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Ideas that Can Make Liberal America Stronger: Value is at the Heart of Our Humanity

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[10th entry in the “Press the Battle” series.]

Summary: From the perspective of the evolution of life, it can be seen how value is an emergent — but none the less real — dimension of the reality of creatures like us humans. Evolution operates on the principle that life is better than death. Operating on that basis, evolution brings into existence creatures who experience that fulfillment is better than misery. That is the foundation of value. and it makes value fully real in every way it could be.

Previously, I asserted that:

    1) the imbalance in intensity in the political battle raging in America is largely due to the deficiency of moral and spiritual passion in Liberal America,

    2) this deficiency is the by-product of the worldview that is strong in Liberal America, according to which “value” is considered a matter of subjective opinion, and thus not really real, and there can be no such thing in the human world as “the battle between good and evil,” and

    3) it is a mistake to believe that intellectually responsible thinking about the evidence of our world requires that we reach those conclusions.

In order to regain its moral and spiritual passions, Liberal America does not have to to embrace the forms traditional religion has used to represent the issues of good and evil. That reconnection can be achieved, by moving further forward along the path of rational, empirically-based scientific knowledge.

In other words, the path of evidence and reason can provide us good answers to those vital questions of value — answers that can connect us to those deep parts of our human core from which comes the passionate intensity required for this urgent battle.

Specifically, a naturalistic perspective can show us: 1) the reality of value; and 2) the reality of forces, operating in the human system, whose characteristics warrant their being called “good” and “evil,” and a dynamic in which these two forces contend in a battle to shape the destiny of human systems.

In this entry, I will discuss the first of these. The second will come subsequently.

THE REALITY OF VALUE

Having discussed questions of meaning and value with Liberal America for more than twenty years — on the radio, on the web, and with groups in person — I’ve encountered first-hand the various beliefs that make “value judgments” suspect. It is routinely said that value is a matter of opinion. That it’s all just “subjective.” That value is just a social construct. Etc.

People believe that these conclusions are required by clear thinking. After all, where can one find “value” out there in the world? How can one “prove” one’s opinions on such matters valid, in the face of someone who thinks otherwise?

All these sorts of beliefs have the effect of leading people to take their own values, their sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, less seriously. They all have had the effect of weakening people’s response to a destructive force, as in America today, when they confront it.

This way of thinking about value, I will argue, is fundamentally flawed. The notion that value has to be “out there” makes no sense. And the dichotomy between our subjective feelings and the objective world has been overdrawn because of a lack of understanding of how our own natures evolved in relation to the world around us.

The evolutionary process that has crafted us has imbued “value” into the very structure of our humanity. Value may not have been part of the lifeless universe originally. But it is a dimension of reality that has been “emergent,” just as life too emerged.

Value is a by-product of the selective process, which favors what survives over what does not. The evolutionary process has built us to experience “value.” We have been molded, that is, to experience as having positive value what has served the survival of our ancestral kind, and thus tends to meet our needs and make us feel fulfilled. And what has been associated ancestrally with the death of our kind — with injury, frustration, misery — we experience as having negative value.

The meeting of the needs sentient creatures – with its associated positive experience – may not take place “out there.” But value can only mean something as it registers in the experiential dimension. Things can matter only to creatures capable of experiencing their mattering.

To say that there is no such thing as “value” makes as much sense as to say that there is no such thing as pain.

(You can find this idea more fully developed here. A related and still more substantial treatment of this issue can be found in this chapter, “What Makes Something Good”, from an unpublished book of mine.)