What is it that we value? And why is it that we give those things their value? The answers to both those questions will be different for every single person. Sure, there’ll be some overlaps. Most Christians would (I would expect) answer ‘God’ (or ‘Jesus’) to the first question; most people in relationships would presumably add their partner as well. But once you look to the other areas of value I’d be surprised if any two people match up exactly. What do you value in books, or TV shows, or music? What do you value in emotions and, for want of a better phrase, states of being? And then we come onto the second question and the ways we could answer it become endless. There are the broad, general answers, such as ‘we value them because of subconscious memories from our distant evolutionary past’ or ‘we value them because they glorify God’, but explanations such as that don’t necessarily break down accurately into the little reasons that we value every individual thing that we value.
Value in itself is a very difficult concept to pin down. It can mean many different things for the same person. For example, I see the value in the prose of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse; it is worth studying as an English student because of the experimental style and the artistry of the construction of pretty much every sentence. To the Lighthouse functions on levels never even imagined by Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara, and yet I also value that book extremely highly, indeed, I count it as one of my favourites. The value in a book such as that, for me, is found in the connection I feel with the characters and the excitement I get from reading the story as it unfolds, even though when reading it for the fifth time I can be pretty confident that I know what’s going to happen!
With this in mind, I’ve set myself an impossible task with this blog post. I’m attempting to discuss a term that has no practically fixed meaning, a term that is applied to the lives of every single person on this planet in a slightly different way. The problem also isn’t helped by the fact that I went into this post without a clear line of argument or anything other than a vague concept.
To my mind, the value we find (or put) in things is a qualitative thing. It’s not necessarily based on the material stuff that makes up something. Even when we’re simply encountering an inanimate object in the world, we are not necessarily encountering the material thing in itself, not directly, anyhow. Before we can cope with any sensory data we have to interpret it and make sense of it somehow, and that involves a measure of distance from the object itself (David Bentley Hart is far better at explaining this principle than I am, but I’ll try and explain further in the comments if you want me to). To follow on from this, it seems clear to me that when we’re encountering something, making sense of it and valuing it, we’re doing something that’s going beyond the purely material. I do not value the story of the Sword of Shannara because of the way the atoms are arranged in the particular copy of the book that’s sitting on my shelf upstairs; I would value the story just as much if I was reading it on a Kindle. Furthermore, I value the story because of an emotional pleasure it gives me, largely due to characters that have never existed in any material sense beyond, arguably, electronic signals in the brain of someone I have never met. This is a remarkable thing, and yet it’s something that seems to be to be fundamentally important to our experiences as human beings.
Now I’m talking very generally and I’m not going into the depth that this issue deserves, but a broad sweep of this topic throws up a goldmine of interest, mystery and wonder. There is another side to this that is probably worth considering, and that is the moral side. Are some things morally better to value than others? Clearly there are something that are not moral to value, that are, in fact, immoral to value. For example, valuing power over slaves. There are even darker values that I don’t want to go into. But if some values are immoral, does that make other values moral? Are there values that could be considered moral duties or obligations? I don’t necessarily expect universal moral obligations that everyone can agree on to come out of this, but I don’t think the moral side of values can be ignored.
The question to finish on, then, is this: what is it valuable to value? What is it worth our time to value? It’s hard to speak of this in anything other than metaphors because, as I’ve said, this concept is almost impossible to pin down; it’s incredibly subjective. Whilst broad, sweeping overviews such as this may not be the best way of approaching the subject, there is still something to be said for the issue on a personal level. I think it’s important for us all to know what we value and why we value it. What you value is what you care for and it inevitably shapes who you are. We do not exist as entities completely isolated from everything else. The people and things around us impact us, and some impact us more than others. You may not agree that it’s worth thinking about, but that’d be because your values are different to mine. So maybe they’re worth a little look after all.