On values and virtuesby Edward Skidelsky / December 16, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.