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Free Liberal: Coordinating towards higher values

Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

A Lesson in Value Theory for Clinton

by Micah Tillman


During the Ohio debate, Hillary Clinton used the word “value” three times. And each time she did so incorrectly.

She’s not alone, however. The mistakes she makes in value theory have become commonplace in America.

But without a proper understanding of value, ethics and politics become warped. It’s time, therefore, that I gave Senator Clinton a lesson in value theory. (And hopefully others will listen in, as well.)

I. Clinton’s Two Ways of Understanding Value
In the following three quotations, Clinton uses the concept of value in two different ways:

First, she said that “universal health care” is “a core Democratic Party value.” “It’s something that ever since Harry Truman [they] have stood for.”

Later, Clinton talked about having “a Democratic president who shared my values . . . .”

And finally, she spoke of herself as “working out a lot of different issues that are important to our national security and our foreign policy and our values . . . .”

Value, for Clinton, is something a thing can be, or something a person or group can own. The problem with the first way of looking at value is that it leads to relativism by forestalling legitimate debate. The problem with the second is that it leads to the idea that some people have values and others don’t.

Let’s take these issues in reverse order:

II. The Problem with Thinking “A Value” Is Something a Person or Group Can Own
I’ve seen it more than once in essays by students. The problem with the antagonist in a story, the student’s paper informs me, is that he or she does not “have values.” To be good is to have values. To be bad is to lack them.

You can see the same thinking in talk of “Values Voters.” Labeling yourself a “Values Voter” implies that others do not vote based on their values. And — at least to some liberals I’ve discussed the issue with — it seems as if you’re claiming that you have values and they don’t. (You’re good and they’re bad.)

That assumption appears to be at work in Clinton’s labeling of universal health care as a Democratic value. It is one of the things that makes Democrats different from Republicans, evidently. It’s what makes Democrats better.

The question is, however, how do you come to own a value? What makes it yours?

The only answer can be that you value it. If you value something, it’s your value. If you don’t, it’s not.

But if that’s the case, then not having one value does not mean you have no values. There are very few true nihilists in the world. And most of the world’s bad people are not nihilists. They simply value the wrong things. They “have” the wrong values.

III. The Problem with Thinking “A Value” Is Something a Thing Can Be
To this point I’ve been following Clinton in speaking about value as something a thing can be. But the question is not whether a thing is or is not a value. It’s whether a thing does or does not have value.

“Value” is synonymous with “Importance,” “Worth,” and “Goodness.” But a thing can’t be “an importance,” or “a worth,” or “a goodness.” In the same way, value is not what a thing is. It’s what a thing has.

As I noted above, another way of saying that something “is” a value, is to say that it is valued. Universal health care “is” a Democratic value because Democrats value it.

But to talk in this way is to forestall debate. The issue is not whether Democrats do or do not value some thing or other. The issue is whether they (and everyone else) should value it.

When you realize that valuing is something people do, and that different people value different things, you should no longer be satisfied with simply identifying who values what. It’s not enough to say, “I belong to group x, and group x values y and z.” You should begin to wonder whether you value y and z correctly.

But if you think that “value” is something a thing can be, then you can’t ask which set of values is correct. That would be equivalent to asking which set of values has (more) value. Since you’ve already labeled the things that are valued as being values, the question of which one is truly valuable (which one actually has real value) becomes nonsensical.

So, labeling things “values” makes deciding between value systems impossible. It shuts down the argument before it can even begin. It entails a decision in favor of relativism.

Even though Clinton’s way (i.e., one of the common ways) of talking about value includes a sense of ownership, it actually eliminates responsibility. Why do you value something? Because you do. It’s who you are. (You’re a Democrat, a Republican, a Green, etc.) You neither have to understand it, nor justify it.

This pervasive — and deeply flawed — understanding of value produces the naďve idea that to be good is to have values (and to be bad is to lack them). And it creates relativism, by reducing value to things, and eliminating the possibility of deciding between competing value systems.

The three times Clinton used the word “value” in the Ohio debate, therefore, show us why it’s good that she won’t be our next President. There’s nothing more important than understanding importance (value), and it appears that she doesn’t.

Micah Tillman is a lecturer in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. His blog can be found at

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Its a synonym for belief, Micah. She is running to be President, not philosopher king. She is using rhetoric politically, not in a debate with philosophers. In essence, she is in the field of propoganda in a fight for her political life (which she is losing).

Many of the values she cites are actually values that are shared by the Magisterium, like the option for the poor and just war theory.

In short, she may be coming up with the wrong methodology but the right answer.

Of course, this does not matter unless she wins Ohio and Texas.

# posted at by Michael Bindner

Value is a synonym for belief? You value everything you believe? I don't value the fact that Hitler existed, but I believe that he did.

(Let me know if I misunderstood you there.)

She isn't running for philosopher king. You are absolutely right. But you have to be able to think properly to be a good President. I simply pointed out that she can't do that if she continues to think as she does.

And if you're claiming that rhetoric is more effective than argumentation, the we both agree. As does the celebrated Robert Capozzi.

(I like to appeal to authority whenever possible. ;-)

I don't know what your reference to the Magisterium means/what point it is making. Perhaps you could elaborate?

I also don't understand the "coming up with the wrong methodology but the right answer" sentence. Could you elaborate on that for me as well?

Sorry to make this difficult. I just want to make sure I understand what you're saying before I respond.


And the fact that Clinton's rhetoric is identical with how so many normal people actually think about value, means that Clinton's talk is evidence of a larger problem which is actually affecting people's abilities to think about, understand, and live their own lives.

