What Really Matters?

It was August 23, 2008 and I was outside, jotting down some arcane notes when the phone rang once and quit.  My wife checked the number.  It was my mother.  When I called back, after a few moments of mumbling, she got straight to the point.  “Your dad died this morning.”  He had been sick for some time.  I confess, my dad, who had spent the better part of his life as Editor of various magazines would have appreciated her judicious editing; at least that was my first thought, strange as it was.  Then my mother and I talked for a while.  Then we hung up, a thousand miles apart, but both entered into the grieving process together.

This event has been replayed in type since the beginning of time, and it will continue, world-wide perhaps until the end of time.  Someone (not something) unique has been lost to the world, irreplaceable, forever.  Of course, knowing that virtually all people in all times have suffered (or will suffer) through the loss of a parent does not make it one bit easier for me on a personal level; but it does raise some interesting questions. 

I was considering this when I realized that as we speak of the irreplaceable loss in death, we also speak of the miracle of gain at the birth of a child.  When we recognize that someone new has entered this mix we call humanity, we rejoice with a sure and certain knowledge that the world will never be the same again.  Life goes on, regardless of what we think or how we feel about it. 

It is only natural at times to wonder:  How can we keep up?  How can we bear it all?  How can we make sense of our lives in the elusive face of an ever changing universe?  At some point we realize that all we can really do is hold on to what is dear to us: the soft cuddle of the newborn; the memories of my father.  To say that life is precious sometimes seems so cliché as to not be worth saying.  Yet life is precious, and human life ultimately so, and all rational people cling to it with every fiber.  Life is valuable.

I have been asked more times than I can count: “What do you mean valuable?”  Rather, I should ask what is valuable to you?  What is valuable, worthy of your time and attention, worthwhile, meaningful, important?  Is it life, love, beauty, justice, family, friends, this world or the next? 

In some real way, the things we count as valuable (values that are worthy or worthwhile) stand at the core of our being.  They direct our thoughts, inspire our desires, prioritize our wants and needs, precipitate our actions and behaviors, and impact our relationships with other people and with the world, affecting the world through us in ways, at times, we could never imagine.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine living at all without holding something precious in our hearts. 

I was thinking about this sort of thing the morning my dad died; and it occurred to me, as I have mentioned, that grief is something universal, and very human.  And as the week progressed, I came into contact with sympathy, compassion, empathy, kindness, love, encouragement, hope, faith, some joy, yes, mingled with the tears, and so many things of like nature I could not possibly list them all.  All of these things are universally understood, and have always been understood by people everywhere.   And in the midst of my ruminations I discovered many valuable things – core values if you will – very human values worth living for, and to some extent even worth dying for.

            What are values?

They are the warp and woof of what makes us human and the better we apprehend them and live them, the more we will live a life worth living.

Perfectly Natural Values 

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. 

Values are apprehended by Reason, not Feelings

There was a time in the past when human values were called the “Natural Law.” These so-called laws were thought to be natural in the sense that I have shown previously.  At least the “natural” part of the idea of “natural law” has not changed.  At the same time, though, human values were once called laws, and this was in the sense that they were understood to be unavoidable for truly human life to exist.  Indeed, from the beginning of history, the Natural Laws were considered laws as imperative and as “real” as the laws of gravity and the laws of motion. 

Even as the scientific method (and thus every speck of what many consider to be “real”) was itself created by reason, so it is said that these “Natural Laws” are apprehended (discovered, recognized, understood) by “Practical Reason.”  Practical Reason means simply considering what is sensible, reasonable or blatantly obvious as the case may be to any thinking person who is both sane (not insane) and honest (not inclined to lie based on having some hidden agenda). 

Of course, the truth is these days there are contrarians in this world.  These are people who, whenever they come across anything that so much as implies a universal application, they insist on arguing against it.  It has nothing to do with whether they believe their own arguments or not.  It is simply a knee-jerk reaction.  Anything that might be universally applied or that hint of “absolute truth” is automatically argued against.  Some call the contrarian position a form of insanity.  But to some, the only universal and “absolute truth” is there is no universal or “absolute truth.” Chew on that.  For the rest who are not insane contrarians, please read on…

Thomas Jefferson called human values “Truths,” and he insisted that they were “Self-evident, and (that) among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  “All men,” he said, meaning all people at all times and in all places understand these things.  Of course, Jefferson’s short list was not meant to be an exhaustive list of all human values.  It was simply a couple of “for examples.” 

