Debating What ‘Values’ Are Worth

Re “To Hell With Values,” Commentary, Nov. 28: Michael Kinsley’s exasperation with “values” is widely shared, I expect -- certainly by me -- because the term “values” is bandied about in the Bush era as a feature of political marketing denoting personal beliefs, sometimes religious beliefs, sometimes fleeting and changing as one’s life changes.

Values can be broadly shared among sociopolitical groups that say, for example, that “family” is a “value.” But when that value is examined, it might turn out to be nothing more than a judgment insisting that gay parents are excluded from “family.”

“Values” are a way of describing political choices, beliefs, even biases, and they are different from morality universally shared across all cultures, religions and persons, such as honesty, integrity, caring, the golden rule, etc.

Morality and values are apples and pears, but the phrase “moral values” cunningly associates them so that one can make value judgments and then align those judgments with moral certainty, making the judgments seem true and valid when they may not be either. When a narrowly defined value of “family” comes up against the morality of caring, the second trumps the first hands down.


Jane W. Prettyman

Santa Barbara


Michael Kinsley asserts that values “can be nearly cost-free.” Oh, really? He’s perhaps never heard about the American Revolution, the Civil War, the civil rights movement, the tug of war about teaching the hypothesis of evolution versus creationism in public schools or, for that matter, such things as the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and school prayer, abortion, homosexual unions, suffrage, emancipation of slaves and God only knows what else. No wonder he goes to Wal-Mart when he wants values: Those are cheap, made increasingly in China and belong to someone else. I wonder: Does he use the express checkout or the regular one?


C. Kenna Amos Jr.

Princeton, W. Va.


Kinsley may think he is coming off clever, even cute, when in truth he is simply just being annoying, even a little ignorant, about the importance and place of values in our society.

Perhaps the reason Kinsley and those like him are struggling with the whole “values” issue is because what he is ultimately against is not values per se, but against values that are transcendent, rooted in an absolute meaning.

What Kinsley reveals is that he is a relativist. For him, “values” are whatever he accepts to be right or wrong. In his example of the gay marriage issue, he is correct to state that those who are against the idea appeal to values. Why? Because the argument against gay marriage is that it is morally wrong when measured against an absolute standard (such as the Bible or other religious texts).

For the relativist like Kinsley, gay marriage, among other issues, is right simply because he and others who agree with him say it is right. Unfortunately for Kinsley, this amounts to nothing more than an opinion, not a true value, because it is not measured against anything objective.

Perhaps Kinsley is correct, at least for himself, to say “to hell with values” because in the end he is going to accept as right or wrong whatever he wants based on his subjective feelings. And for that person, values have no real meaning.


Darrin Mariott