What's wrong with val­ues?

Why the prin­ci­ples of the ex­is­tence of so­ci­ety be­come empty ab­strac­tions

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Philippe de Lara, Paris

Philippe de Lara on the prin­ci­ples of the ex­is­tence of modern so­ci­ety

Both pro-Euro­peans and Maidan ac­tivists have made and make great use of the con­cept of “val­ues”. They pro­mote pol­i­tics based on val­ues. This is noble and le­git­i­mate. It means prin­ci­pled pol­i­tics as op­posed to cyn­i­cism and brute force: things like the rule of law, hu­man dig­nity, pref­er­ence for ra­tio­nal­ity and open crit­i­cism rather than prej­u­dice and emo­tion. Two cen­turies ago, Kant gave the in­su­per­a­ble for­mula of val­ues in pol­i­tics: our prin­ci­ples of ac­tion must be uni­ver­sal and pub­lic. It means, first, that our prin­ci­ples must be valid for any­one and set an ex­am­ple for oth­ers, and sec­ond, that mo­tives and ob­jec­tives are ac­cept­able only if they could be pub­licly ex­pressed (which does not mean that they have to). This runs from the im­par­tial­ity of the state and the equal­ity un­der the law to more sub­stan­tial prin­ci­ples: hu­man rights, quest for jus­tice and hap­pi­ness. “Open so­ci­ety” is the watch­word of val­ues.

It has be­come fash­ion­able to de­spise “val­ues”. Val­ues are soil­less ab­strac­tions, they say, val­ues-based pol­i­tic­snaively deny the over­whelm­ing role of power re­la­tions in hu­man af­fairs, do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional. Worse, it rules out the pol­i­tics of iden­tity, that is the will of national or eth­nic groups to de­fend their his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive, their way of life and what they take as their ex­is­ten­tial in­ter­ests, uni­ver­sal or not. Let us be “re­al­is­tic”, they say, let us al­low for power in­ter­ests and national pride, in­stead of deny­ing them. If some na­tions be­lieve in au­thor­i­tar­ian rule or in the su­pe­ri­or­ity of men over women, let them do. Tra­di­tional val­ues are as le­git­i­mate as uni­ver­sal val­ues. Ac­tu­ally, uni­ver­sal val­ues are chal­lenged be­cause they are

charged for the fail­ures of glob­al­iza­tion. This crit­i­cism has a point: the uni­ver­sal­iza­tion of lib­eral eco­nomics and gov­er­nance and the il­lu­sion of “the end of his­tory”, that is that all na­tions are long­ing for the Euro­pean way of life and will join it one way or another, have in­deed strong con­nec­tions with “val­ues”. That’s why the re­venge of power pol­i­tics and iden­tity pol­i­tics is on a roll, from Putin and Er­do­gan to Trump and Euro­pean pop­ulists, de­spite their bru­tal­ity, bad faith, and dis­as­trous re­sults for the wel­fare of their peo­ple. These guys claim to of­fer al­ter­na­tive val­ues, we must stand for our val­ues and find how to fight against theirs.

But this is not the whole story. There is some­thing wrong with the cur­rent un­der­stand­ing of uni­ver­sal val­ues. This must be ac­knowl­edged to cope with brutes. Val­ues ac­tivists are too prone nowa­days to con­fuse gen­uine fun­da­men­tal is­sues, not ne­go­tiable, with is­sues open to dis­cus­sion and com­pro­mise. In the name of “val­ues”, they put on the same foot­ing rights which are vi­tal for free­dom and democ­racy, and rights which might be im­prove­ments but are li­able to dis­cus­sion, qual­i­fi­ca­tion, etc. We are fac­ing bru­tal­iza­tion of pub­lic dis­cus­sion once any dis­agree­ment on pol­i­tics or pol­icy takes a civil war tone. By a dev­il­ish mech­a­nism, uni­ver­sal val­ues, which should foster free­dom, tol­er­ance and friend­li­ness among cit­i­zens, gen­er­ate in­tractable con­flicts and the re­gres­sion of lib­eral prin­ci­ples. I sug­gest calling this the scat­ter­ing of val­ues. I am aware that this prob­lem is not easy to ar­tic­u­late. Through the fol­low­ing ex­am­ples, I’ll try to be mod­er­ately provoca­tive, to stim­u­late re­flec­tion with­out un­leash­ing ou­trage. I beg my read­ers to take them just as pro­pos­als, not as knock-down ar­gu­ments.

1. Is le­gal abor­tion re­ally a hu­man right? Con­sid­er­ing le­gal abor­tion as a wise and nec­es­sary pol­icy is one thing, treat­ing peo­ple re­ject­ing abor­tion for re­li­gious or other grounds as fas­cists is another one. Abor­tion was le­gal and even favoured for decades as the pri­mary method of birth con­trol in Soviet Union. Yet Soviet Union was a ter­ri­ble tyranny, de­stroy­ing free­dom and hu­man dig­nity in every­day life. In­stead of calling names con­ser­va­tives who de­plore abor­tion or same-sex mar­riage, lib­er­als should show them re­spect and tact, and even ad­mit they have a point, at least worth re­flect­ing upon. I sup­port the le­gal sta­tus of abor­tion in France and I am close to re­li­gious peo­ple hold­ing the op­po­site view. This is by no means an ob­sta­cle to our friend­ship, rather a mat­ter of en­rich­ing our con­ver­sa­tion, which is the pur­pose of friend­ship. A sim­ple thought ex­per­i­ment may make the point more ob­vi­ous: abor­tion is nowhere a right as such, there are rights to abor­tion un­til such and such step of preg­nancy. “Abor­tion un­til the 12th (or the 10th, or the 14th) week of preg­nancy is a fun­da­men­tal right” sounds lu­di­crous. Con­versely, if we ad­mit that tor­ture is in­com­pat­i­ble with fun­da­men­tal rights, we can­not say that tor­tur­ing a lit­tle bit is com­pat­i­ble.

