The problem with values

IMG_7086What are values?

Everyone is talking about values, and almost everyone who listens nods in agreement: “Yes, definitely, so important, …”. While at the same time nobody seems to care enough to be precise about what we actually mean when we refer to our values, our common values, our European values which we need to defend against values from … Abroad? Outside Europe? From another cou ntry, continent, town, valley, region, religion, …? I particularly like it when people who care very little about religion in their everyday life suddenly feel the need to defend the Christian values against any intruders.

I am not saying that all values are equal, nor that values do not count at all. On the contrary, they do, but before using the word we need to know what we mean by it and then negotiate a common meaning of the terms before we start exchanging value judgements.

When we look up definitions then we get a full array of options; here are but a few taken from the internet (which quote authoritative sources for their respective definitions):

  • the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.
  • principles or standards of behaviour; one’s judgement of what is important in life
  • principles that help you to decide what is right and wrong and how to act in various situations
  • something (such as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable
  • relative worth, utility, or importance
  • the monetary worth of something

And no, these definitions do not all describe the same “thing” just from different angles, they actually designate different concepts of what a value can be. 

Value education

Value education is not about teaching the right values, even if some well-meaning people would like to think so. It cannot be unless we agree that indoctrination is the way forward.

Values do not exist outside of practice. Talking about values and value education has become a hot topic. But what does it actually mean? What does value education look like in practice? What do values in education look like? Is value education about teaching the children the “RIGHT” values (as opposed to the WRONG values). Let someone (WHO) define the necessary values (NECESSARY FOR WHAT and for WHO) and then teach them, in all schools, all over the world in the most effective way. John Dewey is perhaps a good starting point to explore this question. He replaces the goal of identifying an ultimate end or supreme principle that can serve as a criterion of ethical evaluation with the goal of identifying a method for improving our value judgments. Perhaps value education is about learning to understand and critically explore values and their consequences and not about learning a set of given values.

And this is also the reason why we cannot include values in a competence description. It is unthinkable for an open-minded, rational and enlightened world to consider assessing values as part of educational evaluation. Receiving marks of any kind for specific values (“I got a B2 for valuing diversity” “I have only got a B1 in valuing human dignity”) is unthinkable in a democracy. Or is it? Elements included in a competence must be “teachable, learnable and assessable”. Values do not satisfy these three criteria. 

In any case, I prefer to speak of ethical principles or imperatives to guide our behaviour and actions. The following 5 seem to cover a lot of ground

  • Do not harm
  • Make things better
  • Be fair
  • Be compassionate
  • Respect others

Let me know what you think of this in the comments below. Thank you.

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