Saturday, January 08, 2005

Does "Values" have a Secret Meaning?

Does "Values" have a Secret Meaning?

Dear Dan,

Thanks again for the email. I don’t think there is a secret meaning to the word values.

  • Professor Allan Bloom, translator and editor of Plato’s Republic and author of Shakespeare’s Politics said, “ The term “value, “ meaning the radical subjectivity of all belief about good and evil...was announced by Nietzsche just over a century ago when he said, “God is dead.” Good and evil now for the first time appeared as values, of which there have been a thousand and one, none rationally or objectively preferable to any other.”
  • Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb said,” It was not until the present century that morality became so thoroughly relativized and subjectified that virtues ceased to be virtues and became “values”...Values as we understand that word, do not have to be virtues; they can be beliefs, opinions, attitudes, feelings, habits, conventions, preferences, prejudices, even idiosyncrasies.”
  • Professor Cameron Lee at Fuller Seminary said, “ ‘family value’ itself seems infinitely plastic...the language of family values frequently betrays the very extent to which we are inextricably immersed in the thought-forms of our culture.”

That some people use words with meanings they don’t intend is common place. The question we must ask ourselves is to what extent are “we are inextricably immersed in the thought-forms of our culture” so that we feel compelled to use its language and words without studying the history of those words?

Dan, I would be interested to see if you can find any scholars who define values as “enduring non-subjective moral truth.” Thank you for some interesting insights.



I don't think the problem admits of so easy a solution.

Words are conventional signs. What happens if most of the people speaking the language adopt a new convention? Do we begin a heroic but doomed battle to reclaim such words as gay and nice, or do we do what thinking people have always had to do: distinguish, make clear in what sense a word is used?

I believe in advocating without stridency what can be defended as better usage, but what is achieved by attributing to people's statements secret meanings that they don't actually intend?

In fact, in the very example you give, all the rhetorical force of Burkes' choice of title comes from the fact that most people who speak of family values mean fidelity, hard work, sacrifice, monogamy, heterosexuality, etc. Burkes uses the title precisely because for her readers and the reading public this is what the term means. She means to be provocative by stealing the title. By your argument, we would have to abandon "virtue" if she decides to name her next book that. We will be busy digging up traditional terms which haven't been at one time or another co-opted by evil rhetoricians.

I don't think you can find any word for good that hasn't had paltry and subjective usage. As Josef Pieper points out in his book on love, there is a good reason for this. It is with the same will that we choose our highest and ultimate end and all the little and insignificant means to the end. That's why we love God and baseball.

The terminology of will and goodness has never been easy. Aristotle and Aquinas define the good as "what all seek." It seems replete with subjectivity unless we recognize that with respect to our final good, we don't have a choice. What traditional wisdom means by good or valuable is what is conducive to our final absolute God-determined good. That's where I would prefer to make the distinction: By good or valuable or virtuous or whatever word you choose, you either mean conducive to achieving the end for which you were created, or you mean what you want without reference to any end outside of your act of will.

Well, I hope you enjoy talking about such things as much as I do. Thanks for writing back.


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