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An essay donated by Dave Wilson

Values and importance: the place of relativity

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One thing I’d like to comment on is a phrase people sometimes use -- a phrase that, in my opinion, should be used much more frequently than it is.  The phrase is “...what seems really important to me.”  (My italics)  Things material and abstract, if important, are always important to one or more sentient beings, whether it/these be an insect, a mouse, some dogs, a miserable and starving peon, a group of housewives living in a posh Los Angeles suburb, a Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a Rembrandt, an Aristotle, an Isaac Newton, an Erwin Schrodinger, or what have you.  Thus, the nature of importance varies enormously depending on the sentient being(s) to which/whom it applies; most emphatically, the nature of importance is not a fixed business.  Exactly the same thing applies to the very closely related concept of value -- one must know ‘of value to whom’ in order to have a clue as to what’s going on with a value. 

The reason that I pound upon this point is that in the simpler and much more common statement that something is important or is of value there is no indication that importance is not an absolute matter but is relative to its indirect object (the to whom).  Thus, I know either personally or indirectly of many people who would find at least some of the items on my list of important things unacceptable or even ridiculous.  I doubt very much that Napoleon, Dick Cheney, Ronald Rumsfeld, or Pol Pot, for example, regarded human life as of much importance.  One who cheats on his wife doesn’t hold love very high on his list, or he wouldn’t inflict such pain and humiliation on his wife and children.  And some items on other peoples’ lists of what is important would be utterly hateful to you and me.  A few examples:  (1) It is very important that my daughters keep our bloodline pure by not marrying a black, an oriental, or a jew.  (2) It is very important that I and my family be seen as living more lavishly than any of our neighbors and associates.  (3) It is very important that my wife be submissive to me in all ways.  (4) It is very important that my son or daughter marry a God-fearing Christian.  Etc., etc., etc. 

I think that in order to understand human society and to operate successfully in it one must understand the relative nature of the concepts of importance and values.  Does this mean that I must accept all things of importance and all values as equal?  ABSOLUTELY NOT.  The importance of bullying one’s wife into submission, of holding in contempt anyone who is not racially pure white, or of conspicuously expensive consumption—there is no way these would ever appear on my list of values.  The relativity of importance and values simply means that I must live with the fact that many, probably most, other people will have values that are different, perhaps very different, from mine, and that they may be deeply and emotionally committed to those values.  Insofar as I need to interact with these people, I need to develop strategies for dealing with our differences. Hopefully these will be peaceful and constructive strategies, rather than blowing up their mosques and temples, burning crosses in their yards, and murdering them, all strategies that are or have recently been in use... 

As an agnostic/atheist of long standing, I’ve been aware of differences in sets of values and beliefs for quite a while and of the need to be able to live with a great many (but NOT ALL) such differences.  There are some people whom I hold at a bit of distance because of differences in our sets of values.  As I am an atheist, aggressively devout, pushy evangelical Christians determined to save my soul fall in that category.  (So do aggressive, pushy evangelical atheists, for that matter.)  There are some people I avoid entirely, if possible: the extremely selfish, the domineering, the cruel, racists, wife and child abusers, cheats of all kinds, etc.  All of these people have values and things that are important to them; they probably view me with as much dislike and contempt as I view them.  If I cannot avoid them then I must defend myself against them. 

Often the religious take the position that admitting that values (things that are important) are relative, rather than absolute (presumably revealed by God) is exactly equivalent to saying that all sets of values are equal -- none is better or worse than another.  The idea that all sets of values are equal is utterly ludicrous--a straw man that I have never argued for and would never defend.   I’d argue that those value sets are best which most effectively promote the overall welfare of mankind and the sustainability of life on this planet.  One can think rationally about this; therefore one can make improvements and progress that are not encouraged by assuming that values are absolute, especially if they are divinely ordained.  I’d expect that people using this approach would find that their value sets were, while not identical, sufficiently similar that they could get along together quite comfortably.  I am enough of a fan of the Enlightenment to think that such human progress is possible.  I certainly hope so.

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Originally posted: 2013-JUL-19
Latest update: 2013-JUL-19
Dave Wilson
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