In order to rationally address the subject of values, I need to first examine the notion of absolute values. When I was a boy, I believed in certain absolute values; but as a young man, I began to question the concept of moral absolutes. Raised a Christian, I’d been told that the truth is always simple and, early-on, I liked that idea. But moral absolutes reduce the range of human choices to black or white, eliminating any shades of gray. That’s not the world I live in. Moral choices are more complicated than some people would have you believe.
The Ten Commandments are a classic example of moral absolutes. “Thou shalt not kill” is a moral absolute, and yet many people who profess the Ten Commandments as the basis of their moral code think that killing by soldiers in wartime is acceptable. Some “pro-life” people who believe that abortion is murder believe in capital punishment.
As an idealistic teenager, I got involved in the Sing Out America/Up With People organization, organizing local Sing Out casts in Georgia and South Carolina. Sing Out America was a promotional effort for the Moral Re-Armament (MRA) movement. MRA claimed to have a Western ideology to counter Communism, and promoted the idea of “absolute” honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. While this appealed to me at the time, I gradually became disillusioned with the MRA philosophy and the whole concept of absolute values. I got comfortable with relativity and ambiguity in the determination of moral values.
I believe that values are bound to culture and circumstance. In primitive “subsistence economies,” where everyone has to carry their own weight in order for the tribe to survive, it’s understandable why an elderly or disabled person might be expected to leave the tribe and die of exposure in the wilderness. In an economy of wealth, where more is produced than is needed for tribal survival, this practice is unnecessary, and would understandably be seen as cruel or inhuman.
So, I’m a believer in moral relativity. I believe that circumstances often determine what is “right” and what is “wrong.” This moral philosophy has been called situation ethics – a concept attacked by religious zealots as a Satanic war on morality. The Republican Party has presented itself as the “party of values,” as if its values were absolute. In fact, everybody has values, from the Pope to gangsters like Tony Soprano. They just value different things.
Values clarification rises above the notion of absolute values and simplifies the moral equation with its specificity. Every moral stand involves a choice – it involves this over that. You either value your vow of fidelity to your spouse, or you value having sex with somebody else. You either treat people the way you want to be treated, or you sometimes steal from other people. You either value staying high on your favorite drug all the time, or you value a life of moderation and responsibility to the people who depend on you.
There are professed values and lived values, and we’ve all known hypocrites who don’t live by the rules they say they believe in. The Bible says pretty clearly that rich people don’t go to Heaven, and yet there are many rich Christian fundamentalists who apparently believe that a camel can go through the eye of a needle. Jesus didn’t say it would be easy to love your enemy, and your neighbor as yourself; but I’ve known a lot of Christians who don’t even try, although they give lip service to Jesus’ prescriptions. Organized religion is a breeding ground for hypocrisy, and I feel sure that there are plenty of Muslim, Jewish and Hindu (etc.) hypocrites.
Religious or not, many people lay claim to have the “right” values; but only moral absolutists can do this. Some of them just don’t think or care about the gap between their professed and lived values; others rationalize and equivocate, as with the Christian belief that we’re all Sinners, but that our belief in and love of God will save us from paying for our sins.
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Voltaire said that doubt is a disagreeable state, but that certainty is a ridiculous one. Since I can’t make myself believe in the tenets of any particular religion – although most of my lived values are Judeo-Christian in origin – I remain a moral relativist. An existentialist at heart, I can live with ambiguity, uncertainty, shades of gray. Values clarification is a tool I can use to examine moral choices. My first marriage was polyamorous; but although I’ve been happily and monogamously married for thirty years to my wife Maria, I don’t necessarily view monogamy as morally superior to polyamory. The choice between the two is a matter of situational, lived values.