The following piece is slated to be chapter 7 in the second volume of Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom (itself based on an Internet-based talk radio show of the same name I did in times past). My inimitable and wisdom-seeking partners in dialogue are Earle F. Zeigler, Ph.D. and Alan Abramowitz, Ph.D. Earle’s words are indicated by the initials EZ, Alan’s are AA, and mine are JM. For paragraphs with no initials, assume they are a continuation of the speaker who was speaking in the previous paragraph. Enjoy this chapter entitled The Multifaceted Self: Ethics, Politics & Psychology.
JM: I want to examine characteristics, demarcations, and aspects of the self vis-à-vis various groups and divisions within society. Hopefully doing so will shed some light on internal values and virtues, and the idea of a “values divide” between political ideologies, groups, states, philosophical orientations, religions, and so on. As well: wise as opposed to conventional (or, dare I say, wise as opposed to ignorant)! I have two guests I am eager to speak with about this intriguing topic. First, Alan Abramowitz, Ph.D., professor of political science at Emory University, and then Earle F. Zeigler, Ph.D. a very interesting polymath and wise old man who wrote many books, including A Way Out of Ethical Confusion: Untangling the Values Fiasco. I have many questions about the multifaceted self in society, but I want to be sure to take the opportunity to ask my guests questions about the philosophy of a good life I call “living a life of value.”
“Who are we, we Americans? The answer is murkier at this moment than at any point in our history. Election Day is probably an ideal time to stop and think about that, although it seems we rarely think about it at all.” ~ Anna Quindlen
…Rich/poor. Palestinian/Israeli. Islamic/secular. Liberal/conservative. Authoritarian/humanistic. There are many ways that humans divide themselves. It is in fact natural and appropriate for one to draw a circle with oneself in it, and include certain persons and exclude others. In social psychology, this is known as the in group/out group phenomenon. Some people draw the boundary fairly close to themselves – the loners, cults, and insular families of the world – while others don’t stop until they have included all of humanity (think of sages and the wisest among us).
Most of us draw the line to include oneself, one’s nuclear family, some extended family, fellow congregants, etc. However, the degree to which a person feels aligned with (versus exclusive of) others depends heavily on the situation. Consider an individual who attends a sporting event with 40,000 people in the stadium; if it’s a “home game,” 35,000 people would be considered to be on the same team, and there is a distinct rivalry between us and them.
Note the wonderful example, the Robber’s Cave Experiment by pioneering social psychologist Muzafer Sherif. Boys at a summer camp were easily led to have a bitter rivalry with a neighboring camp, and only when the groups were purposefully brought together by the creation of an external task or goal (e.g., freeing a stuck truck that was carrying food for both camps), did they develop any kind of coherence and kinship.
When the sports fan leaves the game, the sense of “my team” versus “the opposing team” wanes and they may begin to visualize themselves differently. Perhaps they are “cut off” by another driver and now the circle is so tight that it only includes the self. On Sunday, there may be a distinct feeling of togetherness while the individual attends services at a local church. I know I personally have at times thought of myself as a lone individual, a husband in a marriage, a lover of the rock group Rush, a sports fan, a Jew, a political progressive, a counselor of a cabin of boys at summer camp, a UCI anteater, etc.
The summer camp milieu is particularly telling because yes, the group of 10 or 12 of us saw ourselves as a cabin among many cabins, but during meals, the songs we sang and the presence of everyone else in the dining hall led to a certain “widening of the boundaries.” There were also other experiences that changed the ingroup/outgroup phenomenon, like when we were divided into colors – red, blue, yellow and white, for example – and engaged in camp-wide games that lasted a whole day. Suddenly, the circle was tightly drawn around members of my same color (a diverse sample of members of all the cabins). We also got a sense of “us vs. them” when the neighboring camp would join us in a basketball game and our best competed against their best.
As well, one can easily tap into a sense of “Boston!” or “South Carolina!”, or the whole United States versus another country (or, in the case of the Olympics, every other country). Finally, when we consider that we may not be alone in the universe – or as in the case of a fiction such as Star Trek™, it is the entire planet against say, the Romulans, which, according to lore, is a relatively similar planet that often does selfish or underhanded things to endanger us.
These divisions are clearly represented in other animal species as well. The circle around me or us is based in “survival of the fittest” and the “tribal schema” that has been “selected for” (evolutionarily speaking) throughout the millennia – individuals and/or tribes which possess certain characteristics are more likely to be successful and out-compete rivals. In fact, one can probably assume that if the ancient Israelites did not outcompete rivals, defend their tribe/s successfully, and benefit from either luck or providence, billions of Earthlings wouldn’t be monotheists today.
“A political-economic system can continue to violate the values it affirms for a very long time without major consequences. It is unlikely, however, to be able to do so forever.” ~ Gar Alperovitz
…Today on the show, I want to examine characteristics, demarcations, and aspects of the multifaceted self vis-à-vis various groups and divisions within society. I have two guests I am eager to speak with about this intriguing topic. I’m happy to welcome Alan Abramowitz, Ph.D. He is a professor of political science at Emory University; he received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Rochester and his Ph.D. from Stanford University. He has authored and co-authored four books, contributed to dozens of edited volumes, and written more than 40 articles in political science journals dealing primarily with political parties, elections, and voting behavior in the United States. His most recent book, Voice of the People: Elections and Voting Behavior in the United States, was published in 2004 by McGraw Hill. A recent research paper by Professor Abramowitz notes that people in the United States do seem divided; he writes: “The high level of ideological polarization evident among political elites in the United States reflects real divisions within the American electorate.”
Hello Professor Abramowitz, welcome to the show. Would it be okay if I called you Alan?
AA: Hi, absolutely. Glad to be here.
“How long will it be for one or both of America’s dominant political parties to collapse of its own internal corruption? And what happens if the American people, disgusted by the hollowing out of representative democracy and alienated by the performance of both parties, turn away altogether from civic participation?” ~ Bill Moyers
JM: I’m glad as well. You have a lot of interest in and experience studying what Americans are thinking, what they value, how they are voting, and how they participate in our system. Share a little bit about why that interests you so.
