Sunday, Nov 14, 2010: “Questions of Value: Session 8”

St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary
“Questions of Value, Session 8”
An In-Depth Discussion Led by Wayne Harper
Sunday, November 14, 2010


* NOTE:  The materials offered were borrowed and adapted for our use from two primary sources: ‘Questions of Value’ taught by Patrick Grim and ‘The Quest for Meaning: Value, Ethics, and the Modern Experience’ taught by Robert Kane. Both are courses produced by The Teaching Company.


                                                      Questions of Value*

Life’s Priorities

If you have something precious, something that must be spent rather then simply held, you will want to spend it well. You do have something precious that must be spent, not held: your life. How you spend your life will depend in large measure on what you want out of life. So the first question to ask is: What do you want from life? Life has a lot to offer, so this becomes a question of priorities. Establishing life priorities is important for three reasons:

· ‘Be careful what you want, because you might just get it.’
· People sometimes work very hard for something, then act very peculiarly when they get it.
· If one knows what one really wants, there may be easier ways to get it. 

Question: Imagine some of the good things life has to offer. What’s most important?

Most people go through their lives without ever determining what they value most. Is happiness on your mental list? Happiness is too vague. What is it that makes you happy? What about health, wealth, and freedom?

Question: Speaking of wealth; what priority do you give money? How does money derive its value?

Question: Consider love, recognition, and talent. If you could have only one of these, which would it be?

Question: Do you think there’s a single ‘highest good’ or ‘top priority’?

Most societies and their governments establish priorities to guide domestic life. If you think establishing personal (micro) priorities is challenging, you can just imagine the difficulty in coming up with national (macro) priorities. ‘Opportunity costs and benefits’, once considered, lead to inevitable tradeoffs. Universal ascent is all but impossible. But we press on as a nation for we have no other choice.

Question: Consider the society we currently find ourselves. Is achieving the ‘American Dream’ the top priority? If not, what should be our top priority?

Question: What exactly is the ‘American Dream’? Is it susceptible to cultural shifts?

Question: Has the recent economic downturn initiated a cultural shift? Has it caused you to readjust your priorities?
What Ought We Do?

This question – the driving force behind ethics – has been with us for millennia. We begin with moral intuitions which lead the way toward moral principles and beyond toward moral/ethical theories. There are four main ethical theories, the first two we examined in Session 3. Each has much to offer; no single theory dominates. 

· Utilitarianism. An action is moral/ethical if it results in good consequences.
· Deontology. An action is moral/ethical if the motive behind it is good.
· Divine Command. An action is moral/ethical if it is in harmony with God’s commands.
· Virtue Ethics. An action is moral/ethical if performed by a person possessing all the virtues.

Question: Is ethics fundamentally a matter of following rules or something else?

Indeed, many people tend to think of ethics as a list of dos and don’ts, much in the style of the Ten Commandments. And recall, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, thought to be (at least by Kant) an infallible overarching rule for ethical action. But can a workable set of rules be developed to avoid moral confusion and resolve moral dilemmas?

In any situation, there are a number of demands on you: your prima facie obligations. Your obligation is what you should do all things considered. The metaphor for decision in such cases is ‘weighing’. Is there a rule for how to ‘weigh’ competing prima facie obligations? Some cases are clear. Should I lie to save a life? You have both a prima facie obligation to tell the truth and to save a life. Lying is always prima facie wrong. But in this case your obligation to save a life ‘outweighs’ your obligation to tell the truth. 

Question: Think of a real case which forced you to balance competing values. What guided your deliberations? What ‘rules’, if any, did you employ?

Ethical rules are near impossible to formulate, though many have tried. Our knowledge of our own language is a similar case in which rules are extremely difficult to formulate. A child picks up knowledge of the language by the age of three or four. Yet hundreds of linguists have been working for decades to formulate that knowledge in terms of rules and are still a long way from success. We learn ethics like we master language; by practice rather than learning rules.

Values and the Future 

Knowledge of the history of our ethical conceptions can make us rethink and reevaluate them, and may even lead us to change them. To see how, let’s go back 150 years – just prior to our Civil War. Few ethical judgments are clearer to us today than this: Slavery was deeply and horribly wrong. How could anyone ever have thought otherwise? Well, back then many did. One of the basic themes in apologetics for slavery is that slaves have racial characteristics that make slavery appropriate or beneficial for them. Another theme is that slavery is justified by the Bible or the history of great civilizations. A third theme is that American slavery was a benefit to the slaves when compared to the lives they would have lived in Africa. 

What are we to make of these proslavery apologetics? It appears that these claims were actually believed by many whites at the time, particularly in the south. Should they have known better? It can be argued that they should have, that a glimpse at their own history and cultural situation should have made them suspicious of moral beliefs tailored to their personal advantage. 

It’s a lesson that still applies today. If our moral concepts coincide all too well with our personal advantage, perhaps we should be suspicious as well. The fact that the world matches our moral conceptions may indicate that we have succeeded in making the world a better place. Or, it may indicate that our situation has biased our moral conceptions.

Question: What moral conceptions might we mistrust now? Slavery, justified 150 years ago, appalls us today. When society looks back on us 150 years from now, what do you think they will find most appalling?