Please, stop talking about ‘values’

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 07, 2019

This week I have received a political flyer aimed at “values voters,” heard a fundraising pitch from an organization that upholds family “values,” and sat through a sermon about maintaining Christian “values” in a secular world. The constant references to “values” are tiresome, they’re ineffective, and they’re fundamentally misguided.

I’m ready and willing to fight for faith, for truth, and for moral principles. But I won’t fight for “values.” I wish they’d go away.

To speak of “values” is to introduce a term that is loaded with subjective connotations. “Values” are by nature relative. “What are your values?” the preacher asks, and the implicit message is that everyone has different values. But if everyone’s values are different, then it means nothing to speak of “values voters” or “defending family values.”

The very term “values,” as it is used today, was popularized by Nietzsche, on his way to promoting the “transvaluation of values”—the rejection of Christianity and traditional morality, the triumph of the ubermensch and his will to power. When conservative Christians use the term, they unwittingly subvert their own cause.

My desktop dictionary—published in 1974, before the word became ubiquitous in discussions of morality—gives the primary meaning of “value” as “a fair return or equivalent in goods, services, or money for something exchanged.” (There is no listing for “values” in the plural. That’s one of many reasons why I like this old dictionary.) In this context “value” is a perfectly good word, which has little or nothing to do with morality.

Yesterday I bought a nice piece of furniture, and paid well below the ordinary market price. For me the cabinet represents a real value. But the fellow who sold it did not want the cabinet. He wanted to clear off his shelves, and he wanted cash. So the sale was a value to him as well. I assigned a higher value to the cabinet; he assigned a higher value to the green dollar bills.

The economic marketplace works because buyers and sellers assign different values to their products and their money. Value is always a question of perspective. The value of food increases if you are hungry. The value of your clothing drops if it goes out of style. Every rational person’s perception of value changes under different circumstances. Shrewd investors reach different conclusions about the valuation of corporate shares.

So if you claim to be promoting “values” by, say, opposing euthanasia, you give your political adversaries a rhetorical advantage. You speak about the value of defending the innate dignity of human life, and they counter with the value of avoiding pain and suffering. You speak about the value of traditional marriage, and they counter with the value of supporting same-sex couples in loving relationships. If we really are talking about values—about subjective appraisals—then how can we convincingly argue that one set of values is superior to another? Who am I to judge?

The point is that we are not basing our arguments on subjective judgments—on values—but on unchanging and unchangeable truths. Thus in Evangelium Vitae (57) Pope John Paul II writes that “the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral.” Always. No exceptions. No questions of perspective. No balancing of arguments for and against. He went on to explain that this absolute rule is grounded in “that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart, is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church, and taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium.”

The Declaration of Independence puts a similar absolute principle at the foundation of American constitutional law, proclaiming that man has “certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If the right to life is “unalienable,” than any contract in which an individual forfeits his own life is null and void. Isn’t that a compelling argument against the legalization of assisted suicide? The law cannot allow someone to alienate his own life; it is unalienable.

The term “values” has become thoroughly entrenched in public usage, and I admit that I sometime slip into using it myself. It is a convenient shorthand description of an approach to moral issues. (When I mention “values voters,” you know what I mean.) But something important is lost in the use of that shorthand; we are allowing our opponents to define the terms of the debate.

Personally, I don’t want to teach our children good values. Teach them essential truths, and the values will take care of themselves.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: FrHughM - Aug. 18, 2019 9:12 AM ET USA

    V rare for me to disagree with the insicive mr Lawler. But, as per the John Paul II article in the below comment, values bring in a much needed personalism. It is just crucial that we have 'absolute' values, gold standards, (quasi-deontological 'goods') such as God, the human person. Truth, etc

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Aug. 14, 2019 12:45 AM ET USA

    Wow! Great essay. Indeed our opposition has changed the wording on many major issues. Sex is now gender and defined by one's "values." Marriage has lost its truth to how we "feel". Abortion has lost its truth of killing an innocent human being to choice how it belongs to the mother and not God to make them feel better. Euthanasia as a truth of killing is changed to make one feel better or be out of pain. A true kindness! All these word changes are work of the devil. We need truth.

  • Posted by: Langton7139 - Aug. 11, 2019 7:22 PM ET USA

    Totally agree. So my question is: why does Gaudium et Spes use the term "values" so often? GS even speaks of "the values of intellect, will, conscience and fraternity" (#61). How can these things be "values"?

  • Posted by: feedback - Aug. 08, 2019 12:00 PM ET USA

    Brilliant observation on "Who am I to judge?" "Values" subverts the truth like a sneaky Trojan Horse.

  • Posted by: john.aerts6220 - Aug. 08, 2019 10:16 AM ET USA

    Wondering what this article and Saint John Paul's understanding of value could offer? “Only God is the ultimate basis of all values; only He gives the definitive meaning to our human existence.”...“in Him and Him alone all values have their first source and final completion... Without Him, "without the reference to God", the whole world of created values remains as it were suspended in an absolute vacuum.” https://www.firstthings.com/article/1997/04/002-values-virtues-and-john-paul-ii

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Aug. 08, 2019 10:03 AM ET USA

    I have been fighting newspeak (futilely) since the 1970's, starting with the substitution of "gender" for the previously dominant "sex." It was then that I learned the basis for the feminist push for this replacement, and I have been paying attention ever since. "Values" for "morals" is in my top ten, and the subtle machinations of such seemingly minor perversions has helped lead to the cultural abyss in which we now find ourselves.

  • Posted by: Cory - Aug. 08, 2019 7:09 AM ET USA

    Well, that is exactly the essay that I have been wanting to write for the longest time. I insist that we avoid using the words constructed by those who would like to relativize truth.