New Zealand readers will be well aware that we are in the thick of a political campaign. The campaign is fascinating for a bunch of reasons – the Maori Party and the Greens potentially both battling for survival while Labour surges ahead, the old legend Winston Peters resurfacing again like Poseidon from the deep poised ready to bestow the Prime Ministerial crown on his favourite. Or perhaps, waiting like a midwife at a birth ready to declare whether it is blue for a boy or red for a girl. Child poverty, abortion, climate change, housing, and many other issues have been raised, and all are important for Christians to consider.
But, in this post let’s briefly consider the place of values more generally. Bill English said that Jacinda Ardern’s values won’t pay for the groceries – probably true, but if they can’t pay for shopping, what can values do? In our consumeristic world are they even useful anymore, and in our scientific world are they believable? The central task of values, I think, is to persuade. If they are to do anything useful, they should serve as reasons for action in one direction or another. Reasons, for instance, to pick the blue or red, or another, team to run the country.
We can all understand that scientific or economic facts can be reasons to act (or vote) one way or another. If consuming a particular substance is scientifically shown to be likely to harm me, or pursuing a particular course is likely to make me go broke, I will probably decide against it. But values, surely they’re more ephemeral, more abstract – perhaps not even necessary in an adequately scientific society? We have to go slowly here though. The choices made on the basis of science or economics (physical harm or going broke) were actually made on the basis of both empirical facts and values. Only if we wish to avoid harm, or avoid going broke, will the empirical facts be relevant to the decision we make. So, we need values in order to decide what to do, even when deciding on the basis of scientific claims.
In a political context, and many other areas of social interaction, we want values not just for working out what we want to do (our own preferences would be enough for this), but for convincing others that they should want the same thing. Values cannot be just preferences if they are to fulfil their function, as they are intended to control not just our actions, but others’ actions – and to shape their preferences. When a politician appeals to values, they are appealing to, not empirical facts, and not just preference, but a claim about the way the world should be – a claim which intends to hold true across people with very different preferences. Values, if these things are real and useful, apply to both the poor and the rich, those that will benefit from an action and those which will not. In other words, they transcend individuals and people groups.
We live in a world where moral reasoning makes sense. It not only makes sense, but it is absolutely crucial for us and our society. Much more attention should be paid to the question of how to make sense of values, as their foundations (if any) will affect how they work in the world. This is a question which the Christian intellectual tradition has a lot to say about, and one which has contributed to many thinkers being persuaded of the reality of the personal Foundation of values. Christians should welcome open political discussion of values, in the hope that more will be persuaded of what is true, beautiful, and good.