Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Value of Democracy

This being an election year, we are confronted once again by candidates for office standing before a microphone and talking about Values; or more specifically, either "Family Values" or "American Values". No one seems to want to define exactly what these values are or why we should want them to have them, but they want to make sure that you understand that they believe in them. 

Now you may think that such discussions and debates have been going on forever in politics, but this is actually a fairly recent development. Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb (yes, that's her real name) tells us that it began in 1983 in England when Margaret Thatcher embraced the accusation that she favored Victorian Values. She of course won that election, and doomed the rest of history through her success. The doom that Prime Minister condemned us to was visited upon us by conceding the use of the word Value in the discussion, when in fact what she favored was Victorian Virtues. Words do mean things after all, and Value does not have the correct meaning in this regard. In fact, the closest that the dictionary comes is: ... something (as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable Virtue on the other hand, means something entirely different:

... a commendable quality or trait
... a particular moral excellence  

A Value, while something that may be even considered desirable, is something that has no judgment attached to it for the individual or for society. In fact, anything can be a value regardless of where it fits on the moral compass. For example, Greed, Avarice, and Selfishness can be said to be values, but I think we can agree that none of these traits are something to be aspired to. 

Both Thomas Jefferson and Stalin had a set of values, but I suspect that few would judge the values of these two men to be of equal worth. A Virtue, on the other hand, is something that should be weighed by the judgment of the individual and of society. Traits like Self-sufficiency, Charity, and Self-sacrifice are things that we can all agree are not only values, but worthy aspirations. They are the inspirations upon which the United States was founded, the qualities that we admire greatly in our Founding Fathers, and the traits that we celebrate in great leaders and individuals down through history. 

We have likewise taken some of the meaning out of another word that is key in this discussion, Democracy. We have taken any moral or ethical judgment out of this word when using it as an adjective (especially in defining the afore mentioned Values). In our haste to remain what we choose to call democratic in our judgments of Values we have allowed ourselves to establish a moral relativity on the subject, where every Value is equal in the eyes of society. In this egalitarian paradise, we have not only eliminated Evil from our frame of reference; but any notion of Good as well. In an act of almost national cowardice, we have allowed a moral equivalency to prevent us from calling anything Right or Wrong, Good or Bad, Virtuous or Evil. If all Values are viewed as equal in the eyes of this democratic society, then there can in fact be no Good and Evil. 

It's time to re-establish the concept of Virtues vs Values in the political discussion and in America as a whole. It's time that we make some kind of a judgment on the range of values and decide what it is that we believe in, and what inspires us. We also need our candidates to step away from the concept of non-judgmental Values of recent history and tell us what Virtues that they aspire to for themselves, and for the country. 

Now they say that in writing, brevity is a virtue (It is also the sole of wit and the essence of lingerie), so I should probably wind this up. The next time you hear a candidate talk about "Family Values" or "American Values" however, I would challenge you to substitute Virtues in its place. Then listen to the rest of what that candidate says and judge for yourself whether the principles they are talking about are something that the country should aspire to. Ask yourself carefully whether these Values are indeed Virtues. 


Roland Hansen said...

Nowadays, what is the value of the American dollar?

I do not believe that very many folks truly understand the word value or even practice values in every day living and that they also have a misguided understanding of virtues.

I am a proponent of an objective-based values education curriculum that could be an optional philodophy-related course in our public schools. If it is optional and in the context of a philosophy course, opposition on constitutional religious grounds should be minimal if not nonexistent.

Tim Higgins said...


I would take it a step further. Having been classically educated in a Catholic school where Philosophy, Comparative Religion, and Latin were requirements; I would like to see mandatory classes in symbolic logic and ethics.

Learning what constitutes a null statement and the fundamentals of ethics seem crucial today in a society that understands neither.