2. The uni­ver­sal­ity of ba­sic free­dom and rights, in­clud­ing for mi­nori­ties, is not ne­go­tiable and should be en­trenched in our con­sti­tu­tion and our ed­u­ca­tion. But are these rights re­ally at stake when­ever such and such mi­nor­ity raise such and such claim? For in­stance, in the non-ne­go­tiable scheme of rights and po­lit­i­cal recog­ni­tion of mi­nori­ties, there is room for var­i­ous pos­si­ble com­pro­mises re­gard­ing ed­u­ca­tion in mi­nor­ity lan­guages or the place in pub­lic life of lan­guages other than the of­fi­cial lan­guage of the coun­try. In what we stand for, we must be able to dis­tin­guish what be­longs to core val­ues, and what are more or less re­mote con­se­quences of stand­ing for such val­ues. Oth­er­wise, the ex­trem­ists will al­ways have the last word. In­te­gral na­tion­al­ists will be bet­ter pa­tri­ots than civic na­tion­al­ists, fierce mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ists morally bet­ter than those who care for national iden­tity, etc. And the former and the lat­ter will be un­able to face a deadly threat. In Ukraine, LGBT ac­tivists, as well as peo­ple demon­strat­ing against the Gay Pride should not for­get that if Rus­sia was to in­vade Ukraine, it would make no dif­fer­ence be­tween them.

War makes my point eas­ier to ar­tic­u­late in the case of Ukraine. But this is a predica­ment com­mon to all demo­cratic so­ci­eties. The grow­ing ha­tred be­tween red­necks and lib­er­als in the United States paved the way for Trump and is paving the way for Putin-like tyrants in Western coun­tries. In­stead of open­ing the civic con­ver­sa­tion, plu­ral­ism seems to wage civil wars. Lib­er­als have a point when they in­sist that ex­trem­ism and vi­o­lent re­ac­tions against progress come from the other side. Con­ser­va­tives have in­deed of­ten a bit­ter and vi­o­lent style, be­hav­ing like des­per­ate mi­nori­ties even when the main­stream of pub­lic opin­ion is on their side. That is what push so many of them in the harms of Putin and its likes. But lib­er­als are not innocent either when they pro­mote un­due fun­da­men­tal­iza­tion of so-called value is­sues.

The party of the Good is as evil as the party of Anger. The ex­ten­sion of the con­tent of hu­man rights goes along with im­pa­tience, dis­con­tent and in­tol­er­ance. When free­dom and free speech are jeop­ar­dized by the furor of “val­ues”, lib­eral val­ues be­come ac­com­plice of their worst en­emy. Our stan­dards of re­spect and dig­nity are much more sen­si­tive and de­mand­ing that our pre­de­ces­sors’. We don’t ac­cept any more gen­der and race dis­crim­i­na­tions which were once seen as un­for­tu­nate but ac­cept­able. This is a good thing: equal­ity is bet­ter when it is more in­clu­sive. But this en­hanced sen­si­bil­ity must not go against the ba­sic lib­eral val­ues of tol­er­a­tion, free­dom of con­science and pro­tec­tion of in­ti­macy. Such val­ues should su­per­sede any other con­sid­er­a­tions, no­tably our crav­ing for trans­parency and for recog­ni­tion. Chal­leng­ing the right to pri­vacy of politi­cians leads to chal­leng­ing ev­ery­one’s pri­vacy. In­ter­pret­ing the equal rights and equal dig­nity of gay peo­ple as the duty to like them is dan­ger­ous and self-de­feat­ing. Tol­er­a­tion is lib­eral, manda­tory love is not, as the Rus­sian rhetoric of love shows us ev­ery day.

Scat­ter­ing of val­ues is a non­starter be­cause val­ues make sense only as a global scheme in which they are in­ter­twined and hi­er­ar­chized in some or­der. No value is ab­so­lute, val­ues are bound to limit each other. See the val­ues of merit and of equal op­por­tu­nity: we are right in cher­ish­ing both, yet they seem in­com­pat­i­ble at first sight. But both are ef­fec­tive only if prop­erly com­bined. We have to dis­tin­guish core prin­ci­ples from those which are less im­por­tant and li­able to in­ter­pre­ta­tion and weight­ing. All this should be com­mon sense but is be­com­ing less and less in­tel­li­gi­ble. There­fore, I sug­gest to speak of “Euro­pean civ­i­liza­tion” in­stead of “Euro­pean val­ues”, to re­cover the sense of tol­er­a­tion and friend­li­ness which is chal­lenged not only by brutes but also by mis­placed con­fu­sions and es­ca­la­tions about “val­ues”.


A place for dis­cus­sion. Abor­tion is one of the most ur­gent top­ics when it comes to rights and val­ues. In Poland, this is­sue is the most ex­ac­er­bated in Europe

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