Our Values Do Not Separate Us

by Philosophy

“Family Values,” “Good Christian Values,” “He doesn’t hold our values,” “Core Values.” The list could go on and on, with each phrase immediately bringing to mind experiential examples, emotional responses and some form of positive or negative judgment. As a species, our social identification seems indelibly connected to whether or not we hold to a particular set of values. Step outside of that proscribed set and you’re immediately cast out or required to engage in some form of atonement. In itself, this makes sense, our tribal-making mentality needs a means of delineating in-group and out-group participation. To achieve a goal, groups need directional focus and those who are operating at cross-purposes make the meeting of that goal more difficult.  Our values do not separate us, our narratives do.

What makes this everyday-living into the truly troubling is how values are rarely ever considered in an ideological context.

“Reason is a faculty which must be practiced, in order to develop, and it is indivisible. By this I mean that the faculty for objectivity refers to the knowledge of nature as well as to the knowledge of man, of society and of oneself. If one lives in illusions about one sector of life, one’s capacity for reason is restricted or damaged, and thus the use of reason is inhibited with regard to all other sectors.” – Erich Fromm, The Sane Society, p. 65

The illusion here concerning values is that of the conflation occurring with particular behavior. Values are not then frames of reference, they are demands for behavioral conformity. To see the absurdity of this, we can look at a couple examples:

1) Person A, otherwise demonstrating a history of honesty and integrity, is caught knowingly telling a lie.

Now, regardless of the extent to which that lie may effect the person or others, would it be accurate to say the person has completely removed the values of honesty or truth from their lives? If the answer is yes, the judgment is not merely about the present situation but all currently present interactions the person is involved with. Clearly we don’t make such a judgment, else anytime we note a deception, however small, in one of our friends or family or co-workers, we’d no longer trust them with anything. Rather, in our everyday lives, we tacitly accept a compartmentalization for the actions of ourselves and others. In other words, what one does in one social context does not necessitate the same in another.

2) Person B, known for the value they hold for family, engages in business practices which harm family engagement.

In our personal lives we often concern ourselves first with whoever we identify as family, forgiving behavior that otherwise we’d never allow from those outside of that circle. In our work lives, if a family member is dealt with differently or above those of others, we immediately call out a judgment of nepotism and consider such behavior wrong. Does that mean we no longer consider the value accorded to family? Consider a close confidant like a spouse or lover, where a healthy and open exchange of information exists. Yet, depending on the job, such information from there may not be shared. Does the person no longer care about the values of honesty and openness? Clearly in both situations, the social context does not remove the value, though what it does indicate is how values are actually lived.

Values are hierarchical

In any given moment of our lives we adhere to a number of values. These are not equal, however. When faced with a situation that puts disparate values at odds with one another, we often seamlessly act accordingly. When anxiety is faced, it is not from having to give up a cherished value, but of having to choose. We rarely question whether we still care about life, honesty, truth or community, etc., only whether in the given moment we are upholding the correct value over another.

Contextually-dependent situations

Here is where the conflation between particular behaviors and values flies in the face of real human experience. What a person says in one situation to uphold honesty may be different in another despite upholding the very same value. To declare the behavior in one situation cancels out the same value being held in the other is not only confusing, but inimical to what it means to be human.

From the debate on abortion, to acts considered terrorism, to tax legislation and so on, one side paints the other as not merely attempting to manifest a value differently but of completely denying that they even hold that value. This form of judgment has become the go-to place for dehumanizing people of different behavior. Rather than looking at the behavior to consider what exists in its promotion, the behavior is identified as being completely contrary to a particular cherished value. As a means of ending any form of generative dialogue before it starts, this tactic is brilliant. As a means of understanding our humanity better, it is a terrible affront.

“Values don’t occur in an existence void of relationship to anything else. We are not walking around plucking values out of the air like falling leaves. They are the mental constructs through which our worldview works to manifest behavior. This is why we can act in supposedly opposite ways and still think we’re being true to ourselves. Values do not demand particular action because there is no action that is equal in substitution to any value.” (“They Don’t Hate Our Values”)

Let’s be absolutely clear: there is no particular behavior that embodies a value so completely that any other behavior to support it becomes impossible. A person calling out judgment about the clothes someone wears is not against freedom of expression, only the particular form it is taking for the other. Someone attacking the embodiment of a social institution like journalism is not against freedom of speech, only against the particular form the other’s behavior is taking to support it.

Conflating a particular behavior with a value not only dismisses the person’s relevance to the human experience, it ignores the real difficulty at hand. Values are a shared aspect of human experience, but to manifest in contextually-dependent situations requires a worldview for them to work through. That a worldview is often not well considered by the adherent or is completely ignorant of by the person passing judgment, is undoubtedly why the easier tactic of dismissal is taken. Engaging with a worldview, the principles and schemas that provide the structure for living, is difficult, time-consuming and outside of the false security provided by dogmatism, fraught with insecurity.  To explore fully ours and others’s worldviews is to see just how many ideas, once considered impregnable to skeptical inquiry, have been changed and at times completely cast aside.

“Life, in its mental and spiritual aspects, is by necessity insecure and uncertain. There is certainty only about the fact that we are born and that we shall die; there is complete security only in an equally complete submission to powers which are supposed to be strong and enduring, and which relieve man from the necessity of making decisions, taking risks, and having responsibilities. Free man is by necessity insecure, thinking man is by necessity uncertain.” – Erich Fromm, The Sane Society, p. 174

The blindness afforded by abject devotion to the proscribed behaviors of a social group is one of submission for the purpose of no longer actively engaging with others. If a person’s behavior is no longer even tentatively connected to a value held by humanity, they are easily then cast aside as “other,” “alien,” and even “savage.” Disagreeing with a particular behavior is to first and foremost disagree with a person’s constructed worldview, regardless of how well such has been thought out. Indeed, the very fact that worldviews are so tentative and capable of change is precisely why they should be engaged with, rather than attempting to cordon off a particular value like an ideological gestapo.

If when confronted with a behavior we find an affront to a personal value, we first ask how that behavior is connected to a shared value, we will begin to better understand the inter-complexity of each seemingly separated world we walk in. We may find ourselves still parting in disagreement, but doing so with a deeper appreciation for why and, perhaps most importantly, some questions for ourselves.

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