The first thing to understand about human values is they are natural, like building blocks built into our human system, and in that sense one might even (unfairly, I believe) call them “instinctive.” That is to say, they are not notions or concepts such as a philosopher might infer from life and neither are they the kind of thing that a teacher might be required to teach. They are part of who we are as human beings, foundational to our humanity, able to be understood across cultures, across languages, across any other artificial barriers that presently separate people.
Even animals are able to understand some basic values such as a dog being easily able to distinguish between cruelty and kindness. Many a dog has turned on a cruel master or sacrificed itself for a master filled with loving kindness. Dogs are also loyal, cats are fastidious, horses are willing to work and pigs are not nearly as stupid as they appear. Yet it is in the human species alone that we have both the ability to attribute value to things and the ability to discover – or a better word: recognize – the inherent (natural) values of life.
It is easy enough to see in the old story of the young man who had a seat on the bus and stood for a second to read an advertisement only to find someone else quickly scooted into his seat and would not give it up.
“Hey! I was there first! That’s my seat!”
“It’s mine now.”
“But that’s not fair!”
I have heard children barely able to talk cry out, “Not fair!” when a sibling gets a bigger piece of chocolate. The value we might call justice or “fairness” is built into the system of our being, and in my life, I have noticed that when I have experienced an injustice, I have found that the very people who are quick to hit me with the platitude that, “Life is not fair,” are the same who cry “Foul!” the loudest when an injustice happens to them.
Likewise, we recognize love, universally, as something of worth, to give a second example of a human value. In fact, infants not yet able to express themselves have shriveled and died when abandoned from lack of love. There are plenty of documented cases which I would rather not catalogue here, if you don’t mind.
Likewise, as a third example, everyone understands beauty. We may disagree on the particulars since beauty may very well be in the eye of the beholder, but as a concept, everyone knows what beauty is, admits that it is a real value and at least appreciates the beautiful when they see it.
Thus, everyone who was with me on that given evening thought the sunset was spectacularly beautiful; except one man who said sunsets never did anything for him. In his case, though, he admitted his inability as a kind of defect on his part, like a man born color-blind, perhaps. He never said that sunsets are not beautiful, because everyone else (and virtually the entire human race) would have laughed him all the way to derision and back.
Please understand, when I say human values are natural, I am not saying they are merely part of nature, not even human nature. They are not the kind of things a scientist can detect or dissect in a laboratory. What I mean is they are unavoidable and I believe they are tied to the very nature of intelligence in an inescapable way to where I wonder if intelligence can exist anywhere in the universe without being framed and guided by values. And yet values are perfectly natural in the sense that in our human world, human values are readily understood not only by the smallest children; but also by the least intelligent among us – those who would never be referred to by family or friends as “smart.”
Values lie at the very heart of life, providing both the foundation for intelligence and the standards through which we “evaluate” life in search of meaning. When someone wrongs us, we feel the sting of it readily enough. We may feel unloved, unappreciated, unfairly treated to say the least, and though we might not spell it out, we know the values of love, appreciation and fairness have been violated to our hurt.
On the other hand, when the fireman comes and carries us out of the burning building and to safety, we recognize what an extraordinary act of thoughtfulness, kindness, and courage that was. We might weep in the first case for feeling used and rejected. We might also weep in the second case, but for joy. Now, joy is a value worth living for.
Values are recognized at every level of intelligence to where, as I have pointed out, even some of the more intelligent animals understand some basic values. In our case, though, it is in living out our values, acting on what we find worthwhile – it is in what we do—that we show our humanity. When we live out our values (what we consider worthy or worth our time and attention), because they are universal and universally understood, people see exactly how human (or inhuman) we are.
Our common humanity is clearly shown in our desire to receive fairness (justice), to be in love and in our appreciation of beauty (as well as in many other ways), or it will be seen in our unconcern for fairness (toward others), our lack of love and disdain for beauty (at least as far as others are concerned. Sanity requires that we want ourselves to be treated fairly, that we love what we have and want to be loved, and imagine our life, if not ourselves, to be beautiful even if not quite perfect).
But of course, there have always been some people throughout history, and there seem to be more than enough these days, who have tried and are trying to live what might be called a values-free or values-neutral life. Such a life is not really possible as I hope to show a little later on; but for now, all I want to say is, yes: there have been people throughout the ages, all over the world, and there are plenty of people today who have tried to live values-free lives. In other words, there are those who have tried and are trying to make themselves as stupid (unintelligent) as they can be and their lives as meaningless as possible and whose resultant behavior has invariably been what most people would call “inhuman.”