So, What are Values Anyway?
It isn’t hard to hear about “values”. Politicians and the media often mention “high moral values” and “core values” and “family values”. What is harder, and what the politicians and media typically don’t help much with, is getting a clear understanding of exactly what “values” are. The word is thrown around loosely, often being used to mean things it doesn’t like, such as beliefs or morals. Though related to them, these are not really values.
This is a huge problem because a correct understanding of values is essential for understanding and fighting for individual rights, political freedom and limited government. Values, properly defined, are the things, both concrete and abstract, that are valuable to living creatures of all kinds including humans for a purpose, with that purpose ultimately being to further their survival. Values for plants, for example, include water, sunlight, and minerals in the soil. For animals, consider the following scene in Alaska; A group of tourists are standing on the edge of a scenic rushing stream with a forest on the other side. Suddenly a large black or grizzly bear charges out of the forest towards the crowd. In the middle of the stream it turns, catching fish in its mouth. The bear is pursuing and achieving its values, in this case, food.
Only living things can have values. Only living things can have a purpose – their continued survival as living things – for which things can be of value. Inanimate objects such as rocks, automobiles, computers, oceans, buildings, planets and the like do not have a purpose for which they need to gain or seek anything, so nothing can be of value to them.
For humans, values include both necessities for living as well as things that may not be necessary but make life more enjoyable. Food, clothing, housing, employment, education, comaraderie, appreciation from others for the good one does, good health, financial security, leisure, romance, children, consumer goods, a good credit rating and lots of other things are all human values.
For living things other than humans, achieving values leads to satisfaction. When a bear catches a fish in an Alaskan stream, it is satisfied. But for something to be a value for humans its’ achievement must not lead merely to satisfaction, but additionally to happiness. Happiness is an enduring satisfaction, with “no bitter aftertaste”. Happiness results from something that is objectively beneficial to a person’s life, rather than just something someone wants but either knows or should know would be harmful to it. For example, a man meets a woman whom he gets to know, trust, and enjoys being with. He has similar interests and enjoys her company. After knowing each other a few years he asks her to marry him, she says yes, and he is happy. In contrast, a dictator or mafia hit man murders an innocent man, steals his property, or blackmails him. He may be satisfied because he accomplished his mission but certainly isn’t happy.
For something to be a value, it must be real. For example, to get nutrition necessary to avoid starving, living things must consume real food, not imaginary food or poison. To get energy and heat, you can’t burn ersatz coal; you have to burn genuine coal. Real can also mean abstract, as long as there is ultimately a real world benefit; For example, rights under a contract to receive a benefit can be a value. On the other hand, scams, snake oil, and 72 virgins in heaven are of no help to living things for achieving anything and therefore are not legitimate values regardless of whether anyone subjectively considers them to be or not.
Values are contextual. In one context something may be a perfectly fine value because it objectively benefits someone’s life while in another it could be extremely harmful. Cigarettes are a good illustration. Smoke a few of them and you’ll feel great, without getting high or hallucinating (which is objectively harmful because it cuts you off from reality). Smoke too many of them for too long, however, and they could kill you. They are still the same cigarettes, but their status as a value can change based on the circumstances.
One context where something is never a value for humans is when it is gotten by initiating, or starting, force against other people. Force not only includes physical means like beating or shooting someone, defaming him, wrongfully prosecuting or incarcerating him, or stealing his property (or credible threats to do any of these), but also swindling him through fraud. For someone to get something belonging to someone else and have it remain a value, it must be earned or otherwise given by voluntary, uncoerced consent. Or: you can be a banker, but not a bank robber.
