It’s perhaps serendipitous that I’m beginning to read Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values on the same day that the first Values Voter Debate is going to be held in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.
You might think of the so-called V2 debate as an answer to Jim Wallis’ Presidential Forum on Faith, Values, and Poverty, which featured leading Democratic presidential candidates (although Wallis’ promotional materials promised a similar event including Republican candidates, such a forum has yet to materialize. The V2 organizers also say that all Democratic candidates have refused a similar event).
It would be easy to focus on the many differences between the two events, not least of which is the fact that the high-profile Democratic contenders were eager to attend the CNN-sponsored Sojourners event, while the leading GOP candidates are not participating in the V2 debate.
But instead let’s focus on what is similar, and it’s the only word that’s shared in the two titles: “Values.” Here’s what Himmelfarb says about the shift from the language of virtues to values,
“Values” brought with it the assumptions that all moral ideas are subjective and relative, that they are mere customs and conventions, that they have a purely instrumental, utilitarian purpose, and that they are peculiar to specific individuals and societies. (And, in the current intellectual climate, to specific classes, races, and sexes.)
So long as morality was couched in the language of “virtue,” it had a firm, resolute character…. But for a particular people at a particular time, the word “virtue” carried with it a sense of gravity and authority, as “values” does not.
Himmelfarb traces the genesis of “values” language into the modern context through influence of Nietzsche and Max Weber. The rest of the book explores the consequences of this shift, and I look forward to reading it.
We might quibble with Himmelfarb about particular details, but I think it’s pretty indisputable that there has been a shift in moral claims. She writes,
It was not until the present century that morality became so thoroughly relativized and subjectified that virtues ceased to be “virtues” and became “values.” This transmutation is the great philosophical revolution of modernity, no less momentous than the earlier revolt of the “Moderns” against the “Ancients”–modern science and learning against classical philosophy.
Now whether or not such moral relativism is an entirely novel phenomenon in human history, or merely whether this is its first major and successful foray into Western civilization, I think Himmelfarb’s basic point stands.
It will be interesting to see how political debates like the one tonight and over the course of the next year bear out her distinction between “values” and “virtues.” I suspect that we’ll see far more of the former than the latter.