The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 26, 2023 - 5:53:41

The value of “values” language

Katie van Schaijik, Oct 05, 2012

Last February, Steven Hayward wrote a provocative post in the Corner warning conservatives against the "semantic infiltration of 'values'". To use the term, he argued, is to concede vital territory to our opponents. The point is, “values” is a term derived from philosophical subjectivism (specifically from Nietzschean nihilism), and as such makes a huge rhetorical concession to moral relativism. Conservatives shouldn’t use it. 

Needless to say (in this forum), I agree with Hayward's rejection of subjectivism and moral relativism. But, I think he's wrong to assume that the term itself involves us in any concessions to those evils. Further, I think conservatives make the mistake of self-defeating reactionaries when we shun the term because of its associations with the errors of the left—a mistake not unsimilar to the wholesale rejection of feminism or civil rights.

We can all see now (can't we?) what conservatives ought to have done in those cases--and what some, thankfully, did do: sift through the wheat and chaff, find the kernel of truth underneath the wild assertions and outrageous demands; affirm that truth, assimilate it, and then work to establish a right interpretation of the terms in the public square—an interpretation that shows their essential consonance with the the Tradition.

Instead, back in the early days of feminism, many conservatives rejected it out of hand as a pernicious assault on the civil society. They rejected it absolutely, and in so doing made themselves the de facto opponents not just of its errors and excesses, but of its legitimate claims too, which, predictably, drove countless sympathetic women into the welcoming arms of the left. How much better off would our cause have been--not to mention all those women!—had conservatives of that day been astute and thoughtful enough to recognize that feminism is a mixed bag. In so far as it is focussed on a due appreciation for the value and dignity of women and a protest of social injustices against them, it's a good and valid thing, while in so far as it entails an assertion that there are no consequential differences between the sexes, or that women are superior to men, it is false and inimical to the common good.

Likewise, the civil rights movement: in so far as it aimed at establishing in law and society the equal dignity of blacks and redressing historic wrongs against them, it was good and necessary, and completely in line with conservatism. It was only in so far as it fomented racial griveance-mongering and entitlement spending that it menaced the civil society.

So, we should have focussed our political and moral energies on opposing the destructive racialism, not civil rights. If we had, we can be sure there would be a lot more blacks voting Republican today.

Back to "values." I claim not only that there is a way of understanding and using the term that is completely free of any taint of subjectivism and relativism, but that we do much more to overcome those evils when, rather than shunning that term, we use it in its truest sense. That way, instead of ceding whole swathes of modernity to the enemy, we're conquering it for our own side.

Here is John F. Crosby, in the introduction to his translation of Dietrich von HIldebrand's, The Nature of Love.

It is often said that the term value expresses something entirely subjective, something relative to the person who places a value on a thing. While it is true that many do use value in this subjectivistic sense, the term (just like Wert in German) is capable of being used in a deeper and richer sense, as one can see from this occurrence of the term in Shakespeare:

But value dwells not in particular will; It holds his estimate and dignity As well where in 'tis precious of itself As in the prizer. (Troilus and Cressida, II,1)

Even in our time value can readily mean something like "precious of itself," as when Oscar Wilde defines the cynic as "the person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing," or as when C.S. Lewis writing in The Abolition of Man embraces what he calls "the doctrine of objective value." 

If we're serious about the conservative cause, we shouldn't abandon "values," but rather promote their essential objectivity and their ethically binding character.

*  This post is adapted from one I wrote a few months back on the member feed at Ricochet.