Those Most Pivotal “Moral Values”

Posted by Melvin Bray on November 10th, 2004 filed in Home-Training

The term “moral values” strikes me as a strange yet deceptively accurate expression.

The word “moral” usually refers to humanity’s universal sense of imperative concerning what we ought and ought not do. In a phenomenally perceptive collection of radio addresses bound as the book Mere Christianity, atheist turned theologian C. S. Lewis (one of my favorite writers) describes morality as “the directions for running the human machine. Every moral rule,” he contends, “is there to prevent a breakdown, or a strain, or a friction, in the running of that machine.”

Morality is not solely the purview of religion. Our understanding of morality tends to be most informed by our religious beliefs, but is seldom completely defined by them. Thus, many persons who recognize the moral imperative have no specific religious affiliation nor ascribe to any one set of religious doctrines. Though people may have very different takes on all the specific rules that make up this code of conduct we call morality, I would suggest (and I’m in good company when I do so) that morality is a very definite thing.

This business of values, however, is quite a different thing. There is no accounting for what one may value. In fact, many value things that are not very good for them.

Take for example my father. In a conversation we had about two weeks ago, my father told me that his doctor would like to see him lose some weight. Dad went on to say that he has no problem with the idea of losing weight. His problem is, he confesses, that he likes his cake and ice cream just a little too much. My father values his sweets—I can’t blame him—but his experience does reveal something about the nature of values. Values have no intrinsic connection to that which is right in preference to wrong, nor to that which is healthy in place of unhealthy, nor to that which is noble rather than cowardly, nor that which is just as opposed to unjust. More often than not Values are quite amoral, sometimes even immoral.

The confusion over and blending of morality and values is, I believe, often perpetuated by well meaning religious leaders and public figures who command some measure of moral authority. Take for instance Dr. James Dobson, renowned for his work on behalf of families. Dr. Dobson, keenly aware of the corrosive impact that immorality has played in the breakdown of the family, has made it his business to combat that immorality, even in the political arena. Instead of continuing to define morality in legitimate familial terms, Dr. Dobson has also tried to define morality in terms of a narrow set of political outcomes he personally values. Can you begin to see where the confusion occurs? This moral authority using moral terminology tells the millions of families who have come to trust his moral judgment that the moral thing to do on behalf of their families’ moral health is to put people in public office who will legislate a selective set of family, cultural or religious values that he happens to approve of. By doing this he only undermines the relevance of a real morality in the political arena.

Values, everybody has them; we live by them, but no reasonably modest person would ever seek to equate his values with that which is ultimately the measure of all values—morality. That would be preposterous. Values are too susceptible to variables such as time and place, public opinion and IQ, what one may have had for lunch today and whether or not it agrees with him. Some parents may encourage their athlete sons or daughters to jump at the first opportunity to play professional sports. “You can always go back to college,” they may say. However, for my friend Tennessee who was scouted by the Major Leagues coming out of high school, it was the same as it was in my own home, “You’re going to college,” no questions asked. “Education first” may be a “family value,” but few would call it as a moral precept. There was a time in America when slavery and Jim Crow were the law and the religious custom of the land. That was definitely a “cultural value” at the time, but God forbid that it would be considered part of a morality. People value what they want to value, what they like, what serves them. Thus, to talk in terms of “moral values” at best merely denotes a few virtues one particularly appreciates. More dubiously, however, it often refers to the one or two ethical concerns that one wants to highlight or prioritize above all the rest—making so-called “moral values” little more than a selective morality.

According to exit polling, the 2004 election hinged on voters perceptions of the candidates “moral values”. Those who voted for the winner, President Bush, said they did so primarily because of his “moral values” as they relate to abortion, gay marriage, gun rights and the place of religion in politics. Consider each issue in terms of its moral content. Abortion is undoubtedly a moral issue, but not one that can be completely legislated against without violating at least three other moral principles. Homosexuality may be a moral issue as well, but discrimination, not validation, is the issue that homosexuals are asking their politicians to redress at present. Although I own one, I concede that there is absolutely no moral mandate for gun ownership. And religion and state have always made immoral bedfellows. Whereas anxiety over these four issues may in some cases be predicated upon moral concerns, these four issues don’t even begin to constitute a majority of the moral concerns for which there could be an effective political response. Nonetheless, because of the generous interpretation of this sly terminology, “moral values,” conservatives are currently seen as having a monopoly on morality in the political arena which I believe presents a lopsided view of reality.

C. S. Lewis suggests that we may be able to better understand the importance and workings of the whole of morality if we think of ourselves as a fleet of ships sailing in formation. “Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonising the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on.” Liberals seem particularly preoccupied with the first and at times concerned with the second, while only occasionally giving lip-service to the third. Conservatives—particularly those whose conservatism is inspired by religious conviction—seem primarily worried about the third, leading them to want to legislate the second, while giving little more than lip-service to the first. Both miss the necessity of the whole.

