Sunday, October 20, 2019


Week 47: Values


When I hear politicians, particularly in the run-up to an election, speak of American values or who we are as an American people, I am left wondering if they have read the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution itself, let alone the works of the Enlightenment and of Antiquity that serve as the underpinnings of our social contract. The lack of context and the projection of individual politician’s values on the body politic (if I may borrow a medieval notion of a nation and its people, which is, to be sure, nuanced and, I believe, apropos to the true nature of our two-party system) result in warped and disingenuous proclamations of the concepts that constitute American values.

On the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a revolutionary diplomat and politician from Massachusetts was invited to deliver a speech to the people of Boston in commemoration of that august event. In his opening statement, Jonathan Loring Austin said his purpose was to, “review those feelings, principles and measures, which fixed the important era we now commemorate.”

Values are those “feelings, principles and measures” to which Austin referred, and he went on to say, “that no nation will long continue free, after it has lost its virtue.” Before being accused of conflating values and virtues, permit me to draw distinction between the two. Values are statements of principle. Virtues are conformity to principle.

As Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, “When we consider the character of any individual, we naturally view it under two different aspects: as it may affect his own happiness and as it may affect that of other people.” The former deals with values and virtue as they live within a person. The latter deals with values and virtue as they live within societies.

In a discussion of American values, we will leave the contemplation of individual values and virtue to the mind and heart of each individual. Instead, let us turn our attention to those common values and shared virtues that make Americans unique among the peoples of the Earth.

Our values are enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, in the Truths that we hold to be self-evident.

·        All men are created equal. This notion is drawn from the works of the Enlightenment, such as from Kant and his concept of absolute moral worth, and Locke’s notion of people in their natural state and their purpose in forming social contracts. When speaking of the value-based principle of equality, looking through the contextual lens of history, the word “men” referred to all people, as opposed to being the gender-defining, divisive word it seems to be today. Certainly, conformity to this principle has been imperfect. We need only look to the evil institution of slavery or to the insidious vassalage of women prior to the recognition of their natural rights to witness this imperfection. However, it is the striving for moral excellence (i.e., virtue) that is an ongoing and never-ending pursuit, as conformity must come from the actions and habits of people, who are – each and every one of us – imperfect. Therefore, it is critically important to draw a clear distinction between values and virtue. We hear this often in the course of political debate – that the Founders were imperfect men, therefore, their ideas should hold no weight. If conformity to principles is the standard by which values are judged, we would have no values. This is not to say that we should abdicate the duty to pursue moral excellence. We absolutely should pursue it with all vigor and determination.

·        We have an unalienable right to Life. The word “unalienable” refers to something that can neither be transferred to another nor taken away nor be denied. In terms of American principles, as they form our shared values and are hopefully expressed as virtues, these rights are grounded in Natural Law and in the inherent nature of these principles in individuals. Rights are not – nay – cannot be dispensed by government. They are embodied in each individual’s personhood. I will save my thoughts on the topics of abortion and the death penalty for another time, but as you listen to candidates for office broach such topics, ask if life is being transferred, taken away or denied. If a candidate claims that any proposal or plank in their plan is a value of the American people, it must, by definition be one that secures the agency of the life or lives under consideration. If it does not meet this test, it cannot be a value.

·        We have an unalienable right to Liberty. What, though, is Liberty? It just so happens that John Stuart Mill lays this out for us in his work On Liberty. He writes that liberty concerns, “the nature and limits of the power that society can legitimately exercise over the individual.” He goes on to write that, “protection against the tyranny of government isn’t enough; there needs to be protection also against the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to turn its own ideas and practices into rules of conduct, and impose them—by means other than legal penalties—on those who dissent from them; to hamper the development and if possible to prevent the formation of any individuality that isn’t in harmony with its ways. There is a limit to how far collective opinion can legitimately interfere with individual independence; and finding and defending that limit is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as is protection against political despotism.” I find it frightening to see the extent to which one side will characterize the other as illegitimate, immoral and un-American, vilifying one another rather than engaging in civil discourse and debate. I believe that screaming and name calling, as seen on any number of so-called new programs or in the halls of Congress, serves as a poor substitute for substance, or the lack thereof, when talking about topics of import to We the People. As you listen to candidates speak, and as you endeavor to cut through the ad hominin attacks and the false choices that are offered up, ask if a proposal will serve the principle of maximizing individual autonomy, development and action. If it does not, it cannot be an American value.

·        We have an unalienable right to the Pursuit of Happiness. This is a societal value, predicated on individual values, that is uniquely American. I know of no other nation that calls out such a principle in its social contract. Without a doubt, happiness is defined at the individual level. Of course, there is overlap among individuals, but I cannot define for you what happiness is, as you cannot define it for me. By coincidence, we may both identify the same thing, but that is a matter of chance, not of rule. The virtue is in making clear a path for the value. The question is, to pursue happiness, what role may the government play? I believe its legitimate role, harkening back to Mill, is to minimize its hindrance to individuals pursuing their unique notion of happiness. As far as I can reckon, the only legitimate role of government in the pursuit of happiness is to ensure that one person’s pursuit does not adversely affect another’s pursuit. Any role beyond that does one of two inappropriate things: 1) imposes a definition of happiness on individuals and/or 2) limits one’s pursuit in lieu of another’s, essentially picking winners and losers in terms of happiness. Please don’t misunderstand me. With the pursuit of happiness being a fundamental value in our society, I do believe the infringement of this pursuit by one citizen or by the government against another citizen should be met with significant penalty, providing such penalty does not violate this or one of the other values. As proposals and plans are proffered for your consideration, consider how they impact the pursuit of happiness. If they limit even one citizen’s pursuit in favor of another’s pursuit, they cannot be virtuous in conformance with our values.

In closing, keep in mind the unalienable rights that lay the foundation for our values and that make possible our national virtue. They are inherent in our simple yet profound Americanism. In his 1876 speech, Austin reminded the assembled crowd, “The dogmatical epithets ‘giving and granting’ were too derogatory to your feelings, and too dishonorary to be obeyed, you therefore contrasted your ideas of right with their assumed declaration, and asserted that the British parliament had no right to bind the American colonies in any case whatever.” We have a new parliament, a new political class that imposes its soft tyranny, which tries – with every created agency, with every legislated act, with every proposed rule – to assert its power over the individual. I entreat you, if not to reject such assertions of political expediency outright, to give learned and careful consideration to each, to each assertion of what American values are and ought to be, and to judge for yourself whether they meet the shared definition of values upon which our nation was founded and toward which we strive for the moral excellence of virtue.

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