To clarify definitions and how I mean the crucial terms I use, upfront:
Values -- an individual's accepted standards of right or wrong
Morals -- society's standards of right and wrong, very similar to ethics
Ethics -- a structured system of principles that govern appropriate conduct for a group, including activities such as professional ethics, compassion, commitment, cooperation
Values are at the root of who we are individually and who we are culturally, as a group. Aristotle, an early proponent of moderation, said that good values are indicated through the use of good judgment in finding an effective balance between extremes. And although Aristotle lived more than two millennia ago, his points about values, virtue and moderation are still relevant.
Ian Johnston says we still like Aristotle because he provides, "a workable and intelligible framework for sorting out how we should think about living our lives—a version that in many ways fits our commonsense notions and is thus more closely in tune with our common experience than many other alternative visions of how human beings ought to live."
The trouble, these days, with the common experience is that there are more visible threads of difference running through it, now. More than that, though, we see and hear about more, we are, simply, more. There are more of us, and we have more and more ways to get our own personal value message out there. This creates a rash of the differences I mentioned. Differences that many people find alarming or negative, at the least, dangerous and destructive at the worst.
"Values, morals and ethics change with a culture," psychology professor Hal Fishbein points out, "and are tied to a culture. They seem to be enduring, but they have to do with the success of running a culture. In the hunter-gatherer society, for example, you had no choice but to trust. It was not a virtue. You had to trust or you wouldn't survive. Today, we don't have to be that way. We can cheat, and we can get away with it."
---Source: University of Cincinnati
This reminds me of the warm fuzzy myth. This myth---alarmingly reminiscent of the noble savage idea---tells the story of a happy and innocent people living a simple life in which they freely shared warm fuzzies, until one day when a woman (of course---but that's another gripe for another day) who is alternately a mother or a witch (the two being interchangeable apparently) whispered the idea that warm fuzzies were finite, and ought to be hoarded, and soon the culture evolved into a greedy, cold prickly world---alarmingly reminiscent of modern society. Luckily, a few elders retained memory of the time of warm fuzzy and taught it to the youngsters, who perpetuated this value, correcting their parents mistakes, and ultimately restoring the perceived better ethic and moral of "all for each other" versus "ever man for himself." (Was this simply psychological? Or a political morality tale as well? You tell me...)
Oy...where to begin deconstructing that.
The warm fuzzy myth gained popularity in the 1970s, my tender formative years. I learned about warm fuzzies (aka virtue) and cold prickles (aka vice) through transactional analysis, simplified into a children's version in the book, TA for Kids.
This book was a tool many parents at that time used to teach their kids about emotions, how to relate to others, that however they were, whoever they were, they were okay, and that the key to a good life, in a great society, was to create a warm fuzzy environment for us all to live in.
I'm okay, you're okay.
But can we all really be okay? And what about the times when I don't think you're okay?
Recently, I addressed two rather well-known incidents that tackled values: (1) a discussion in which one person tackled rudely the idea of how another person should live, and (2) a situation in which society creates a phobic and illegal condemnation of a lifestyle and one man's poor response to this.
The discussion within the comments was fantastic. Plus, several people spoke out in various ways about this idea of commonplace acceptance and decreed "okayness" of every individual value out there now. How can we possible retain our own values, and more importantly, our integrity---applying our values in spite of contradictory noise around us---if we are literally, constantly, subscribing to the, "I'm okay, you're okay" idea?
At some point in my lifetime I think people began thinking that every value had equal worth, thus deserved equal consideration and equal acceptance. Somewhere in there, I think people began believing that, "I'm okay, you're okay" meant they were entitled, no matter what.
Not so. Values aren't the sole guiding principle in a society. Societies are actually influenced as strongly by ethics and morals, the generally agreed upon norm. When someone falls outside that norm, they can feel the wrath of society. Except, I think, for a while, political correctness got away from us too, and people were afraid to speak out. Now I believe this is correcting, swaying a bit back to Aristotelian values...in other words, moderation. Absolute acceptance is an extreme.
But I don't believe that respect for differing opinions, decisions, lifestyles, or values implies absolute acceptance, much less approval. And I strongly believe in the value of respect, which I think we need to retain, regardless of the amount of moderation of acceptance we societally undertake.
I don't think the US is as disparate as people like to think. I think the core morals are fundamentally similar enough for cohesive ethics. And people who operate too far outside of that are still reviled, or imposed strongly upon. The country isn't actually going to hell in a handbasket. No amount of emotional terrorism and gory news headlines will convince me of it, either. This is because no matter where I go, I find that most people still fundamentally aim to be good. I can, therefore, be friends with people who vote differently, go to a different church, parent using techniques other than mine and so forth. It's tolerance, but more than that, it is inherent faith that the people I know, while perhaps having different values than I have, are intrinsically working towards the same goal as me. Our values differ, our ethics, not so much. I can make a value judgment for myself, not for another person because we are using different measuring sticks.
That's the respect for different decisions that I mean. It doesn't mean not having an opinion, just to reiterate, nor should it imply agreement or endorsement. It just means knowing where the boundary is.
University of Cincinnati philosophy professor Larry Jost adds a more-recent perspective on morals -- from only 2,300 years ago: "Aristotle talked about a moral target. There are many ways to miss, he said, but only one way to get it right. He said a virtuous person knows how to be angry, when he should be angry, what he should be angry at and at whom he should be angry."
It's not easy, he says; you either hit the bull's eye or you don't. To make it tougher, "your values can pull you in different directions," he notes. "The only people who claim value questions are easy are those who don't think for themselves."
-- D. Rieselman
A few related but contextually cut notes:
1. I believe debate happens when people want personal values elevated to ethics. I think there is a lot of that going on, now.
2. a. I think we have to be careful that reaction to PC doesn't cause us to go back too far in the other direction, missing the moderate point entirely.
2. b. I think we have to be more careful to not believe in absolute subscription to any group with which we are affiliated. This means no assumptions (e.g., we subscribe to the same value set because we live in the same place and more or less follow the same lifestyle) and no freaking patriotic pleas or suggestions that someone TAKE A HIKE IF THEY NO LIKE.
3. While writing this I ran across a site called changingminds. It's not overtly creepy when you scan through it, but somehow, I am creeped out.
4. The warm fuzzy myth deconstruction and other offshoots from this (which took me three painful days to write) might happen in subsequent posts. I reserve the right to drill deeper and steal your attention further. ;)
5. Obviously it's a matter of degrees. Not absolutes.
There is one absolute, though. You've got some other absolutely great Hump Day Hmm posts to go read.
Sephyroth wrote Issues of Value
Snoskread wrote Values and Strange Laws
LawyerMama wrote My Family, My Values
Emily wrote Family Values
Painted Maypole wrote Family Values
Shavings Off My Mind wrote Values vs. Ethics
Feel free to join in! I'll add links through the week.
Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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