, which all these go back into for history, in none of those is the term 'values' present.

This is because there is and can never be a Latin term that is equivalent to our term 'values'. When the Pope's "values" language uses are translated into Latin they go back into the term 'bonum' or one of its variants, all of which mean something like, 'the good'. I have done, in part thanks to Fr. Hamilton's provision of one of these encyclicals in the Latin version years ago, a comparison of the Latin and English texts. It was there I noticed the placement back into the richer classical language of "goods" but, in my naievete at the time, thought we were dealing with an error of translation into the English from the Latin. But a detailed article in First Things magazine put me right on that score. [7] Though the article did not satisfy me that "the language of values" has any place in a Church document, it did satisfy me that the Holy Father means to use the Polish and English equivalents of "values" and what we are dealing with is not a mere translation error: more's the pity.

I think that what we will see is the Church gradually getting rid of the term 'values', wherever it appears. It is not used now in any of the writing that is coming out in, say, medical ethics, from people who have been made aware of this problem. It is coming out less and less in anything that Catholics who have been made aware of the problem are writing. Slowly but surely, books are starting to be written about it which will make the point more and more obvious that this is not a language than can be used in the moral area. Keep it for its proper place in economics and aesthetics by all means but banish it from moral and religious writing.

Thank you.


  1. Presbyterian Minister Philip J. Lee has written a detailed and powerful account of the presence of and tendency towards Gnosticism in certain aspects of contemporary evangelicalism: see, Against the Protestant Gnostics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987). Back to text.
  2. In the Encyclical Fides et Ratio ("Faith and Reason") Pope John Paul II notes with approval that St. Thomas Aquinas observed a distinction between "natural" wisdom and "supernatural" wisdom (para. #44). It is a pity in such a fine encyclical that there is not a similar recognition of the distinction between "natural faith" and "supernatural faith." Throughout the encyclical the word "faith" is used as meaning only "religious faith." But a better distinction is to point out that, in the same way as there is "supernatural" and "natural" wisdom, there is "natural" and "supernatural" faith. On the importance of "natural faith" and its utility as a ground for all human inquiry see: Thomas Langan, Being and Truth (Missouri: Missouri University Press, 1996) and on the relevance of this distinction (noted a century earlier by John Henry Cardinal Newman) for law and politics see: I.T. Benson "Notes Towards a (Re) Definition of the "Secular" (2000) 33 UBC Law Rev. 519 - 549. Back to text.
  3. A recent book containing an interesting list of religious and a few non-religious writers of the 20th Century, contains, in its subtitle, an example of this error. See: Joseph Pearce's Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief (London: Harper Collins, 1999) (underlining added). Back to text.
  4. 1John 2:1-11 Back to text.
  5. In a telephone conversation with the writer a year or so before his death (in 1988) George Grant commented on how many intelligent people just did not understand the "values" problem. He said that this failure to understand what to him was obvious, was "baffling." Back to text.
  6. See: for example, recent work that traces the origins of "values" language in Nietzsche's thought. Professor Edward Andrew of the University of Toronto notes a fact that, in our current cultural malaise, ought to be widely known by those who think "values" improve culture: "there has been only partial awareness [in the Western academy] that the language of values entails that nothing is intrinsically good and nobody is intrinsically worthy." Edward G. Andrew, The Genealogy of Values (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995) at 170. See also, the bibliography following, particularly Joseph F. Power " Grant's Critique of Values Language" in Larry Schmidt ed. George Grant in Process (Toronto: Anansi, 1978) 90 - 98. Back to text.
  7. Williams, Thomas D. "Virtues, Values and John Paul II" First Things, 72 (April 1997): 29-32. Back to text.

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Benson, Iain T. "Values and Virtues: A Modern Day Confusion," Talk given in Powell River, B.C. May 30, 2000.

Reprinted with permission of the author, Iain T. Benson. 

The Author

Iain Tyrrell Benson is a legal philosopher, writer, professor and practising legal consultant. The main focus of his work in relation to law and society has been to examine some of the various meanings that underlie terms of common but confused usage. An advocate that the public sphere should be open and inclusive of all citizens and their groups, whether their faith and belief commitments are based on non-religious or religious beliefs, Iain Benson was the first Executive Director of the Centre for Cultural Renewal, a non-partisan, non-denominational charitable foundation with status in both Canada and the United States, dedicated to examining the nature of pluralism with particular reference to the associational rights dimension of religion and expression.

Copyright © 2000 Iain T. Benson

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