In a post a while back I wrote about the concept of “Big Picture” ethics, or meta-ethics, where making moral decisions determined by either by “the rules” or “the goals” become secondary behind a larger, generalized conception of principles or virtues that attempt to reconcile conflicting ideas and filter out the worst choices. One of the primary vectors of meta-ethics is the concept of values, and this term has received a lot of traction in the political debates in recent years.
Recognize though, that while one political side in the United States tends use the word “values” more than the other, the debate is more often over “personal values” like violations of sexual mores, as opposed to “societal values” like collective expressions of compassion. The first set of values largely has to do with individual self-control and displayed piety, while the second set measures our relationships with other people. The holders of the first set have been more successful in laying claim to the term “values” in public perception.
Both personal and societal values have strong foundations in most philosophical as well as theological traditions. We live as individuals, yet we live also in groups. However, individual ethical values without the context of the group are a bit like singing loudly in the empty woods. Impressive, but rather pointless, and not appreciated by the local flora and fauna.
One critical weakness shared by “value ethics” and Aristotle’s “virtue ethics” (discussed in this earlier post) is they can become uncomfortably close to ethical egoism, or natural self-interest, as articulated by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). Even if external sources like “God” or “patriotism” are invoked as the source of a person’s virtues, values or principles, it is not coincidental that “God’s values” and “my values” usually seem to mesh a bit too well. Tolerance for alternative views of “God’s values” is often in short supply.
“Values” or “ethical egoism”?
We have seen this especially lately in the twisting of traditional norms by fundamentalist Christian leaders like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., to justify their support of Donald Trump despite his flagrant disregard for “moral probity.” I wrote in depth about this conflict of “God language” in an earlier post. Political expediency appears to be a powerful force in bending long-held “values,” which is ethical egoism in practice.
Another example of this is found in how individual attitudes toward the broader acceptance of LGBTQ people change 180 degrees when close family circumstances change. Commonly, many religious conservatives are strongly in opposition to LGBTQ acceptance, but when a close friend or family member “comes out,” and there is a strong personal relationship with that person, attitudes in the family may well incrementally change. The “cognitive dissonance” between love for the person and long-held cultural attitudes forces the brain down new decision pathways.
Admirably, Ohio Republican senator Rob Portman came to publicly support same-sex marriage, contrary to his past condemnation, after learning that his own son was gay.  Sadly, he has compartmentalized that “compassion value” quite well to just this issue, which is not uncommon in the “evolution” of changing value positions. And also sadly, his still-anti-LGBTQ party colleagues have mostly “given Portman a pass” because his own son is gay. Again, I would suggest, this is ethical egoism at work more than a commitment to “values.”
“Folding like a cheap suit”
A second weakness of both “value ethics” and “virtue ethics” is that, under empirical testing conditions, humans tend to “fold” early and cheaply, throwing out their most-prized values and virtues when confronted with a difficult ethical dilemma. One lesson from the Enron financial scandal of 2001 was how quickly low-level, low-paid employees acted unethically without protest under direction from their bosses.
This observation mirrors the classic and controversial “electric shock” experiments conducted in the early 1960s by psychologist Stanley Milgram. Milgram demonstrated that “ordinary people” could be convinced to subject others to what they were convinced were very real electric shocks at the behest of “authoritative” people. Milgram was attempting to explain the behavior of “ordinary Germans” working in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. 
A major societal casualty of the war in Iraq has been that the once-sacrosanct American value prohibiting the torture of war prisoners, which lasted through two tragic world wars for the United States, folded like a cheap suit at the hands of men who ran for high office largely on a conservative “values” political platform (George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, claim your prize).
Indeed, a common first reaction to this “folding,” in my experience, is to deny that the U.S. had ever even had a “shared societal value” prohibiting torture during past wars. When I noted how prohibitions against torture were largely upheld through two horrific world wars in a published letter to the editor of a major newspaper, I received outraged responses from readers defending the need for torture of Muslims and criticizing me by name (which the newspaper subsequently published, a bad editorial decision), all missing my central point that “something has changed” in a core societal value. 
Of course, abortion remains the key lightning rod for conservative “values voters” in the U.S. When this issue rose again to the top of the heap in Iowa last May, I wrote a well-shared post about how this stance is often counter-productive to the goal of reducing the number of abortions. Just because we espouse a “value” does not mean that our actions will wind up taking us to where we thought we were going.
The opposition to the extension of health care to more Americans is another bizarrely-misplaced “value,” where people think they are standing up for some “free market” in healthcare (which does not exist) and have, in their opposition, crashed the fragile Affordable Care Act market for individual health insurance policies, which many of the loudest voices will need in the future for their families (if not already).
So, what are your most treasured “values,” and will they stand up to the pull of ethical egoism?
- Feldman, Linda. “Coming out: How Sen. Rob Portman’s Gay Son Charted His Path.” The Christian Science Monitor, 25 Mar. 2013.
- Mcleod, Saul. “The Milgram Experiment.” Simply Psychology, 5 Feb. 2017.
- Lindgren, Richard K. “Did Religion or Culture Change to Accept Torture?” Des Moines Register, 25 Dec. 2014.