Values Promise More Than They Deliver



When we try to figure out what we should do, we enter the realm of ethics.  To discuss ethics, we use as our core concept “values.”  Values reflect the positive core abstractions that point us to the kind of world we want to encourage.  For example, we might say “Let’s be honest.” We prefer a world in which honesty is abundant.

In other words, thinking about our values and value preferences gives us a sense of who we wish ourselves and others to be. So far, so good.  But knowing our value preferences, as important as that task is, are little more than the 3rd step on a ladder to the top of a 5-story cathedral.

Why? because each value, when pursued in the extreme, transmogrifies. It becomes a groesque version of what it promises in its early stages.  Utter honesty becomes an utter annoyance. Extreme freedom becomes abusive license. Empathy for all results in a failure to focus on the dangers and harms that have the greatest human significance.

This thought was solidified for me while watching the film, The Finest Hours. Big storm, monstrous waves, youthful Coast Guard heroes, large tanker split in half, budding romance threatened, rugged New Englanders who love and fear the forbidding ocean. Should the young Coast Guard captain follow orders to take his boat and men out into the ocean in a context of probable death and the uncertain location of the sinking tanker?

The film is a Disney film, not something distributeed by IFC. SO you know what happens. But there are plenty of tension-packed rescues, death-defying scenarios, and character studies to keep you watching.

The film documents a 1952 event that the Coast Guard considers its greatest rescue ever. And what makes the rescue so great?  We are told it is COURAGE, the same value Walt Whitman celebrates in Leaves of Grass:

I understand the large hearts of heroes,
The courage of present times and all times;
How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the steamship,
and death chasing it up and down the storm,
How he knuckled tight and gave not back one inch, and was
faithful of days and faithful of nights,
And chalked in large letters on a board, Be of good cheer, We will not
desert you;
How he saved the drifting company at last,
How the lank loose-gowned women looked when boated from the side
of their prepared graves,
How the silent old-faced infants, and the lifted sick, and the
sharp-lipped unshaved men;
All this I swallow and it tastes good.

Courage seems like a good thing to encourage.  But when?  What is the boundary line between courage and foolhardy or impulsive or Promethean thinking, or, Kahneman’s fast thinking at a time when the number of lives and human attachments involved mandate slow, reflective thinking? In other words, what people label “courageous” can be dangerous mislabelling.

Values are important, but they are only the opening notes in a raucous rock opera, Ethics in Action.

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