The “Values” Debate: A Response to the Religious Right

Ethics for Humanistic Jews  Winter 2005

The presidential election fooled many people. Liberals imagined that the compelling issues for the voters were the economy and the war in Iraq. They were wrong. The issue that defeated John Kerry was “values.”

Morality is an obsession for many Ameri­can voters, especially the voters that constitute the amorphous Religious Right. The social conservatives in the United States see ethics going to the dogs. They are obsessed with what they perceive as the precipitous moral decline of the American people. They see themselves as victims of rapid social changes that confuse them and outrage them. From abortion free­dom to gay marriage, they are appalled by the subversion of traditional values.

Traditional morality has its roots in the agricultural worlds of the Bible and of medi­eval Europe, cultures that have been replaced in America by urban industrial civilization. In the world of farmers and herdsmen, the fundamental social institution is the extended family, a tightly knit structure of people who live together, work together, and depend on each other for survival. The fundamental ne­cessities are continuous work and continuous reproduction with clear and distinct gender roles for both men and women. The funda­mental values are loyalty and collectivism – the willingness to sacrifice your well-being for the welfare and survival of the family. With the evolution of families into clans, tribes, and nations this collectivism turned into the virtue of patriotism. Reinforced by guilt and the threat of exclusion, these “family values” were transformed by the omnipresent clergy into the commandments of God.

Although there are variations, the tradi­tional values of all civilizations – European, Muslim, Asian, and American — are essen­tially the same. The family obligations and the gender roles of Confucian society do not ap­preciably differ from the requirements of the editors of the Bible. Necessity is the mother of ethics. Families and clans that want to survive need not only loyalty but also trustworthi­ness, generosity, and sacrifice. Conformity to the ways of the ancestors provides the glue of solidarity. Morality, reverence for the past, and religion merge into a powerful amalgam of culture and community.

The world that justified these values no longer exists for most Americans. The new urban culture has undermined the extended family from which traditional ethics flowed. Collectivism has been replaced by individu­alism. The old clan has been replaced by the nuclear family. The old call of sacrificial duty has yielded to the pursuit of happiness and dignity. The basic unit of society is now the free individual who has the power to choose the agenda of his or her life – where he will live, when she will work, whom he will marry, what philosophy or religion she will embrace. Technology and international markets have produced the beginning of a global culture in which national cultures turn into a smorgas­bord of personal options.

We live in a revolutionary time in which a new ethics is being forged by a new urban world. The 1960s dramatized the assault of the new values on the old. The black revolu­tion challenged the conventional notion that pedigree and race define social status. The feminist revolution challenged the traditional premise that women were born to servitude to men. The sexual revolution assaulted the historic assumption that sex is only for re­production and that sensual pleasure is an invitation to wickedness. The youth revolu­tion defied the age-old belief that older people are smarter and wiser than their children and grandchildren. The leisure revolution resisted parental insistence that only hard work can give meaning to life. Never before had so many old values and beliefs been challenged with so much fury in such a short period of time.

The consequence for millions of people is “ethical future shock.” They are con­sumed by fear and by outrage. They see the familiar world around them collapsing into a sea of chaos and confusion. They imagine that morality is vanishing and that the cul­tural establishment is in cahoots with the fomenters of this wickedness. Religious fun­damentalism is the child of all this resent­ment. It feeds on the notion that “liberals” have repudiated ethics.

Is the accusation of the Religious Right that the new liberalism has fostered immo­rality and the abandonment of ethical living true? Is the modern world morally inferior to what preceded it? Were our ancestors and the disappearing residents of rural villages more noble and more ethical than we are in our urban affluence? Is the “secular humanist” cultural establishment the agent of Satan and a danger to the preservation of a moral society? Are the humanists, including Humanistic Jews, who advocate abortion freedom and gay rights the subverters of public order?

We humanists need to answer these questions with both boldness and empathy. We need empathy especially. The millions of people who voted for the old values have legitimate complaints. They are not simply stupid country folk and coots who cannot understand the importance of civil liberties. They are traumatized by relentless change, and they are navigating in unfamiliar waters. Their children and their friends often use the newfound freedom to make harmful choices. And some of their anxieties about pervasive pornography and violence are shared by us.

Our reply to them cannot be filled with defiant contempt or with the arrogance of new prophets of a new religion. Our response has to be filled with an awareness of what humanism really says – that all ethical rules are imperfect attempts to maximize human survival, happiness, and dignity.

Historic humanism rejects authoritarian reasoning. No “authority” – whether it be God or a famous prophet or a charismatic philosopher — can make an action right by simply declaring it to be right. If any of the Ten Commandments are ethically valid, it is not because their pronouncement was accompanied by miracles and supernatural dramatics on a mountain top. It is because living by those rules fulfills human needs and enhances human welfare. The validity of an ethical rule does not lie in the commander. It lies in the consequences.

Ethical rules are not eternal truths dis­cerned through the mediation of priests or through encounters with charismatic prophets. They are the results of human testing over long periods of time. Societies without trust or loyalty cannot survive. And people without some modicum of freedom cannot be happy. It is always in the results that moral justification lies.

Morality is continuously being revised through human experience. What worked to make people happy in light of the low expec­tations of the farm world may not accomplish the same end in the presence of the high ex­pectations of the urban world. Modern society has given women the taste of empowerment. They can no longer conceive of a meaning­ful life without the opportunity of choice. Modern society has also altered the nature of marriage. What started out as an institution for reproduction has turned into a social ar­rangement for partnership and companion­ship reinforced by love. Most heterosexual people today in North America get married, not because they want children, but because they want partners. If loving partnerships are now the primary purpose of marriage, then homosexual marriage is no moral travesty. It is the natural consequence of a society that has changed.

The problem with any ethical rule, whether traditional or innovative, is that it encourages behavior that has both good and bad consequences. Telling the truth can foster trust; it also can be cruel. Promoting human dignity can enhance self-esteem; it also can breed annoying prima donnas. Touting love may produce more caring and nurturing; it also may permit the masochism of abusive relationships. No ethical rule is perfect. It en­dures so long as its positive effects outweigh the negatives.

The new world the Religious Right fears has many problems that arise from the plea­sures of affluence and freedom. But a world in which races mix that never mixed before, a world in which women can now choose to express their creative talents, a world that is molding formerly hostile nations into a global village cannot be all bad. It may, in many ways, be superior to the world that came before.