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Please, stop talking about 'values'

  • PHILIP LAWLER

This week I have received a political flyer aimed at "values voters," heard a fundraising pitch from an organization that upholds family "values," and sat through a sermon about maintaining Christian "values" in a secular world.


lawler1The constant references to "values" are tiresome, they're ineffective, and they're fundamentally misguided.

I'm ready and willing to fight for faith, for truth, and for moral principles. But I won't fight for "values." I wish they'd go away.

To speak of "values" is to introduce a term that is loaded with subjective connotations. "Values" are by nature relative. "What are your values?" the preacher asks, and the implicit message is that everyone has different values. But if everyone's values are different, then it means nothing to speak of "values voters" or "defending family values."

The very term "values," as it is used today, was popularized by Nietzsche, on his way to promoting the "transvaluation of values" — the rejection of Christianity and traditional morality, the triumph of the ubermensch and his will to power. When conservative Christians use the term, they unwittingly subvert their own cause.

My desktop dictionary — published in 1974, before the word became ubiquitous in discussions of morality — gives the primary meaning of "value" as "a fair return or equivalent in goods, services, or money for something exchanged." (There is no listing for "values" in the plural. That's one of many reasons why I like this old dictionary.) In this context "value" is a perfectly good word, which has little or nothing to do with morality.

Yesterday I bought a nice piece of furniture, and paid well below the ordinary market price. For me the cabinet represents a real value. But the fellow who sold it did not want the cabinet. He wanted to clear off his shelves, and he wanted cash. So the sale was a value to him as well. I assigned a higher value to the cabinet; he assigned a higher value to the green dollar bills.

The economic marketplace works because buyers and sellers assign different values to their products and their money. Value is always a question of perspective. The value of food increases if you are hungry. The value of your clothing drops if it goes out of style. Every rational person's perception of value changes under different circumstances. Shrewd investors reach different conclusions about the valuation of corporate shares.

So if you claim to be promoting "values" by, say, opposing euthanasia, you give your political adversaries a rhetorical advantage. You speak about the value of defending the innate dignity of human life, and they counter with the value of avoiding pain and suffering. You speak about the value of traditional marriage, and they counter with the value of supporting same-sex couples in loving relationships. If we really are talking about values — about subjective appraisals — then how can we convincingly argue that one set of values is superior to another? Who am I to judge?

Personally, I don't want to teach our children good values. Teach them essential truths, and the values will take care of themselves.

The point is that we are not basing our arguments on subjective judgments — on values — but on unchanging and unchangeable truths. Thus in Evangelium Vitae (57) Pope John Paul II writes that "the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral." Always. No exceptions. No questions of perspective. No balancing of arguments for and against. He went on to explain that this absolute rule is grounded in "that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart, is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church, and taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium."

The Declaration of Independence puts a similar absolute principle at the foundation of American constitutional law, proclaiming that man has "certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." If the right to life is "unalienable," than any contract in which an individual forfeits his own life is null and void. Isn't that a compelling argument against the legalization of assisted suicide? The law cannot allow someone to alienate his own life; it is unalienable.

The term "values" has become thoroughly entrenched in public usage, and I admit that I sometime slip into using it myself. It is a convenient shorthand description of an approach to moral issues. (When I mention "values voters," you know what I mean.) But something important is lost in the use of that shorthand; we are allowing our opponents to define the terms of the debate.

Personally, I don't want to teach our children good values. Teach them essential truths, and the values will take care of themselves.

dividertop

Acknowledgement

lawlerPhil Lawler. "Please, stop talking about 'values'." Catholic Culture  (August 7, 2019).

Reprinted with permission from Phil Lawler and Catholic Culture.org.

The mission of CatholicCulture.org is to give faithful Catholics the information, encouragement, and perspective they need to become an active force for renewal in the Church and in society, working to shape an authentically Christian culture in a secular world.

The Author

lawler63lawlersmokePhil Lawler is the editor of Catholic World News (CWN) and the director of Catholic Culture. He attended Harvard College and did graduate work in political philosophy at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism. He is the author of The Smoke of Satan, Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock, The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture and  A Call to Serve: Pope Francis and the Catholic Future. He is the editor of When Faith Goes Viral: 11 Success Stories of the New Evangelization from Alabama to Vladivostok.

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