Chapter Three: Value at the Heart of Our Humanity

As I suggested in Chapter One, it would hardly be possible for an “evil force” to be an important reality, or for “the battle between good and evil” to be an important dynamic in the human drama, unless there were reality to “value” itself (i.e. unless some things are REALLY better than others).

So let’s explore that issue now.

XXXX God is Not Only Not Necessary, but is No Way Sufficient, to Define the Good XXXX

For years, I conducted radio conversations with a mostly conservative audience in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Many of my interlocutors had an attitude — as expressed in the words of a bumper-sticker of the time –“God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”

They and many secular liberals would agree on one thing: without the authority of God, there can be no sound basis for moral judgment.

But that judgment has a major flaw.

Would the fact that God said we should do something be sufficient to establish that it would be morally good for us to do it? When I asked that question, my fundamentalist callers seemed genuinely puzzled that I could even ask such a thing.

“What if God — what if the Creator of the Universe –were some sort of monster?” I would venture further. For people who have spent their entire lives putting the idea – the absolutely unquestioned idea -– of an all-good God at the center of their worldview, it might be difficult to imagine a God who was not good. But a God who is not good is not logically impossible. Indeed, the idea of an Evil Creator has been believed by some religious groups in history. We should at least be able to imagine what some people have deeply believed.

“Are you saying,” I asked, “that whatever some All-Powerful Being that created the universe commanded us to do — no matter what He might be like, even one with what we would call an evil nature and who commanded us to torture babies and be cruel to our neighbors — would be good by definition?”

It seemed to be hard for them to grasp the issue: “But God is good,” they contend, “so if He tells us ‘This is good,’ we know it’s so.”

In the statement, “Our God is good,” we can see the logical hole in the whole argument. If these believers have judged their God to be good, they must be using some other criterion that God’s word to define what is good. And if it conceivable that a God might not be good, then we have need of that other criterion.

The belief in God thus does nothing to solve the problem of the Good. True believers and secular rationalists alike face the same challenge: to come up with a basis for judging what is good.

And fortunately there is such a basis.

XXXX Value at the Heart of Our Humanity XXXX

Ideas have consequences. And not just among those who create, or study, or work with them. The great John Maynard Keynes said that, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” In the same way, I expect that a lot of liberal, educated Americans – who spend no time exploring issues of epistemology or moral philosophy – are in the grip of some of the ostensibly “rational” philosophy that arose in Western civilization with the advancement of science and declared that values are not really real.

In his twin essays, “Science as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation,” the great early twentieth-century social thinker Max Weber declared that science is incapable of saying what we should do but can only advise about the probable consequences of one course of action or another.

Weber apparently would not have felt able to declare, as a statement of truth, there was anything really wrong about a political force, such as that we see on the political right in America today. I say that this force is systematically damaging those structures in our society that serve the good. But Weber would say that judgments regarding “the good” lie outside of what can be known scientifically, with reason making sense of evidence.

Similarly, the logical positivists declared statements of value to be “meaningless.” They cannot be objectively verified; they are statements of the speaker’s subjective opinion, perhaps emotionally based, and they have no real truth value.

This is an unnecessarily cramped view of truth, and of what can be discerned from looking at the evidence and thinking rationally about what it shows.

Here’s what I think science shows about value: ITALIC: value is emergent with the evolution of life.

In the beginning, science tells us, there was the Big Bang and billions of years passed before even the most primitive beginnings of life appeared (at least in our corner of the universe). For those billions of years, one cannot speak of “value.” Value is about things mattering, and that means things mattering to someone. If there’s no one for things to matter, then there can be no value.

That way of looking at value suggests how wrong-headed it is to declare value not “real” because it is not “out there.” Value can only exist within the “in here” of creatures capable of EXPERIENCE, and whose experience is that things matter.

But the emergence of such creatures was the inevitable outgrowth of the evolutionary processes that emerged “out there.”

