In the past, the one word people used more often than not when referring to what we call “reality” was the word, “true.” Human values were understood as referring to all that was “valuable” in the sense that they are worthwhile, worthy, worth it, and true in the sense that they are real. Human values were seen to give meaning, direction and purpose to life, for individuals as well as for societies, being the standards by which all human behavior is rightly guided.
Cultural differences were understood as not being found in a different set of standards, but in the emphasis, application and prioritizing of the myriad of common sense human values. Said values always included goodness (virtue: our ethical considerations), justice (fairness, determining what was socially permissible), beauty (informing our aesthetic sensibilities), and like considerations for virtually everything relating to life in general and relating particularly to human life.
Values were also seen to describe the ends: the perfect society being where the standards are kept without fail (by the man without sin) – where human values are perfectly applied in all circumstances, in the right time, the right way, and to the perfect degree, and where each value is balanced against all others to perfection. Needless to say, there has never been a perfect society and there has been only one person that history has ever described as “being without sin,” and despite the testimony of eye witnesses, there are plenty of otherwise “good” people who simply find that too hard to believe. Yet in the past, people always tried.
In the past, each generation tried to do a little better than the last, even as the parents tried to make life a little better for their children. History is full of examples of civilizations rising to a peak – the height of a civilization seen in intellectual, artistic and (yes) moral achievement – only to fall, sometimes over centuries and sometimes quite rapidly. Degenerative tendencies that destroy civilizations invariably came in the skewing, distorting, perhaps even rejecting of normative human values.
The Chinese have always understood this to be the case, and I believe it is no less true in the West where, for example, the Romans simply got lazy. They gave up the work ethic for a massive welfare underclass, rejected the value of personal responsibility, gave in to every corrupting influence available to the rich and powerful, pursued self-gratification (the satisfaction of instinctive desires) through their hedonistic tendencies at the expense of all values, took a stoical attitude about their own lives, a cynical attitude about their neighbors, a fatalistic “what will be will be” attitude about their civilization, and Rome fell.
Some may suggest that in a simple paragraph about the fall of Rome, I have over-simplified what is really a very complicated matter. That may be, but it does not invalidate what I have said, and I chose to strum this chord precisely because I see so many of these same tendencies happening in America today – and it should frighten any sane, sensible person; because it appears to me that far from the height of our civilization, we are rapidly entering into the degeneration process and headed toward what can only rightly be called a dark age.
The saddest thing is that we have only done this to ourselves through our educational system, our media, our technology and our attitudes about life. We have entered into a post modern world where not only ethics, but all human values – the very things that make us human – have been dubbed “relative.” Values are seen as subjective, which is a code word for “not real.”
Many have been convinced that empirical reality is the only thing that is really “real,” (though by my experience, the most fervent supporters of an empirical-only reality are people who barely got through High School science classes). To say it another way, too many people believe that the rocks and trees are real, but love and justice are only matters of opinion, and more: that your opinion and mine are assumed to be equal, no matter how different.
Of course, the theory that values are only a matter of opinion and that they normally differ between any two given people is never put to any sort of empirical test. It is just assumed to be “true.” If it were tested, I believe people would easily see that human values are universal – not relative at all – and they cross all cultural, ethnic and language barriers, and run through history without any serious alteration – only adjustments with attention to the details and emphasis. The ideals, if you will, of the perfect society and the perfect person have not changed, ever.
Even so it is fashionable these days to play the part of Pontius Pilate and ask, “What is truth?” (Do you hear the sarcasm in that)? Those same high school science students who accept the notion of the relativity of values as “true” also, and sometimes in the same breath, reject the whole notion of truth. What’s real is real (ie: rocks and trees), and truth is also imagined to be just a matter of opinion. (Do you likewise notice the contradiction in that sort of thinking)?
I don’t have time or space to cover this nonsense thinking (that which is so clearly contrary to common sense). At this point, all I need to say is if you are one of the people who are hung-up on a “rock and tree only” frame of mind concerning what is real and what is not real, fine. I don’t care if you imagine that human values as so unreal as to be nothing but a mass hallucination of the human race, because I know, as hard as you try, the reality is you cannot function – you cannot even live without reference to some sort of human values; and I will talk about that a little further on.