A colleague has just drawn my attention to a regular column in Prospect magazine to which I am sure I shall, henceforth, be referring frequently.
The column, “in which,” says my colleague, “the philosopher Edward Skidelsky examines the ways in which our vocabulary betrays more than we like to admit”, is entitled Words that think for us. “Skidelsky puts the language of everyday public life – ‘liberal’, ‘values’, ‘culture’, ‘inappropriate’ – under the microscope and in the process reveals the thinking, or lack of it, behind their use.”
My kind of stuff, as I’m sure you’ll agree! The particular column he pointed me to on this occasion is entitled On values and virtues and suggests that the current buzz-word ‘value’ is not simply an innocent and synonymous substitution for the old fashioned ‘virtue’. Values, Skidelsky states, are “the debased coin of the modern moral economy.”
How so? Well, to speak of a virtue is to speak of a ‘good’ about which there is consensus. Greed is not a virtue. Generosity, by almost anyone’s standards, is.
Not so with values. “Anything can become a value simply by being valued”, Skidelsky points out. Greed has quite clearly been a value of the banking system over recent years.
We may value prosperity, but few consider the pursuit of it to be virtuous (or the possessors of it to have any inherent virtue). Similarly with popularity or success.
By discarding the word ‘virtue’ as outmoded and judgemental, we have shifted the focus from ‘what is right?’ to ‘what do I value?’; from ‘how ought I to act?’ to ‘how can I achieve my goals?’
And I’m as guilty of it as the next person. A search for the word ‘values’ on this blog returns ten entries, while ‘virtue’ is mentioned in only four. This linguistic creep is all-pervasive, it seems.
I’ve mentioned before that I have made a conscious decision to avoid using the word ‘deserve’ in my speech and writing – at least without a great deal of thought. From today, I’m adding ‘values’ to that list. I’ll still use it, but try to restrict it to its original sense of conveying “the price or worth of something”, and its evaluative function (‘good value or poor value?’).
Will you join me? Let’s re-evaluate our values, and start valuing virtue instead!