When someone tries to obtain something by force, it ceases to be a value for his life and instead becomes detrimental to it. It becomes detrimental because it entitles the victim to retaliate against the perpetrator, which can result in legal penalties including loss of liberty through incarceration, loss of property through damages and fines and, in capital cases, even loss of life itself. Further, if a particular country’s government allows anyone to start the use of force against others as an official policy, a universal precedent is set for anyone to use it. This leads to anarchy where survival becomes difficult if not impossible, where happiness is unattainable and, as Thomas Hobbes once stated, “life is brutish and short”. For example, if a dictator initiates force against his subjects, he essentially opens the door for them to rise up and turn the tables on him when the conditions are right. Bastille Day in France, the fall of Shanghai to Mao in China, and Castro’s march on Havana are all examples. In other words, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
“For human beings, the two most important values are purpose and thinking.”
A purpose is a reason for choosing almost all of your other values. It’s a value because it helps determine and organize your other values. For most people their purpose is their career, as opposed to hobbies. Choosing a particular career will determine a whole bunch of other values, i.e., which skills one will need to develop, what kind of education he’ll need to get, which people he will have to meet and socialize with to assist him, and maybe even where he’ll have to live.
People need a purpose in life because without one we would have no idea from the vast number of possibilities which values to choose. As humans our values are never chosen for us automatically at any point during our lives; we have to consciously select them. This is different from other living things like the bear in the previous example. When the bear catches the fish in the stream, it doesn’t have to figure out how or choose to do it; it just does it automatically, as it does with all of its values. (For more information, watch for an upcoming blog post on purpose.)
The other value, thinking (also called reason), is important because it enables you to get all of your other values. Thinking is the process of taking in information about reality and turning it into knowledge useful for achieving values. Because values must be real, getting accurate information about reality is essential to live. This information must then be integrated with the requirements of our survival so that we can figure out whether something is a value for it or not.
Developing thinking skills is essential for people because, as said previously, we do not act automatically to survive; unlike lower animals we have to figure out how. We have no automatic knowledge in this regard. We have to consciously examine what’s out there and determine if it is helpful or harmful. For example, a primitive tribesman is hungry and sees an animal. Is it good to eat, like a tuna or salmon? Or is it deadly poisonous, like a pufferfish? If he wants to tempt eating it, what does he have to do to capture it? If he tried using his hands, would it get away? Or slash him to ribbons with sharp teeth and claws? Or poison him with venom? And if he did manage to capture it, how would he make it safe to eat? Eat it raw? Or cook it first? And if he does cook it, does he kill it first (as with most animals) or cook it while it’s still alive (i.e., lobster)? For other living things like the bear, there is no concern with such issues. But for us there is. (Watch for an upcoming blog on the thinking process.)
Much of the confusion surrounding the concept of values comes from the fact that it is easily misused, usually to mean virtues. The difference between values and virtues is that values are the things that living things want to get and use to survive, while virtues are character traits people have that help us get our values. As stated previously, values include having a purpose and thinking skills sufficient to get other values. Virtues, in contrast, include: rationality (which means living by thinking, as opposed to living mindlessly by emotional whim), independence of judgment (meaning thinking for oneself about what he observes or is told about an issue, rather than mindlessly accepting someone else’s conclusion about it), justice (treating other people well if they think, and poorly if they do not), pride (as opposed to arrogance or excessive humility, meaning being committed to living by thinking), integrity (being consistent in living by thinking, rather than lapsing into mindlessness periodically), productiveness (being in favor of achieving values), and honesty (being committed to not faking reality). In summary, virtuous behavior is mindful, thinking behavior.
Being clear about the meaning of values is essential for achieving the values of the Tea Party: individual rights, limited government, and fiscal responsibility. For example, the most fundamental of all rights, the right to the pursuit of happiness, means the ability without permission to choose the values one wants and pursue them. Without understanding values, understanding the right to the pursuit of happiness becomes impossible, which in turn makes incomprehensible the rights to life, liberty and property, which are derived from it. And without an understanding of individual rights, it becomes extremely difficult to fight for political freedom and limited government. (Watch for an upcoming post on individual rights.) To succeed in our fight, we must first understand the meaning of values.