Who Needs Values?

Wouldn’t it be easier, and more civilized, to discuss matters of common concern without them? No. In fact it would be impossible.

That conclusion will appear odd, if not offensive, to people taught to believe that it is wrong to be “judgemental” and that morality is a matter of personal taste. But in fact it is a contradiction in terms to say it is wrong to talk about right and wrong.

To admit values into a discussion of public policy certainly does not automatically require accepting the entire agenda of George W. Bush any more than does admitting religion require approval of the Spanish Inquisition. Indeed, no less an icon of the Canadian left than Tommy Douglas, father of socialised medicine and an ordained minister told the Saskatchewan legislature in April 1954 that, “I made a pledge with myself that someday, if I ever had anything to do with it, people would be able to get health services, just as they are able to get educational services, as an inalienable right of being a citizen of a Christian country.” Likewise the famous German-born American theologian Paul Tillich once said that “any serious Christian must be a socialist.”

Not everyone agrees, of course, from George Bush to the Vatican. Accepting the legitimacy of values does not commit oneself to accept the entire agenda of Karl Marx either. We need to discuss them, not in order to resolve all disagreements quickly and get on with ordering lunch, but in order to conduct arguments, and understand our own positions better than we often seem to at present.

It is from the perspective of intelligent discussion, not securing an underhanded triumph for any particular point of view, that the current mania for being non-judgmental must be judged both irritating and unsound. It is the great error against which G.K. Chesterton laboured, more than any other: The self-annihilating claim that there is no truth. If true, it can’t be, which really ought to consign it to the rubbish heap of philosophy. Instead it appears and reappears in an amazing number of guises and it is all around us today. And while it is true that it this notion seems largely to be associated with those on what can and should be called “the left”, it is manifestly evident that they don’t really believe it either and, having no legitimate stake in it, should not feel uneasy at its being banished from the discussion.

Surely supporters of homosexual marriage believe it is wrong to deny gays the right to marry. Surely they believe it is wrong to be “homophobic”. Surely they believe it is profoundly wrong to call people nasty names because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin or any number of other things like physical handicap. Indeed, would they not find widespread agreement on the last part about nasty names (including from me), though much less on the question of gay marriage?

What is at stake here then is not whether right and wrong exist, but what properly deserves to be called right. How are we possibly going to make any progress in that direction until we accept that it is right to talk about right and wrong?

It is a long and difficult journey, and it would be fatuous to suppose that we can settle all questions of morality in the next few months if only we try. Indeed, history suggests that a consensus except on the most basic points, such as that murder is wrong, is unlikely to be achieved. (Even there, no sooner is it agreed that murder is wrong than people start arguing about what constitutes murder.) The end of the discussion may be more progress within than among individuals, though that too is an outcome not to be sneered at. But it all starts with legitimizing discussions about values.

To say it is wrong to call something wrong is itself wrong, intellectually and arguably morally, as well. We all have a duty not to talk drivel, even idly, let alone polemically. There are complex discussions ahead of us about what are true values, which are most important, and how to apply them to public policy. But they can’t even start until we are clear that right and wrong are neither an illusion nor a distraction but rather the central question on any issue.

Values. They’re quite simply invaluable.

[First published for the Institute for Canadian Values]

ColumnsJohn Robson