AA: I suppose I’ve always been interested in elections and public opinion ever since I was an undergraduate, and then in graduate school. It always seemed to me that public opinion and elections were in some ways the foundation of our democratic political system, and it was very important to understand what people were thinking about, what their concerns were, how they acted on such concerns, and how the concerns were perceived and acted on by our leaders.
JM: Mm-hmm. What are some of the things that affect public opinion, and is public opinion the statistical aggregate of millions of individual’s points of view?
“You can forget about getting money out of politics entirely, mainly because of the First Amendment. But money will talk less loudly if we have public financing of elections and provide free television and radio airtime for candidates.” ~ David Callahan
AA: Right. There are many ways of looking at public opinion. One way is to view the public as a whole – such as national polls on particular issues like abortion, or the president’s approval rating. In some ways, I think it’s a little more interesting to go beyond that in ways and recognize that the public can be broken down into many sub-groups. People differ, first of all, in regard to their degree of interest and involvement in politics, and second, in terms of their background and values – what issues they’re particularly concerned about.
JM: Can you share an example of a statistical relationship between a particular variable such as a person’s education or ethnicity on the one hand, and some belief that they indeed have been found to, by and large, have?
AA: Well, in today’s politics, one factor that’s become increasingly important is people’s religious orientation. I’m not talking here so much about their denomination— although that makes some difference, and has historically been important in American politics. But what’s become more important in the past 20 or 30 years has been people’s religious beliefs and convictions and whether they hold to what you might call a more “traditional set of religious beliefs and values” or “less traditional (possibly secular).” We find that, generally, those orientations correlate pretty strongly with people’s voting behavior and their views on a wide range of issues.
JM: Then it is fair to say that there is a kind of a “values divide” between those who tend to see things in a “traditional religious way” and those who do not?
AA: Yes. We find generally that people who are more traditional— meaning they have more of a kind of “fundamentalist religious orientation” and/or identify themselves as “evangelical or ‘born-again Christians’”— tend to be increasingly on the Republican side in elections. They tend to take conservative positions on a range of issues, particularly of course the social or cultural issues, whereas those who are secular or more “non-traditional” tend to have more liberal views on those issues and vote generally for Democrats.
“I used to think that this was basically a centrist country and that political polarization was an elite phenomenon. But most of the recent evidence suggests that polarization is deeply-rooted in the economic conditions and personal values of the country. Washington is not the cause of polarization; America is.” ~ David Brooks
JM: Ok. There are other divisions that can be looked at?
AA: Oh, sure, there is still an economic divide and a racial divide in the United States. We find generally that African Americans and other minorities, to some extent, tend to vote Democratic, as do lower income people (if they do vote); and the more affluent tend to be Republican. Though, these aren’t hard and fast divisions, just tendencies, so there are many exceptions to those rules—including the generalizations about religious beliefs, which have many exceptions.
JM: Right. I find it interesting to think that African Americans don’t just automatically give support to the Democrats, but think twice about issues such as abortion and the death penalty and wars; maybe stem-cell research.
AA: Right, because some of these divisions in American society overlap and some of them sort of “cut across each other,” so people may be on one side of the divide when it comes to their economic background and interests, and on a different side when it comes to their religious beliefs or values. So, one has to look at what happens when these sorts of things come into contact with each other as they sometimes do.
JM: Mm-hmm. It’s also interesting to think about the origin of values. For example, somebody who is a fiscal conservative. It seems as though you can extrapolate from that orientation values and beliefs such as a) government is inadequate to handle people’s problems, or b) government gets too big and unwieldy and it should be pared back, or c) government spends money foolishly and therefore I should get to keep more of my money, and so on and so forth. That is part of what the values divide means: that certain people believe certain things because it makes sense to them, it works for them, and tends to be reinforced. I just like to see the way that plays out when those arguments are compared to a progressive person’s beliefs. I suppose it’s the age-old question, How are we to be governed?
“We have to put people back at the center of political campaigns. And we, as a party, must remember to stay centered on our traditional Democratic values, which are about people. The truth is, when you trade your values for the hope of winning, you end up losing and having no values – so you keep losing.” ~ Howard Dean (with Judith Warner)
AA: Right. What you find is that most Americans, in fact, have some of both sets of values; that most of us are not 100% in one camp or the other. Democrats and Republicans tend to emphasize certain parts of the argument that have the greatest popular appeal. In other words, what Republicans/conservatives would tend to focus on would be some of the sort-of “general philosophical principles” of smaller government and greater individual freedom that most Americans tend to support, whereas Democrats tend to focus on particular needs and programs that provide more concrete benefits like Social Security and Medicare (which thus have very broad, popular support). So, it’s not an absolute divide here, and how it comes out it depends on how the issue is framed.
JM: Yes, and it also raises the question, How much do people like me and other “pundit-types” and the media and political parties fan the flames of this “division” between us. Thus, the question is: How much is this values divide appropriate, natural, and normal (you know, people disagreeing about stuff) versus political parties saying, “Are you going to let that other Party get into power so they can totally screw you in this way or that?!” I mean, think about the infamous “Willie Horton television ads” that pilloried Michael Dukakis or the infamous “girl with daisy” commercial run by Lyndon Johnson against Goldwater.
AA: Yeah, I think there’s no question that politicians and parties sometimes try to exploit these sorts of divisions to their own benefit. We’ve seen that in recent elections – certain issues get played up that may be very divisive because one party or the other finds a “wedge issue:” something that can divide the opposition and therefore win over some of the supporters of the opposing party. It’s almost an inevitable part of the political process.
To a certain extent, I think these divisions are real and natural and there is nothing wrong with having disagreements, and having candidates and parties articulate divergent positions on issues, because that’s how we get some degree of popular control, hopefully, over what our leaders are doing – we have to know what they stand for and what the differences are. On the other hand though, I think there is a tendency to exaggerate these differences in the heat of a political campaign.
