Wednesday, November 02, 2022

From values to virtues


At the start of the week, I heard a radio DJ enthuse about a couple of guests coming on his show as being people who ‘have values.’ I think he meant that they were people for whom certain things that were important to him were also important. But values are intensely personal, entirely subjective. Even when two or more people uphold ‘family values,’ for example, what each understands by that will differ.

Last night Jo and I went to see the British New Wave band Squeeze in concert. In my opinion, music doesn’t get any better than New Wave, combining the energy of punk with intelligence and musicality. That is a value statement, and it is subjective. Even if there were a thousand other people in the room who shared that value, to a greater or lesser degree, it is only the temporary gathering of a thousand individual values. We had no reciprocal obligation to one another. We had all paid good money to attend a seated venue, and though there came a point in the evening when we were all on our feet, our shared value did not prevent the inconsiderate actions of the few who stood early, blocking the view of the people behind them, nor the resentment towards them.

Values are important. They add colour to life (I value Impressionism over other styles of painting; I value blues and oranges over reds and greens). But they are morally neutral and lack the capacity to establish a common foundation on which we might agree on matters of judgement. So, we now observe the fabric of ‘liberal values’ or ‘British values’ being torn apart (democracy, the rule of law, individual freedom, and mutual respect and tolerance—the British values, though it is hard to see what is distinctively ‘British’ about any of these—are all being rejected by the Left and the Right).

While talk of values is ubiquitous, of late I have been thinking about virtues: stable character traits, that have an outcome (a generous person will be dependably generous in a wide range of circumstances and regardless of how they feel, that is, not dependant on an emotive response). Virtues are not subjective. They aren’t objective, or universal exactly, but they are reciprocal in a moral obligation to others. While there are many virtues, such as wisdom, or courage, I have been thinking most of all about the spiritual virtues of hope, faith, and charity or loving-kindness.

What does it look like to be a hopeful person, in a rising tide of fear and anxiety? What attributes can we recognise, whether we share them or not? What practices—such as long-term investment in others—might we note?

What does it look like to be a faithful friend? Or to be a congregation of people who are faithful to and within the wider community to which they belong? And to be faithful to a heritage, receiving something from those who came before us and handing it on to the next generation as a treasure? What does it look like to be faithful with the planet we share?

What does it look like to act, consistently, dependably, with loving-kindness, not only towards our closest family members, or driven by emotional attraction, or fluctuating according to mood, but in ways that reach out to embrace and bless the lives of strangers?

Are these things we can widely recognise, and that we have mistakenly labelled values? Or things that have been displaced by values?

Where values are overstated, and so lose their value, how might we reframe the conversation, pointing to an older tradition—virtue—that has waited, patiently, with self-control, for such a time as this to return?


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