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Values

As I think I mentioned not too long ago, I've been going through old notebooks containing odds and ends of writing, with the aim of getting rid of the notebooks, as part of a bigger de-cluttering process. Some of the material is drafts of blog posts or essays which were eventually published. Much is only fragments, briefly noted ideas, not worth preserving. A few are more substantial. This is one. I have no very definite idea of when I wrote it, but I think it was at least fifteen  years ago. 

I seem to develop allergies to certain words or phrases from time to time. I'll notice myself having an irritable reaction to a word such as, for instance, "empowerment." Once I realize that this is happening I begin to analyze the term and usually find that it is being used in some way that strikes me as dishonest, evasive, or simply wrong.

The first instance of this which I can recall at the moment occurred in the late '60s or early '70s, and the word was "lifestyle." It seemed a harmless, perhaps even useful, term, but it always rubbed me wrong. Eventually I figured out that it was the savor of self-indulgence about it that put me off, and soon enough it became clear that it had two meanings: one, a way of living which ran defiantly counter to traditional morality, as in "alternative lifestyle," and, two, money, as in "we'd like to maintain our lifestyle." (Test-drive it and see: try talking about "the Trappist lifestyle"; it should make you feel uneasy.)

"Values" is another such irritating word. What's wrong with it? Isn't the lack of "values" one of our serious problems? Don't we need values? If so, why do I feel gloom descending upon me when I read in the bulletin of a Catholic college that it is "committed to Catholic values"?

The problem is that values alone are not worth much. The term has come to mean a mere preference.

That was all I wrote at the time. But I know that what I meant to go on and say was that "values" are not principles. "Values" are soft, malleable, somewhat subjective, possibly even a matter of personal inclination. Principles are hard and fixed. You can stand on them.

Catholic values are fine; they ought to include many qualities which almost everyone would applaud--in a Catholic college, they ought to include, for instance, academic excellence. Concern for justice and peace, if taken in a non-ideological sense, is a worthy value. But notice that those are abstract and a little vague. Why are these things valued? What are the principles which justify their being valued? If they aren't founded on Catholic principles--by which I mean the faith itself, starting with the creeds--then what? And with what justification? 

The gloom I described arises from a suspicion that use of the word "values" is often an attempt, possibly unconscious, to avoid or minimize that foundation, in the interest of appearing more accommodating to the secular modern suspicion of religion as such.

*

One casualty of the winnowing and discarding process I mentioned was some dozens of pages of a novel for which I once had great hopes. I could still see glimpses of promise in it, but not many. It was a little painful to discard those scribbled pages and close the door on that project forever.

I'm always a little annoyed by the cheerful counsel that "it's never too late!" to do this or that thing that you always wanted to do. Sometimes it really is. Sure, I could start working on that novel again, but it would be at the expense of spending time on other things I want to do or should do. At my age I can be pretty certain that I won't have time and/or good health for them all. 

Comments

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I read an essay somewhere a long time ago that said that we invoke values over virtues nowadays because values are ascribed by us, while virtues are rooted outside of us (understood as individuals). This prompts what you describe as a reduction of values to mere preferences, because we're the ones who ultimately make the decisions as to what is "valuable."

Exactly. Good to know that I’m not the only one to notice this.

I'm pretty sure the essay was in Touchstone, but when and by whom I have no idea.

Just came across this idea of values vs. true "goods" again, this time in a book by the Canadian philosopher George Grant. He criticizes the use of the word "values" as a shorthand way of denying that things have inherent goods or purpose, and attributes it to the filtering of Nietzschean thought into common parlance via existentialism.

This is in a book of interviews with Grant called George Grant in Conversation, but apparently he has a whole book which is a series of lectures on Nietzsche, Time and History. Going to try and track down a copy.

Correction: the Grant book is called Time As History.

"...shorthand way of denying that things have inherent goods or purpose..."

Yes, that's a more general articulation of what I was trying to say.

I've seen good things attributed to Grant before but don't really know anything about him.

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