JM: Is it true that there is a difference you can think of which could be characterized as a kind of a “vertical” difference rather than a “horizontal” one? I think of a “red-state/blue-state” dichotomy as being a kind of a horizontal difference, and I think of another values divide as one where you have elite opinion up on top and popular opinion beneath that. So the question is, Is there a values difference between those who have more power and those who have less?
“There is a life that is worth living now as it was worth living in the former days, and that is the honest life, the useful life, the unselfish life, cleansed by devotion to an ideal. There is a battle worth fighting now as it was worth fighting then, and that is the battle for justice and equality: to make our city and our state free in fact as well as in name; to break the rings that strangle real liberty, and to keep them broken; to cleanse, so far as in our power lies, the fountains of our national life from political, commercial, and social corruption; to teach our sons and daughters, by precept and example.” ~ Henry Van Dyke
AA: I think there are always some differences between the political elites and decision-makers and the public. Certainly, I think the leaders are concerned about the views of their constituents, but what’s happened in American politics, in my opinion, is that we are seeing increasingly that leaders are not necessarily concerned with the views of the entire public, but instead those views held by the persons who funded their campaign. So, what we find is that the core constituencies (the base) of each party are increasingly distinctive, and that Democrats tend to represent one type of constituency and Republicans tend to represent another. They don’t feel they have to worry that much about the views of the other side. We can think of this in terms of states or congressional districts; you have certain states that at least in presidential elections are considered pretty safe for one party or the other. And you have certain Congressional districts that are pretty solidly Democratic or Republican.
JM: In the 2004 and 2008 primary contests, Senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) had a line he got a lot of mileage out of differentiating between “the people and the powerful.” He didn’t win; do you think it was a vacuous idea?
AA: I think that Edwards actually struck a responsive chord among a lot of voters with his theme of “the two Americas” and the divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” But I think he ultimately lost out in the competition for the Democratic nomination in part because the public’s preoccupation with terrorism and national security, and the fact that Democrats (in 2004, in the primaries) were looking for a candidate they thought could neutralize Republicans’ advantage in that area; Kerry looked like the one, at least at that time, because of his military background (his big advantage). So, I think that was ultimately Edwards’s undoing, but I predict that sort of issue could still resonate with a large segment of the public.
“The fusion of progressive and classical values I aspire to is not radical compared to, let’s say, Jesus, Jefferson, Keller, or King. It’s just that certain political factions want to marginalize a value system that does not justify the status quo in regard to race, class, church/state alliances, and societal responsibilities. Our country needs major work, and so does the world – people are suffering needlessly, and this is odious. Values of the wise are our answer.” ~ Jason Merchey
JM: My personal opinion is that it’s going to resonate further and deeper with people as our economy is shakier and shakier – we do have an $8 trillion debt at this time, meaning each of us owes $30,000 toward that, so I think some of these fiscal issues are going to be really quite important. If jobs keep moving overseas and the debt keeps rising and God forbid we have an economic recession, those issues had better strike the public as more important than whether gay people can marry! Which leads me to my last question: “family values.” That’s a term we hear a lot; say something about that.
AA: Yes, I think that is another one of these terms that gets defined in different ways, and I think what conservative Republicans have been able to do in the past is to define the term “family values” in a certain way – what we might think of as sort of “traditional morality” (issues like gay rights and so on). Obviously, there are other ways that it can be defined in terms of things like access to healthcare, parental leave policies, and so on, where Democrats and liberals have an opportunity to counter that conservative strategy. Again, I think framing is important here— how issues get defined and in what context issues are talked about.
“Two centuries of the neglect of civic virtue and republican values have caused America to become a procedural republic more attentive to individual rights than to the common good and to citizen duties. The price of this neglect has been the corruption of government by interests, loss of popular sovereignty, and erosion of civic virtue.” ~ Gary Hart
JM: Yes, it reminds me of George Lakoff, Ph.D., of UC Berkeley.
AA: I think he has some good points. I don’t think it’s all about framing, but I do think that how one makes one’s argument, and the broader context that you put issues in is very important – rather than just talking about issues in isolation. Considering issues in relation to values is very important. One of the impediments I think Kerry had in the last election is that he didn’t do as good of a job as he could have; he tended to talk about issues in abstract, policy-oriented terms – without really relating some of these issues and policies to values.
JM: Yes, I’m afraid that and the “swift boat controversy” haunt him every night before he goes to sleep! Well, Professor Abramowitz, thank you kindly for your time; it was enlightening and interesting. I wish you well. Keep thinking and writing books so that we can benefit.
AA: Sure, thank you. Good luck to you; I enjoyed talking with you.
“If we are regularly concerned with decency, intimacy, and self-direction within our own families, and if we encourage the introduction of courses in applied ethics to our educational system, we won’t have to rely on politicians, athletes, comedians, and theologians to enlighten us about family values.”
…That’s a quotation from Earle F. Zeigler, Ph.D. He’s an interesting guy; he’s been around nearly 90 years and is still going strong. Please stay tuned and when I return I’m going to ask him about the three concepts that he thinks are the most important for bringing about a way out of the “values fiasco,” as he puts it.
Dr. Zeigler is a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S.; he has taught and researched and administered programs at four universities; he’s published 55 books and monographs and 455 articles; he’s received three honorary doctorates; and he is listed in many different Who’s Who? books. His most relevant books to the current discussion are A Way Out of Ethical Confusion: Untangling the Values Fiasco in North America, as well as Through the Eyes of a Concerned Liberal, and also, Who Knows What’s Right Anymore? He seems tireless. I was very interested to have the opportunity to speak with Dr. Zeigler on the show and to pick his brain and see what he thinks about these issues. Hello, Earle!
EZ: Hello there! How are you doing? I’m happy to spend some time with you here today. Before we get started, I just wanted to say, I think what you’re doing is fantastically important – that is, to try to get people to think about values. I want to congratulate you on that.
JM: That’s very kind of you! I appreciate hearing that. It does provide an intrinsic fulfillment for me, and at its best I hazard a guess that it’s more likely to be helpful than harmful!