The first step in the differentiation of positive value from negative value is inherent in the process of natural selection central to the evolution of life. It is not, so far as can be seen scientifically, that there’s any “designer” or “creator” who is expressing a preference. It is just an inevitable aspect of the evolutionary process — the operation of chance in a system where the laws of chemistry and physics are obeyed — that the system chooses life in preference to death. Those forms that can survive and replicate their kind are “chosen” over those forms that cannot. That is the essence of the process of “natural selection.”

The “preference” of the selective process for life over death does not by itself create value. That’s because – or at least so I imagine – the very primitive life forms that arose at first cannot be said to have, themselves, any preference for one thing (including life) over another (such as death). Whether or not I’m selling short those earliest forms of life, in time this selective process yields forms of life –- definitely including, but not only, us —- to whom things really do matter.

The “choice” of life over death leads directly to the next step in the emergence of value.

Each form of life is structured to do those things that, in the history of its kind, have been conducive to survival, and to avoid what has historically been associated with the failure to survive. Over time the evolutionary process’s “preference” for life over death brings forth creatures whose motivational structures are powered by the positive or negative valence of their experience.

Creatures get put together so that what has served life feels “good” and what has hindered and destroyed life feels “bad.”

At last, out of a universe in which nothing has mattered to anything or anyone, something matters. With the development of life, with the emergence of creatures to whom things matter, value enters into the universe.

That is how value is an emergent dimension of what (apparently) began as a cold, lifeless, indifferent universe.

[[It matters to a baby whether it is cuddled or tortured.

It matters whether the world is more governed by “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” or by “the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must” (in the words of the Athenians in Thucydides).

It matters whether the human world is as in the “Bedford Falls” scenario in the movie ITALIC: It’s a Wonderful Life – a world in which there is community, and love, and families thriving or as in the “Pottersville” scenario, a society ruled by greed and the lust for power, where people are wounded and the town is pervaded by brutality and meanness.

It matters — to put it in the most fundamental terms — whether the needs of creatures who experience value have their needs fulfilled or whether they live in misery.]]

BOLD: To say that value is not real, because it’s “merely” based in experience, makes as much sense as to say that pain is not real.

[NOTE: I’m using “pain” and not pleasure or happiness as the exemplar for the undeniable reality of subjective experience for good evolutionary reasons. Pain is, simply, more powerful and undeniable. Any fool can inflict unbearable pain, but comparable pleasure – on a second-by-second basis – is difficult to achieve. We are wired, as the social psychologists say, to have greater motivation to avoid loss than to achieve gain. Life can be lost in an instant, but the apparatus to sustain life must be developed over time. Pompeii took generations to construct, but only moments to destroy]

Indeed, without creatures having experience, nothing even COULD matter, and thus nothing could be better than anything else, and thus there could be no value.

Experience is, of course, inherently “subjective.” But subjective does not mean idiosyncratic. To say that value is not real because it is a function of “subjective” experience makes (almost) as little sense as to say that there’s no such thing as human anatomy. Human values are just as real and objective and transpersonal as human anatomy for, at their root, human values are part of the same evolved blueprint –a design for life—that yields our anatomy.

XXXX What About Disagreements about Value? XXXX

But what about the fact that people disagree about questions of value? Does that not prove that value is merely a matter of opinion?

Here are two parts of an answer.

First, not all opinions warrant being given the same standing. Just as a mangled or diseased body does not show “human anatomy” as well as well as a healthy one, some of the notions of “value” that we find in the human world are manifestations of a disorder, and not reflective of the system of values that is ingrained in humankind.

Recall the quotation from a student of mine: “What the Nazis did at Auschwitz isn’t what I would have done, but from within their perspective it was right, and so it was right for them.”

Whether it was according to their “values” or not, what the Nazis did was profoundly injurious to the human world generally. The force that drove the Nazis was one of the darkest embodiments of “brokenness” that history has ever witnessed.

We’ll be exploring the sources of this brokenness, how it reflects – and is the fruit of — a profound disturbance in the order of life on earth. Let it suffice for now to point out that fascists elsewhere had a toast, “Vive la mort!” (Long live death).

Whereas the evolutionary process that created us itself chooses life over death, and therefore crafts creatures like us to choose life over death – the most fundamental of choices– the dark spirit of those Nazis whose values the students would say “was right for them” had reversed that choice. What clearer sign of human brokenness could there be?

