Do We Need „Values“ to Do Good?

An Internet enquiry about “Christian values” adds up to more that 7 million results. So, one might suppose that something called “Christian values” actually exists. Most people who deal with “Christian values” such as „compassion“, „justice“, or „sense of family“, routinely refer to the bible. However, interestingly the notion “value” does not often occur in biblical texts, and if so it does not point to the moral concepts people normally identify as “Christian” or “moral” but is used to denote the monetary or exchange value of a thing or a person, for example:

„For a person between one month and five years, set the value of a male at five shekels of silver and that of a female at three shekels of silver.“
(Lev 27,6 New International Version)

Depending on which translation is examined, the word „value“ occurs in the whole Christian bible between 9 times (King James Version) and 58 times (New International Version). Only three New Testament references are given in the King James Version one of which is the famous dictum about the sparrow:

„Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.“
(Mt 10, 29-31 King James Version)

While the notion “value” here is still part of the technical language of merchants the transition into the jargon of moralists is looming as the assessment of the comparative value of living beings is transferred into the divine sphere. Nevertheless it is still seen as an exchange value: The human being is not, like Immanuel Kant for example sees it, of „absolute“ value.[1] Yet it is obvious that what is meant here is, in any case, not what we call “Christian values” today.

Based on these findings, two questions arise:
a) If “Christian values” do not occur in the bible, where are they to be found and where does the widespread conviction stem from that it is reasonable to speak of them?
b) Assuming that there is some truth in the claim that “Christian values” exist, (how) do biblical authors, if at all, express what we call “Christian values” today?

Question a) can be answered through a historical enquiry of the use of the notion “value”. Interestingly, the English Wikipedia article “value (ethics)” does not contain any historical reflection about the use of the word whereas the German one about “Wert (Philosophie)” reveals that the philosophers who first used the concept in a philosophical or ethical context – Hermann Lotze (1817-1881), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Oskar Kraus (1872-1942), Max Scheler (1874-1928) and others – published their pertinent texts in the second half of the 19th and the beginning 20th century, adopting the notion “Wert” from economists, creating a new philosophical discipline called “axiology” (αξία gr: value). Following these thinkers who were all more or less dependent on German Idealism a variety of value theories was created not only by German philosophers, but also in Anglo-Saxon philosophy which had translated and adopted the German “Wert” as “value” in the beginning of the 20th century.

So, using “Wert” or “value” as a philosophical or theological term that denotes the moral or ethical quality of things, situations or actions, referring to some transcendent set of context-free ideals, is a relatively young usage which, roughly speaking, is historically entrenched in German Idealism and its struggle with economists who, in the course of industrialization, gained more and more real and defining power over human lives. – This means that speaking of “Christian values” in fact has nothing or little to do with “the bible” but is a theological adoption of a certain historically limited language usage of 19th and 20th century philosophers who tried to overcome the increasing hegemony of economics by confronting economic theories that instrumentalized human lives as elements of production, consumption and profit-making with ethical versions of “higher” transcendental values.

In order to answer question b) we have to examine biblical text genres, led by the question of how biblical authors denoted what is seen as good, beautiful or worth striving for. As biblical and orientalist scholars see it, the most important genre in this respect is narration, for example in the form of creation myths or parables that are often ascribed to exemplary figures such as David or Solomon, followed by legal texts, proverbs and poetic or liturgical forms such as lament or praise. The pivotal point of all these texts is God or God’s will or God’s “qavod” (Hebr. weight, importance). However God is not seen here as an abstract eternal sphere of unalterable ideas or ideals which have to be “implemented” into flawed real life-stories but as a basically well-intentioned person with changing feelings – love, rage, despair, compassion – who accompanies his/her people through a changeful unpredictable history, giving advice, punishing, pardoning, blessing humans according to their behavior that hinders or fosters shalom, the well-organized, successful, peaceful communal life on earth.

Although the return to a personal God has probably stopped being a real possibility for most secularized people the pre-modern genres of speaking about the good life might be able to show a way out of the frantic fight between philosophers and economists about what are the “higher” or “essential” values, a fight that, because of the primarily economic use of the term “value” is full of misunderstandings and ambiguities. The more so as these other genres still exist and are busily used by journalists, poets or novelists, albeit mostly without the aspiration of being generally recognized moral authorities who are assigned to help in shaping the future of human life on earth.

Whereas artists are using the narrative genres that, in my view, could free academic ethics from the sterile competition with economists, genres like public lament or praise that express collective despair or amazement are, except perhaps from soccer stadiums and concert halls, largely confined to the segregated spaces of traditional religions. These spaces, for their part, have lost general authority because, on the one hand, of their refusal to accept advancement of secular knowledge and because, on the other hand, of the refusal of secular people to accept theological progress. How can we bridge this gap between the wisdom of our religious ancestors and our „enlightened“ minds that are all too often stuck in sterile academic forms of expression? By postsecular translations of religious notions as Jürgen Habermas recommended soon after 09/11? How, where, when does this translation actually work?

It is not at all new to claim a “narrative ethics” that is: to claim to overcome the traditional dichotomies of “science and art”, “objectivity and subjectivity”, “principle and relation”. However, a big part of academic ethics – and “alternative” social and political movements, too – are still struggling with the concept of “moral” or “Christian” or whatever non-economic “values”. This concept, in a world that is used to confounding economics and ethics, might still be useful in descriptive ethics to carry out empirical studies about the real state of mind of populations. However, when it comes to breaking away from the hegemony of so called economics and shaping the future of humanity in the fragile habitat earth the notion “value”, in my view, is far too close to the discourses of mainstream economics and far too distant from what actually motivates real people to do good.

As thesis number 6 I want to test my proposition, telling a story:

In the time of ending patriarchy a young woman who was not willing to privately care for her newborn baby all by herself put the child in a basket and placed the basket on the lecturing desk of a famous professor of business ethics. When the auditorium was packed and the professor entered and set about starting his lecture about the profound difference between economic and ethical values and the difficulties to reconcile them the baby started crying because he had crapped into his pampers. When the professor and all his students indignantly urged someone to remove the stinking human being from the auditorium in order to be cared for by somebody else a student raised her hand saying: “Couldn’t we just care for this real human newcomer, remove the shit that bothers him and simultaneously discuss his impact on both economics and ethics?” …


[1] Immanuel Kant, Grundlegung zur Metaphysik, Zweiter Abschnitt, in: Immanuel Kant, Sämtliche Werke Bd 2, o.O. 2000, 438f, 444.