EZ: (laughs) A LOT more likely!
JM: I do admit I spend time watching my cat play with a ball and other things that are not likely to be helpful! But that’s okay; you’ve studied recreation for much of your career, and would probably agree that it’s important for people to have a rich life – one that allows us each to then turn toward the more serious and the more dutiful with fresh vigor. Americans are typically very hard-working people.
JM: So, I was speaking with Professor Abramowitz about some of the beliefs that Americans have and how they differ from each other. I looked at it in kind of a “horizontal” as well as a “vertical” way: namely, those with more power have a louder voice in this debate on how we ought to legislate and make certain values influential in society. Please say something about the present discussion that seems appropriate to you.
“The discussion that shapes our political future should be one about moral values, but the questions to ask are these: Whose values? Which values? And how broadly and deeply will our political values be defined?” ~ Jim Wallis
EZ: Almost everywhere one turns nowadays, it seems to me that there is a crisis in human values as we move into the 21st century. I think the most persistent problem any person faces is the necessity for the ongoing reaffirmation of his or her values – which we all hold implicitly as part of our background experience.
As we think about it we can say there are about three categories which values might be divided into. We have personal values in the sense that they relate to our everyday, immediate relationships with family and friends. Secondly, as we become professionals in some field of endeavor, I think we need to explicitly determine what our professional value orientation is. Lastly – especially the way the world is going – I think there is a third category: our social or environmental values.
I don’t know about you, but I think the world is becoming ever-more precarious— it’s getting real scary out there. So, all of this is not a simple matter to resolve, and I find that people are confused and uncertain in this regard; I’m sure you’ve found that, too. They simply have not worked out a coherent, consistent, and reasonably logical approach to the values that they hold.
JM: Three quotations are relevant as I hear you talk. I’d like to just share them with you and the listener. I’m looking at my website https://www.valuesofthewise.com/ and I typed the word “values” into what is known as The Wisdom Archive – basically a quotation search engine of awesome proportions. As of today’s date, 434 quotations have the word “values” in them. One of the quotes is by the great thinker and psychologist, Abraham Maslow. He said:
“The human being is so constructed that he progresses toward a fuller and fuller being, and this means progressing toward what most people would call ‘good’ values – toward serenity, kindness, courage, honesty, love, unselfishness, and goodness.”
…I think the important thing to think about is his use of the phrase “fuller and fuller being.” This to me means one moving further and further through one’s development as a human being. In the process, they will likely come closer and closer toward what are ultimately their values. I mean, the ones that are authentically theirs. It involves really understanding what they are, and refining them so one arrives at “good ones.” “Good” in that context means both “appropriate” as well as “virtuous.” Then, one will be more likely to find what Maslow indicated are positive outcomes, such as love and fulfillment. There is a distinctly Aristotelian flavor to all of this as well.
What does “a life of value” mean? Which are normative American values? Which values does a wise person seek to cultivate within themselves? How can one live a life that is at once comfortable, fulfilling, and moral?
An architectural metaphor is helpful when one attempts to understand and live a life of value, for it is reminiscent of designing and then building a structure. It’s not easy per se, nor is it something that you can simply decide to instantly do. It is more like being on a diet than it is deciding that you really need to lose some weight, or skipping dessert during a meal. It is akin to exercising and educating oneself, or raising a child, or following a religion – well, religiously! Albert Einstein said, “The ideals that have lighted my way have been kindness, beauty, and truth.” Note he didn’t say something like: “The ideals that have lighted my way have been selfishness, commercialism, dogma, and greed”!
“Let us today seek to find that place within each of us where dreams are made, where our highest aspirations take shape. Let us confirm the power of our humanity by giving architecture and substance to the dreams we have for our nation, so that the promised land of social and economic justice that is with in our dreams will soon be within our sight.” ~ Dennis Kucinich
EZ: You’re spelling out specific values; I think that’s a good thing. In a sense, these are standards which we perceive as being vital in our lives. Well, on the basis of those as standards, then I think the next thing we have to think about is, a related principle. If you say, “Truth is a standard or a value for me,” you would ask: What would the principle be? Answer: “We should always strive to be truthful.” Then, finally, the stage of rules: “One must always be truthful,” for example. This way we can “bring it down to Earth,” so to speak, rather than abstract notions of goodness and truth and beauty and so forth.
JM: Understood. Earle, let me ask you specifically, why is it important that people give consideration to the topic of values?
EZ: Values are the major social force that helps us determine the direction in which the culture is moving. Choices made are necessarily based on the values and the norms of the society. We have such things as social values, educational values, scientific values, artistic values, and so forth. These aspirations make up the highest level of the social system in any culture. They represent the ideal general character of a civilization. They lead to equality of opportunity, facilitation of individual achievement, rewarding hard work, and the like.
So, overall culture in itself serves as a sort of a “pattern maintenance function” as a society confronts these problems day to day. The values that people hold have a direct relationship to how the nature of the human being is conceived. So, it’s vital that if one is going to live a meaningful life, one must “get oneself in order,” so to speak, on this question of values.
JM: I think you’re right to point out that one can think of a human being as “a work in progress” and as having certain needs and desires, and searching and trying to grow. There is a spectrum: anything from needing to use the bathroom a couple times a day all the way up to humanity’s highest aspirations such as (some might say) worshipping God, giving to charity, loving, or performing an act of altruism. I have mentioned before Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which lists physiological needs on the bottom (most basic) and self-actualization at the top (most aspirational). I.F. Schumacher said:
“What are a human being’s greatest needs? As a spiritual being, he is primarily and inescapably concerned with values; as a social being, he is primarily and inescapably concerned with other people and also with other sentient creatures; as a person, he is primarily and inescapably concerned with developing himself.”
…Is it true to say, then, that as a person works on developing the self, they will also have a parallel improvement in their ability to relate to others and to be a spiritual and meaning-seeking being?