That’s the first response to the question about the reality of disagreement about values. The second is more complex.

In a complex world, and in a species that devises very diverse cultures to deal with that complexity, even in the absence of forces of brokenness cultures (as well as individuals) would vary in their hierarchy of values.

But what matters here is not that there is ITALIC: a single valid solution to devising a life-serving culture, but that there is a foundational criterion for what is good: what is good is what enhances life, what meets the needs of and brings fulfillment to living creatures to whom things matter.

The values built into us may be more malleable in the hands of culture than our anatomy –the bound foot of the Chinese woman notwithstanding —- but their essence is still part of the reality of our kind.

(We are by nature creatures who walk upright. But different cultures teach different styles of this fundamental human practice.)

It should also be stressed here that this case for the REALITY of value by no means argues for the SIMPLICITY of questions involving value. In the real world, it is constantly necessary for us in our decision-making to weigh one value (or set of values) against another. We continually have to make decisions despite our uncertainty about what the actual consequences of our alternative course of action would be. (Indeed, I have written an unpublished book — which can be found at … — with the title NOT SO STRAIGHT-AND-NARROW: WHY KNOWING WHAT’S BEST TO DO IS NOT A NO-BRAINER.)

But the complexity of actual moral decision-making has nothing to do with the point of this argument: that VALUE IS REAL. Once that basic point is established — that things actually do matter, in the only way that value could ever meaningfully exist, i.e. in the lived experience of creatures to whom there is a better and a worse — we have escaped from the debilitating and hollow worldview that dismisses values as “mere” opinion.

In order to regain its moral and spiritual passions, Liberal America does not have to to embrace the forms used by traditional religion to represent the issues of good and evil. That reconnection can be achieved, by moving further forward along the path of rational, empirically-based scientific knowledge.

XXXX Is Nothing Sacred? The Sacred as Value to the Nth Degree XXXX

I declared above that to say that value is not real, because it’s based in experience, makes as much sense as to say that pain is not real.” Value, like pain, is something that inherently must be in the realm of experience. The issue is much the same with the question of whether anything is “sacred.”

Once again, as with value, our understanding of “the sacred” should begin with FACTS CONCERNING HUMAN EXPERIENCE. The experience of things as partaking of a dimension that feels “sacred” is simply a fact of human life -— not necessarily in every human life, but in many, across cultures and through the millennia.

Words can mean, of course, whatever we agree for them to mean. But the definition I am proposing is not an arbitrary one. It is not arbitrary because it gives a name to something that is clearly both real and of utmost importance. “the sacred” can be meaningfully understood as that which we experience as having a particularly special, exalted kind of value.

It is a human reality that people have experiences that are so luminous, that feel so powerful and rich, that these such moments seem to provide a vision into a deeper dimension of reality. People have experiences that imbue elements of their lives with a level of meaning and value that transcend the ability of mere words to convey. (And often people speak in terms of “the sacred” when describing these experiences.)

It seems fitting to define “the sacred” as what people experience s having “value to the nth” degree.

[As with value, there are many whose definition of the sacred is couched not in terms of human experience but rather of the authoritative pronouncements of a Deity. But again, as with value, it is not clear why any such pronouncement, from any CONCEIVABLE deity, should compel our agreement.

[We might, out of fear of consequences — e.g. to avoid the fate of Uzzah in the Bible who is struck dead because he touched the Ark of the Covenant (albeit not out of disrespect, but in order to save it from falling). But heeding the Almighty’s dictates as to how He wants us to treat what He regards as sacred treated is not the same as our being inspired with the feelings — love, devotion, reverence — that the experience of the sacred generally inspires.

[(Again, as with “value,” individuals and different cultures will inevitably differ in their priorities, and in how they structure their lives. Those differences can lead, in turn, to different ways of mapping the sacred. Yet, despite such variations, the cross-cultural overlap in the experience of the sacred are massive —- starting with sacredness of life, of family as the main nexus of human relationships, of place and home, of the natural cycles that sustain life, of justice and beauty and love, etc.)]

