Sunday, July 30, 2017: “Questions of Value”


St. Mark’s Adult Forum

30 July 2017


Questions of Value*


‘The really fundamental questions of our lives are not questions of fact or finance but questions of value.’  Patrick Grim, Ph.D.


‘Rights’ and Moral Ambiguity


Let’s begin with a few questions.  What kind of knowledge is ethical knowledge?  How do we know right from wrong?  Is such knowledge discovered or created?  Of what significance is such knowledge?   


While some skeptics deny the possibility of any ethical knowledge; for most of us, the working assumption is that we do know things about morals and ethics.  Our evolutionary origins as a social species informs our moral intuitions, which lead the way toward moral principles, and beyond toward moral/ethical theories.  We find this ‘knowledge’ embedded in religious injunctions, in ‘philosophy’, in social/cultural norms, and in jurisprudence.  And it is this knowledge – incomplete at best – that constitutes moral/ethical authority; and, in turn, clarifies our moral/ethical obligations.


To reiterate, we do know things about morals and ethics.  For instance, we know people have rights, and that it is wrong to violate those rights.  Moreover, if we take values and ethics seriously, we realize we have a moral obligation to honor and uphold the rights of others.  We expect the same treatment in return.


Of course, it’s never that simple in practice.  Rights, once established, can be exploited or abused.  In addition, privileges are often mistaken for rights.  Even customs or traditions can be misconstrued as rights.  Do college students have the right to party? 


Question: What is the difference between a right, a privilege, a custom and a benefit?


A right is a freedom that is protected, such as the right to free speech or religion.  A privilege is a certain entitlement to immunity granted by the state or another authority to a restricted group, either by birth or on a conditional basis.  Stated informally, a privilege is a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.

By contrast, a right is an inherent, irrevocable entitlement held by all citizens or all human beings from the moment of birth.  A custom is merely a widely accepted way of behaving.  And a benefit is an advantage or profit gained from something.


Alas, these interrelated concepts are open to interpretation, and can lead to moral ambiguity and confusion.  It’s inevitable.  The moral sphere we inhabit is larger and encapsulates the sphere of rights, privileges and the like.  So, for example, if another person invokes a right – “It’s my right!” – does our moral obligation to ‘honor and uphold’ preclude any sort of moral judgement?  What one thinks is the true or good or right way to live for oneself or anyone is one’s private morality.  It often conflicts with public morality; i.e., what we owe others even if they disagree with our private morality.  Indeed, such conflict — disagreement over rights — appears to be the price paid for living in a free society.  We’ll examine this dilemma with a few specific examples. 


Dress Codes1:


Yvette Comeaux wasn’t allowed in Whiskey River, a Louisiana bar, after being told her outfit didn’t meet the dress code.  “News flash!!  I’m not allowed in cause they said my shorts are too short!” Yvette posted on Facebook.  “I left there ashamed and embarrassed because I was critiqued” Comeaux stated.  Later, she admitted “I was just venting”; but within 48 hours, outrage at her treatment had reached full viral stage.  Commenters were quick to point out: We’re talking about a dimly lit bar, not a church service.  Visit any beach or swimming pool!  You can’t help seeing attire that leaves little to the imagination.


Whiskey River responded by stating their dress code: “If we can see your butt cheeks hanging out of your pants (standing up or bending over) or if we can see your belly button (arms down or up) then you will not be allowed to enter our premises.  We reserve the right to refuse admittance to anyone who is not properly dressed.”  Whiskey River does have this right.  Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevents establishments from barring entry on the basis of race, color, gender, religion, or national origin, and the Americans with Disabilities Act prevents discrimination based on mental or physical impairments, businesses can set rules about who can enter.  They are legally allowed to set a (gender neutral) dress code and to refuse service based on behavior, intoxication, or lack of payment.


In time it was revealed why the bar had decided to establish its dress code.  It was not because of women wearing short-shorts, but due to one man who has been frequenting the local bars and music festivals in extremely short cutoffs, a midriff-baring shirt, a cowboy hat, and cowboy boots.  A statement issued by Whiskey River alludes to this man:  “Our dress code was implemented so as not to discriminate because of gender.  We had issues with a male customer who insisted on his right to enter due to the fact that females were allowed to dress in scanty clothes, and he felt he was being discriminated against.  The dress code was implemented by the owners (not the staff) in an effort to be fair to all customers.”