EZ: If you went back to the ancient Greeks— and I’m sticking here to Western civilization because I think I know it a little bit better than others— they thought of the human as a “rational animal.” Think Socrates. Then, Plato looked for values as being located in a different dimension – that there are values inherent in the universe (only reflected here amongst mortals). Subsequently, St. Thomas Aquinas, in the 12th century, picked up on this and he posited that the human being has a mind, a body, and a spirit.
Then, the debate started in earnest as to whether man was merely a (rational) animal or a creature with a sort of spiritual being. Then, in the Renaissance, humans were thought of as a receptacle of knowledge— i.e., there is all this knowledge out there to be gained and it just almost poured into the individual. We were perhaps focusing too much on the mind and not enough on the body, as I see it.
Then, on into the modern world, if you will; the individual is seen as a problem-solving organism; that’s when we got into John Dewey, progressive education, and so forth. We’ve had all these different visions of what the human being is, and of course, in relation to any of the approaches, there would be a different hierarchy of values attached to it. The existentialists definitely prioritized meaning as a main task of human growth and development. I would also say that one cannot be developed and be solitary, to answer your question. John Donne said: “No man is an island.”
“Contemporary notions of freedom, self-government, virtuous leadership, and a decent and flourishing civic life have their origins in the Athens of Pericles, Plato, and Aristotle. These men shaped the problems and possibilities of governance into nothing less than a political science, the terms of which have been remarkably preserved from their original understandings in ancient Athens.” ~ Daniel N. Robinson
JM: Indeed, Jan Phillips notes: “Our lives are valuable if they are based on values.” As I understand a life of value, it’s when you live a life that is valuable to you— you get pleasure from it, you find meaning in it, you’re enthusiastic— but also, you’re not just attempting to only make a buck or serve your own self-oriented needs, but are also interested in higher ideas such as civics and the social aspects of living (e.g., community, caring for the environment, and trying to make sure that other people and other beings are suffering as little as possible). A good, fulfilling, ethical life. Some would want to add spiritual or religious. In that way, our lives are valuable. We find value in it, and we are of value to something other/greater than ourselves. There is a dual meaning of the word “value” in the phrase, as I conceive it. Does that seem right to you?
EZ: You are certainly getting to the heart of it as far as I can see. I think we had probably better bring up this point: Where do these values come from? That is the thing that is causing so many problems in the world today; it always has, I suppose. In other words, when Plato started to look for values beyond or apart the world in which he was living, he implied that these values are timeless; they are “out there somewhere;” somehow or other inherent in the fabric of the universe. Forms, he called them. The Christian Church picked up on this.
So, consequently, we’ve got a situation nowadays where there is a confusion to this extent. People who are related to the Islamic religion say, “We have values that are handed down to us by Allah,” and Westerners say, “We have values that were handed down to us by God through the presence of Jesus.” And of course, these different faiths with their sets of values have a run into science, which holds that there are no values which we can really prove are superior. Well, perhaps beyond ones such as critical thinking, doubt, parsimony, honesty, and so on. But justice has been discussed and argued about since at least the time of Socrates, and even today innocent people sit on death row and some prisons are for-profit.
The only values the modern world is unequivocally into is pragmatism – if something is useful to humans, then it is valuable. So, we’ve ended up with a conflict – perhaps what you and Alan Abramowitz were referring to as a “values divide,” and frankly I don’t know how we’re going to get out of it! It divides us as communities, as religions, as nations, as religions, as social classes, as races. It’s a crisis.
JM: Are you suggesting that it’s problematic because the terrorists who ran the planes into the World Trade Center on September 11th were thinking that they were pursuing the highest values possible, and that was to serve Allah?
“I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the divine will.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
EJ: Well, that raises the concept of jihad— these young men who sacrificed their lives in order to commit this destruction felt they were living according to the dictates and the values as laid down in the Qur’an. Consequently, by committing this act, they are going to end up in the Valhalla of the Islamic religion, so to speak; they are going to enjoy eternal prosperity as a result of the important action committed to carry out the dictates of their religion. And it’s not just Islamic; looking back through history, Christians have committed terrible atrocities along the way in the name of the Christian faith.
JM: So, then, do we have any way of determining when somebody is following values that not only feel good to them, but that are, objectively, socially appropriate— that are more good than bad? Truer than subjective? More harmless than harmful?
EZ: That’s a good question. Values in any culture or society are turned into what are called norms. Those norms are then what become the laws. So, the values become the norms or principles of that society and then laws are established on that basis, and then one is a good citizen if they conform to that. Is that the essence of what you’re saying?
“How do we create a harmonious society out of so many kinds of people? The key is tolerance – the one value that is indispensable in creating community.” ~ Barbara Jordan
JM: Well, you definitely point out that it’s important to think about a person’s values in relation to the society in which they find themselves; after all, sociopaths and dissenters are in distinct opposition to their society and if they would get in line, they would be more normal and conforming. I am sure that the situation must be taken into account when analyzing any person, behavior, or norm.
I do think, though, that the proper study of ethics has made somewhat quaint (or falsified) the idea that “moral values are relative.” That is, a given society is welcome to choose incest, cannibalism, thievery, or murder (among other wrongs) and call it functional, right, good, and legal. In the case of slavery, it isn’t that in some societies it is okay and in others it is highly immoral; rather, societies have more or less a grasp of ethics and good conduct. America went to war with itself, in part, because of the disagreement about not only power, politics, culture – but the permissibility of enslavement of Africans. There were many abolitionists in the 18th and 19th centuries who were vociferous in their opposition to slavery – and they cited moral or religious principles as the backbone of their argument.
Dale Carnegie put it this way: “The ideas I stand for are not mine. I borrowed them from Socrates. I swiped them from Chesterfield. I stole them from Jesus. And I put them in a book. If you don’t like their rules, whose would you use?”
Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied, John Stuart Mill believed (quote somewhat paraphrased). Socrates tried, hard – whereas a fool doesn’t get anywhere close to enlightenment and wisdom. Sustained thinking, self-doubt, and engaging a partner in spirited dialogue can pay dividends. I believe right is right, regardless of time or society.
