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Question of the Month

What Is The Most Fundamental Value?

Our readers give their thoughts on values, each winning a valuable, if random, book.

Is this a trick question? Obviously the answer is love. There’s much to be said for courage, empathy, faith, honesty, industriousness, loyalty, tolerance, wisdom, and other values; but these values are secondary to love and are expressed best when in service to it. Indeed when they are not in service to love, such values become undesirable. German soldiers often fought for the Nazi regime with great courage. Heroin dealers may be very industrious.

Some languages use different words to distinguish between the loves we have for our children, our parents, our spouses, our friends, or even our pets. The Abrahamic faiths claim that love for God is the greatest expression of love. Yet love for God is false if it excludes love for people. This has been well expressed by the Torah, by the Apostle John, and by John Coltrane, among others. St John writes “If someone says, ‘I love God’, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20).

The purest love is unconditional and all encompassing. But to unconditionally love is an awesome obligation. It would means that we are required to love even the likes of Hitler and Stalin (even though we may be obligated to kill them for the sake of other people). Loving our family and close friends while merely liking or just tolerating others may be the best most of us can actually do… but those are steps on the journey. And as with other journeys, the steps, not just the destination, are important. And the steps we take on the journey to love are steps which also express the other values, such as courage, loyalty, wisdom and more. Yet unless they are associated with the fundamental value of love, these values are diminished.

Howard Isaac Williams, San Francisco

This question presupposes a hierarchy of values, and the answer ultimately depends on one’s vision of the world as one thinks it ought to be. These are themselves value judgments. As such, it is not possible to define the most fundamental value. Instead I present here my most fundamental value: love .

There is a long history of attempting to define love. In Daoism, first written down in the seventh century BC, one is encouraged to love the world as one loves oneself. In the fourth century BC, the Chinese philosopher Mozi developed the concept of ‘ ài’ or universal love, arguing that there should be no degree or conditionality in love. Ancient Greeks had at least four different types of love, among which agape was unconditional, spiritual or divine love. This passed into Christian ethics as the highest form of love. While modern dictionary definitions for love refer mostly to feelings of affection and attachment, the philosopher Erich Fromm describes love as a decision and an action rather than a state of being. Echoing these universal, unconditional, and active aspects of love, I use the word ‘love’ to mean ‘caring and respect for all life, of which we are a part’.

Love is my most fundamental value because my other core values – community, non-violence, tolerance – derive from it. Love compels us to conduct our lives with regard to the wellbeing of ourselves and of others. So although love is universal, it still allows for strong bonds of community. We each have finite energy and finite time on Earth, and it makes sense that we tend to devote most of our resources to those closest to us. Love goes hand in hand with compassion and benevolence; when we hold love as a core principle, causing or ignoring harm becomes painful, and giving joy becomes fulfilling. Love is practiced through empathy and tolerance; we seek to understand and accept those around us, looking beyond our differences to our commonalities. Love can also manifest as curiosity about the world, which can lead to knowledge and growth. Lastly, love is the bridge that connects each of us to the rest of existence and creates a sense of belonging. This is a powerful anchor that enables each of us to find personal purpose and meaning.

Irmak Uzumcu, Brussels, Belgium

Enlisting the help of a trio of Western philosophers, I will attempt to make a case for compassion as our most fundamental value, which itself contains many core values.

Schopenhauer believed that all living things are driven by a will to exist. This will is a blind drive manifesting as insatiable desires, leading to conflict and suffering. We all share this suffering. It is our mutual link. He proposed that compassion – literally meaning, feeling with – was a way of transcending our painful position. Schopenhauer advocated self-denial as a remedy to the problem of suffering, essentially encouraging a withdrawal from desire, and hence life. On another level he held in high esteem expressions of compassion via contemplations of existence through visual art and music. Music he considered to be a pure expression of the will; in its company we share and soothe our pain.

Nietzsche although greatly influenced by Schopenhauer, turned from his pessimism and said YES to suffering, as something to overcome. Nietzsche heads a frontal attack on the Christian church, charging it with crippling humanity with a life-denying agenda. The vaunted compassion (or ‘pity’) of the church actually served, he said, to displace nobler values and turn people against life-affirmation through fear and guilt. Although much of his writing is brutally polemical and can be interpreted in many different ways, Nietzsche revitalises compassion into a positive position where we can act, as a compassion for our fellows to rid him or her of illusion and follow a life-affirming path. Yes, we suffer, but yes we can stand up to existence. The will to power, he encourages, is first power over oneself, and power to suffer and overcome with others.

