Getting on That Values Bandwagon

*As my intelligent readers (that’s all of you by the way) will have noticed, Thomas has been on a tear about values. So I decided it was my turn to get on that bandwagon by stealing his topic and making it better. Let’s call it Thomism with Franklin characteristics.

In recent pieces, Thomas has talked extensively about how values are produced and propagated. I even talked about this in regards to Herodotus’ The Histories. One thing that I think needs to be elaborated on further is how we choose which values are most important to us?

The biggest problem with values (other than all the creative ways we fail at keeping them) is how to negotiate them or more specifically, what to do when they are at odds. What do I mean? There is a great multitude of values that we, well, value. However, because we live in a fallen world we are often faced with the unenviable task of having to choose between them.

The Founders dealt with one example of this when the conflict of freedom vs. safety came up. Benjamin Franklin stated emphatically and bluntly that “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” However, on its face, this is not true. If we take these two values and represent them on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being absolute safety and 10 being going full-tilt boogie for freedom, we get rather complicated results. There is no society that can reach a 1 and if you can find a society that goes full-tilt boogie for anything then tell me. What does this mean? Simple, it means we as a society balance these two values.

In our society, at least for now, we value freedom more than safety. The risk, to our minds, is worth it. As the cliched saying goes, freedom isn’t free. However, there have been many moments in our history where we have given much of that freedom up for safety. Habeas Corpus was suspended during the Civil War. We put Germans in concentration camps during the First World War. Japanese in the Second. We’re still getting (nearly) strip-searched by the TSA. This is not even to mention the economic freedom we have given up. In all these cases, was it worth it?

All values are in a constant state of negotiation. This will never end. Just like the law, there is no plain reading of morality. The world is complex and most decisions we make have ambiguous or neutral consequences. However, it is because of this that certain philosophical theories of ethics just don’t stand up to the test.

Let’s take the two examples of Utilitarianism and Kantian Deontology. These are the two most basic philosophies that you learn in an intro to ethics course. Utilitarianism seeks to get the most happiness/pleasure for the most people. It’s a consequentialist philosophy, being only really concerned with the consequences of actions. Now it doesn’t take a philosopher to point out the surface-level problem of such a philosophy. This is that it can be used to justify some pretty crazy actions.

To steelman the argument, philosophers like John Stuart Mills attempted to provide caveats for this by pointing out that not all forms of happiness/pleasure were the same, that there are baser pleasures and higher ones. However, it becomes far too easy on a societal level to just shove through an “end justifies the means” argument for anything. The philosophy of Utilitarianism, in short, is flexible but doesn’t rest on anything firm.

Kantian Deontology, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach. The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that it didn’t matter the consequences of an action, only the intentions. To Kant, everybody had to act according to certain categorical imperatives, that is “a rule of conduct that is unconditional or absolute for all agents, the validity or claim of which does not depend on any desire or end.” (Encyclopaedia Brittanica) That is that a person needs to obey certain rules because they are ends in themselves or rather that they are goods in themselves. These rules are universally applicable or put in Kant’s way “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” This philosophy avoids the pitfalls of the too flexible Utilitarianism, however, it proves to be too inflexible. To not lie is a categorical imperative to Kant, which means that even if you have to lie to save someone’s life you cannot. Ultimately, even if the ends are bad, the imperative must be followed.

This leads us to what I think is the only practical method of ethics; virtue ethics. Virtue ethics was originally conceptualized by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics. He argued that virtue “lies in the mean.” Virtue is “the appropriate response to different situations and different agents.” (IEP) An example is that thrift is the mean between miserliness and a spendthrift. Virtue requires not only right desire but right reason. Virtue ethics, more broadly, is concerned not with intention, duty, or consequences, but rather with the virtue and moral character of the individual.

I think this is the way society operates anyways. We have a set of principles and values and we do our best to balance them when they are in conflict. These values can be different depending on location with the values of the military being necessarily different from civil society. Is it a perfect system? No. But I truly believe it is better to cultivate virtue rather than try to ingrain rules into people. I think it is the only way to give people the moral flexibility and strength to be able to approach complex moral problems. This expands out on a societal scale. Virtues and values will clash and we have to be able to make decisions.


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