Now, the context matters greatly, and one’s theory of right and wrong matters, but it’s not true to say that one cannot objectively and convincingly show that justice is better than injustice, that courage is better than cowardice, that concern for the other is better than selfishness. Moral dilemmas do exist, however, and they flummox even the cleverest.
“Any deep inquiry into the self will lead to a heightened sense of our interconnectedness and interdependence on each other. Who we are, in essence, is revealed to us through our interactions. What we value is revealed to us through our relationships with others.” ~ Jan Phillips
EZ: I try to think of it as: We are all moving down a big river; if we conform to the values and the norms (and the resultant laws) of the culture, we’re sort of right in the middle of the river, moving downstream. People vary in their position this river; if they get too far to the right or too far to the left, they are going to run into rocks and projections (and if they get up on the shore then they’ve really checked out on society). So, I think that’s how we try to relate; if you and I are in this society, we have to stay relatively within the bounds of this river that represents civilization.
JM: On the one hand, I agree with what you say; for example, those rightist groups who think that society has run amok and what they need to do is arm themselves and have an insular society because they know better. On the other hand, you have a hero, let’s say – in the Joseph Campbell myth sense of the word. Somebody who is the only one who thinks differently than their group and they are what I might call “superior to” the group; more developed in comparison. They are the one who exclaims: “Hey, slavery is wrong, and even though everybody in this place and time has slaves, I don’t think this is right. How do I know that? X, y, and z…” The Elizabeth Cady Stantons and William Lloyd Garrisons of society. Maybe nine out of ten people would want status quo and personal enrichment, but who can argue with Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”? Think of the anonymous Chinese dissident in Tiananmen Square squaring off against a column of tanks.
The hero says, “No that’s not true; it’s not right.” So, I think that in the middle of the river you find normalcy. As you say, sometimes on the far extremes you run into problems, but sometimes the most glorious and righteous position is on the extreme because the river, after all, is not necessarily going in the exact right direction. I think you and I think that society has not been moving in the best direction; one could point to a number of reasons why to be critical of society is the right thing to do. “The all-purpose accusation against dissenters is that they are ‘unpatriotic,’ which is deeply ironic since those first patriots are celebrated for rebelling against government policies they considered wrong” (Anna Quindlen).
“A little learning, indeed, may be a dangerous thing, but the want of learning is a calamity to any people.” ~ Frederick Douglass
EZ: Yeah, I think you’ve got a good point there that leaders come along and say, “Hey, this has been a value of our society, this has been the norm (the way we’ve done things), but I propose we start moving in a new direction.” And of course, this is when the conflict develops. The social system is such that when these people try to change values, they bump their heads, don’t they?
JM: Yes, it’s not as easy as staying the same, doing what your elders suggest is right, and upholding the status quo. It requires a notable level of wisdom and intellectual growth in order to visualize humane and effective answers, but it will take sacrifice and effort to successfully institute the solutions we choose to try. On a personal or a societal level. We had better “bridge the values divide” and get cracking. Unfortunately, modern politics is marked by a disheartening and irrational level of divisiveness and polarization.
What do you think about the use of the term values in political parlance nowadays; do you think that maybe the word is being misused as a way to manipulate minds into voting in a way that is not necessarily in their overall best interests? Has the Moral Majority co-opted the beautiful concept of morality?
“Moral philosophy was always the exercise of free, disciplined reason alone. It was not based on religion – much less on revelation – as civic religion was neither a guide nor a rival to it. Its focus was the idea of the highest good as an attractive ideal, as the reasonable pursuit of our true happiness….” ~ John Rawls
EZ: I think it is true that values is an overused word. People just spout the word values and they really don’t pin it down. The important values now, I think, are those which allow people to self-direct their lives, have a strong possibility of creating intimacy with others, and encourage persons to deal with others in a fair way. In other words, those three ideas could be characterized as: “I have some control over what I am doing in my life; I can be intimate with others (which helps me fulfill myself); I will be fair and I hope that others will reciprocate honesty in their dealings with me.”
That gets right back to the point that you are making in regard to the different aspects of life that Howard Stern was talking about. Take the movie Brokeback Mountain as a possible example: a person who has homosexual or lesbian inclinations is a person saying, “Hey, I want to self-direct my own life; I want to have a chance for intimacy with others; I want to be treated fairly.”
Down through history, in all cultures, such people have not been treated fairly because as science or God or whatever has determined, both men and women can either end up being extremely feminine or extremely masculine; there is a kind of a spectrum. People get dealt a hand of cards, and this is what Brokeback Mountain essentially says – that here are people who are trying to conform to the norms of society (they are married, they have children, and so forth), and yet they find out that they are not constructed that way. So, our values in our society ought to be such that we give them a chance to lead a decent life.
JM: I’m probably a member of the choir to whom you’re preaching, and so I agree with you. What do you say to somebody who hears from their pastor on Sunday that gays should not be married, that the values which Jesus talked about have nothing to do with homosexuality; how do you disarm them?
“Plato taught that the ultimate purpose of the ideal community was to ensure a way of life in which all citizens may attain happiness through virtue.” ~ Judith Barad
EZ: Well, if I can be blunt, they should look for another pastor! In other words, I think that somebody who tells people, “If you’re gay, you can’t belong to this church,” I think that’s a religion that is out of date and which should become defunct. I think people in a democratic society need the opportunity for those three things I mentioned. I don’t know how we can escape it; if we don’t, we’re going to have conflict from here on out.
JM: Well, it seems like a wise idea to me. Let me ask you about this three-step approach you have. Tell me more about that.
EZ: Sure. What has happened, it seems, is that we don’t find people typically turning to the subject of philosophy from a sort of a “strict” standpoint. I mean, the field of philosophy and the people who call themselves philosophers, they used to speak to people like you and me. Philosophers were at one time famous people and their words and pictures appeared in newspapers and so forth.
