How valuable are your values? And what the heck is a value anyhow? Is it just a means to an end? A way to get what we want? Or is it something more?
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.
“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.
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.