Compassion is, I think, a reciprocal activity. In the terminology of Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘being-with-others’ is where we can find freedom with others through a fundamental commonality, a shared experience. For Sartre, an objectification of the victims of suffering without compassion for them would rob them of their freedom.

I hope these philosophers have helped shape a picture of compassion that is constituted of equality, care, authenticity, courage and empowerment. We must however watch for those who come wearing a mask of compassion, but whose judgemental, divisive projects, built from resentment, aim only to attain power over others.

Rupert Haines, Mount Maunganui, New Zealand

The most fundamental value is respect for human rights . We are by nature social animals. We are conceived in society, born in society, raised in society, live, work, play, are cared for, love, and commune, in society. Only in society can we reach our potential. Only in society can we find our greatest happiness. Since we live in community, we must have good relations with others. A great teacher of ancient times said that we should love other people as we love ourselves. That would be wonderful. Unfortunately, it is sometimes beyond us to feel love for our neighbors. We would have to be angels to love everyone at all times, and we are far from being angels. At times we are selfish, envious, covetous, lazy, fearful, prejudiced, resentful and angry (just for starters); so we need rules to regulate our behavior. We cannot always have our own way; we must consider others – their feelings, their needs, and above all their human rights.

Everyone has certain inalienable rights: ‘life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness’ is a common list, but not exhaustive. For you to have a right means everyone you meet has an obligation to act in accordance with it. You have a right not to be killed deliberately or even through negligence, and everyone who meets you is obligated not to deliberately kill you and to be careful not to do so accidentally. Actually, it is a little more complicated. Killing someone to prevent greater evil – say an equal or greater violation of human rights – is justified. This qualification, though, is still based on rights.

The theory is neat; but cold theory seldom motivates us to do what we ought. My having an obligation means nothing unless I feel the weight of it and acknowledge the constraint on me. I call this ‘respecting the right’. Since human rights are the basis of our morality and observing them makes human society possible, respecting them is our most fundamental value.

John Talley, Rutherfordton, NC

I would tend to think of fundamental or basic values as being honesty, friendliness, charity, faith, loyalty, security, creativity among many others. But, the most fundamental value in my estimation is trust . A person needs to have trust in him- or herself as well as in other people. By ‘trust’, I mean the narrow meaning, of being able to rely on yourself or others to satisfy all your basic needs, and perhaps more than basic needs. Without trust, human relations would decay into chaos. For example, in business dealings the buyer must trust that he or she is paying a fair price to the seller and that the goods or services will be provided as intended. When I renew my subscription to Philosophy Now, I trust that I will receive my copies. When a person seeks medical or dental treatment, that person must trust that the service provider will do their job properly and the service provider must trust that they will receive payment for the service provided. A married couple must have trust in their faithfulness to each other as well in their individual abilities to contribute to the marriage. When a person does something, that person must trust their ability to do it. I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Human activities and transactions are based on trust, and without such trust, society would collapse, TRUST me!

Brian Fraser, Winnipeg, Manitoba

‘Values’ refer to ‘the beliefs that people have about what is right, wrong, and most important in life, business, etc. which control their behaviour’ (Cambridge Business English Dictionary). In short: values are beliefs that control behaviour.

There is no basis for assuming that certain values are universal or an innate part of human nature. There is no gene for justice for example. For theists there is a moral lawgiver; but those who do not adhere to this view must determine their own values, exposing them to conventionalism and thus to relativism.

However, I believe there is a way forward. Primatologist Frans De Waal showed that non-human animals also know morality and show empathy. We may therefore assume that this behaviour increases their chances of survival. Humans probably also subconsciously choose values that increase the group’s chances of survival and consequently their own. This leads us to the question of which value contributes most to our survival.

Beliefs in the importance of authenticity, honesty, integrity, justice, kindness, and respect are beautiful and can guide behaviour in ways that contribute to a positive self-image, a coherent sense of self, a good feeling in others and prevent suffering. Many of these values overlap: authenticity and honesty, kindness and respect – the one sometimes cannot be separated from the other. It is therefore difficult to pick out one value as the most fundamental. Empathy is a start, but useless if it does not lead to constructive behaviour. In my humble opinion, active responsibility – caring for other living beings and for the planet as our home, and putting this care into practice, whether on a small or large scale – is one of the most important values, as it can alleviate suffering and contribute to our very survival.

Caroline Deforche, Lichtervelde, Belgium

The most fundamental value would need to be the one that’s most vital in creating an optimal world. For the purpose of the question, I am assuming an optimal world to be one where every person lives free from destructive behavior by others or self. My first instinct was to assign kindness, empathy, or the like as the most fundamental value. However, that seemed too naïve. If everyone treated others with kindness, would the best possible world necessarily be created as a result?

