Values and Virtues
Remember back in the Seventies when “values clarification” became the rage? We haven’t recovered from it yet, and may not. Here’s why.
The focus on values seemed like a good idea at the time but it was based on an economic image: some values are more valuable than others. Why?
Because they are scarce, like gold.
Because they are difficult to manufacture, like cars.
Because the processes necessary to find them are expensive, like diamonds.
Because society suddenly developed a yen for them, like Van Gogh paintings.
Notice that all of these criteria bear no connection to any intrinsic value; they are all economically determined because that’s the primary connection we have to “value.”
An economic model of value can lead you to produce the cheapest quality goods for the most profit you can get. Charge as much as the market will bear, is the old expression.
In former times another scale of reckoning held sway. Look at any old teaching guide for an historic church like Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism or, for that matter, the Episcopalians or Lutherans. What do you find? You find discussions of and examples of virtues not values. A virtue is an instance of excellence toward which you aspire. A virtue is not related to an economic image.
Take the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (love). The Church Fathers write about these virtues as ways to counter the vices of selfishness, despair, and transgression. A virtue is a verb, really, not a noun; it represents movement in our soul, not choosing a product. The other cardinal virtues are patience, temperance, prudence, and fortitude – or courage. Together these seven virtues can create a life that is valuable. They are virtues simply because they are good – and likely also true and beautiful – in and of themselves. Bear in mind, however, that though they got fleshed out, the central aim itself is virtue plain and simple: the pursuit of excellence for its own sake.
We celebrate a number of saints, it seems, on the basis of their pursuit of excellence. Nikodim and Spyridon, for example, were bakers in the Kievan Caves Monastery. They persevered at their task for years and years, seeking to become the best bakers they could.
Work grounded in virtue pursues not happiness, but excellence. A good craftsman values his work by a standard of excellence; that is to say, his work is virtuous – and he becomes virtuous into the bargain. Brother Lawrence washed dishes to the glory of God. St Innocent of Alaska spent time learning the language of the native Alaskans, showing them how their native religion connected to Christianity, and enabling their education.
In like manner we seek to be faithful because of commitments made that are an index of virtue, not because being faithful pays off. Virtue is based on a calling to love. Love plays no necessary part in value. Value is a market concept, not a community concept. Love is the glue that holds genuine community together, and virtue is the manifestation of that love in such a way as to enable the community to rise together toward excellence. Virtues strengthen communities.
We may look back at pre-industrial societies as quaint, but the one thing that characterized those earlier societies, at their best, was a commitment to virtue at home and at work.
Values can be bought and sold. Virtues are on another plane. Virtues concern the free choices we make to move toward excellence in our lives, in our loves, and in our work. If you are looking for long-term fulfillment in your life, seek virtue.