Values: The Ghostly Globs


I have never had the pleasure of seeing a ghost except in some of the stories I have read. In these stories, the specters always possess a solid shape and can, on occasion, communicate with the living. This is way Hamlet went mad when he saw the ghost of his father walking along the ramparts of the castle–he saw what looked like someone he knew to be dead.

In real life, ghosts do not always have to take an actual shape. Orbs, which “ghost hunters” famously look for in their photographs, can appear as clear balls of light or as misty hints in the background. A ghost can be distinct or just an inky smirk in a photograph or the retina. And though they are bandied about in ordinary conversation, values have the same indistinct substance as the ghosts that haunt actual houses and not the pages of literature.

Both sides of the political aisle have great recourse to the talk of values. On the Right, the Values Voters Summit has gathered in Washington DC during September and October since 2006 offering a podium for social conservatives, often neglected throughout the rest of the year. On the Left, the specter of values is raised against anything which the Left opposes. One of the latest examples was the reaction on the Left after Donald Trump’s temporary suspension of travel visas which was decried as acting against “American values.” Former President Obama and Cheryl Sandburg, the CEO of Facebook, both made this same proclamation.

The first question which naturally rises from all the talk about values and “American values” is what, exactly, are American values? The question is a simple one and, as said, seems to rise naturally from the usage of the phrase. Both the Left and the Right use the term as a blanket which can cover whatever positions they hold. The Left’s conception of “American values”, when it is distilled into its most basic components, can be said to be composed of a radical egalitarianism and an atomized, self-gratifying libertinism, masquerading as liberty, which can encompass asexual insanity, infanticide, and an idea of self-expression which, paradoxically, acknowledges no borders and thus ultimately and logically, destroys itself. On the Right, “American values” usually is taken to mean some mixture of faith, family and freedom. The details of these components are hardly ever investigated after their utterance and the ration of the different components often depends on which segment of the Right one is speaking. Both sides too often reach back to the Founding of the Republic in order to justify their own definition of “American values” an endeavor that often leads to bad history on both sides. As historian, Mark David Hall noted  those on the Left will often see nothing but secular and deistic influences upon the founders and the Founding, while their compatriots on the Right, see nothing but Evangelical Christianity working in the lives and events of the Revolution. But in whatever degree the two versions of “American values” are presented, the truth remains unchanged that these two different definitions are contradictions and thus, they cannot both be true.

Then there is the question as to why, exactly, the :Left can appoint itself the arbiter of “American values.” If the things the Left espouses as values and the things which the Right claims are values are contradictions, neither side can actually claim that their values are universal “American values” without at least a semi-logical argument that attempt to explain the reasoning behind the claim. Unfortunately, neither side is really prepared to do this. Both sides begin with the a priori assumption that their values are the values for the whole country; the Left then proceeds to refuse any attempt at Socratic dialogue in seeing if their thoughts and assumptions are erroneous and, thus, false; the Right, in the meantime, has recently slipped into a low type of fideism in which anti-intellectualism has become a virtue. In both cases, discovering the truth by “reasoning together” becomes almost an impossibility.

But, there is an even deeper issue at work in the talk and references to values and “American values” one which has gone almost unnoticed by many, even those partaking of the dialogue. And this is the fundamental weakness in the concept of values in the first place. The word “values” seems strong on the surface, implying a belief, fiercely held, that unites the believers together. But, in reality, the word is completely subjective, as something only has value if someone gives it value. Rather than being anchored in something substantial, the values that people claim to have only have the value which they have because of the people who want or like them. At the drop of a hat, peoples’ perspective could change and what was valuable in the past could become a fossil in the present. The ball cap that your grandfather gave you when you were ten years old could have immense value for you, but for others, it is just an old ball cap and of no real value at all. This is the reason why the value of money–and even precious metals such as gold–can rise and fall depending on supply, demand, and a whole further host of economic factors. The fatal flaw, besides their inherent subjectivity, is that men may end of valuing something that is, in actuality, harmful for them. The rise in the use of drugs in American society seems to demonstrate that more and more people value things and experiences and feelings that are detrimental to their actual good. With this comes the question of whose subjective values win in the arena of the culture and politics. One of the values of the Right is being pro-life; one of the values of the Left is being “pro-choice.” Which position is true and correct? Because these positions are equal values, just on opposite sides of the political spectrum, there is really nothing enforcing either one except the will to power–my value is correct because I say that it is. Rather than a star to guide us, we are left with  a see-saw with contradictory values gaining the upper hand at different times simply because of a shift of opinion or political fortune.

Principles and virtues, on the other hand, are much firmer and more real than values. The word “virtue” itself, from the Latin virtutem (nominative virtus) means “moral strength, high character, goodness; manliness; valor, bravery, courage (in war); excellence, worth,” infers a strength of character which allows one to do what one ought and not merely what one wants. This, in turn, implies something else. If virtue is the strength of doing what one ought, then there must be practice, sacrifice and self-denial in order to gain the strength of the virtue. There must, in other words, be work in gaining and building this inner strength, just as there must be work in gaining and building physical strength. Principles, in much the same way, connotes a universal which has holding power regardless of time, place, culture or individual, in the same way that geometric and algebraic truths are true regardless of the passage time and the boundaries of cities and countries. This is so because, as with geometry and algebra, principles dealing with human nature must be either true or false, as dictated by the principle of non-contradiction. The word “principle” means that rather than simply finding them agreeable for the moment and liking them, we must actually conform our lives to them if we truly wish to participate fully in our humanity because, unlike the ghosts of values, principles are solid realities which we can either adhere to for our true happiness or disavow for our eventual hollowness and sadness.

This, I suspect, is the reason why we do not hear much of virtues or principals anymore. While values can easily be gathered, held and exchanged, virtues must be worked for–they, in a sense, must be earned through constant effort. In the same way, principles must be adhered to, even if the result is discomfort or some other disadvantage. They cannot simply be exchanged as values can be. As society has become progressively weaker, the effort to culturally adhere to the universal and unchanging virtues and principals has become harder and harder.

But still, if the distinction between principles and virtues on the one hand and values on the other, is sound, then there really are no such things as “American values” to begin with. There can only be American principles. In one sense, these American principles are the same that every nation has tried (or should have tried) to implement since the sunnum bonnum (greatest good) never changes, since the nature of man can never change, regardless of time, place and circumstances. At the same time, American principles, such as ordered liberty, equality under the law, belief in the natural law and in the protection of Providence, these are all deeply rooted in the Anglo-American tradition and, in a broader sense, in the tradition of the West itself. But in order to return to that tradition, we will once again need to distinguish principles and virtues from values. And, then, we will need to live according to that distinction.


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