What ARE Traditional Values, Anyway?
I propose to provide an itemization of what is meant by “traditional values’ that is neutral to religion, agnostic to politics, and nonetheless faithful to the culture that, by being scolded and ridiculed when not forcibly obliterated, testifies always to the robustness of its effects and the resilience of its pedigree.
First, Let’s Dispel the Prohibition on Such Questions
Tradition, in this context, gets short shrift, but mainly from people who don’t know what it is. Modernists dismiss it cynically as superficial or hypocritical. Traditionalists misrepresent it as including pet biases, political preferences, and religious peculiarities. What is dismissed necessarily exists, and what is misunderstood has at least at one time been understood. So what is meant by traditional values?
Before the list: we should point out the modernist will circumvent the question by asking “whose tradition? whose culture?” We recognize this as a failure to distinguish ‘traditions’ from ‘tradition’ and ‘cultures’ from ‘culture’. Let’s say for the moment that our placeholder is “Western Tradition” or “American Tradition” just to provide ammunition to such a challenge. We can afford to indulge the misunderstanding because, when these questions are addressed to long-standing, established bodies of identifiable thought, they’re reasonable, and can be answered. We shall shortly do so.
When they are merely rhetorical attempts to suggest that there do not exist such generally unified bodies of thought, but all are susceptible to nihilistic deconstruction ad infinitum, it’s merely a form of begging the question, and we can dismiss the dismissal. It’s true that heterogeneities exist within the homogenous, but it’s also true that a constellation of minority attitudes indicates the presence of a majority one. In the same way, divergent reactions underscore an original action just as exceptions prove a rule.
Next: The List — What Are Traditional Values?
- Know your duty, and do your duty.
- Keep your word and don’t lie. Your yes is yes, no is no. Your word counts.
- Don’t cheat or expect something for nothing. Deal fairly.
- Don’t steal or take more than your share. Pay what you owe.
- Be aware of other people; it’s the basis of courtesy.
- Courtesy and respect for elders are the default positions.
- Pick up after yourself, and respect others’ space and property.
- Keep others’ confidences and respect their privacy.
- Don’t add to others’ burdens or intentionally inconvenience them.
- Exercise discretion. Don’t slander and don’t gossip.
- Be sincere. Don’t be proud or put on airs.
- Honor another person’s loved ones and family.
- Do right by those who depend on you.
- Defend and protect those at disadvantage or weaker than yourself.
- Keep your speech and your heart clean and civil.
- Be moderate in all indulgences of body, senses, or mind.
- Don’t shirk or flinch from hard work, and pay an honest wage.
- Learn your whole life and respect scholarship in others.
- Do your civic duty and fulfill community obligations.
- Participate in the defense of your home when called upon to serve.
- Learn honor and integrity. It’s all these things.
- If you fail, morally or otherwise, resolve to do better.
The list isn’t meant to be flawlessly stated or comprehensive. Instead, it provides a reasonable approximation of the basic expectations of previous generations for a standard of public and private behavior that ensures a workable society of livable communities of responsible individuals.
Briefly: Let’s Repel the Simplest Flack
The hypocrisy argument: “But people who espoused these standards, frequently didn’t adhere to them.” Agreed. A sports team values winning, but doesn’t always do it. They try, you say? Yes. So the argument is reduced to “not everyone tries”. Again, agreed. And when people don’t even try to uphold these values, they don’t hold the values. It’s not about failure to adhere, it’s about not committing to them in the first place. And when that’s the case, the general reaction of those who do is sorrow or disgust. In other words, the exceptions prove the rule. Albeit, when someone holds many or most of the values excepting one or two, the tradition is still upheld, but the understanding of the individual is incomplete.
The ambiguity argument: “There’s no clear definition of vague terms like honor, dignity, and respect.” Love is vague concept too, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or that people are never aware of when they’re receiving or experiencing it. So unless you’re arguing that nothing ambiguous exists, you’re left with YOU personally don’t understand some ambiguous things. Agreed. I don’t understand “being cool”, which I likewise find nebulous. I don’t have enough cool to grasp what is meant by “cool”. But because the term ‘faith’ is ambiguous to someone who doesn’t have it, that does not mean it’s equally vague for someone who does. Those who acquire honor recognize it in others and cherish it in themselves, whether or not they can define it for the skeptic who does neither. Simply put, empirical (or experiential) knowledge is not dependent on the precision of words.
