Here, my friends, we have a chart illustrating the rot infecting the soul of the modern West. Or, at least, that fraction of the West represented by the English-language books written between 1800 and 1990 and contained in Google’s massive database.
The blue line indicates the (decreasing) frequency with which the word “virtues” appears in books. The red line shows the (rapidly increasing) frequency of usage of the word “values.”
But don’t those words mean the same thing, an innocent bystander asks?
No, say I.
Virtues are fine, solid things: prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude; faith, hope, and love. These are “firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith,” as our favorite tome besides the Bible explains. “…The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.”
Note the ruthless objectivity of that last phrase — “the good.” It is outside of the man himself. He did not determine it; he only discovered it (by God’s grace). The virtuous man is not he who does what he thinks best. Nor does he merely obey the admonition to “follow his bliss.” (Though, I must digress to add, the acquisition of the virtues results in true bliss, far beyond the fleeting happiness of indulging one’s every whim. Obeying God’s law is painful to most of us because we’re not virtuous. For virtuous people — i.e. saints — obeying God’s law is natural and joyful.)
Values, on the other hand, are flimsy and subjective. Even the dictionary admits it: a value is something of “relative worth, utility, or importance.” It is not something that is worthy, useful, and important; it is something that someone considers worthy, useful, and important. It’s possible, of course, that your values are the same as the virtues — that you value the virtues above all else. But a 30-second examination of conscience will probably reveal that that’s not the case.
Back to the chart. The real problem underlying it is the influence of relativism. No longer is everyone accountable to the same publicly acknowledged virtues; rather, everyone is supposed to discover his own values, to do what’s best for him or what feels right. Hence the public outrage when the Church claims that her morals are universal — that Catholics are not the only ones who should wait until marriage to have sex, for example. To the world, that claim is downright offensive. How dare you impose your values on me? I have the right to come up with my own values! The primary assumption that everyone has his own truth is so deeply ingrained that many young people cannot even grasp the possibility of an alternative view, according to the famous college professor Allan Bloom:
There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2:2=4. These are things you don’t think about.
Fortunately, the situation may not be quite so dire. I think most relativists are not entirely relativistic. Nearly all of them, in my limited experience, still believe that a few things (murder, rape, etc.) are always and everywhere wrong, and that there is in fact such a thing as absolute truth (in the sciences if nowhere else). We’ll leave the latter issue — the (un)certainty of science — for another day.
On morals, however, the last defense of relativists-who-are-not-really-relativists is the language of rights. As long as you don’t infringe on someone else’s rights (their right not to be murdered, their right not to be raped), you can do whatever you think best. Your values are acceptable as long as they don’t violate or claim superiority over anyone else’s.
This position is much harder to argue with. The pseudo-relativist’s objection to Catholic morality (allegedly) is not that it prescribes and proscribes the wrong things but that it claims to be universal. (The common form of this: “If you don’t like abortion, just don’t get one! But you can’t tell me what to do!”) You can have a great argument with relativists about the content of Catholic morality, as long as you get them to admit that they do, in fact, believe that something controversial is universally right or wrong (same-sex relations, abortion, contraception, whatever). More difficult to argue is the universality of the Church’s teachings. The claim “You can do what you think is right as long as you don’t hurt anyone else” has the effect of silencing debate.
If anyone has found a way to revive the conversation when someone plays that card, I’d love to hear about it. In the meantime, watch your language. Forget about values. Start extolling the virtues.