No matter at what point I begin, or what direction my train of thought took me, the value I kept ending up with was self-worth , meaning ‘believing oneself to be worthy of living a good life in the world’. Without self-worth, all other values become meaningless because there is no driving force to encourage the practice of those other values.

Having true self-worth has nothing to do with other people. True self-worth means believing one’s own person is enough. Comparisons, jealousy, competitions, et cetera, contradict self-worth. But self-worth is also not selfishness, because selfishness necessitates comparing one’s self to other people. If someone has attained true self-worth there would be no need to take away from anyone else. Furthermore, if I have self-worth then I could reasonably hope that everyone else should too.

For me, as simple as it sounds, an optimal world is a kind world. But people often do need a springboard from which to be gracious with others. Self-worth could serve as that point of departure.

Philippa Lieber, Rapperswil, Switzerland

There is no single fundamental value, for it all depends on the type of life or society you wish to build or live in. Iin practice, societies might even discover their own fundamental value by working backwards – by defining what is important and then agreeing on the single value that needs to be in place to make that society function.

The most fundamental value in any given system is the one that if taken away would make all other values impossible. If I value art and music, yet live in a society that is completely opposed to freedom of expression, then having a thriving music scene might be a problem. If I value a loving marriage but I am opposed to compromise, I will spend many miserable nights alone on the couch. This may not indicate the single most fundamental values for art or marriage, but they are often key, and if taken away, other things of value may not be possible at all.

The twelfth century Jewish philosopher Maimonides is well known for promoting the protecting of one’s health, because if one does not have one’s health, one cannot fulfill any other commandment and cannot serve God. While Maimonides himself argues that belief in God is the single most fundamental value, it’s hard for a dead person to believe in God!

If you go deep enough down the rabbit hole in any system of values you will find a foundation stone, something whose removal would cause the whole system crumbles. That doesn’t mean the universe ends; it just means that a new fundamental value is needed which would yield an adjusted system of values – as happened in the Enlightenment.

It might be challenging to drill down to the fundamental value upon which any system is built, but I believe it will be there. Thank God I have my health, so I’ll keep digging, because I value the search for truth, and I value the tools that will help me discover it.

Joel Dinin, Milwaukee, WI

Arete: What do you mean, Socrates, by ‘the most fundamental value’? I can think of many different values, all of them equally fundamental. Take integrity, for instance – to speak and act in accordance with one’s beliefs.

Socrates: I see. So are you saying you would praise someone for acting in such a way more than if they acted in contradiction to their beliefs?

Arete: Absolutely!

Socrates: Even if their beliefs are what you would find morally reprehensible? Take the example of a tyrant who genuinely believes it proper to be a violent despot, and so is definitely acting in personal integrity, according to your definition. What then?

Arete: Well, of course a leader ought to be kind and treat others compassionately.

Socrates: So it would appear that integrity is not necessarily or always a good thing. And even when it is, it is only so in the presence of other values.

Arete: Yes, kindness and compassion are necessary.

Socrates: If that’s the case, then they may well be more fundamental values than integrity. Tell me, friend, how do you define compassion?

Arete: I think most people would agree it’s a sympathy you show towards others’ suffering, together with a motivation to relieve that suffering.

Socrates: Then the more sensitive you are to another person’s distress, and the more you alleviate that distress, the more compassionate you are.

Arete: That seems only logical.

Socrates: Then take as an example our tyrant again. His rule is over, and he now sits in a court awaiting sentence for his crimes. Is it not true that a judge who sees compassion as the greatest value could end up administering a weak, unsatisfactory form of justice by being unjustifiably merciful to him?

Arete: I suppose. But a good judge will apply not too much, not too little, but a just amount of compassion.

Socrates: So could it be that the most fundamental value is not a fixed feature or trait, like integrity, compassion, or kindness, and that the good way of behaving in each situation will be accessible to us by learning to distinguish the just from the unjust, the good from the bad?

Arete: But, Socrates, how could we ever reach a consensus on such matters? How could the way I distinguish the just from the unjust be the same as everyone else’s? What is just? And what is good?

The scribe in service that day then ran out of ink, but rumour has it that the questions raised by searching for the most fundamental value were only beginning.

Ricardo Almeida, Edinburgh

Next Question of the Month

The next question is: Can Eating Meat Be Justified? Please justify it, or not, in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 18th October 2021. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address.

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