Values clarification

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.

Tools for philosophy

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “Philosophy is not a theory, but an activity.” There are five essential branches of philosophical inquiry: Metaphysics  is the study of existence; Epistemology is the study of knowledge; Ethics is the study of proper action; Politics is the study of force in human affairs; and Esthetics is the study of art/beauty. You don’t need a college degree, or formal training, to engage in serious philosophical dialogue. Anyone who speculates about why innocents suffer while the greedy thrive is a philosopher. Anyone who questions dogma is a philosopher. Anyone who thinks for herself and explores alternatives to the conventional wisdom is a philosopher.

Philosophizing can happen in living rooms and on the street. When people seriously debate about abortion or capital punishment or taxation, they’re engaging in the activity of philosophy. As a philosopher you’re not obligated to come up with final answers or solutions, only to ask pertinent questions and make reasonable assertions. Philosophy isn’t a contest. It’s been called an interesting extended conversation that’s been going on for a long time. You needn’t identify yourself with any established “school of thought” (stoicism, Platonism, existentialism, etc.), but can be eclectic in your reasoning. I think of myself as a guerrilla ontologist, which I wrote about in two prior posts on “Agnosticism and certainty.”

One way  you can recognize that you’re talking to a philosopher is when you hear him say, “Define your terms.” It’s a basic tool that philosophers use. When someone asks me if I believe in God, my likely response is, “Define God.” Then we can talk. Real dialogue requires that we understand one another’s definitions of words, because most words don’t have absolute meanings. Another basic tool that philosophers use is formal logic, but that’s too complex a subject to get into here. Yet another is the three-step syllogism, such as the classic example: 1. All men are mortal. 2. I am a man. 3. Therefore, I am mortal.

Another helpful philosophical tool is the thought experiment. It’s a tool for changing your perspective, examining your values, or thinking outside the box of your preconceptions about an issue. It usually takes the form of a “what if ______?” question, followed by a question about what you would or could or should do in that situation. A classic example of a thought experiment is, “If your mother and your wife were both drowning and you could only save one of them, which one would you save, and why?”

Another classic thought experiment is the runaway streetcar scenario. What if you saw that a runaway streetcar was about to mow down five people in its path, and you were standing by a rail switch that would re-route the streetcar to a track where only one person would be killed. Would you throw the switch? Would your decision be different if  the five were strangers to you, and you knew and cared about the one person who would die because of your decision to throw the switch?

Under what circumstances you might kill someone is also a values question posed by the thought experiment: if you could go back in time and had the opportunity to kill Hitler before he rose to power, would you? What if he was only a baby? Thought experiments like these help you to examine your values. Examination of ones values (sometimes called values clarification) is a specific process: what do you value over what? Do you believe in absolute values? Certain Republicans have cast themselves as “values voters,” as if they held a copyright on values. Everyone has values, from the Pope to a Mafia don like Tony Soprano. We all value this over that when it comes down to making practical or moral decisions. I don’t believe that any ultimate authority exists, when it comes to what we understand as being real, or just. That’s one reason I consider myself to be a guerrilla ontologist.

Another helpful philosophical tool for English speakers who want to better understand the role of language in our thinking is E-Prime. E-Prime (which I wrote about in my post, “It’s only Monday if you think it is”) is English that omits all forms of “is.” Nobody suggests that E-Prime should replace English, but it’s a tool for understanding what “is” is in our thinking. The Aristotelean “is-of-equivalency” posits subjective things as objective things, creating an either/or dichotomy that need not apply. If an apple “is” sweet, it cannot be tart or sour. If one person in a room says that it’s hot and another says it’s not, one of them has to be wrong. If “is” is omitted, and one person says “I feel hot” and another says “I don’t,” there’s no conflict. Wars are fought over where, precisely, the border “is.”

Formulating sentences in E-Prime is an exercise in the activity of philosophy. It helps to make you aware of how language affects your worldview and your judgment. Here are some examples of English sentences and their E-Prime translations:  “He is a liar” becomes “He lies a lot.” “She is very pretty” becomes either “I find her very pretty” or “I’m attracted to her.” (That she “is” very pretty can be disputed; the two E-Prime alternatives cannot.) “He is the smartest man in the room” becomes “His intellect impresses me.” “Look! There’s a UFO” becomes “I can’t identify that flying object.”

The use of E-Prime eliminates subjective bias, or what I call the objectification of subjective experience. Try writing, or copying someone else’s writing, in E-Prime and see what you learn. I think that your philosophy will benefit from the activity. I describe this blog as a psychology blog, “with a side of philosophy.” More about the traps of language in my next post.