Words that think for us

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Words that think for us


On values and virtues

Values are everywhere. Eastern and western, relative and absolute, Christian and corporate, they blare at us from all sides like cockney street vendors. They are the debased coin of the modern moral economy.

The story of values begins, like many such stories, in an obscure corner of the German academic world circa 1860. Originally an everyday word referring to the price or worth of something, “value” was taken up by philosophers as a technical term for any object of moral, aesthetic or practical evaluation. The new usage was popularised by Nietzsche and sanctified for sociology by Max Weber. From Germany it spread to America, where it trickled into the vernacular. By the 1950s, it was on the lips of politicians and commentators on both sides of the Atlantic.

Why make such a fuss over a mere change in vocabulary? Does it matter if we talk of values or of something else? Well yes, it does. Contrast “value” with the older and now largely obsolete “virtue.” If virtues are inherent in their object, values are rooted in the act of valuing. Anything can become a value simply by being valued; the noun is parasitic upon the verb. Moreover, since the valuing in question might be someone else’s, we can describe a value system without adopting it. We can speak of Nazi values without ourselves being taken for Nazis—something we cannot do if we speak of Nazi virtues. Wherever values make their appearance, “value-neutrality” and “value-relativism” are not far behind.

Strange, then, to see conservative ideologues declare their devotion to western or Judeo-Christian “values.” Little do they know it, but they are speaking the language of their relativist enemy, betraying in their choice of words the very subjectivism they abhor. Perhaps this accounts for their shrill, dogmatic tone: they know, deep down, that their own values are as groundless as everyone else’s. But there is nothing to surprise us here. If you cannot believe anything rationally, you might as well believe something irrationally. Relativism is the seedbed of fanaticism.

  1. December 22, 2009

    Andrei Timoshenko

    The final line of reasoning is incorrect. A lack of certitude in the absolute superiority of one’s position does not preclude arriving at (and provisionally adopting) a rational conclusion. This conclusion is adopted, of course, on the provision that no new contradictory information emerges – in other words, the present conclusion is dependent on and relative to one’s present body of knowledge.

    The other option, then, is for one to be unwilling to modify one’s conclusions, regardless of what evidence may come, because one is convinced of one’s conclusions with absolute certainty. This also is the very definition of fanaticism.

  2. December 23, 2009

    Jon Norton

    Yes, I’ve thought this for years. The vital step to accepting subjectivism in ethics is the simple one of agreeing that moral judgements are “value judgements”. The same goes for theistic writers like C.S.Lewis, whose idea that morals “come from” God requires the presumption that someone *chooses* them to be so. Lewis was in the end just as subjectivist as A.J.Ayer, except he had a sillier version.

    Your closing idea, that conservative ideologues are aware they stand on nothing, is openly admitted by Maurice Cowling in the introduction to “Mill And Liberalism”. He seemed to consider it his great insight.

  3. December 24, 2009

    Ted Ditchburn

    I’m not entirely sure I understand the arcticle—values are always relative and obviously so– the value of shares in Northern Rock being an example.

    Virtues aren’t because they’re ‘agreed’ by a majority of society at any given time/

    It doesn’t make them immutably the ‘right’ values for all time—but it makes them different from ‘Values’—unless, as in many tyhings these days the meaning of the words has been fudged.

    The key texts are Humpty Dumpty’s monologue in ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass’..and of course George Orwell, most pertinently in ’1984′

  4. December 24, 2009

    Ted Ditchburn

    I meant to say ‘right’ virtues for all time….. in that bit above—- never mind I suppose in our relativist age it all comes to the same thing in the end….

  5. January 4, 2010

    Bruce Littleboy

    I suspect that today we may even speak of “Nazi virtues”. The adjective is understood to alter the noun. Nowadays it is widely regarded as scientific to refuse to judge (value!) the values of others. To a Nazi, an extermination may therefore be a virtue. So even “virtue” may have lost its anchored meaning.

    And absolutism is also a seedbed of fanaticism. Fanaticism is a psychological disposition rather than a philosophical position, I suggest. Extremists are perhaps attracted to extreme philosophical stances.

  6. January 6, 2010

    Aldo Matteucci

    Values are incommensurable. Conflicts between values cannot be resolved and become the sutff of tragedy. Values need to be applied in a material context. The latter imposes its own laws (of scarcity). Discussion about values is pointless, what counts are compromises (Margalit). At best we can determine (imperfectly) the local consequences of our actions (Berlin). That should be enough, even though it is little.

    The final comment is based on the implicit (and unsupported) premise that scepticism and consequentialism is not a tenable philosophic position – this view too is seedbed of fanaticism.

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Edward Skidelsky

Edward Skidelsky
Edward Skidelsky is a lecturer in philosophy at Exeter University. His book "Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture" is published by Princeton University Press 

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