So Clinton can plead "It's just a rhetorical flourish!" all she wants. It's the fact that so many people live on the basis of the idea which that flourish expresses that is truly troubling.

She wasn't talking about a theory of value, but of values (family values, etc.).

She was arguing about the core tenents of the Democratic Party regarding health care policy and the core tenents of sound military policy. These are axiomatic rather than factual.

Beliefs are relative. People with absolute beliefs can be scary.

Her war policy may or be in line with Catholic just war theory - I don't think anyone is sure and I am not sure whether this is part of the Magisterium (keeping aside my views of the Magisterium itself, which are skeptical of such a thing - however given your employment situation I thought it would have some relevance to you).

Her position on health care is likely more in line with the beliefs of your employer than those of either Messrs. McCain or Paul.

My point on these is that, even if she does not exactly use a natural law methodology to get to these points, the result may be the same.

There really isn't a good candidate out there for Catholic voters who care about voting in line with the teaching of the Church. Ron Paul fails miserably on economic policy and McCain is not far behind. Huckabee may or may not be closer. Of course Clinton and Obama fail on Life, although some of that may be due to the absolute incoherence of the hierarchy's position, which has bought into a state's rights view that is out of step with the American Constitution (the 14th Amendment) and does not make the distinction between whether a policy is workable and whether it is moral (i.e., outlawing first trimester abortion on the supposition that the fetus at that point is a full citizen carries too many legal implications to be workable).

She was using a value theory. And the one she was using (which is one a lot of people use) is wrong/destructive.

I'm not Catholic, but thanks for trying to be relevant to me.

However, I no longer can tell what your criticism of my argument is, so I'm going to go do something else and stop wasting your time. *grin*

After all, there's not much of a point in arguing with someone who thinks that beliefs are relative. That shuts down the debate before it can begin.

Which is one of the criticisms I was making of Clinton.


I just noticed that it might seem that I am using "value theory" in the last response as equivalent with "value system." I do not intend it that way.

My claim is not that Clinton values the wrong things, but that she misunderstand the nature of value and how things come to have value. Thereby she (and everyone who thinks as she does) makes actual discussion about what should and should not be valued impossible.

Okay. Now I've got that off my chest :-)

Thanks for the stimulating discussion, Michael. I see from your sites that you've done a lot of thinking on political and religious issues. I'm impressed.

It's kind of like Hillary (and just about every other politician) is trying to use the word "value" as a bludgeon. "This is one of our core values" basically means "We have always valued this idea, and I will not argue the point. If you do not value this, you are not a True Democrat."

The problem is that it is entirely possible for there to exist a person who is concerned about the price and availability of health care, who is concerned about the plight of those on the lowest end of the socioeconomic scale, and who earnestly desires to enact some form of reform... and yet disagrees with Hillary's (and much of the political establishment's) proposed approach to the problem. Such a person, by Clinton's rhetoric, is doomed to politically homeless, marginalized, disenfranchised.

# posted at by D. A. Sawyer

A final post about absolutism vs. relativism.

I am actually a believer in the existence of absolute truth. Absolute truth is the reality that undergirds the transient reality of the natural world. It is not part of the transient reality, however, but is only found in the realm of ideals, or the mind of God, if you will. The reason we have both freedom and have to deal with evil is because this ultimate reality is not present in this life.

It is the height of hubris to claim pure knowledge of the absolute truth in this life. Knowledge of this truth must be applied, with Love, that other absolute, to the transient reality of the present. To reason from ideals without reference to the transient reality is treading on dangerous ground, especially in the more sensative areas like the legalization of abortion and the recognition of homosexual relationships. You can see my blogs for more detail on these issues.

One of the often cited defenses of absolute truth is, for Catholics, papal infallibility. This is, however, the height of relativism. Papal infallibility and the infallibility of the Church as a whole is another way of saying that adhering to the pronouncements of an authority will not get you damned, even if they are wrong objectively (as they sometimes are). What is that if it is not relativism.

Knowledge of the truth must be a mix of the absolute and relation to the facts of the world, or else one comes up with the kind of pronouncements one finds from the von Mises Institute.

D.A. Sawyer, I think you hit on something important. I do think people do use "value" as a bludgeon, much like the use of "common sense." If I say my position is common sense, it implies that it's unreasonable to disagree, and that anyone who does disagree is so stupid that they don't even have COMMON sense. I think the same rhetorical device can be used, and is being used, with "value." I think this goes along with Mr. Tillman's article. The ultimate point being, I think, that Mrs. Clinton, and many others, don't care about the actual meaning of words, but rather in their ability to supress reasonable dissent.

By the way, I enjoying the increase in article comments as of late. We're not as eloquent as the official commentators (is there a title for you guys?), but reading, and contributing to, the comments, really helps me understand the issue better. Trying to explain something to someone else is the truest test of your comprehension of an idea.

# posted at by Jeff Stallard

Thanks to Sawyer and Stallard for adding to the discussion! Great points. The use of words as a power-move is fascinating.

I love Mr. Bindner's ontological work in his most recent reply. It sounds compelling to me.

He makes interesting points about infallibility as well. As I'm not a Catholic I don't have to really worry about that too much, but the issue is broader than Catholic dogma. It comes down to the question of by which authorities we live our lives ("Reason" or "common sense" being one option, "Scripture" and "Science" being a couple others, etc.).

As to Mr. Stallard's question about what those of us who are lucky enough to get articles past the ever-watchful Capozzi (*grin*) and onto The Free Liberal's site are to be called -- I have no idea.

Maybe we should make up a name. *ponders*

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