Thursday, January 29, 2009


The Value of Values

Values are in contention with one another in our society and world. Of that observation there is no doubt even though, at some core, values hold us all together. Some will say that antagonistic extreme positions exaggerate our differences and that the middle majority retain the central position as to the values question. Efforts to sort this out elude easy solution despite continued attention to the subject. Nevertheless, some perspective, however limited, is necessary.

Ideally, values comprise a system of qualities of intrinsic and applied worth, expressed in principles, that are severally and interdependently desirable and beneficial to the people individually and collectively who live under that system. So said, the values bundle needs some unraveling to see if this definition really means what it pretends. The question then becomes how a values system applies to us as persons and citizens. Finally, what ought we to do about that application?

We can identify values by thinking about our human situation in order to discover what quality underlies or should underlie good ways of living together. Good ways, simply put, means everyone benefits and no one gets hurt. The thinking approach to values, we call philosophy. Presumably, everybody has a philosophy of life based on personally integrated values whether they have thought them through or been less rigorous about determining the meaning, consistency and excellence of the values adopted.

Such rigor is not for everyone, and the prevailing way of integrating values into one’s life is to absorb them by living in the received culture. While philosophy exists to determine, examine or clarify values, culture nurtures its values by example and reinforces their adoption through approval of the appropriate responses and disapproval of the inappropriate ones. Cultural anthropologists have found that though every one of 5,000 existing cultures has a value system, all values are relative to the particular home culture and that there is no such thing as universal values. As expected, this professional principle of cultural relativism is also in dispute. While some values may be dysfunctional to social and human well being, universally everyone expects treatment with respect.

Religion or recognition of the spiritual dimension also portends values. I say portends, since not all spiritual expressions come across in the same way as to claims on the lives of their believers or explicitness as found in their history of teaching, dogma, or doctrine. A common element of spiritual systems, however, is that they draw upon sources or revelations that are outside the human experiences of thinking or making empirical discoveries about the world and our lives in it. Thereby values gain another context: we ourselves are not the sum and substance of value; some greater entity outside us, yet still somehow related to us is that sum and substance.

Though these three prominent ways of getting at values – the philosophic, cultural and religious – exist and may be the major ones, they are not the only ones. Besides, of course, these methods overlap. We can think about each approach and develop philosophies of them; we can enrich each avenue to values by our cultural traditions and its history of informants; we can peer beyond human limits through religion as to purpose and holism. Though few of us are professionals, especially concerning technicalities, in philosophy, culture, or religion, we are likely to inhabit each approach and can gain from their methods what we have the will to pursue.

When we look about our resident situation, we find that all three approaches to comprehending values, their systems, and imports fail to bring us into cohesion. Part of the problem is that the United States and most of what we have in the three value-determiners before us is not like most of the 5,000 cultures in the world. They are small, bounded, authoritarian, established, and homogenous. We are large, globally enmeshed, democratic, new and changing, and diverse. The very freedom, individualism and expansiveness that we prize and espouse undercut the stability that value systems are supposed to bring to a society. So, we curse one another for the practice of our values and do not have the wit – collectively at least – to find our way out of this troubling achievement.

As a nation, we have so little cohesiveness because we are a bundle of contradictions. We debate, but the debate causes dissension. We adjudicate for justice, but the decisions divide. We multiply choice, particularly in the economic sphere, and are amazed at the lack of taste, decorum, and civic involvement. We accelerate abundance and then surprised by pollution. We expect even grade school children to take the loyalty oath of the Pledge of Allegiance, but fail to exercise the responsibilities of citizenship. We promote globalization, but fail to see ourselves as citizens of the world.

Let us admit that life is complex, but we all start from the same irreducible base. Every individual must sort out their responses to life in five areas. These are the physical conditions of earthly existence, the existence of the self as a distinct entity, the presence of other people, our cultural inheritance, and the possible future. Everything else stems from these five. One may ignore the areas as they choose, but such unconsciousness does not do away with their pressures upon us.

This framework admits that whatever one’s particular culture may be, it has its influences on each of us. But because of the mix of the five areas, no one area is exclusive, and it is dubious to pinpoint any one area, culture included, as dominant when they all interact. We have a difficult enough time fully understanding and directing ourselves with whom we have the greatest proximity and the most control and presumably the fullest knowledge.