At issue here is the question of who is allowed to refuse service to customers and on what grounds.  It is a direct result of conflicting rights: an implicit right of the patron to wear whatever they like, and the explicit right of the business owner to set standards of dress.


Question: Both sides make reasonable arguments.  Where do you come down?  Are there any moral complications? 




Richard L. Rynearson III, of Seattle, is asking a federal court to declare Washington State’s cyberstalking law a violation of the U.S. constitution’s protection of free speech. 


Investigators recommended that Rynearson be charged with cyberstalking for repeatedly making online posts that criticized – but didn’t threaten – community activist, Clarence Moriwaki.  In a police report filed by Moriwaki, he stated he was being harassed by incessant text messages and Facebook posts.  “He just won’t leave me alone,” Moriwaki said.  “I told him to stop posting about me, to stop contacting me, and he won’t.  He’s a classic cyber bully.” 


Rynearson’s lawyer stated his client was within his free speech rights to publish such criticism.  “How can it possibly be constitutional to ban mean speech online?  If someone is appalled by a local official and wants to embarrass them by posting things online, that’s a crime?”


Washington State’s cyberstalking law, passed in 2004, makes it illegal to send electronic communications repeatedly or anonymously with the intent to “harass, intimidate, torment, or embarrass” someone – whether the message is sent directly to the target or to someone else.  Supporters of the law say it’s needed to cut down on cyber bulling, but critics say the measure criminalizes common online behavior, not to mention speech protected by the Constitution.


Privacy on Social Media3:


Few college-bound kids lose their shot, and their slot, at their dream school once they get in, but it happened at one of the world’s most elite institutions and for a reason that has, until recently, hardly registered in the university admissions process: social media.


Harvard University’s decision to rescind admission offers to 10 incoming freshmen because of offensive Facebook posts comes at a time of heightened attention to free speech and student conduct on U.S. college campuses, and has stirred debate far beyond the halls of the Ivy League school.


Harvard rescinded the admission offers after discovering the students had traded offensive images and messages on a private Facebook group, according to the student newspaper The Harvard Crimson.  The posts were often sexually explicit and mocked Mexicans, the Holocaust, sexual assault and child abuse.  Harvard does tell accepted students their offers can be withdrawn if their behavior “brings into question their honesty, maturity or moral character.”  Its decision may have been rare, but the situation it addressed was not: young applicants crossing lines in their social media posts.


Some critics see the move as a violation of the students’ privacy, and incongruent with free speech.  To be clear, there is no constitutional issue here.  The First Amendment bars the government — not private institutions — from restricting free speech.  But it also smacks of censorship.  Will the controversy make students more or less likely to speak their mind when they get to campus?  Moreover, Harvard, by rejecting the offending students, sent a clear message that students should not offend one another, which itself smacks of ‘political correctness’.

But Nancy Beane, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said zero tolerance for racist comments should be standard for all institutions of higher education.  “We’re all humans.  We’re all going to make mistakes and make poor choices in our lives, but there are consequences,” Beane said.  “I’m not sure why we’ve decided people can say whatever they want, do whatever they want, and there are no consequences for it.”


Question: Online discourse is like the ‘wild west’ – it seems anything goes.  But can online misbehavior – ‘trolling’ – be excused or justified simply because it’s become commonplace?  From a moral perspective, is there any difference between private and public discourse?


Sick Days4:


Recently, a Time Magazine commentary declared that paid sick days should be a right, and not a “benefit” as they are currently classified by employers.  The author’s reasoning is that since paid sick days are not required to be offered by law, employers don’t offer them and workers are bringing the sick with them to work.  People can’t afford to miss work, so they go when they’re sick.  Compulsory compensation for sick time would have benefits.


However, as one commenter pointed out, it’s also true:  We got rid of our sick leave.  If we offered 8 days per year, everyone was sick 8 days per year.  When we lowered it down to 6, everyone was sick 6 days per year.  Every employee was using them as extended vacations.  So we eliminated them.

So we should appreciate that there are two sides to this: that legally requiring paid sick days would help—and it would be abused.


Question:  Which side would outweigh the other?


Question:  As more and more rights and privileges are ‘created’ and ‘sanctioned’, do they threaten to crowd out moral judgement?








Sources:  1Sabrina Rojas Weiss (Yahoo News), July, 2017

                2Dayton Daily News, July, 2017

                3The Harvard Crimson via the Associated Press, April, 2017

                4Brandon Ferdig (, January, 2013


* Some materials offered were borrowed and adapted by Wayne Harper 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.