Theory Teacher's Blog

Values

What are values? My friend Leigh, a professor of philosophy, made a video called “American Values,” which she discusses on her blog [here], [here], and [here]. Her idea is pretty straightforward and very smart, and it goes something like this: you hear pundits on the television networks refer to American Values all the time, but often they don’t say precisely what those values are, or they seem to assume a very short list. So, in response, she asked people to mail in photographs that illustrate their values, and the video she made from these photographs emphasizes just how many different kinds of values people have. It took me a while to decide which value I wanted to contribute to the project, because I had a few. For one of them (“irony”), I couldn’t figure out how to photograph an image that would go along with the word, so I sent in something else (and you have to watch the video to find out what.) 

Essentially, we might say that Leigh’s video exemplifies the e pluribus unum of America — the somewhat anti-essentialist motto “one out of many” that, ironically, appears on the most basic measure of value for American capitalism, the dollar bill.

As you watch the values go by on the screen, they range from coffee and music to strength and exercise, from authenticity and truth to irreverence and metaphor, from family and friends to solitude and non-attachment. It is a wonderful list. And in addition to the obvious diversity and even divergent contradictions between some of them, what strikes me about the list is something that most of them seem to have in common. If you will allow me to propose a general definition, I might say that values are both what we desire and what we feel are necessary to our lives. Some values are material things, others are ways of behaving ethically, and still others are abstractions, idealizations, or principles, but in all of them there seems to be something almost contradictory — we desire them, and if we desire them, we admit they aren’t plentiful or permanent. They may even be fleeting and rare, yet we believe they are also necessary, and if they are necessary, they are foundational for our social existence. And so it seems to me that the structure of value is a strange and almost contradictory dialectic between the foundational and the scarce, between the basic and the special or precious. For instance, one of the values in the video is the most necessary thing for our existence — fresh air — but why this is named as a value at this moment in history is because it is now perceived to be becoming scarce. It is a beautiful dialectic, but underneath it all, there is something a bit awe-inspiring and maybe even somewhat scary.

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March 7, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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