Then, many philosophers decided, “Hey, that’s not our job anymore,” and so they sort of went underground into something that might be called “analytic philosophy,” where they started analyzing statements and terms ad infinitum. Gosh, they sort of left the battlefield, and so nowadays if I say to you: “Hey, name three important American philosophers,” I’m likely to receive a blank stare in return.
I related to this philosophy professor by the name of Richard Fox at Cleveland State University. Professor Fox suggested we ought to apply three principles when presented with a problem and facing an ethical decision; ask three questions and maybe it will help you discern an answer.
First, he said, I think you need to consider the answer to the question or problem: Can it be given on a world-wide basis, no matter where one is— i.e., universalizability? Second, is the solution to this problem likely to result in more good than bad – i.e., utility? Third, a test of intentions – are there any exceptions to the rule you have developed for situations such as this (ahead of time)?
Let me give you an example of how this might be handled in a practical way. Take a situation where you’ve got a young man who is a college graduate in business administration. He’s in a position with responsibility in an advertising and marketing firm, and he’s got a boss by the name of Wesley. This guy seems to be a real “go-getter.” Wes seemed to want to be very helpful to this man that I’m describing, let’s call him Brad. Brad was anxious to do well in this job and he appreciated the fact that someone was willing to “show him the ropes.” As time passed, Brad began to perceive that he and Wes were really operating on different wavelengths; Wes was always trying to cut corners and trying to get ahead of the next guy. Brad said to his wife, “I guess I’m getting too idealistic; I want to tell the truth when writing about my products. I think they’re good, but Wes is always on me to write what I feel is dishonest— borderline-fraudulent copy.”
“… teleological ethics is concerned primarily with ‘the good,’ with that which is of value, and it determines what an individual ought to do within the context of this goal. Deontological ethics, on the other hand, gives priority to what man ought to do, his duty, and it defines the good with reference to these moral rules, apart from any goals.” ~ George H. Smith
…Well, here’s this problem, and it seems pretty black and white: either you practice honesty, or not. But as many of us learn along the way, such questions can be highly complex. I suggest in the first place you say, “Well, can I cheat just a little; can I just tell the truth not quite so fully?” (Test #1): What kind of a world it would it be if people were just cheating a little. Obviously, it wouldn’t be a very nice world to live in.
Second, what would be the results for society if everyone cheated – would it create more harm than good? Would society end up better, or worse? Would more happiness result, as J. S. Mill and Jeremy Bentham would say?
Finally, are there any exceptions? Can you agree that the rule you have made should not be violated, ever? Immanuel Kant referred to these types of propositions as categorical imperatives: these command unconditionally.
For example, “Don’t cheat on your spouse.” Even if you want to cheat, and doing so would serve your interests, you may not do so. Ever. Kant was famous for his inflexibility in his ethical guidelines. Perhaps too so. Kant’s theory is an example of a deontological moral theory – the morality does not depend on the consequences of decisions, but on whether they fulfill our duty. It is the intention, not the results, that matter.
You could apply this to just about any problem. Take the sport of boxing, for another example. 1) Do you want all people in the world pounding each other in the head? Obviously the answer is “No”— the head is a sensitive thing. 2) Is it going to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people? Well obviously, no. 3) Are there any extenuating circumstances? You say, “Well, there might be times when you need to teach people to defend themselves because the veneer of civilization is very thin.” So this would give justification to put boxing and wrestling in an instructional program in such a way that children could learn to defend themselves. That’s a reasonable exception. Boxing as a professional sport is not appropriate for society.
“While it is true that our society must debate such controversial issues as capital punishment, assisted suicide, and the like, we must not forget that there exists a core of uncontroversial ethical issues that were settled a long time ago.” ~ Christina Hoff Summers
JM: Interesting view of ethics. Kind of integrative. Do you think we are headed in the right direction, as a society?
EZ: One thing that has puzzled me for a while, and which I am trying to come to grips with every day, is this question of modernity versus post-modernity, if you will. I’ve tried to figure out what is meant by “the post-modern world.” I guess post-modernism, if you want to put it very simply, is an effort by many people to counteract all of the ills that we recognize as modernity. In other words: the advances in science, the advances in technology – all of the things that are happening, have unsatisfactory results.
What happened to the original “Enlightenment ideal”? – an early American idea where all of the conditions of life – social, political, moral, intellectual, as well as material – would be realized for everyone. “The American Dream” – what happened to it? The Enlightenment ideal seems to be slipping farther and farther away.
JM: Do you analyze that as being a natural evolution, due to chance? Or a result of those people who would rather “feather their own nests” than to build “the commons?”
“Most of us need to exercise our sense of responsibility more than our rights in order to change and improve society.” ~ Ellen A. Herda
EZ: I don’t quite see it as “natural.” I was born in 1919, and I’ve been on the move ever since. It won’t be too long before I’ll have to say goodbye to this world, and I feel very sad. I hoped that by the year 2000 things would be in better shape! They’re in worse shape, you know? I thought it would be a better place for all people, but it doesn’t seem to be heading in that direction. This is why I am so happy to find what you are doing, because in many ways we are so confused about what our values are at present. We need to reconsider them; we need to restate them; and then to assess them more carefully.
In 1956 I joined the University of Michigan, and in 1963 the University of Illinois, and I found myself so embroiled in the excesses of intercollegiate athletics that I had to escape and give up my administrative position there to get away from that one problem. I moved to Canada and hold a dual citizenship.
I think commercial excess and the lust for fame is indicative of the value system of the United States. I mean, we’re not taking care of all of our people: 50,000,000 of them aren’t insured for health, to take just one example of many possible. I think it’s a question of “value orientation” as far as the whole country is concerned, and where we as a society are going. I didn’t mean to spend too much time on that, but it is fantastically important.
“For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press three.” ~ Alice Kahn
JM: Hey, I hear you. I think that somebody might think that you sound “conservative” if they only heard the last two minutes. Yet, you wrote a book entitled: Through the Eyes of a Concerned Liberal. How do you compare yourself to a conservative who says, “America is deteriorating in its morals and its values, and we need to make some big changes: we need to have a national religion, get back to our foundation, make sure that women don’t kill babies, make sure that bad guys get executed, abolish federal mandates for education, preserve gun ownership, and so on?
