I recall a conversation with a young mother some years ago. I did not know her well; we ran into each other when walking our young children to elementary school. We talked about how we were raising our children. She said she was going to take her daughter out of public school and send her to private school. I was surprised. I was then committed to public schools. Why? I asked. Because I want, she answered without any hesitation, my child to have values.
I did not initially understand what she meant. I thought - in social scientist mode - that she had no alternative but to raise her daughter according to her values. Later, I thought I figured out what she meant. She wanted her daughter raised according to her Christian beliefs. That realization raised further questions in my mind. Did she think that she would have no values if she were a secular humanist?
I never had the opportunity to discuss my acquaintance's views on values. She soon enrolled her child in private school. Our routes to school were different. Years later, my sympathy for the concerns of that young woman has grown. I became more conservative. Moving closer to the world she occupied, I obtained a new understanding of her values and her philosophy of values. I think now that what she wanted for her daughter was an education in absolute, universalistic values about right and wrong and what is valuable and what is worthless. She wanted her child to grow up in a school that offered what her home offered; that is, a structured world of absolute values.
The young woman's concern about the values in our society was a response to the great shift in values that America and Western society in general have undergone in the past 150 years. In an earlier era, our values were (and we thought they were) absolute and universalistic. We assumed that, for instance, right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, and worthiness and worthlessness were objective features of the world that did not change over time, were shared by - or were at least true of and appropriate to - all societies, and were understandable by everyone.
What a revolution we have gone through! Today, throughout secular Western society, values are understood to be culturally relative. What is right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, valuable and worthless in one society will be different in another society. We think it is right and justified for the state to execute serial killers; other societies do not. We think (or at least we used to think) that physical mutilation of the body by scarring was ugly and unhealthful; in other societies, men and women adorn themselves with intricate scarrings and think themselves beautiful.
For us today, all decisions to do right or wrong are made in social situations. Right is right and wrong is wrong relative to the situation. We believe that different societies with contradictory values are both right and justified each in their values. We have made cultural relativity central to emancipatory liberalism, justifying in turn racial integration, sexual liberation, feminism, and homosexual life style.
The shift of official culture from universal, absolute values to cultural relativity is, I submit, the most important, fundamental shift Western society has undergone. The shift relegated value absolutism to the social niches of religious minorities. It trivialized the importance of values in social beliefs and social cohesion, in favor of raw utilitarianism. It undermined Western self-assurance. Western cultural self-confidence is so weak today that official elites are unable to voice a vigorous defense of the West against the vicious, totalitarian threat of radical Islam.
In this series of articles, I shall examine values - what they are, where they come from, how they work, how we might change them. I cannot promise that my presentation of this theme will be linear and predictable. While I am looking at some ideas I already know, I am mostly exploring. I start out with a conservative orientation of which I am aware, but I do not know what conclusions I will reach. My postings might not be regular, because I will be reading as I go along. "Values" are a large, involved topic, of interest to all social science disciplines, as well as religious culture and popular culture. (There is even a philosophical specialty that studies values in general, called axiology.) We will start, of course, by making definitions.