Values Without Virtues

A friend of mine, in preparing his charges for Confirmation, was astonished when one young man in his class confessed that he saw nothing wrong with the values espoused by Adolph Hitler. “He was merely carrying out his dream”, said the soon-to-be confirmed youngster. Dreams may be beautiful, but they fall far short of that ideal when one man’s dream crushes the dreams of countless millions of other people.

This private view of morality is not altogether surprising after so many years of indoctrinating grade school students with an approach to ethics called “Values Clarification”. The aim of Values Clarification is to get students to look into themselves to discover what they value. The cardinal sin in the contemporary world of education is to impose values on students. In their freedom, students are encouraged to get in touch with their feelings and find their own values.

Raphael's Theological Virtues

Raphael’s Theological Virtues

A Massachusetts teacher, an ardent proponent of values clarification, came face-to-face with the limitations of her method when she discovered that her sixth grade students valued cheating and wanted to be free to cheat on their tests. The students were simply being practical. Philosophy and ethics were furthest from their minds. Despite her commitment to values clarification, the teacher insisted that she would not abide cheating in her class: “I personally value honesty; although you may choose to be dishonest, I shall insist that we be honest in our tests here. In other areas of your life, you may have more freedom to be dishonest.”

A particular value, such as cheating, can hardly serve as a moral norm when it clashes with a more objective value, such as fairness. Children do get in touch with this more substantial and universal value when they notice that a playmate is cheating at cards or in sports. “Hey, you can’t do that, that’s not fair, it’s cheating,” they will clamor. On such occasions, children are being ethical and realistic. It is a sad commentary on values clarification that young students are asked to ignore their innate sense of morality and put practicality in its place. This is not education, but exploitation.

In the world of professional baseball, cheating—in the form of taking Performance Enhancing Drugs—is not tolerated, despite the fact that many players have found recourse to PEDs very practical. The penalties for transgressing the rule are severe and may include lifetime banishment from the sport. The commissioner of baseball is not imposing values. He is concerned with the good of the game, and cheating does not contribute to that good. He is being fair, promoting a virtue whose merits everyone can recognize. The distinction between “fair” and “foul” is written into the heart of the game.

Fairness, easily recognized by children, is an important step toward justice. If students are ever to become advocates for social justice, they must abandon whatever subjective values they may have that are barriers to the cultivation of this very real virtue. Cheating may be a “value”, but honesty is a “virtue”. Values are easy to come by and differ from person to person. Virtues, though they must be developed, provide the glue that holds society together. Virtues are necessary if the Golden Rule is to be put into practice. Values Clarification logically leads to social confusion. James Q. Wilson, author of The Moral Sense, and a most temperate writer, has rightly classified Values Clarification as “pedagogical idiocy”.

Values without virtue is as unproductive as arithmetic without calculation or chatter without meaning. It is the shadow without the substance. Children should be taught virtue, not by imposing anything alien on them, but by helping them to understand their own innate convictions about the goodness of fairness, kindness, generosity, and courage. Then, they will begin to understand that virtues have their root in human nature and are, therefore, good for everyone, not just for the private individual. Getting in touch with one’s nature is far more realistic and important than getting in touch with one’s feelings.

We applaud baseball for trying to make the game fair. We cannot have such a positive attitude toward Values Clarification for sowing the seeds of anarchy in which each player goes his own way at the expense of the common good.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, CT, and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His latest works, How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going Mad and Poetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart are available through Amazon.com. Articles by Don:

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  • http://www.renegaderadio.org/ William E Bauer

    Virtues are habits, as are vices. The role of fathers, mother and the Church is to instill values that become virtues.

  • Walter McKinley

    Again, a wonderfully thoughtful, well-written article. Keep up the great work!