Original artwork by Marisa Draeger
Irving Kristol, the “father” of neoconservatism, wrote something to the effect of what we once called “virtues” we now defensively call “values.” This idea haunts me. The exchange of “values” for “virtues” carries with it an implication. It implies we lost something in the exchange. Namely, the ability to believe some things are just inherently deserving, without having to title them in economic terms to get the point across. We might have just as well called them “essentials” or “necessaries” or “seriously-totally-not-kidding-these-are-highly-importants.”
Much like the person who texts in all caps and ends every sentence with a triple exclamation point—or a quadruple if they’re reeeeally emphatic—the need to “sneak” superfluous implications into a word to demonstrate what should already be apparent seems disingenuous and perhaps a little desperate. The very nature of a virtue/value is that it inherently merits our fidelity. I don’t mean to suggest that we should go back to using the term “virtues” but that we should be mindful of the fact the change points to a change in our thinking.
If the word “values” carries with it the implication it primarily has some utility or economic benefit, then it’s a sure sign we’re living in an era where our convictions are grounded on the basis of their usefulness. And, indeed, this is precisely what we are seeing in a society that places the “value” of even a person’s life on their relative usefulness to the society. When our language betrays the idea values this way, then it’s likely we’re struggling with believing they’re really all that valuable in the first place. Values hold less value in a society that’s in constant need of being reminded they’re important.
To be fair, all societies at all moments in times have been in constant need of such reminders. C. S. Lewis pointed out that “generally, great moral teachers never introduce complicated new ideas; only quacks do. The business of a moral teacher is to remind people of what they know, deep down, to be true.” So, in one sense, we’re in no different a predicament than those who’ve come before us. But there are moments for some societies when reminders are no longer enough. What’s needed (or lost) is the belief itself that values are valuable. It’s one thing to lose your memory; it’s quite another to lose your convictions.
The ancient Romans—those barbarous people who watched gladiators kill one another for their own entertainment—still understood the virtues of valor and honor. The legend of Marcus Atilius Regulus, a Roman general who fought the Carthaginians, illustrates the point: Regulus had been captured by the Carthaginians and sent back to Rome to negotiate a peace treaty, on the condition that he swear an oath to return to his captivity after the negotiations. Regulus told his fellow Romans that it was not in their best interest to accept Carthage’s terms. Despite the protests of his fellow citizens, he kept his word and returned to his captors who were understandably outraged he instructed his countrymen to reject their offer.
What did Carthage do to Regulus? I think Saint Augustine’s description in his book The City of God is one of the more vivid recounting: “The Carthaginians put him to death with refined, elaborate, and horrible tortures. They shut him up in a narrow box, in which he was compelled to stand, and in which finely sharpened nails were fixed all round about him, so that he could not lean upon any part of it without intense pain; and so they killed him by depriving him of sleep.” The legend of Regulus doesn’t depict him as an overly zealous fool, but as a hero whose virtuous actions should be emulated. But how did Regulus’ virtuous actions benefit him? They didn’t. They led to a cruel and excruciating death.
“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you,” C. S. Lewis said in evaluating his Christian faith after the tragic death of his wife, “Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief.” Once we recognize this we begin to put away such foolish talk as “speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have” or living “your best life now.” For once values are no longer something to be pursued because of what they can do for us a lot of surface-level religion and feel-good psychology looks rather silly.
Perhaps it would help to frame things as directly as possible: is the utility of a value the only measurement for the worth of a value? Certainly not. But why not? The utility of a dollar bill may be the only measurement for the worth of the dollar bill. If the dollar bill could no longer be used to buy things it would only be worth the cost of the raw materials that formed it. But the same is not true of a value. The worth of a value doesn’t cease to exist if we can demonstrate that the value is no longer useful.
Different societies, at in different times, have differed on the legality and acceptability of wife beating. Today we see this practice as barbaric. One might go so far as to call this a value of ours. Those husbands who abstain from wife beating enjoy numerous benefits, not the least of which are societal acceptability, healthier marriages, and no fear of criminal prosecution. But what if we could somehow divorce these benefits from the virtue? What if we could somehow find a way for wife beating to commence without all those harmful side effects? Would that make wife beating a perfectly acceptable practice for the husband? Does that value rest solely on its benefit to us?
This then is the essence of a value—that its worth is inherent beyond and even regardless of any benefits it may bring. If your values disappear the moment you perceive they no longer bring you value, they weren’t values to begin with. Therefore, if we want to be the kind of people who live as if values are important to us, we must be willing to pursue our values, even when doing so doesn’t benefit us.
Now, it should be stressed that while we must learn to pursue values for their sake alone, and not for whatever benefit they may bring, that does not mean we are ignorant to the fact that values very often do benefit us. And there is nothing wrong with such talk, so long as we keep in mind it is nothing more than an encouragement to do what is right; it is not the reason to do what is right.
Many of the benefits we desire—comfort, happiness, liberty—cannot be obtained by pursuing them directly. If you pursue truth you may find comfort along the way, but the pure pursuit of comfort is a sure recipe for misery. Do you want to be happy? You must begin by pursuing meaningful work and relationships, and sound spiritual practices. Do you want liberty? You must first gain courage, temperance, and virtue.
It may be that some possess liberty without courage, temperance, and virtue, but this is only because they inherited liberty from someone else. Somewhere down the line, some generation had to show enough courage to withstand the dictator, or enough temperance to slowly build a stable, civil society, or enough virtue to know how to pass down to the next generation a binding community. But when courage, temperance, and virtue go missing it won’t be long before even inherited liberty comes to an end.
In every case it is no sure bet that the pursuit of a value would lead to a benefit. You probably know people who have pursued truth and never found comfort, or meaningful things and never found happiness, or gave their very lives for a liberty they never enjoyed. Something beyond a blind faith in temporal blessings had to persuade them onward.
Perhaps you may be fretful that following your values for their sake alone isn’t going to result in you following your values. And for most of us—myself included—this is quite true. Quite frankly, I am not the sort of person who consistently pursues values in some kind of karma/gamble, hoping the benefits will ultimately outweigh the costs. Nor am I the kind of person who consistently pursues values for their own sake. Some days I do, but on others I’m far too lazy or selfish or apathetic to bother.
It’s here that we must face squarely the harsh reality that human nature is not bent towards values, and that we need something greater than self-reliance or encouragement or resolutions or threats to ultimately behave virtuously. Many have professed that something else to be found in religion. And I believe this to be true, though that is a topic for another day and outside of the focus of this series.
What I hope to have demonstrated so far in this series is 1) there is profound confusion in the difference between the values conservatives uphold and the current direction the Republican party is headed (Part 1), 2) part of the reason our institutions that have historically protected our values are faltering is because they have been deprived of their core function (Part 2), and 3) the very nature of a “value” is something you pursue for its own sake and not because of the benefits it may provide.
I began by talking about how the concern on the Right that our “values” have been preventing us from “winning” led to the Trump phenomenon. We’ve taken the long way round to lay the foundation for an understanding of values. In the fourth and final post we’ll return to how all of this can be applied to our situation today.