Values vs. Virtue
Today’s discourse is all about values. We shouldn’t obey certain laws or enforce certain policies because they are against “one’s values” the common saying goes. We send our children to this or that school because they align with “one’s values” is another common phrase we hear all the time. We purchase this type of clothing… The post Values vs. Virtue appeared first on VoegelinView.




Today’s discourse is all about values. We shouldn’t obey certain laws or enforce certain policies because they are against “one’s values” the common saying goes. We send our children to this or that school because they align with “one’s values” is another common phrase we hear all the time. We purchase this type of clothing because it supports “one’s values,” and so on. But what are “values” in the first place?
Philip J. Harold, dean of the Constantin College of Liberal Arts at the University of Dallas, has written a book about this very question: Against Values. The book is a history of the concept of value and a critique of it. As he notes in his introduction, the philosophical concept of value was created by Herman Lotze in the nineteenth century, only to be later popularized by Nietzsche. The result is that the word “value” eventually supplanted the word “virtue” in the English and German languages which have now become widespread in today’s lexicon and culture.
Harold claims that value is “part and parcel of modern political thought, or liberalism” and is responsible for the decline of virtues like “personal trust, loyalty, and friendship.” Value transforms the good as partial and impersonal so instead of a common good, which is personal and comprehensive, liberalism offers only Weber’s iron cage. According to Harold, liberalism does this in three steps: it replaces the idea of justice with esteem; it next understands political authority in terms of sovereignty; and finally, it substitutes morality for sovereignty to make liberalism more palatable. Undergirding this is the equivalence of the good as value: gaining value replaces the search for justice and “justifies the imposition of order through sovereignty.”
Unlike mores and norms, value is an abstract standard for esteem and is always pursued with reference to a system of morality. After all, “the whole point of following a moral system is to attain moral value.” The problem for Harold is that value is a “poor substitute” for “justice” and “injustice” because it decontextualizes a person from his or her community.  Whereas virtue was understood to exist only in a web of relationships, value has its meaning only in reference to an abstract, external criteria. The result is the common good is replaced with the social contract followed by the erosion of everything concrete and its replacement by everything abstract.
For Harold, the conceptualization of value started with Martin Luther who favored “esteem” for “justice.” Justice is not a personal relationship with God but something extrinsic to the person. Luther moves justice from one’s conscience to one’s external actions, mirroring his “two kingdom” theory where the profane and sacred realms exist apart from each other. The political consequence is that we choose “either complete obedience to constituted authority or revolutionary social upheaval.” Christians therefore must “always support their rulers” while rebels are crushed as deviating from the Christian faith—something that Luther forcefully promoted during the Peasants’ War in Germany.
Luther, then, lays the groundwork for Hobbes to claim that sovereignty is the ultimate source of meaning and, because sovereignty resides in the state, the state is just. The state is to be obeyed on everything, which means that personal relationships that exist apart from the state are devalued at best. The virtue of justice and the common good, with its tangled web of personal and political relationships, is eliminated for the abstract social contract of the citizen and state.
The political philosophers that follow Hobbes—Rousseau, Hume, and Marx—all wrestle with the problem why Hobbes’s morality, the law of nature, should be followed. The answers vary from Rousseau proposing that the state and the self are indivisible to Hume’s response of utility to Marx’s labor theory of value. What holds these disparate thinkers together for Harold is that each one substitutes personal loyalty for an abstract idea. Loyalty is no longer to a person but to the state (Rousseau) or humanity (Marx). We see this phenomenon today in social media. Why need actual friends when you have Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok?
By the time of the nineteenth century, the concept of value is introduced by Lotze. In his magnus opus, Microcosmos (1856-64), Lotze was addressing the problem of how we understand morality in a way that is neither absolute nor skeptical. He wanted a theory that was “derived from individual moral experience but sanctioned by a universal and transcendent moral ideal.” In other words, this was a problem of value, the attempt “to get to something objective and universal from a particular, subjective feeling.”
Philosophers after Lotze proposed the theory of value to solve this problem, such as Wilhelm Windelband, Heinrich Rickert, and Max Weber. Weber later ascribed to values a fundamental nonrational character that was always in conflict with rational settlement. For Weber, values are merely subjective preferences that cannot answer the question why one should live.
The result is that values are private goods as opposed to public virtue. While this may make sense philosophically, it does not reflect actual life where people live, not as atomistic and isolated individuals whose only relationship is to the state, but as members of a community of family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and citizens. We live in a pluralistic society, not a monolithic one. Thus, liberalism’s emphasis on values subordinate to the state lays the groundwork for the all-encompassing state, be it Hobbesian, Lockean, or Rousseauian.
One of the great challenges today is the power of technology, especially social media, that flattens these diverse and multifaceted relationships which makes the discourse of values rather than virtues more attractive. It is easy to preach one’s values as a keyboard warrior; less so face-to-face to children’s school teacher. How we get out of this dilemma is not clear but at least Harold has provided us a philosophical genealogy to explain our “value” situation today. Against Value has done a great service to clarify why we are in a state of constant disagreement, for we are looking to the wrong solution. It is not in values where we will be saved but only in virtue; the recovery of virtue can help bind our wounded society back together.


Against Values: How to Talk About the Good in a Postliberal Era
By Philip J. Harold
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022; 238pp

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