Monday, May 3, 2010

On Values Talk

Does it matter whether we say that our ethics derive from our values or that our values—assuming that the term is intelligible at all--derive from our ethical principles? Is it just a matter of definition and am I just splitting hairs?

No, it is not splitting hairs, but has profound implications, though these are not obvious, certainly not in everyday decision-making. And in terms of policy, look at Canada (see below).

Definitions matter because without verbal agreement there cannot be substantive disagreement. So here we seem to be talking past each other.

I see, as Nietzsche saw, how values talk combines both relativism and lust for power (the "dictatorship of relativism"), but not what it means. What for example are these "religious values" that cannot be taught? How are they different from the core values of social work which are clear, if unacknowledged expressions of the Judeo-Christian tradition? Indeed, the notion of the dignity and worth of the person is hard to conceive as making sense, in theory or practice, prior to that tradition of the human as imago Dei. Certainly it survives in a post-Christian world as a kind of pale shadow, but again as Nietzsche observed and as the last blood-soaked totalitarian century attested, in an attenuated form evacuated of rational justification.

For me the point is that principles cannot derive from anything else. They come first and cannot be proven or demonstrated. They are basic postulates from which everything else is derived. I think that is how the term is normally used in ethics--for example, Kant's duty-based (deontological) theory (from which social work ethics seems to derive its approach in most respects) starts from a single, self-evident principle of reason he calls the "categorical imperative." (There are serious problems with Kantian ethics, but that's another matter...maybe).

Is the claim of those for whom the NASW Code makes sense that values are in the same way undemonstrable absolutes from which duties can be derived? I don't think so, because values talk assumes that they are in some sense arbitrary choices of individuals or groups

The problem with values is that they do not clearly derive from any principle or reason or evidence. They have no basis in anything but will and power--as Nietzsche saw. Hence the notion of "clarifying values" instead of teaching the virtues or character formation as done in schools (and by parents) for millennia. The madness of this approach and its relation to power can be seen by what is going on in Canada, where the state requires that all children, whether in public or private, state or religious schools, be taught to distrust their parents' values. Really. The state as Uebermensch.

Hence the muddle Spano & Koenig get into in trying figure out the proper relation of "personal values" to the Code of Ethics.

From something I drafted a while back but don't think I used:

The plural use of “values” in its modern sense, according to Himmelfarb (2004), was first adopted by Nietzsche, who preferred it to the prevalent use of the term “virtues” precisely because of its implied relativism and non-universality. Its use in the social sciences seems to owe much to Weber and his dichotomy of fact and value—which if it confines facts to the domain of science, at the same time renders values arbitrary, having no ground in facts or evidence (or biology or natural law) (Bloom, 1987). Use of the term, then, appears to lay social work educators open to just such accusations as NAS makes, that CSWE is in the business of imposing opinions on programs and students in violation of the freedom of speech and conscience of faculty and students, and with the effect of restricting entry into the profession to those who (say they) hold those opinions. To the extent that our use of the term connotes, in the Nietzschean-Weberian way, that values are subjective and relative, to that extent their imposition on the profession’s members (whether students, faculty, or community practitioners) is liable to be taken as an arbitrary use of power.

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