About value I wrote that “To deny that values are real makes as much sense as to deny that pain is real.” Similarly with the sacred, ITALIC: to deny that “the sacred” is real makes as much sense as to deny that excruciating pain is real.

A billion years ago, one would assume, there was no such thing as “excruciating pain.” But pain, like value and the sacred as well, has been “emergent” in the development of creatures to whom thing matter.

What is less clear about “the sacred” than with “value” generally is why it would have emerged out of the evolutionary process. With “value,” it is clearly an important “strategy” for evolution to infuse creatures with the motivation to do what past history of their species has shown to be a good bet to aid in their surviving to pass along their genes. And thus the domain of “value” includes not just humans, but many other species as well.

(Certainly my cat experiences the difference between better and worse. Things definitely matter to her. But just how much of the system of life on earth has anything like an “experience of value” — some sort of fulfillment or misery — that warrants being included in the calculus of “the good,” I feel in no position to judge.)

But with “the sacred” matters are less clear. Do other creatures have a dimension of experience that corresponds to what human beings report, of value to the nth degree, of entering what seems like a deeper dimension of reality? If so, what role does it play in their lives? And if not, can one provide an explanation of how and why the process natural selection would craft this human capacity or proclivity into our nature?

Is there something perhaps about the degree of flexibility entailed by being a “cultural animal”? Does that great range of indeterminacy make deep and searing moments particularly valuable as a way of providing some needed deep orientation toward what is important, and good and worthy of protection?

That line of possible explanation gains a degree of credence in view of yet another FACT. Not only is it the case that the human experience of “the sacred” is real, but also it is factual reality that such impactful experiences play an unusually important role in the human story.

In the lives both of individuals and of entire cultures, the experience of the sacred seems to come with an imperative power that moves people to orient themselves around those experiences. Individuals will guide their lives by such moments (that has certainly been true for me).

[BACKNOTE: Schweitzer: p. 25 of intro, by Charles R. Joy, to GOETHE: FOUR STUDIES BY ALBERT SCHWEITZER, of such a moment in Schweitzer’s life, described as “an ecstatic experience, a transfiguring mount of vision: He had been “struggling to find the elementary and universal conception of the ethical that I had not discovered in any philosophy.” Then: “Late on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind unforeseen and unsought, the phrase, ‘Reverence for Life.’ The iron door had yielded: the path in the thicket had become visible. Now I had found my way to the idea in which world- and life-affirmation and ethics are contained side-by-side!”]

And entire cultures – having enshrined such moments in sacred texts — will structure themselves around them.

Individuals vary, it seems, in whether and how much they are susceptible to such a deepening of the experience of meaning and value in their lives. But it does seem to be empirically true that such a special dimension of experience has been pretty universal cross-culturally and throughout history

Every human culture has language. From which we can infer that the propensity to develop and learn language is a part of our humanity.

Every human culture has music. From which we can infer that the propensity to create and respond to music is a part of human nature.

Every human culture — so far as I know — has organized itself around a vision of the sacred. From which we can infer that experiencing the sacred dimension is a core part of our humanity. And from the power that people and cultures give the experience of a sacred dimension, we can infer that contacting that dimension connects us with the human core and with the wellspring of meaning and feeling that comes from that core.

That is why it can be concluded that any worldview that fails to provide that connection — fails to provide access to an awareness of the sacred — is one that forfeits an important form of human power.

Is nothing sacred? Not so in any healthy culture.

Does Liberal America, in our times, convey a sense of the sacred? FDR did, which demonstrates that there is nothing inherent in the liberal approach the precludes it. But I don’t hear it among the main spokespeople of Liberal America today. And that is almost certainly deeply connected with why in this time of profound national crisis, Liberal America has been so blind and so weak.

For the sacred, like value itself, is part of the deep core of our humanity. And a loss of connection with that level, that dimension, cuts us off from those moral and spiritual passions by which people of good will can defeat a mighty and evil force.

With that foundation now established, let us proceed with showing how something like an “evil force” has grown out of the evolutionary processes (biological and cultural) that have led our species to our present extraordinary –yet troubled — position in the whole system of life on earth.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *