Ethics - The Emergence of Values

Posted on April 7, 2018

If I give you facts, you cannot derive values from it. That useful lesson was taught to us by the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Observation and science can give us facts. But from the fact that I have a steak on my plate you cannot derive that my eating of that steak is a good thing. And from facts alone you cannot derive either that it is a bad thing, for that matter. There is a huge gap separating facts and values, and according to Hume we cannot use reasoning to jump over that abyss. In his famous phrasing, “we cannot derive an ought from an is”. For Hume, ethics, whatever it is, can not be about wielding a yardstick for judging actions as morally good or bad.

Hume believed that a yardstick for what is morally good or bad does not exist, and I happen to think that he was right. Reading Hume for me is like breathing fresh air. There are many things I appreciate about Hume: his writing style, his common sense, his love of animals – particularly dogs – his love of women and good company, of wine and the pleasures of the table. Yes, he did eat meat.

If studying the world gives us only facts, where do our values come from? If you are looking for a rock-firm foundation for your values, for your sense of right and wrong, then the answer to this may disappoint you. Ultimately, our values come from the stories that we most firmly believe in, the stories that we have decided to live by.

As a witticism on internet has it, Moses was the first guy who downloaded stuff from the cloud on his tablet. Seriously, if I believe that it was omnipotent God who handed down His Ten Commandments to Moses, then I am able to jump over the cliff from facts to values. For then I can take omnipotent and all-knowing God as my source of value, as the ultimate foundation that underlies my sense of right and wrong. But please note that my firm belief in the God of Moses is a story.

When Voltaire’s friends were casting doubt on the existence of God in their discussions, he famously warned them to lower their voices before the servants. If the servants would cease to believe in God, Voltaire feared, there was nothing that would keep them for going after their masters and cut their throats in their sleep. Voltaire had a point there. Only a few decades later the French revolutionaries would lose their fears of divine retaliation. They no longer believed the story of the God-given right of their king to rule over them, and they started chopping the heads off their aristocracy and royalty.

What happens to values in an age where all stories come under scrutiny? Or what happens to values when we wish to hold on to our foundational story, but find out to our dismay that this story is no longer shared by others? We live in a world where stories are not shared, but is there maybe another place we could turn to as a source of values? Is it possible, maybe, to find stories that are so basic that we share them with everyone? For that to be possible, we have to look for stories that are very simple. There surely are stories we can agree on, only these stories may seem so obvious to us that we tend to overlook them. We have to take a fresh look at common sense, at things that are grounded in direct experience, things that we can all accept because they are immediately given.

What does direct experience tell us? Right now, as I am sitting at my desk, I can move my arm at will, but I cannot use my will for stopping the rain outside. There is an obvious difference between acts that are subject to my volition and acts that are not. I assume you can agree with me on this. If you are a reader who does not agree, then I would advise you to inquire into a story that you believe in and that is blocking out your common sense. There is a distinction in my world between what I can influence and what I can do nothing about. And I hope you are ready to grant that, in your world, there is also that distinction.

Many of the stories we believe in serve to give us an illusion of understanding. If we drop those stories because we see that they are not universally shared, then we can arrive at the experience of ignorance, of being in a situation without knowing what it is all about, the experience of being in a conundrum, not knowing what to do. I can share that with you. I am aware of the many things that I do not know, of the many things that I do not understand. If I reflect on this, I become more and more aware of the ways in which I use stories to cover up my ignorance. What would happen to me if it would bother me less and less not to know?

With growing awareness, I see that I am in fact very ignorant about lots of things. I know very little about where my thoughts come from. If I ponder that question, I find to my dismay that most of my thoughts come from outside. From my parents, from my spouse, from friends, from books, from the culture and society that I live in. Is this inevitable? Is it possible to have original thoughts, or to direct my thoughts?

Sometimes I can trace the origin of a thought, when I hear an echo of my father or mother, or the voice of a friend or teacher. At other times my thoughts seem to appear out of nothing. When I am reflecting on a problem and then let my attention wander from it, I can have this experience that suddenly the solution appears out of nowhere. This is nothing short of miraculous. So I know from experience that having original thoughts is possible.

Our thoughts matter. There seems to be an important chain here. First our thoughts appear in consciousness. Next our thoughts shape our words. Next our words shape our actions. Next our actions create our habits. Next our habits create our character. Finally, our character creates our destiny. So what can one do to build a life that matters? Start with steering our thoughts in a proper direction, obviously. If this is possible, then it may also be possible to choose our values and gradually, by the chain just mentioned, influence our destiny.

The invitation to start training the mind is at the core of many spiritual traditions, but the instructions are often deeply intertwined with foundational stories. Still, it is possible to identify a core element. You can find this with authors writing in times where the common stories of the era have been lost. A prime example of this are the teachings of the Stoic philosophers: Zeno, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus. The Manual (or: Enchiridion) of Epictetus starts like this:

There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, adversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our affairs.

The values that follow from this are simple. Train your thoughts, words, actions, habits, character in such way that you always keep this distinction in mind. What happens to you is not in your power, so you should learn to accept things that befall you as they come. How you deal with what happens to you can gradually be brought in your power. So you should train yourself to take responsibility only for what is in your power to do.

This same thought appears in the well known Serenity Prayer, a three line text written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Excellent advice that can form the core of a system of values that we can all share. Acting with courage is hard, but courage can be developed with proper training. So we know now what to do, what to develop. Ultimately, our values are chosen. And it matters what we choose, and how we choose. And if the mention of God bothers you, you can always go back to the Stoics. Becoming a Stoic is learning how to value what we control more than what we don’t control.