Wednesday, November 14, 2007

What are values?

I hear a lot about values in the news and from political and religious leaders, so I looked up the definition on and it reads, “any object or quality desirable as a means or as an end in itself”. After more thought I came up with my own definition, “a quality which one holds dear and helps define the character of an individual”.

Let me explain... Based on my definition, a person can value honesty but not always act honestly. However, one does not ‘value’ that trait conditionally by only exhibting that 'value' when it is convenient. I believe that is an important distinction. I don't think one would 'value' honesty if it was contextual. An individual might think honesty is a noble trait, but if a person is only honest when it suits them then maybe it is not "a quality they hold dear and which defines their character" to paraphrase my definition. The idea that one's values change based on context I find frightening. I recognize that I am an audience of one reading my blog, but I can not help but ask back, “Do you agree?” Am I the only one to find this troubling?

The reason I have been thinking about this is because I am bothered by what I’ll refer to as “shifting values”. An example of this is the current issue of waterboarding by our military to extract information from terrorists. I understand that for many Americans they no longer are bothered by the idea of torturing terrorists – esp. if it might yield life-saving information. It is true that I find this change in attitude troubling – but I get it. The problem I have is when people start changing the definition of what constitutes torture because they are uncomfortable saying “I support torture” or to be more offensive "I have no problem torturing people". This is what I mean by "shifting values". Most people (including many who would support waterboarding in certain situations) are uncomfortable verbalizing their support for torture so they place caveats on the practice to intellectualize or justify their position. I don't buy that argument anymore than I agree with a person who says they value honesty but justify situations where it is palatable to lie.

Something I find interesting about values is that we sometimes delude ourselves into thinking we value honesty, integrity, human rights, (insert whatever value-language you like), but until those values are challenged it is hard to say with certainty if we really live them. Anyone can be a pillar of integrity when posed with an hypothetical - when we are forced to live those values is when I think you truly understand the character of an individual. When tested - do you live your values or do you momentarily forget about them or make exceptions because you find them inconvenient?

I’ll get off my soap box as I continue to work through this and maybe in time I’ll be able to more eloquently explain my concerns – I feel I’ve done a poor job, but it has been a bit cathartic to get it out on paper (well its not exactly on paper…)

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