I do not believe conservatives and liberals are as far removed from each other as it sometimes appears. They’re just approaching the matter from opposite ends of a spectrum that has, if acknowledged, much common ground. Again Lewis is extremely insightful (and says it so much better than could I):

“You may have noticed that modern people [most likely the liberals of Lewis’ day] are nearly always thinking about the first thing and forgetting the other two. When people say in the newspapers that we are striving for Christian moral standards, they usually mean that we are striving for kindness and fair play between nations, and classes, and individuals; that is, they are thinking only of the first thing. When a man says about something he wants to do, “It can’t be wrong because it doesn’t do anyone else any harm,” he is thinking only of the first thing. He is thinking it does not matter what his ship is like inside provided that he does not run into the next ship. And it is quite natural, when we start thinking about morality, to begin with the first thing, with social relations. For one thing, the results of bad morality in that sphere are so obvious and press on us every day: war and poverty and graft and lies and shoddy work. And also, as long as you stick with the first thing, there is very little disagreement about morality. Almost all people at all times have agreed (in theory) that human beings ought to be honest and kind and helpful to one another. But though it is natural to begin with all that, if our thinking about morality stops there, we might just as well not have thought at all. Unless we go on to the second thing—the tidying up inside each human being—we are only deceiving ourselves.

What is the good of telling the ships how to steer so as to avoid collisions if, in fact, they are such crazy old tubs that they cannot be steered at all? What is the good of drawing up on paper rules for social behaviour, if we know that in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them? I do not mean for a moment that we ought not to think, and think hard, about improvements in our social and economic system. What I do mean is that all that thinking will be mere moonshine unless we realize that nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly. It is easy enough to remove the particular kinds of graft or bullying that go on under the present system: but as long as men are twisters or bullies they will find some new way of carrying on the old game under the new system. You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society. That is why we must go on to think of the second thing: of morality inside the individual.

But I do not think we can stop there either. We are now getting to the point at which different beliefs about the universe lead to different behaviour. And it would seem, at first sight, very sensible to stop before we got there, and just carry on with those parts of morality that all sensible people agree about. But can we? Remember that religion involves a series of statements about facts, which must be either true or false. If they are true, one set of conclusions will follow about the right sailing of the human fleet: if they are false, quite a different set. For example, let us go back to the man who says that a thing cannot be wrong unless it hurts some other human being. He quite understands that he must not damage the other ships in the convoy, but he honestly thinks that what he does to his own ship is simply his own business. But does it not make a great difference whether his ship is his own property or not? Does it not make a great difference whether I am, so to speak, the landlord of my own mind and body, or only a tenant, responsible to the real landlord? If somebody else made me, for his own purposes, then I shall have a lot of duties which I should not have if I simply belonged to myself.”

How can one help but see why liberals and conservatives continue to annoy and collide with one another. To use Lewis’ metaphor, Republicans seem clear on where their going and the importance of tidying up their own ships—both admirable qualities. In fact Republicans are so concerned with tidying up that they’re willing to legislate it for others. (Sailors have a name for seamen who seek to dictate the terms by which other men’s ships should run. I believe they call them “pirates”. I don’t believe piracy is such a good thing.) Democrats, on the other hand, seem almost exclusively concerned about us all getting to our destination together and treating each other well along the way.

Despite the disconnect, I see some real potential for synergy here. We just need to determine which moral imperatives are best served in a political context. Whereas, like it or not, making abortion the least attractive choice for dealing with an unwanted pregnancy is most effectively handled in the religious and social arenas, we should recognize that poverty in a society as rich as ours is indeed a moral concern that can be mitigated politically. The first step then is to assess where we are. Next we must describe how we believe things should be. Then—and this is the crucial step—all parties have to voice the values that they would like to see upheld in creating the desired outcome. From that point it’s just a matter of setting public policy that gets us from where we are to where we want to be. The synergy occurs when the laws are written so that they don’t violate the deeply held convictions of either group. This kind of cooperation is itself an act of morality.

It is my Uncle Ralph who I have to thank for the specific piece of home-training that comes to mind as I write on this topic. My uncle taught me, “Don’t miss the forest for the trees.” I’m not sure those are words he ever used, but the sentiment was definitely conveyed. The idea as it applies to this topic is simply that morality must be honored as a whole. Unless we are willing to deal with morality as a whole—honoring all three aspects as best we can in any and all situations—then we haven’t really demonstrated the respect we claim for select pieces and parts. I believe our individual understandings of morality, however flawed or incomplete, must continue to play a substantive role in our public policy decision-making. At the same time we must recognize that selective morals used as political footballs are not really morality at all. They are quite the opposite.

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