I, for one, wish he had taken a couple of pages to list many, many more “self-evident truths,” but I understand that in his time and place he felt no need to state more than a couple of examples.  In his day, Jefferson might have wondered about King George (who was considered something of a madman), but he felt sure, as did the Founding Fathers in general, that most, reasonable, common people were not determined to make themselves as stupid as possible in order to live a meaningless life.  Thus, a couple of examples of human values was all that Jefferson felt he needed for an honorable and sane person to say, “Oh, yeah.  I know what you mean.”

Sadly, the terms “Natural Law” and “Practical Reason” have come under a great deal of bad press in our day.  Such press is found in many textbooks current in our schools – even private schools, colleges and universities.  The whole notion of values is often ridiculed by media people, journalists and entertainers, and maligned by many who equate the ideas of Natural Law and Practical Reason with religion.  I could add many others to the list of detractors, those who argue against the whole idea of Natural Law, from pseudo-scientists to the politically correct; but all I really need to say is you would have to be living in a cave if this particular “truth” of the current derision of values was not self-evident. 

I believe that much of the bad press is untrue, based on a misunderstanding of what Natural Law and Practical Reason actually are, and the rest is so badly distorted it might as well be untrue; yet because the terms bring certain negative thoughts in some people’s minds, for my purposes here, I suppose I will have to avoid using those terms. 

Instead, when speaking of the natural law, I will most often use the term I have already used and speak of human values directly; and when speaking of the way we understand those values and how they give meaning, purpose and direction to our lives, instead of referring to Practical Reason, I will use what is perhaps the older term, “Common Sense.” 

I am not trying to twist the language (or reality) by inventing words as some scholars and philosophers do.  I am not trying to prove some obscure point in order to gain scholarly credit and attention.  Some scholars might even call me the worst sort of hack, but I don’t care.  The issue of human values and human life deserve to be talked about in a way that everyone can understand and appropriate what matters; and in this I suppose I am speaking to the millions of people who presently believe what is wrong with this country (and parts of the world if not the whole world in general) is the decided lack of just plain common sense. 

I agree that this is a problem, and because of that I will go one step further.  I am writing this for my children and grandchildren as well as this generation, because the way I see our culture dealing with the whole concept of human values.  People today subject any appeal to any value to ridicule.  There are so many fervent but wrong-headed accusation (like one is trying to “impose” values on others.  The idea is honestly silly, sort of like saying one is trying to impose brains on others).  But it is important that someone speak out because I believe most people have no idea how dangerous a future without values, a meaningless, mindless, life of mere opinion will be. 

I believe we are digging a great hole in our minds and souls by the way we are attempting to reject the whole idea of universal, human values, suggesting, as many presently suggest, that values are really no more than matters of opinion, and you can take them or leave them as you will.  So I am writing for my children, because the hole we are creating in their souls, if you wish to use the term, is precisely the kind of hole that may become humanity’s grave.

Nothing New Under the Sun 

Having mentioned the future in a previous post, I suppose it is only fair to acknowledge the past by admitting that there is nothing new in what I am saying about values and there will be nothing new in all that will follow.  I am updating the language a little, but the principles, philosophic, scientific, theological or otherwise, are not a great new revelation.  People have been speaking about universal, human values since history began, and I have no doubt they will continue to speak about them long after I am gone. 

You see, when I am speaking about universal values and say they are “self-evident” to all people, as simple common sense will tell you, and especially when I suggest that they are precisely what make us human, you might want to conclude that what I am really talking about is human nature, and you would not be entirely wrong.  When once you realize that all of our thoughts and behaviors are motivated and inspired by what we find valuable (worthwhile), and when you note that all of our values are shared in common with all people in all times, making them the most natural things in the world, and when you further realize that these values alone distinguish us human beings from all other life and indeed from the whole universe, or more simply we might say what I have said: that values are precisely what make us human, then it cannot be wrong to describe these writings as a primer of sorts on human nature.  I would rather say it is a basic textbook on being human, though with the admission that nothing I am saying is new.  Consider the following:

If you are so inclined, I would recommend the Bible as the most comprehensive and thorough discussion of human nature and human values ever recorded.  For those for whom the Judeo-Christian tradition might have a bad taste (for whatever reason) you might find an alternative in a study of the way (the Tao) or Plato perhaps, or some other such works.  I would not recommend some of the philosophical or religious traditions which seem more agenda oriented, like those that might tell us a great deal about God and our obligations, but not much about us as human creatures, or those that suggest the first step on the path to perfection is for normal, ordinary human beings to abandon normal, ordinary human life.

