Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

My values, your values and objective truth

Our society has a problem. A few really, but one of the big ones, according to Professor Iain Benson, is the language it uses to describe what it believes to be true. During his Wednesday night visit on 7 September 2016, the international constitutional and human rights lawyer and religious liberty expert (also a father of seven children) explained to the boys about how society has managed to bankrupt the term ‘values’.

Yes, it’s true – everybody uses this term, whether to explain how they feel about a topic or to describe the beliefs of a particular group. So what’s the issue?

The problem with ‘values’ language

Benson was clear about how ‘values’ language is problematic: that it is relativistic, and that it undermines the existence of an objective good.

“We know two things about values language,” said Benson. “Firstly, axiom is this: ‘You have your values, and I have mine’. The second one is: ‘Don’t push your values on me.’”

“So with that characterisation, what we’ve done first of all is make values relativistic (you have yours, I have mine – it’s subjective); and secondly we’ve made it so that they don’t share anything about an objective good – there’s no claim on you from anything that I call a value.”

Are values important?

“If I asked you for a show of hands at the beginning of this talk of who thinks values are important, everybody would have put their hands up,” said Benson, continuing that he hoped that the boys would be more cautious in their opinion by the end of the talk.

But why? Benson went on to say that the fact of the matter is that the term ‘values’ is used by everybody – politicians, leaders, even bishops. However they all use it in a distinctive way, by attaching a term to it – for example ‘Australian values’, ‘Christian values’ or ‘family values’, thinking that by doing so, they’re giving it moral substance.

“But of course that’s nonsensical because of the first two axioms given at the beginning,” said Benson. “If we were to say ‘Who thinks Australian values matter?’, everyone’s hands would go shooting up, but the minute we become specific about an issue, like immigration, or abortion, or euthanasia, or same-sex marriage, we discover that the Australians who will put their hand up for Australian values suddenly don’t agree. They don’t know what is being spoken about when they embrace the joint term – and this is true for everyone in the specific categories that I mentioned. The moral debate about an issue is what matters, and the term ‘values’ obscures it.”

‘Values’ language obscures morality

If people don’t understand the specifics of the group of values that they are applauding, it is no wonder that ‘values’ language blurs morality. On this point, Benson quoted George Grant, a Canadian philosopher, who he a described as a wonderful fellow who’s books had a big impact on him.

“Grant once said this about ‘values’ language: ‘Values language is an obscuring language for morality, used when the idea of purpose has been destroyed.’ That’s why it cannot be the language we use when we talk about the good, the beautiful and the true. It is not a moral language. We think it is – we use it in medical ethics, we use it in politics, we use it in law; and everywhere, it confuses moral discourse – it does not advance it.”

When asked about why society has obscured the use of the term ‘values’, Benson made the point that people are scared of morality – it’s nerve-racking to have to decide what’s wrong, because if there is truth, then humans may be obliged to live by it.

So how should we describe morality? Virtues, of course!

“So what language should we be using to discuss the good, the beautiful and the true?” asked Benson. “What language should we be using to discuss the important moral dimensions of all the things we do, whether we’re doctors, lawyers, politicians, parents, brothers and sisters?… We’re human beings; we share a life, but we need to share that moral language.”

If ‘values’ language obscures objective good, Benson argued that virtues are the way to go when it comes to describing morality.  In particular, the cardinal virtues, which are universal because they are perceived to be important, in any context, through the use of natural reason.

“From the Catholic tradition and from the Greeks there are four cardinal virtues. Cardinal from the word cardo for hinge, because all human activity hinges on these four things: justice, wisdom, moderation and courage… Every tradition, religious and non-religious, acknowledges these in various languages; they all understand these four notions.”

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: details of other guest speakers are available here]