The ad hominem: “Who are you to say?” 1) I’m an observer, 2) who was trained in these values, 3) who tries to adhere to them, 4) who has lived in multiple, varied communities in which they are openly advocated and reinforced. In short, it’s not me saying it—it’s me hearing it everywhere I have gone. But if I get hit by a truck, by your logic, none of that matters. To be consistent, if you get hit by a truck, your question doesn’t matter. When you’re using the ad hominem, you’re deflecting from the point, and I would simply take you back to the list itself and ask if dismissing the person is the best you can do.
Guilt by association: “These all sound quasi-religious.” Of course they do. You find ALL of these principles in the most engaging (i.e. widely adopted) religions on the planet. C.S. Lewis called this universal agreement “the tao” — a term from a rather tedious Eastern philosophy, adapted to better use. If you think religions are invented, then fine—we tend to codify these principles in our faiths because we think they are just and ensure the continuity of our species. If you think religions are revealed, then you acknowledge a just ‘revealer’ who actually cares that we continue as a species. Either way, evolutionary necessity or divine charity, we would expect a body of values that, whether or not perfectly honored, are perfectly honed to tend to an ethical and harmonious society, would make frequent appearance in temples of every kind.
The obsolescence argument: “These are old-fashioned, don’t account for today’s context, and we probably need new values.” This assumes all traditions are merely cultural. Times do change, but human nature does not. To the degree that these values address the fundamental options within that nature, they are timeless. We may prefer different semantics—”civility” vs. “respect”, “respect” vs. “honor”, “equitable” vs. “just”, but we cannot call, for example, for a political theatre informed by the basic expectations of a high-functioning society, transparent policies, and fair-dealing individuals by pretending there’s no reference in history for what we mean. We can’t have it both ways. It’s precisely because these things ARE universal, and do have demonstrable effects, that we do know what we mean and can reasonably clamor for what we want and need. Presumed reinvention of the wheel is just posturing.
Closing Thoughts and a Definition
I’ve mainly wanted to document, as a point of reference, what is meant by “traditional values”—partly to clarify my own thinking and largely because the rhetoric around ‘values’ by presumed adherents and skeptics alike is so fraught. When someone argues we can’t have traditional values while having gays and immigrants live among us, they’re demonstrating either confusion or an ignorance of those values, as though they are synonymous with whatever is merely familiar or common to a person or community. Alternately, they’re engaged in an unprinicipled hijacking of the concept for ideological and rhetorical misapplication. We’ll assume confusion or ignorance out of charity. When someone scorns or dismisses traditional values as unnecessary or indefinable they are demonstrating the same thing. In short, both are incorrect, and there is actually consensus about what the values are.
The best evidence of that consensus is that they are those things on which conservative and liberal, Christian and atheist, once agreed. They are those things we rightly miss and now in various forms either broadly ask in the face of injustice, hate, and violence or illicitly dismiss in order to perpetrate it. If we know what justice is, about which likewise there is more agreement than lack thereof, then we can know what traditional values are.
On the notion of objectivity of these values, one must acknowledge that by using the term “universal” we are saying that tradition is not, in fact, created by man but is there within his nature to be found. For anyone wishing to pursue that classical idea, I cannot offer a better set of arguments than those made by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man which is too short a book to excuse not reading it and is in fact a fascinating series of three evening lectures (Riddell Memorial Lectures) at Kings College, Newcastle, University of Durham on February 24-26, 1943. It remains the modern gold standard of succinctly making the case that traditional values can be objectively learned.
And there at last you have a succinct, if roughly approximate definition of “traditional values” as those values common to all traditions that have thrived as man has thrived, which values being drawn from a shared understanding of the operation of man’s nature, favor those operations that tend to man’s harmonious and just existence. They are timeless, exist beyond the capacity for invention. Being discovered by man, they are thus synonymous with human wisdom, and when exemplified by man are identical with human goodness. Philosophically, they are the positive exercise of man’s freedom.