Values matter. Value are judgments about the extent to which something is good and bad, right or wrong, or worthy or unworthy. Values include judgments of what it is that we think is important in life. If something is important, it has value to us. Values range in their degree of importance. We may call some values moral values because we think that they should be upheld by all people, regardless of who they are or where they live (e.g., do not murder; do not steal, etc.). Other values include rules for civil society (e.g., wear a tie or a gown to a formal party; stop at red lights, etc.). Still other values involve things that seem to be under our personal choice — personal opinions and pleasures, such as whether or not we like vanilla or chocolate ice cream.
Our personal opinions need to justification. We don’t have to give reasons why we like blue more than green. However, other forms of values seem to require justification. Should we obey the speed limit? Why? Is it permissible to have children outside of marriage? Is it good to be hard working? Prudent? Thrifty? How about chaste? Is it even permissible to ask such questions?
We sometimes tend to think that values are secondary to our lives — that values are some sort of optional something that we can either choose to have or not have. Sometimes, we think of values — especially moral values — as rules that are imposed on us from some authority — God, parents, the government, religion, or what have you. Some people feel oppressed by the idea that we should try to live our lives according to some system of values. Still others feel that values — moral or otherwise — are arbitrary and relativistic. From this point of view, values and moral rules are relative to particular people, groups or cultures. What’s “moral” or valued in one culture is not seen as “moral” or “valued” in another culture. If this is so, then moral rules degenerate into a kind of personal or cultural choice, and in the end, don’t matter very much.
But values do matter. In fact, they are unavoidable. There is nothing that we do that is not deeply influenced by our values and value presuppositions. Most often, however, we don’t even know that this is happening. Let’s do a little exercise. Is there anything that people do that is, well, neutral? That is not in some way seen as something that is, to some degree, good or bad? Right or wrong? Worthy or worthy? Lovable or unlovable?
What are you doing right now? You are reading this blog post. This seems like a mundane, everyday, neutral kind of thing! Are there any values involved in your reading this? Well, quite a few, I would suggest. Is reading a good thing? Is it better to know how to read or not to know how to read? Is reading something online better than reading it on paper? Online articles tend to be shorter than print articles. Is this good or bad? Does it affect how we think and learn? Does that matter? What about the content of this article? Why are you still reading it? Do you find it interesting (good)? Repulsive (bad)? Does it make you angry (“he shouldn’t be saying that!”) or do you approve (“yes, he’s saying the right thing”). These are all value judgments of one type or another.
So, values are inescapable. We don’t really have the choice to not have values. We cannot not judge. Our value judgments is obvious in some areas (e.g., abortion, individual rights, racism, etc.), less obvious in other circumstances (e.g., reading this post, liking a particular situation comedy), and decidedly non-obvious in others (e.g., completing a math problem). But they’re there in each case.
(There is a weak form of value when we evaluative whether a math problem is correct. Here: 667 x 481 = 11,245. Correct or incorrect? Even without calculating the product, however, you may have a funny feeling that it’s wrong. Why? You can’t quite put your finger on it, but something is not quite right — something is “off” — even though you can’t tell what it is. Answer: The product — 11,245 — is just too low to be correct. If I added 667 to itself even, say, 400 times, the result would be way over 11,000. So the answer has to be wrong. In this example, feelings — which have positive or negative valence — are relevant to understanding a math problem!)
Value commitments structure how we think, how we make choices, how we feel, how we relate to others, how we live our lives. If we can’t not have values — and if we often don’t even know that we are influenced by values — then it is very important that that we make every effort to become aware of our values, to analyze them critically to determine if they are good or bad, and to change them if appropriate.
If what we do is always informed by our values, then we must identify what our values are and how they influence what we do. Unless we do, we will act without really knowing why we are doing what we are doing. When that happens, our values control us, and we don’t control ourselves.