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Dead Presidents Day: The Assassination of Shared Values

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Baby Boomers are old enough to remember a time in our lives when everybody we knew "Liked Ike." At least, I thought we all did. That was around the same time the first television sets were trickling into Chicago, so the ethos of a nation was more defined by the over-sized red, white and blue campaign buttons sported by the kids on the playground than the nightly news.

Growing up in Illinois, my generation of kids routinely made pilgrimages to Abraham Lincoln's cabin and Springfield, Illinois. We all learned to value wanting something so much, we'd be willing to walk miles through the snow for it. And wasn't that a time when children across our great nation all learned about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, sharing the aspiration that we, too, should never ever tell a lie, just to save our own skins?

At 64, I have the answer now, and it's a sad one. Maybe not.

I'm not sure which came first, the impact of individualized and divisive influencers, such as Cable TV and the Internet, or the recognition that our country is as philosophically divided about values as, say, the Tower of Babble. I'm sure, however, that there is a strong correlation. At least, through the course of most of my childhood, there was at least the illusion that one could hope to differentiate between right and wrong. Didn't we all laugh together at the antics of "I Love Lucy?" Didn't the voice of Walter Cronkite share the unfolding of world events through a single lens that rang as true as the Liberty Bell?

Over the course of my life, following my pursuit of education and vocation around to Berkeley, New York, Maine, Nashville and Washington, D.C., through the 70s, 80s, 90s and now in 2012, it has become increasingly, painfully apparent that even if children everywhere were being taught the importance of honoring their values, what they were being taught was worth walking through the snow for must have differed vastly from place to place.

Awareness of the end of shared values has never been more poignant, painful and confronting than in this Republican primary season. Contender after contender, we see not only differences of opinions about issues, but differences in philosophy regarding the very foundation of how to go about determining right from wrong. We cannot move forward as a nation unless we allow the illusion of shared values to shatter to the core, giving ourselves at least the opportunity to rebuild on the firmer ground of what is true for us all. The good news is that if we dig deep enough, we will find that we do want things in common -- worth walking miles through the snow for.

We all want our opinions to be taken seriously, for example. We want to trust that others mean what they say. We want what is special or unique about us to be respected. We want others to keep an open mind and we want to think of ourselves as fair and just.

In 2012, it may have to be enough to try to get a grip on the moral ground upon which you, yourself, stand, while coming to understand that not only your values -- but, in fact, your very sense of the world -- is not something that is necessarily shared with every conversation partner.

Following is a values assessment I developed while teaching ethics to graduate students at Georgetown and Pepperdine Universities, and shared in my book on ethics for business, co-authored with Judith Rogala.


Values Assessment

Circle the statements below that complete the sentence most accurately for you. Then add up the number of a's through g's. If two or more answers seems to be of equal value to you, circle whatever seems relevant.

1. When I'm trying to figure out what the right thing to do is...
a. I look at the particular situation and come up with a solution that will work best for that time, place and context.
b. I turn to my religion or faith for guidance.
c. I think about what is best for me.
d. I do unto others as I would have them do unto me.
e. I consider my motivation, believing that it is important to do the right thing for the right reason.
f. I consider everybody's rights to be equally important.
g. I rely on my basic character: the kind of person I am.

2. In regards to judging other peoples' ethical behavior...
a. Nobody has the right to intervene in deciding what is right or wrong for somebody else.
b. It is important to test what they are doing against what divine law has told them is right and wrong.
c. You can trust that they are just doing whatever is most likely to advance their own self-interest.
d. Take only into account what they do rather than whatever their motivation may be.
e. Give them credit for trying to do the right thing, even if it has bad results.
f. Everyone has certain inalienable rights.
g. It is important to be both compassionate and just.

3. In terms of what it means to live "the good life"...
a. It's a waste of time to try to define this as any one thing for all people.
b. How my religion teaches it is literally true.
c. How I define this will be completely determined by my environment, family and other influences.
d. The consequences of my actions are far more important than my motivations.
e. Being motivated to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences, is the key to happiness.
f. I can do whatever I please short of violating another's rights.
g. Without virtue, the good life would not be possible.

Interpretation:

Mostly a's: You question your right to make value judgments about others, as long as nobody gets hurt. Your strength is that your approach reflects the complexity of our times and respects diversity. The weakness is that you may give up the responsibility to set and influence standards. Philosophers would call you a "relativist."

Mostly b's: Your religious beliefs inspire you to believe that there is an objective, external source for determining right and wrong, accessed through faith. Your strength is that you are firm in your convictions, willing to abide by standards. Your weakness is that you may not be able to find common ground with others who are equally certain about the veracity of their source. You would be referred to as a "divine command theorist."

Mostly c's: You believe all people put self-interest above all else. This does not mean you don't do good things for others, but it does mean that you are doing so only because doing good things gives you personal satisfaction. Your strength is that you are a "realist," making your decisions based on the broader spectrum of human nature. The weakness is that you do not value self-sacrifice in service of a greater good. You would be considered an "ethical egoist."

Mostly d's: You see it as your job to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. You are willing to do the right thing for the wrong reason if in the end, you will do more good than harm. The strength is that you utilize logic to balance alternatives to make a decision you feel good about. The weakness is that you may neglect the needs, rights and desires of those who are not part of "the greatest number." You would be referred to as "utilitarian."

Mostly e's: You are less concerned with the results of your decision than you are with doing things for the right reasons. Your strength is that you hold a vision of consistency: that it is possible to make decisions based on universal truths accessed through our consciences. The weakness is that you take a hard line, lacking compassion for divergent views and unique circumstances. You would be a "deontologist," deriving from the Greek word for duty.

Mostly f's: Like our founding fathers, you believe that individuals have inalienable rights. You may perceive your ethical obligation to entail a passive restraint from interfering with others. Or you may be an activist, proactively helping others exercise their equal rights. Your strength is that you have a core of clearly defined values. Your weakness is that you may disagree with others about who gets to define the nature of those rights in our increasingly pluralistic community. You are a "rights theorist."

Mostly g's: You believe that the practice of ethics is based not on your actions or results, but on the basis of your character. You believe that your greatest happiness comes about as a by-product of the nurturing of the highest expression of your human potential. Your strength is that there will be consistency between who you are and the stances you take. Your weakness is that you may be susceptible to evangelistic fervor, setting yourself up not only to judge other people's results, but their characters. You would be referred to as a "virtual ethicist."

If your answers were all over the board...
You believe that different situations call for different theoretical responses. Your strength is that you can be flexible, apt to seek and find common ground with others. Your weakness is that you may relinquish your right to judge others, passively allowing indifference to be exercised in the name of tolerance. You would be referred to as an "ethical pluralist."

Every postion has a strength and a weakness. At their worst, any one stance can degenerate into bias, prejudice and even intolerance. Taken at their best, however, we can each come to recognize the distances that exist between the positions to be traversed so that, at the very least, we can know how far between us there is yet to go. Meanwhile, let us commit to at least one value we can still share in common: to find a way to bring and elicit the best rather than the worst each of our positions has to offer.