What’s wrong with values?

14 September 2018, 12:18

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 politics naively 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. 

RELATED ARTICLE: Philippe de Lara: “Totalitarian regimes are dead, but they continue to exert a strong influence on many countries and their cultures”

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. 

RELATED ARTICLE: The Dirty Word “Nationalism”

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”.

This is Articte sidebar