Values: On What Basis is a Value Wrong
“Words like “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong” are empty if we don’t consider what the Good Life is, along with personal well-being. If we want to strengthen our morality and deepen our spirituality, we must strive to improve our personal well-being, and promote the well-being of others.” – Wes Fornes with 2 shots of espresso
In Starbucks last night, I overhead a lady ask rhetorically, “can we really fault an indigenous tribe that practices human sacrifice if it’s part of their spirituality?” After I almost choked on my venti hot chocolate, it got me thinking….
What would the world look like if we ceased to talk in terms of right and wrong, and good and evil and spoke in terms of well-being?
Values come in all shapes and forms. In Albania, there is a tradition of vendetta called Kanun. If a man commits murder, his victim’s family can kill any one of his male relatives in reprisal. This means that a son of a murderer will live his life in fear while missing out in the pleasures of a normal life. In parts of the Middle East, women are required to wear a burqa. In parts of Africa, it is traditional practice for girls to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) for the goal of purity.
Can we say that these cultures are morally wrong for structuring their societies this way? Is their tradition a form of evil? Are their values inferior to our own? If so, on what basis?
Perhaps it is best to think in terms of well-being, rather in terms of right or wrong, good or evil. Well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists definition, and yet it is indispensable. In fact, meanings of both terms seem likely to remain perpetually open to revision as we make progress in science. Today, a person can consider himself physically healthy if he is free of detectable disease, able to exercise, and destined to live in his eighties without suffering obvious decrepitude. But this standard may change. Moreover, we must occasionally experience unpleasantness – medication, surgery, etc. – in order to avoid greater suffering or death. My point: all sane people would prefer to have good health over bad health; and we can have consensus to what good and bad health would look like.
Let’s further unpack well-being. Most people would describe a Good Life as involving: happiness, fulfillment, no stress, meaningful friendships, all basic needs are met, etc. All of these have a high degree of personal well-being. At the same time, most of us would describe the worst possible life as involving pain, isolation, war, lack of basic needs met, etc. Again, the Bad Life carries a low degree of well-being. Anyone who doesn’t see that the Good Life is preferable to The Bad Life is unlikely to have anything to contribute to a discussion on well-being … Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc., enjoyed in the context of a prosperous society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in steaming jungle filled with aggressive insects carrying dangerous pathogens?
I believe that these three examples (Kunan, the burqa and FGM) above are morally reprehensible, on the basis of well-being. Simply put, the well-being of these individuals is compromised, as well as their ability to flourish, thus, it is wrong. We do not need a sacred text, Confucian principle passed down or prophet to tell us what is right or wrong. Often when people think in terms of morality, their basis rests on religion or on a simple superficial maxim: that just seems wrong. Many others would look at these cultures and say that their actions are part in parcel to their culture and should be tolerated and respected. But just as the burqa is embedded in Muslim culture along with the Christian teaching of Hell embedded in hundreds of thousands of Sunday School classrooms across America, both are objectively wrong on the basis that is inhibits well-being.
So here is the question: can we really fault an indigenous tribe that practices human sacrifice if it’s part of their spirituality? I can objectively say that human sacrifice for a “noble” cause is immoral on the basis that it does not promote the flourishing of well-being within the tribe. I do the same with Kunan, mandatory burqas, FGM and for adults who teach 7 year olds that Hell awaits them if they don’t choose the right God.
So think about what a flourishing well-being looks like to you and strive for it.
Written at Starbucks in Los Gatos on 1/24/2015 around 9am