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 http://micahtillman.com/