EZ: Well, what I think has happened is that, originally, America said to the world: “Come to our shores, you immigrants, and become Americans!” Lo and behold, people came from all directions. But in the final process, the situation has developed where they are coming from all different cultures, and we’re finding quite an ethnic mix. We have the same situation up here in Canada, and with ethnic diversity we are coming to this “clash of religions” (or what noted political science professor Samuel Huntington called “the clash of civilizations”).
What we need to stress is not what this religion or that religion says (because they are all built on what some individual dreamed up in the past – I see them as myth); what we need is an ethic today that promotes the three concepts I referenced: self-direction, fair play & justice, and intimacy. Those are the three things that people need in their lives, the important things that we should be promoting as far as ethics is concerned.
JM: I’m speaking with Earle Zeigler about the multifaceted self in society. Well, let us continue with some of the ideas that you have— the three concepts; can you give some background about how you came to believe that self-direction, justice, and intimacy are critical?
“I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” ~ Nelson Mandela
EZ: You know, we used to have a curriculum that was reading, writing, arithmetic, and Bible, I think, in the schools, and now every time something comes up we say “OK, put it in the curriculum.” Well, somewhere along the way, we forgot to put in instruction about ethics. We need to introduce the whole question of values and ethics into the schools (for elementary school children), and I think we also need to help people with their decision-making in so far as ethical problems are concerned.
JM: OK, well, let me ask you about this idea: If we were to have an ethics curriculum – what I suppose would best be termed character education – and if we were to begin to change things like boxing instruction and what have you, how do we know that people who are wise and good are making these decisions about how the curriculum is going to look; how are the teachers going to be certified? People in South Carolina would be loath to follow the federal mandates created in D.C. or Massachusetts. Call that provincial or tribal if you wish.
EZ: Actually, there are many of these courses in elementary philosophy for schoolchildren in practice at the present time. New Jersey is one state where I think I read that there was quite a bit of this. So I don’t think it’s a subject that’s out of hand, so to speak. Character education is worthy of real consideration. Not religious values, but values.
JM: What did you mean about religion – can one be moral without religion?
EZ: Well, I just think that the “world’s great religions” are fine. They’ve been fine in the past, but as we move into what I would call a “postmodern society,” we just can’t have this religion battling that religion. That is tantamount to a “clash of civilizations.” We have to figure out a way to have people work together more effectively, internationally-speaking, than they are doing at the present time. I’m thinking of the United Nations. I know some people ridicule the U.N., but its role needs to be expanded greatly. I think it has to come if there is to be a future for life on this planet. The tribalism and petty competition for resources are very dangerous.
“I believe that despite the rapid advances made by civilization in this century, the most immediate cause of our present dilemma is our undue emphasis on material development alone. We have become so engrossed in its pursuit that, without even knowing it, we have neglected to foster the most basic human needs of love, kindness, cooperation, and caring.” ~ Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
JM: Yes. “One world is enough for all of us,” as Gordon Sumner put it. There seems to be a lot of rationality behind what you bring up; I do indeed hope that ideas such as self-direction and intimacy and justice will be implemented increasingly by our leaders on a society-wide basis, and hopefully individually in our relationships. If I had to bet, I’m not sure how I would bet; I think there’s a lot of reason to be pessimistic; that it’s not going to turn out how you and I would envision it. It is understandable to be mired in hopelessness and anger about the starvation, pollution, and treachery that we sow and reap daily. But it will be your and my better angels, in the form of courage and wisdom, that allow our potential to rise to heights that Helen Keller, Ann Frank, and Harriet Tubman have dreamt would someday become reality.
So, there’s reason for optimism. That was one of the aspects for which we will all be grateful to Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek™, because he and all his fellows showed a hopeful vision for humanity’s future – no war, no hunger, no unmet needs. It’s an awesome and intriguing idea: How we can craft society and make things better for human beings (and also, preserve the habitability of planet Earth for all life) in the future. Especially considering the trajectory on which we have been for a few thousand years now. Thank you very much for your time.
EZ: Oh, you’re welcome. I want to emphasize: if people just look at their values and prioritize them and try to “keep them in front of themselves” at all times, they can self-direct their lives more effectively. Thank you very much, Jason.
JM: You left me with a smile on my face, singing my tune as you did! I was honored to speak with a man of your character. You are both humane and humanistic. I hope you live 90 more years.
“Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself.” ~ Doris Lessing
“The country is in a state where people are disillusioned, frightened, skeptical, angry, don’t trust anything, want something better, know that everything’s rotten. That’s a perfect place for organizers to come and say, ‘Okay, let’s do something about it.’ If they could do something about it in the hills of El Salvador, we can certainly do something about it here.” ~ Noam Chomsky
“If we want to know the possibilities for spiritual growth, values growth, or moral development in human beings, then I maintain that we can learn most by studying our most moral, ethical, or saintly people.” ~ Abraham Maslow
“Now is the time to think like poets, to envision and make real a new society: a peaceful, cooperative, loving world without poverty and oppression, limited only by our imaginations.” ~ Robin D. G. Kelley
“What do I do when pessimism strikes? I get together with other people. I’m encouraged when I find others who feel the way I do about things, and I realize I’m not alone. Or I’ll turn to the arts. The great poets and the writers were almost always progressive people who saw beyond the politics. So, I’ll read Mark Twain and Helen Keller and Upton Sinclair and Tolstoy and Thoreau. I’ll read things that are encouraging and uplifting.” ~ Howard Zinn
“I see that in the future, things that we have lost in the past will be recovered. There’s a search for those things, a search for spirituality, for nature, for the goddess religions, for family, and for human bonding. All that has been lost in this industrial era. People are in desperate need of those things.” ~ Isabel Allende
“While we’re talking, envious time is fleeing: seize the day, put no trust in the future.” ~ Horace
This was entitled The Multifaceted Self: Ethics, Politics & Psychology, and I am Jason Merchey.