Closer to home, you might examine the better works that came out of the enlightenment.  Again, I would not recommend agenda oriented works for this sort of study such as religious bashing books or religious defending books or those that deify or demonize the scientific method.  Also, as I have already said, you are not likely to get much from the nihilists and existentialists except agenda.  Mills might be an interesting choice, or Blaise Pascal.  Voltaire would probably leave a bitter taste.  Boswell’s Johnson would make brilliant reading.  Hardly anyone has ever had a better grasp on the human species than Doctor Johnson; but then again, since you have already started with this writing, you might just begin with the reading you have got.  On the other hand, I would not be offended if you move immediately to one of these other works or authors, and in fact, I would recommend that you don’t take my word alone for these things.  Read these other authors and works.  But then I have also said that this is not intended as a scholarly work so I suppose you will have to build your own bibliography.

What is Truth?

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.

Human Values 

Values are those concepts and ideas (ideals) that are natural and sensible.  They are what all people at all time have considered worthy.  They stand at the core of our being and play out in everything we do: in our relationships with others, our relationship with the world, and even come into play when we are home alone.  Human values are the unavoidable essence of who and what we are as people; and as they provide standards for all behavior by giving direction and purpose to our lives, so they also provide meaning at the other end – after we are done.  They are the only means by which we “evaluate” our lives, relationships, experiments, experiences and the only things that provide results in a way that give us meaning in life.

When the atom was split, there was the recognition that here was a tremendous source of energy, and in that, splitting the  atom became a scientific “fact.”.  That is all good and well, but that “fact” by itself is meaningless, purposeless and pointless.  A person can live their whole life without ever knowing that “fact” as our rock and tree minded friends might put it.  Billions lived before that discovery and it does not seem to me that their lives were any more or less rich in not knowing. 

Facts mean nothing in and of themselves, like two plus two equaling four, we are tempted to say, “so what?”  The so what, of course is in what are you going to do with that fact?  It seems a split atom can function as a bomb which can be used to threaten the whole world, annihilate cities and obliterate people, or it can be used to create power to empower those same cities and the people living there and give life to all of the technical wonders of our day.  How does one decide which way to go?  The answer to that question is human values as dictated and ordered by common sense.  There is no other option.  I repeat: THERE IS NO OTHER OPTION.

Sadly, to use that term “sadly” again, as early as 1945 the Oppenheimer group was already beginning to slide into the degenerative thinking which is the death knell of civilization.  The report says they just wanted to accomplish the feat and left for others to decide what to do with it.  It sounds to me suspiciously like the defense used by the guards at Auschwitz when they claimed they were not responsible for the atrocities at the death camp, they were just doing their job.

All I can say is the next time the physicists split an atom – or whatever that future equivalent might be – we all better hope that they are sensible men and women whose sense of values is rightly ordered.  Imagine what the world might be like today if Hitler or Stalin had gotten there first.

Human values are essentially human, by which I mean that honestly we are not human without reference to values.  They provide direction and purpose to guide us through life, they are the standards for behavior – even when we fail to follow those standards perfectly – and they give meaning after the event – even if I don’t exactly understand why my dad had to die.

Human values are neither matter nor energy (not rocks or trees) and so they are not properly the subject for scientific investigation.  (We may apply the scientific method to the study of such things but we will never be able to “prove” their reality the way some people insist.  They can’t be  dissected in the lab).  Even so, human values are endemic to where it appears that intelligent, human life cannot exist without them and in that sense they are precisely what lifts us out of mere nature (matter and energy, rocks and trees) and makes us human.

By common sense, we human beings are uniquely designed to recognize, understand and choose to live by all that is right, good and true.  In that sense, human values must in some way be objectively real, not merely subjectively true – at least every sensible person acts as if they are objective.  Indeed, to reject the validity (objective reality) of human values is nonsensical (unreasonable) and to try to live without them is, I believe, to court insanity.

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