Values are the basis on which we consciously or habitually by integration make choices in taking one line of thought, belief or action over another. Values are one cultural product yet remain open, as long as an individual wills it, to personal examination, clarification and redefinition before being adopted, but more significantly after being adopted. Articulated values at variance with the culture when acted upon tend to make critics, rebels, deviants or criminals. Cultures, depending upon the nature of the variance, exert a range of pressures from raised eyebrows to executions in order to gain conformance.

In the physical arena we have issues of the appropriate long-term use of finite natural resources, of population size and viability, of health and of responsibility for the environment in which we cannot but live. For ourselves we face numerous life choices that hover around individual identity, potential, achievement and happiness; here no one can do for us what we must do ourselves. Concerning others, our relationships flow from the private and interpersonal to our roles in the neighborhood, community, economy, political associaton and for the common good. Cultural inheritance, let me emphasize, is a treasure trove of the past up to the very minute during which humanity experienced what we face and need to know if we have wit to learn in order to benefit from such heritage. An evolving culture is open to all of history’s enrichment. By comparison, the future may stretch on as long and potently as the human past, but exactly in what manner we do not know. With such uncertainty comes less clarity and the tendency for less thought and neglect. Thereby, we may be engineering our own extinction and need to consciously chose and create that future most desirable to us.

We cannot address questions of the value-base of culture and society unless we share some working principles. As a career information professional of forty-plus years, I offer the following for consideration.

It is better to know than not know.

·Knowledge, the product of knowing, is imperfect and therefore individuals’ search for truth (the knowledge that is perfect) is unending.

·Consequently, we need to be modest about our own knowledge, and reflective on our own limitations.

·Ambiguity about the certainty of our own knowledge requires psychological security, the realization that our conclusions, though our best at present, are tentative.

·In seeking knowledge and examining our own conclusions, we need criteria, which criteria are also subject to continued examination and improvement.

·Whatever criteria of coherence, currency, verifiability, correspondence with others may be, we must continually test knowledge against experience and attune ourselves to the results.

·We need to be alert to all human weaknesses, especially among ourselves – laziness, distraction, and self-deception – and realize that our knowing requires learning as a continuous endeavor.

·Learning may have its automatic features, that is, learning by living, but the greatest potential for learning comes from focused attention and endeavor to identify and overcome our persistent ignorance and mistaken nature.

In brief, we live profitably by knowledge that we must seek while being humble about what we already know.

I have tried to look deeply into the values question and find that primarily, we are not geared in the mass to share in any but the most token way a commonality on values. Most of our institutions pivot on an assumption of inherent human disagreement and not on the desire for solutions. Our laws arise out of factions where agreements come by compromises at best or overpowering at worst. All these efforts continually model that someone is right while someone else is wrong and that taking up the cudgels, even if the cudgels are words, is the answer.

The answer, the only answer, to our fundamental differences is to be in conversation. Despite the enormous problems identified, global, and often out of our hands, we have plenty of opportunities to do what we can in our spheres of contact to make amends. We can know others face to face, make more friends than enemies, work together for mutual understanding and problem solving, show respect, listen and speak in turn.

In this manner we have a better means to enter the complexity of existence as it is, where always (let us be informed) there is another side. And by conversation, we can find ourselves more fully through our relationships with others. The principal freedom we have and value is the liberating freedom to be neighborly.
© 2007, 2009 by Roger Sween.

Roger Sween admits the heavy influence of his family of origin, a preference for reading as learning, certain formative books read when young, a particular Lutheran rendition of Christianity, a penchant for introspection, rationality and judgment, a love of history as the holistic discipline, and the career frustration that most people do not make routine use of the abundant information and intellectual resources available to them.

First written at the Editor’s request and published in Practical Thinking, v.1 no.2 (December 2005) 1-3. Practical Thinking was a joint publication of the Minnesota Association for Continuing Adult Education and the Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum. That article is here revised.

I welcome substantive comments on the contents of this blog. Personal comments may be made to be at the email address given above.