Friday, June 22, 2012

"Moral values" is clumsy, backwards logic

All the time one hears phrases like "moral values" strung together, even those these words mean quite different things, and often make little sense when strung together.  Most of the time, the person using the phrase just means "morals", and "values" is simply a space-filler hitching a ride.  See, a value is something like "bacon is delicious".  It is the feeling one has, based upon inherent properties of oneself and the bacon.  Morals, on the other hand, are codes of conduct, often coming from tradition or cultural standards and decrees.  They are things like, "God commands that thou shalt not to eat bacon", which he did in fact command under Kosher food laws (Kashrut) in the Jewish Old Testament.  Those concepts are not at all the same thing, though some people go through contortions to try to act like they are.  

It's easy to see why they are different, because you will notice that Kosher food laws do not say, "bacon tastes bad".  It is a moral, but it is not necessarily a value. It technically doesn't matter how the bacon tastes, or if it might be of value for various different purposes.  Bacon can (and does) taste AWESOME (a value), but it can still be forbidden to eat (a moral).  A moral does not necessarily depend upon a value, nor is a moral a type of value.  

Note:  You may say that you value the rule itself (the moral), but this makes it a "valued moral", not a "moral value".  Moral is an adjective that describes value, not the other way around. In any event, "a value" (noun) is different than something upon which we may attempt to impose value (an action).  In other words, when I say "I love bacon" that is a value (noun) that I have, but when I say "this bacon costs a dollar", I am attempting to assign a monetary value or more formally to valuate (a verb) a product.  The monetary context speaks of values in a different way, because things can still be valuable, even with no monetary value, and things with high monetary value may have no value at all.  In the last case, think of junk bonds or certain financial "derivatives".  In any event, lets get back to talking about values in a more abstract, non-monetary sense, as they traditionally are in a religious or ethical framework.

So what would a true "moral value" look like. In this construction a "moral value" must be a kind of value which happens also to be a moral.  They're not as easy to come up with as one might imagine.  Can we say, for example, "God commands you not to like the taste of bacon?"  Is that an example of this elusive "moral value" of which some speak?  Sadly, no.  Commanding someone not to like something does not mean that he or she will not actually like it, even if this person wants to be obedient to the command.  One need look no further than homosexuals, many of whom try to be good Christians by denying their attractions.  

This brings us to a central issue in the values versus morals dichotomy.  Many moralists start with the moral rule, and then say "Since I know it's wrong (morally)" I must convince myself and others not to like it.  This would be like saying, "Because God forbids me to eat bacon, I must convince myself and others that it tastes like sh1t".  It would certainly be easier if one could reprogram oneself to revalue things based upon one's moral rules.  It would make it a lot easier to keep those rules.  Many young people value excessive drinking and promiscuous sex, for example.  But Christianity (and other religions) says that this is morally wrong.  So the notion is, to help these young people keep the rule we must teach them not to like sex and/or getting drunk.  Of course, this seldom works for long -- just ask alcoholics and sexaholics.  Sure, they can make you feel guilty about it, but they often cannot, through sheer willpower, change the way our bodies react to alcohol or the chemical attractions of sexuality.  

The problem is that this is a backwards way of looking at behavior to begin with.  It says, "God tells me not to eat bacon ... so I better learn not to like the taste".  Instead, the natural way to proceed is to start with values and allow these to guide our conduct, instead of making the rules and then trying to change our desires.  One starts with a value, such as "bacon is fan-FRICKEN-tastic" and then moves to a behavior, "Ima get me a bacon sandwich".  Now, assuming that, at this point, God does come down from the sky and say, "Put that bacon sandwich down, FATBOY", perhaps one would be obligated to comply, but one still doesn't have to pretend to not like the taste.  

Now you may be thinking, I've got an example of a true "moral value".  What about "Murder is bad"?  Well, murder is just the name we use for "the bad kind of killing", in the first place.  Murder already has a judgment smuggled into the word itself.  If we approved of the killing we wouldn't call it "murder" but "justifiable homicide".  Of course, we would have to invent separate criteria for saying that this was "the good kind of killing that I like", versus "the wrong kind of killing that I don't like".

Don't get me wrong:  I'm not saying it's impossible to formulate some kind of thing that may be a value that is also a moral.  Perhaps something along the lines of "All life is too valuable to take".  I don't agree with it, but it may express both a value proposition about life and suggest a code of conduct as well.  Yet most people are not talking about this when they talk about "moral values".  Note also that, for this approach to work one would still not be able to say "This is only valuable to me because (I believe) it is valuable to God".    This would be like claiming "I like the taste of broccoli only because I believe God wants me to like it".  It would not be convincing that wanting to like broccoli could, though force of will, definitively alter the data from your taste buds.

A final issue is a possible hierarchies of values.  Perhaps one can argue that, sure I like sex, and booze, but I like other things, like living addiction-free, even more.  Religious people could argue, as many do now, that they value obedience to what they believe is God's will more than they value the temptations of the flesh.  But, in the end they sure seem to succumb to those temptations often times, so it is not clear that they are really being honest about their values...and it is still a lot more clear when you just talk about morals and values separately.  Thanks.

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